Capitol Hill Films Presents: The Godfather and Dr. No

In the space of a week, the promise and peril of Republican conservative political power are revealed. Promise in the example of a singular hero defying his peers on the basis of principle. Peril in the grim reminder that power continues to corrupt.

While presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama maintains a narrow and increasingly fragile lead (inexplicably) over Republican John McCain, the outcome of the coinciding House and Senate elections seem preordained. The “thumping” the GOP received in 2006 was merely a precursor. Interim special elections in the House have already reduced the Republican caucus by three and the leadership has already declared all Republican seats endangered. In the Senate, the historic victory achieved in the mid-term 2002 elections is now cause for lament; the party has the unenviable task of defending 23 seats in an election cycle trending heavily in the Democratic Party’s favor.

Republicans have been able to thwart Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from ramming a liberal agenda through, but only because the Democrats lack a supermajority. Holding less than 60 seats, the Democratic-led Senate has been stymied for the most part.

Singularly outstanding in this battle has been Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. A former member of the 1994 House class, Coburn upheld his pledge to leave after three terms. Pressed back into service, he won a hard-fought race for the Senate in 2004 and, since then, has proven a stalwart champion of conservative values in a body where they are seldom upheld.

In particular, Sen. Coburn’s tireless offensive against government waste has earned him the moniker Dr. No, a successor of sorts to the recently deceased Sen. Jesse Helms, who was similarly remembered as Senator No. Akin to Helms, Coburn’s opposition is all that is needed to impede ill-conceived legislation from passing. Sen. Coburn’s legislative maneuvering have held the line for an outgunned GOP and has driven Sen. Reid to fits.

Just this past week, Sen. Reid crafted composite legislation dubbed the “Tomnibus” bill, designed solely to induce Republican defections at the expense of Coburn’s fight against excessive spending. Few votes affirm conservative principles and underscore the possibility of one individual’s ability to make a difference at the same time, but on this occasion, such perseverance was rewarded. Coburn prevailed and the Tomnibus went down to defeat.

On the whole, however, conservatives are still frustrated. The Republican minority has prevented the usual hallmarks of a liberal agenda from being implemented, but neither are conservative goals being advanced by any measure. Between so-called fiscal stimulus packages and housing bailouts, Republicans continue to betray the very same conservative principles that were central to their rise. Worse, as the adage goes, what is a cause becomes a movement, and eventually a racket.

Typifying this in the worst fashion possible is the recently announced indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens is the most senior Republican in the Senate and at point, was third in line for the presidency as the Senate president pro tempore, but this longevity underscores the inevitable pitfall of political success.

On the continent’s frontier with the Arctic Ocean and far away from Washington, Alaska can only be home to rugged individualists (the oil stipend can’t hurt though)1. Stevens became an Alaskan institution by being integral to its transition to statehood. At first, he was an esteemed state-wide leader and then became a power player in Washington. A reliable Republican vote in the Senate, he could be counted on to dependably support corresponding conservative goals.

Until he didn’t.

In contrast to Coburn, who has pledged to serve two terms and no more, Stevens has been unable to relinquish political power or resist the temptation to exercise it on his own behalf. In contrast to Coburn, who has utilized his brief time in Congress to maneuver on behalf of fiscal restraint, Stevens leveraged his lengthy stay into a chairmanship on the Appropriations Committee, where he ruthlessly disregarded pleas for fiscal sanity.

The result was the now infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a symbol of government waste sure to endure and an unmistakable sign Republicans had lost their way.

Throwing a “hissy fit” as the Washington Post aptly derided it, Stevens denounced the amendment striking the money (submitted by the aforementioned Coburn) and threatened to resign on the floor of the Senate:

I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body. … If one senator can decide he'll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another, that is not a union. That is not equality.

It was as if he assumed the voice of Vito Corleone, the “Godfather,” echoing the self-serving appeal he pitched to his fellow criminal conspirators in the movie:

When have I ever refused an accommodation?

Stevens won as 82 colleagues voted with him. The Don would have been proud.

Which represents the soul of the movement? Which offers hope to the prospects of the party? Neither.

To return to the opening assertion, the two Senators, the possibility of virtue and inevitability of vice, demonstrate for American conservatives the need to remain skeptical as political power is attained and successes extend the duration of that power.

Many political observers are mistakenly confusing the ineptitude of Republican politicians with the bankruptcy and inconsequence of conservative principles. Conservatives are more than the political campaigns and politicians bidding for their support. True, the Republican Party became the vehicle for conservatism after the long walk in the wilderness prior to Buckley and Goldwater, but conservatives have at their discretion to take their votes elsewhere and stand for principle in the place of political practicality.

