Family Style

In his new book, In Praise of Nepotism, Adam Bellow, an executive editor at Doubleday and the son of novelist Saul Bellow, argues that there's good reason to hire the sons and daughters of distinguished people: They know the family business, they have a legacy to live up to and the ease of their ascent should encourage "a certain humility."

He might have added that their family heirlooms can include certain sentences.

Consider the ubiquitous William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and son of the neoconservatives' founding father, Irving Kristol.

In an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post, Kristol attacks presidential hopeful Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) for delivering a speech criticizing President Bush for, among other things, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Kyoto Protocol, failing to ask allies to assist with postwar peacekeeping in Iraq and making a misleading State of the Union claim about Iraqi uranium purchases.

Seizing on Gephardt's statement that "George Bush has left us less safe and secure than we were four years ago," Kristol claims that Gephardt now "stand[s] in fundamental opposition" to Bush's efforts against terrorists and rogue regimes. Kristol concludes his piece: "But the American people, whatever their doubts about aspects of Bush's foreign policy, know that Bush is serious about fighting terrorists and terrorist states that mean America harm. About Bush's Democratic critics, they know no such thing."

For students of the debates of the 1950s, those words may sound familiar, but Kristol isn't plagiarizing -- he's showing off a family heirloom. In a 1952 Commentary magazine article, Irving Kristol wrote: "There is one thing that the American people know about Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy [R-Wis.]. He, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification."

Half a century later, the younger Kristol's hint that Gephardt is soft on terrorists and rogue states is as farfetched as his father's claim that earlier generations of liberals were soft on communism. After all, Gephardt helped draft the bipartisan congressional resolution authorizing military action in Iraq; he also supported the administration's actions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Gephardt has paid dearly for this, losing many potential supporters who might have been drawn to his progressive policies on economics, trade and health care but see him as too bound to George W. Bush, not too soft on Saddam Hussein.

Similarly, the leading liberals of the early 1950s -- President Harry Truman, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), labor leaders Walter Reuther and A. Philip Randolph, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and even such gentle souls as Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson -- were all "unequivocally anti-Communist." If many Americans "knew no such thing," it was because there were those, such as McCarthy and Kristol, who helped to create that confusion.

More than 50 years later, one wonders why the younger Kristol echoes his father's phrasing in attacking mainstream political figures such as Gephardt (who invoked fellow Missourian Truman in the speech that Kristol attacked). Does Kristol really want a new era of McCarthy-style attacks on adversaries' determination to defend America? Or was he just weaned on such rhetoric?

Adam Bellow, call your office.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.

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