Boomer Terror
The New York Times struggles to make sense of the world.

The American Spectator, October 2006

In August Judge Anna Diggs Taylor held that Americans have a constitutional right to communicate with enemy agents during wartime and ordered the Bush administration to end its terrorist surveillance program. The country's two most prominent liberal editorial pages disagreed sharply on the merits of her ruling. The Washington Post described it as "neither careful nor scholarly, and . . . hard-hitting only in the sense that a bludgeon is hard-hitting." But the New York Times praised Taylor's "careful, thoroughly grounded opinion" that "reasserted the rule of law over a lawless administration."

The next day, the Times reported that the Post was right and the Times was wrong.

"Even legal experts who agreed with a federal judge's conclusion on Thursday that a National Security Agency surveillance program is unlawful were distancing themselves from the decision's reasoning and rhetoric yesterday," began the story by reporter Adam Liptak. "They said the opinion overlooked important precedents, failed to engage the government's major arguments, used circular reasoning, substituted passion for analysis and did not even offer the best reasons for its own conclusions. Discomfort with the quality of the decision is almost universal."

This wasn't the first time this summer that the Times editorial page seemed to be living in an alternate universe. The day after Ned Lamont beat Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary, the Times editorialized that "the rebellion against Mr. Lieberman was actually an uprising by that rare phenomenon, irate moderates."

Most observers regarded Lieberman as the moderate and Lamont as the liberal--and so did the Times's news pages. A few days after the election, Times reporters Nicholas Confessore and Avi Salzman interviewed "nearly three dozen Lieberman supporters" and found that most planned to stand by their man, who was running as an independent in November. "Only a handful of those Lieberman supporters interviewed said they would switch to Mr. Lamont, signaling the difficulties he may have attracting Connecticut's moderate voters in a general election."

The week after the primary, Confessore and Patrick Healy wrote: "As the newly proclaimed Democratic nominee, Mr. Lamont is moving to adopt a general election strategy that attracts more moderate voters, who are crucial to victory in Connecticut elections."

A term like "moderate" is something of a political inkblot, and the Times's characterizing Lamont this way tells us more about the Times--which enthusiastically endorsed Lamont over Lieberman--than it does about Lamont. One of the most insightful descriptions of Lamont supporters' mentality also came from the Times--this time from an article by Matt Bai that appeared in the paper's Sunday magazine. Bai wrote that Lamont owed his victory less to the "young, online activists" who took most of the credit than to "exasperated and ideologically disappointed baby boomers":

These are the liberals who quietly seethed as Bill Clinton worked with Republicans to reform welfare and pass free-trade agreements. After the "stolen" election of 2000 and the subsequent loss of House and Senate seats in 2004, these Democrats felt duped. If triangulation wasn't a winning strategy, they asked, why were they ever asked to tolerate it in the first place? The Web gave them a place to share their frustrations, and Howard Dean gave them an icon.

Iraq has energized these older lapsed liberals; for a generation that got into politics marching against Vietnam, an antiwar movement is comfortable space. But it was the yearning for a more confrontational brand of opposition on all fronts, for something resembling the black-and-white moral choices of the 1960's, that more broadly animated Lamont's insurgency.

Call them Pinch Sulzberger Democrats, after the Times's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who described his worldview in a revealing commencement address in May at the State University of New York's New Paltz campus:

When I graduated from college in 1974, my fellow students and I had just ended the war in Vietnam and ousted President Nixon. OK, that's not quite true. Yes, the war did end and yes, Nixon did resign in disgrace--but maybe there were larger forces at play.

Either way, we entered the real world committed to making it a better, safer, cleaner, more equal place. We were determined not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. We had seen the horrors and futility of war and smelled the stench of corruption in government. Our children, we vowed, would never know that. So, well, sorry. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

America's misadventure in Vietnam and the abuse of power in Watergate were tragedies for the country, but to liberal baby boomers, the outcomes--America's defeat, a president's downfall--were moral triumphs. Sulzberger's "apology" for having failed "not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors" is less an honest statement of regret than a show of moral vanity--an indictment of the world for failing to live up to Sulzberger's high standards. But while youthful idealism and impatience are well and good, there is something sad about a man in his mid-50s reproaching the world for not being free of war and corruption. Furthermore, at a time when America faces a vicious enemy, a politics based on dreams of a perfect world--and on reproaching one's own country for its real or imagined imperfections--is a dangerous form of escapism.

This point was never clearer than two days after Lamont's victory over Lieberman, when the British announced that they had thwarted a terror plot that might have involved even more murders than 9/11. To those who generally support the administration's approach to terrorism, it was a reminder that feckless policies--such as the fetishization of civil liberties at the expense of intelligence-gathering abilities, or cutting and running from a difficult battle--have potentially dire consequences. The Times went on the defensive:

Within the Democratic ranks, the vice president added, "there's a significant body of opinion that wants to go back--I guess the way I would describe it is sort of the pre-9/11 mind-set, in terms of how we deal with the world we live in."

The man who beat Mr. Lieberman, Ned Lamont, lives in Greenwich, a suburb full of commuters who work in New York high-rise buildings. They are completely aware of the way international terrorism can come crashing down on an ordinary family, leaving the survivors stunned and bereft. A dozen of their neighbors died at the World Trade Center. They will never be able to go back to a "pre-9/11 mind-set."

But the Times remains in a pre-1974 mindset, ever vigilant for Vietnam-style quagmires and Watergate-like abuses of power. As to how to confront the dangers of today, the paper offers nothing but banalities:

Here is what we want to do in the wake of the arrests in Britain. We want to understand as much as possible about what terrorists were planning. To talk about airport security and how to make it better. To find out what worked in the British investigation and discuss how to push these efforts farther.
"This is a mysterious universe," the Times opined in yet another August editorial, "and the more we know about it the more mysterious it seems." The subject of that editorial was the latest discovery in astrophysics, but it's a nice encapsulation of the worldview of liberal baby boomers trying to make sense of an age of terror.

Next article: Read and Despair (The American Spectator, 11/06)

Previous article: Hicks Trial a Privilege Not a Right (Australian, 9/25/06)

Go to main list