In the future, perhaps conservatives won’t trade a Toomey, long on conservatism, only because a Specter, is even longer on seniority. As noted previously, Coburn has honorable allies in the House, such as Reps. Pence, Flake, and Ryan, and an episode of creative destruction will serve American conservatives well.

1 To be sure, the durability of conservatism in Alaska was amply demonstrated when Sarah Palin came out of nowhere to defeat long-time political figure and sitting governor, Frank Murkowski, in the last primary. Palin then defied the odds again by beating former governor, Don Knowles. Palin has won accolades for her reform agenda and, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, is heralded as the future of Republican conservatism.

Dark Knight: A Parable About An America Conflicted Over The War on Terrorism?

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(Note: There are no spoilers in this essay. The author made a sincere effort to avoid references or explanations that would spoil the film for those who have not seen it, but the below essay does address scenes beyond the midway point.)

Under the direction of Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight stakes out formidable ground as a definitive piece of film-making derived from graphic novels. A welcomed gritty and realistic successor to movies alternatively breathtaking and cartoonish, The Dark Knight delivers on every level – cinematically and narratively. Moreover, The Dark Knight provides an earnest and complex exploration of heroism, underscoring the ambitions and challenges a would-be redeemer bears when confronting evil. With the opportunity granted by the filmmaker to the moviegoer to interpret the film however he or she chooses, this author observes subtle references to America’s own struggle with terrorism in a post-September 11 world.

A key premise of the film is Bruce Wayne’s apprehension at continuing his vigilantism under the guise of Batman now that the citizenry and officials of Gotham have begun to reclaim the city for the better. Encountering individuals battling crime on their own, as well as an incorruptible district attorney in the form of Harvey Dent, Wayne considers hanging up the bat suit. However, Wayne cannot retreat to his mansion – complicating his departure is the appearance of the Joker, utterly psychotic and intent on eliminating Batman while reducing Gotham to chaos.

Throughout the film, Wayne/Batman continuously discusses his dilemma with Alfred, his manservant and confidant. In one exchange, Alfred, discusses his experiences with the British military chasing a bandit on the Malay peninsula, recalling how his unit’s attempts to bribe or cajole the bandit failed.

Intentional or not, the scene of the worldly Brit counseling his brash and powerful billionaire American charge symbolizes an important historical parallel, namely, the turnover of leadership and moral authority by Great Britain to America on the world stage after World War II.

Moreover, in the current war on terrorism, many thoughtful observers of the American effort have cited Britain’s success in defeating the Malay communist insurgency during the 1950s as a model for the U.S. to emulate in combating terrorists and insurgents worldwide. Indeed, LT COL John Nagl, one of the authors of the US Army’s counterinsurgency manual, had previously compared the British and American experiences in Malaysia and Vietnam, respectively, in his book Learning How To Eat Soup With a Knife, and concluded the shortcomings of the US military as a “learning organization,” unlike the British, would be a key limitation in such future conflicts.

The film does not infer the same critique because later on, Alfred admits the unit, in frustration, eventually resorted to burning down the entire jungle in order to take care of the bandit. In the Malay insurgency, the British stood up indigenous forces and countered the communist appeal by offering independence. Similarly, American leaders have readily recognized sole reliance on brute military force would be a mistake.

Nonetheless, the admission on the part of the knowing veteran to his powerful but unsteady superhero simply underscores the ambivalence even experienced leaders and decision-makers endured when facing similar challenges.

What the film is not ambivalent about is the indisputable wickedness of the Joker.

As the story elevates Joker from mob mercenary to “terrorist,” Batman and his allies wrestle with what tactics are permissible. Are traditional law enforcement techniques appropriate or should extrajudicial vigilantism and disregard for procedure be allowed? The debate occurs on many levels, within Wayne, allies Dent and Lt. Gordon, and even Gothamites themselves, who grapple with “getting their hands dirty.” In the film, Alfred settles the matter for the audience, asserting “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The declaration sweeps aside the ambiguity inherent in technical definitions composed by social scientists about asymmetrical warfare or politically-motivated violence and its symbolism. Terrorism is indeed about asymmetry, politics, violence, and symbols, but the discussion rarely recognizes the willful violation of moral norms and coinciding psychological satisfaction the tactic brings to its perpetrators.

Annihilating the enemy may have part and parcel of the Allied campaign against the Axis, but the justification for incinerating Dresden and Nagasaki will be debated for generations; for Islamic extremists, annihilation of the infidel is a moral absolute. Mass destruction and murder are integral appeals of Islamic extremist recruiting, not Western militaries, which extol service to the nation. In this regard, whatever assumed possibility exists for persuading or deterring such enemies fades in the face of such pathology.

