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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Our country's tough guys and their moms and dads

Prompted by my post from yesterday about Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan, I want to raise an issue which I think receives far less attention than its significance warrants. Among the country's most influential neoconservatives, one finds extremely pervasive nepotism. Beyond that, a conspicuously high percentage of them have had their careers created, shaped and fueled by their parents. They have been dependent upon the accomplishments of their parents, especially their fathers, whose political views they end up reciting almost without deviation. Just look at the intertwined axis that spawned the two leading "surge" advocates, Kristol and Kagan:

Bill Kristol's parents are Irving Kristol, the so-called "godfather of neoconservatism," and Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose defining political act was a homage paid at the AEI to the virtues of Victorian morality. Bill followed in his parents' footsteps almost completely - the same career, the same political circles, the same exact political beliefs as his mother and father, and had his career shaped by them from the start.

Fred Kagan did exactly the same thing as Bill Kristol -- copied the career and mindset of his father. Just like Kristol's father, The Washington Post labelled Kagan's dad, Donald, "a beloved father figure of the ascendant neoconservative movement." Fred Kagan even went so far as to co-author a 2000 book with his dad entitled While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness and the Threat to Peace Today, a book which -- pre 9/11 -- advocated many of the very same militaristic policies which today are "justified" by the 9/11 attacks. Fred Kagan's brother, Robert, is exactly the same as Fred and Bill Kristol. Along with Kristol, Robert co-founded the Project for the New American Century which, of course, spent the years prior to the 9/11 attacks urging regime change in Iraq, among other things.

This sprawling nepotism web goes on and on even as one descends to the lower levels of the neoconservative ranks of importance and influence. Jonah Goldberg's career was created and shaped by his mother, Lucianne, whose political beliefs he copies. He came to be known by attaching himself to his mom as she milked her role in the Lewinsky scandal (at the time, Jonah, 29, was "vice president" of his mom's company). John Podhoertz is a poor man's version of his dad, Norman, and his mom, Midge Decter, two of the most revered neoconservative figures around. White House neoconservative (and Iran-Contra convict) Elliot Abrams married one of Decter's daughters (from her first marriage), and one of his first key jobs in the neoconservative movement was when he was chosen by Norm Podhoretz, Decter's husband, to write for Commentary (Abrams was also a major contributor to (Bill) Kristol and (Robert) Kagan's PNAC).

In one sense, this is all just a strain of a general and I think rather damaging aristocratizing of our political process. Last month, Digby wrote extensively about this in the context of the Bush family, the catalyst for which was Digby's observation that a Bush family photo includes our current President, his brother the Governor of one of our largest states, their father the former President who, in turn, is the son of a former Senator. And that clan continuously uses its political power to propagate itself, exploiting its vast power network to strengthen the careers and wealth of its family members and continuously breeding new heirs to the throne.

It is true that neoconservatives and Republicans do not have a monopoly on the political exploitation of family connections. The Kennedys still pervade the political system at all elected levels, and the political careers of Jesse Jackson Jr., Andrew Cuomo, Bob Casey, Al Gore, and Harold Ford, Jr. -- to name just a few -- clearly benefited from the political accomplishments of their fathers. And Hillary Clinton's status as a leading presidential candidate is derivative, first and foremost, of the fact that she is married to a former President.

But the neoconservative attachment to and dependence upon their parents goes beyond mere exploitation of one's parents or other relatives for political career gain. So many leading neoconservatives end up following in their parents' footsteps -- remaining attached to them and becoming carbon copies of them -- to an extent that is quite unusual and clearly significant. To have the top level of an entire highly influential political movement be so dependent upon their parents for their careers and worldview seems, at the very least, to be worth some commentary.

Separation from one's parents is just a basic rite of passage of becoming an adult. In that regard, rebellion against one's parents is -- to invoke an emerging cliche -- a feature, not a bug, of adolescence. Repudiating control by one's parents and finding one's own way in life is a critical part of becoming a fully-formed adult, and so is an effort to have one's accomplishments exist independently of ones' mommy and daddy. Someone who decides to choose the exact same careers as their parents, fueled by their parents' friends and accomplishments, and who ends up reciting virtually the exact views of their parents, is someone who seems to be reliant on their parents in the extreme.

Rebellion for its own sake -- against one's parents or anything else -- is adolescent in nature and, if it doesn't balance out, is just as mindless as those who remain slavishly attached to their parents. And all of these dynamics exist as generalities with all sorts of exceptions. But in general, choosing to live in the shadows of one's parents -- where everything copies their path and is shaped and molded by them -- would seem to create very stunted and coddled personalities.

Many, perhaps most, of the leading neoconservatives don't seem to have arrived at their political worldview through much or any intellectual struggle or independence, nor do they seem to have had to make their own way in building their careers. Quite the opposite -- they seem to have been bred into their lives, and they just marched, like good little boys, along with their parents' views and plans for them. And they not only willingly accepted, but seem to have eagerly sought, all sorts of help from their parents in building their careers, all in exchange for fully embracing their parents' views almost without deviation.

It's rather ironic (and almost certainly not coincidental) that neoconservatives love, more than anything else, to strut around spewing tough-guy Chruchill warrior rhetoric and to sermonize on the virtues of self-reliance -- and are characterized in their political views by a total lack of empathy for the plight of others -- even though they have chosen extremely coddled, privileged lives feeding off the accomplishments and directives of their mothers and fathers. And quite significantly, the political Leader they found to represent their belief system, to personify their contrived warrior pose, and to implement their radical agenda -- George W. Bush -- is the most extreme version of that coddled and father-dependent personality one can find.

The embrace by the President of the "surge" plan of Kagan and Kristol -- father-controlled figures all -- is really nothing more noble or elevated than a petulant refusal to accept the consequences of their failure and responsibility for their actions. It's a foot-stomping exercise, whereby they feel entitled to satisfaction and personal vindication, and that personal desire trumps everything -- hence, their eagerness to ignore the damage they have wrought by inventing new war theories and fantasies to continue their wars that don't affect them in any way, for which only other people pay a price. It's the behavior of people who have developed an extreme sense of personal entitlement by virtue of allowing, even urging, their fathers and mothers to shape their lives far beyond what is normal or healthy.

I realize that there are some people who have an aversion to raising issues of this sort on the ground that it constitutes some sort of unknowable pop psychology and that one ought to confine oneself only to the substance of the "issues." I don't agree with that view at all.

It is glaringly apparent that the twisted and bloodthirsty tenets of neoconservatism which are dominating our country -- this insatiable craving for slaughter that is as endless as it is pointless, and an equally insatiable desire to expand the government power of their Leaders -- are not rooted in some rotted, coherent geopolitical doctrine as much as they are rooted in rotted personality disorders. All of that is sociopathic and authoritarian and those are phenomena far more psychological than political.

For that reason, the Bush Movement at its core -- the true, hard-core, reality-denying, warmongering, dead-ender True Believers -- is much more of a psychological movement than it is a political movement, and to ignore the former makes it impossible to understand or meaningfully discuss the latter. There is no reason to ignore the impulses and personality types of the people who for the last six years have governed, and continued to govern, our country, nor is there any reason to pretend that this all stems from sterile and elevated good faith political disputes when it doesn't.

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