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John Seery

John Seery

Posted: June 2, 2008 04:28 PM

Bill Kristol on Obama: No Smoking Gun, But Plenty of Cheap Shots


Bill Kristol is desperate to find an ad hominem way to smear Barack Obama, and the New York Times continues to oblige this warmonger and professional propagandist with prominent print space.

Kristol's contortionist tactics have hit an all-time low: In today's column, Kristol faults Obama for "omitting" a specific reference to military service when Obama, in a rousing commencement address at Wesleyan University, encouraged graduates to go into public service. Kristol, deriding such a call to public service as "self-regarding" and "self-congratulatory" and then insinuating that the speech itself worked against public service, apparently believes a candidate can and should be lambasted for what he didn't say. Kristol, then, is free to fill in those blanks.

Gee, that opens up a whole new round of possibilities for criticism. "Today, Obama spoke about U.S. relations with Russia, but...wasn't it curious that he failed to mention--in fact, he omitted--any discussion about Rev. Wright's comments five years ago?"

I hope that Kristol fairly and consistently applies his newfound hermeneutic ability to read discursive absences into other candidates' statements. For instance: "Sen. McCain honored our nation's soldiers today and encouraged the American public to support our troops. Funny, wasn't it, how he omitted any mention that he himself failed to vote in favor of the recent G.I. Bill (the one that Obama explicitly supported)?"

Kristol's methods can be faulted on a number of grounds. First, his complaint is based on interpretive projection: How does he know that Obama didn't take it for granted that by "public service" he naturally meant to include and convey "military service" as well--and assumed his audience would, too? In that case, the "omission" is merely a figment of Kristol's vexed imagination.

Second, in common parlance, "public service" usually implies service mainly with a domestic focus. That connotation of the "public" doesn't exclude or preclude military service, of course; but usually we use separate qualifying phrases for that kind of national dedication, namely military service or national service or service to one's country. The terms "public" and "national" are not synonymous and fungible. Precisely because of the semantic distinction between "public service" and "military service," the latter sometimes does need special mention and explicit referencing--hence the unspoken grounds for Kristol's complaint.

But that linguistic severability also means that one could speak about and extol public service without needing to take up, or tacitly disparage, the separate matter of military service. Analogously, we would neither expect nor require, for instance, that a commencement speaker at the Wharton School, who encourages M.B.A. graduates to dedicate themselves to American business enterprise, also explicitly raise the possibility that such graduates actively consider working for military contractors such as Halliburton or Blackwater. Such an "omission" regarding the proper ambit of business would not be conspicuous by its absence.

Kristol's additional charge against Obama about self-serving speech raises self-referential issues about Kristol's own column. Had Obama explicitly encouraged Wesleyan graduates to sign up for military service, he surely would have needed to mention that we are currently at war in Iraq (something Kristol conveniently omits in his paean to military service), and that volunteering for military service during this time of war would mean, with a high degree of probability, that one will be shipped off to Iraq. Somehow Kristol "omits" that he was one of the chief architects, supporters, and promoters of that very war.

In other words, Kristol wants Obama to perform a "public service" for Kristol's war. He wants Obama to inspire graduates to become grunts for that war in particular. Talk about a self-serving piece of prose!

Ad hominem attacks can backfire. Kristol wants others to encourage our young men and women to volunteer for national military service during wartime, and yet Kristol himself never served in the military--though he came of age during the Vietnam War. He's never given the American public a good explanation about why he avoided such service. The closest he's ever come to military service is reading Thucydides or Carl Schmitt. Aw shucks, I guess it just didn't work out at the time. Maybe Wesleyan graduates of 2008 can compensate for his Harvard deferral of 1970.

Those who live in glass houses probably shouldn't omit those key details.