The Joker himself intimates as much. At the outset, Joker defines himself as a Nietzschean figure, proclaiming “I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you... stranger.” When he kills his mob allies and burns the millions he stole from them, the Joker snarls mobsters are beholden only to money and Gotham deserved a “better class of criminal.” More pointedly, the Joker seduces Harvey Dent into going on a murderous rampage (“Introduce a little anarchy!”) after he’s left scarred from a rescue attempt gone awry. He convinces Dent to renounce his morality, arguing chaos is more “fair” and that Gotham failed his example.

American scholar Lee Harris identified the same delusions and temptations in Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History. In this book, Harris methodically lays out the philosophical and moral precepts of liberal civilization and the manner in which Islamic extremism is just another “fantasy ideology,” a grotesque attempt to re-order human society along totalitarian lines in the same vein as Nazism and communism. In The Dark Knight, the Joker too exists in his own moral universe and there is no opportunity for constructive dialogue.

In one sadistic gambit, the Joker takes over and cordons off the city, setting the stage for another parallel to America’s challenges in the current conflict.

As part of a “social experiment,” Joker permits one ferry filled with citizens and another with incarcerated felons to leave. Once at water, he announces each set of passengers has a detonator which will blow the other ship up; if neither ship explodes within fifteen minutes, both ferries will be destroyed. Setting each ship’s passengers against the other unleashes a torrent of raw emotions and dread. The innocents, weary of crime and terror, are more than ready to vote for the convicts’ ship’s destruction; meanwhile, the felons appear poised to overpower the guards and make the decision themselves.

Disclosing the outcome would spoil the movie, but the dilemma mirrors America’s difficulties keeping Iran in check.

As Iran, the “outlaw state,” determinedly pursues nuclear weapons, Israel, the only democratic state and sole “good citizen” in the region, moves closer to launching a preventive strike. Restraining or unleashing Israel would prove catastrophic for America’s interests in the region, while appeasing or even protecting Iran are equally loathsome options. The film’s decision as to how the passengers would respond is thought-provoking and is consistent with ongoing debates.

Balancing Joker’s gleeful malevolence is Batman’s stoic righteousness, even to the point of his likely ostracism from Gotham. As the dark knight in the film’s title, Batman is contrasted with Harvey Dent’s “white knight,” who unlike Batman, is sanctioned by the public to wage war against crime. As Gotham’s “silent guardian,” Batman must lurk in the shadows and get his hands dirty when upstanding citizens cannot.

This version of Batman is derived from graphic novelist Frank Miller’s unsentimental reinvention of the story. Miller has made no secret of his unconditional support for America in the war on terror, and in this regard, one could observe a resemblance between his conception of a hero and the current principals leading the American war on terror.

In a recent interview with Maxim magazine, Miller described a hero like Batman as he envisions him. Interestingly, some of the virtues he identifies are practiced by current American leaders and are the basis for the extensive criticism leveled against them.

The hero fights dirty: In the film, Wayne appropriates his firm’s technology to establish an unprecedented level of surveillance over the city. Similarly, Bush and Cheney have defended their interpretation of constitutional war powers in the face of tremendous opposition. Warrant-less surveillance against overseas threats and waterboarding are and remain controversial tactics employed by the administration.

The hero does nothing small: Batman’s quest for vengeance evolves into an effort to embolden upstanding citizens in Gotham. By the time President Bush delivered his second inaugural, he had transformed the war on terror into a campaign for democracy around the world.

The hero sacrifices everything: Batman must accept the death of innocents, even those close to him, in order to defeat the Joker. In the current war on terror, America has lost almost 4,000 men and women. Confounding enemies who believed America would take flight at the first instance of heavy casualties, the nation has instead recognizing the importance of the fight, accepted these losses and persevered.

The hero is hated and misunderstood: In the end, Batman is reviled and hunted. So too is President Bush. After becoming the first president in sixteen years to receive a majority of the vote, albeit a narrow one, he is exiting office with one of the lowest approval ratings in modern political history. His administration is derided as a fiasco, even though his administration has presided over the liberation of two nations and has protected the country from another mass-casualty terrorist attack.

History shows a hero’s path can be a tumultuous one. In The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, American historian Victor Davis Hanson explores the achievements of Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton. While each was an exceptional general who accomplished great things on behalf of their nations, each was at one point despised for their endeavors. Their ready recourse to moral justifications and unwavering confidence in their cause’s righteousness was controversial and alarmed those uncomfortable with such ideological fervor.

So too has the Manichean worldview of the Bush Administration. While now tempered by the challenges endured in Iraq and the turn to diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, the Bush Administration may go down as one of the more ideologically inclined presidencies in history.

And, in the manner of one of Frank Miller’s protagonists, just as heroic.

President Bush has been castigated as a “total failure” and an unrepentantly polarizing, but his predecessors (Lincoln and Truman come to mind) have as well, and his critical but controversial decisions have preserved America’s future at crucial junctures.