After Rumsfeld

     The dust of the elections is settling, and it looks 
as if, one way or another, President Bush is going to 
have to extricate himself from his mess in Iraq. Gone are 
the days when the hawks could insist that it wasn't a 

     Bush still won't admit that the unpleasantness 
between Sunnis and Shi'ites can be described as a civil 
war, and he may yet take the neocons' counsel and bomb 
Iran too; but he has sacked Donald Rumsfeld, and even 
Rumsfeld is revealed to have urged a course correction, 
leaving his boss holding the bag alone as he waves 

     Meanwhile the James Baker commission is expected to 
urge a decorous retreat from the quagmire, if that's the 
right metaphor; at this point I think it's more like 
crawling out of a train wreck. We're way beyond mere 
damage control. During his confirmation hearings, even 
Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor as defense secretary, 
readily conceded that the United States is not winning in 

     Yet, almost incredibly, there are those diehards who 
still offer plans for an American victory in the war! You 
can read them in THE WASHINGTON TIMES; but it's doubtful 
that they would appear even there if they weren't 
sustained by the president's delusion that victory, 
democracy, and all the rest, are still within reach. Yes, 
I'm tempted to retort, and the South will rise again!

     It's one thing for the captain to go down with his 
ship; but another for him to refuse to recognize that it 
is sinking, even when the rats have deserted it and the 
water has reached his earlobes. Liberals and 
conservatives no longer debate whether Bush is a great or 
even a good president; they now argue over whether he is 
the worst or just one of the worst.

     I try to keep him in historical perspective; I think 
the dubious honor of being the worst American president 
ever belongs to one of the liberals' favorites, either 
Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt.

     It takes a truly terrible president to make the 
liberal honor roll. If it's any consolation to his 
admirers, Bush falls far short of that.

What's in a Name?

     Days after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, I heard a radio 
news report that an Arab gent in Ohio had opened a new 
Lebanese restaurant, named after himself: Osama's. It 
seemed unfortunate timing, in the sense that I nearly 
drove off the road and flipped into a ditch. I often 
wonder if this Osama is still in business. It's possible. 
After all, he started with a valuable asset: universal 
name recognition.

     The story comes to mind today because, with Bush 
hanging out to dry, the Democrats are looking for a 
political messiah, and many of them think they've found 
one in Illinois's junior senator, Barack Obama. And Obama 
is, without question, a very charming, intelligent, and 
impressive young man who is, moreover, catnip to the 
press corps. He made his first big splash at the 
Democrats' 2004 convention, upstaging the nominal star of 
the show, John Kerry.

     Many pundits are already touting Obama as the guy 
who could snatch the party's presidential nomination from 
Hillary in 2008, and he hasn't ruled out running for the 
big prize. Not since Colin Powell a decade ago has a 
black politician wowed so many white people. Despite his 
very mildly liberal views, he found a welcome and got a 
standing ovation at the conservative megachurch of the 
evangelist Rick Warren, where he spoke on the need to 
combat AIDS in Africa without endorsing, or even seeming 
to endorse, sexual licentiousness.

     One tiny problem: his name. Not only does it sound 
like Osama, but we now learn that his middle name is 
Hussein. Is the country ready for a President Barack 
Hussein Obama? Can you see him addressing the nation from 
the Oval Office: "My fellow Americans ..."? I ... don't 
... think ... so.

     Otherwise, Obama may be the smoothest politician 
since Slick Willie himself. He has a genius for seeming 
to be on every side of every issue at once, though he 
firmly opposed the Iraq war from the start (now a great 
asset). He is "pro-choice" while expressing moral 
reservations about abortion; he is technically non-white 
without seeming too black; an achiever, not a 
professional victim; a suburbanite more apt to celebrate 
Christmas than Kwanzaa; a Democrat, but not a socialist 
or aggressive proponent of Big Government.

     In short, Obama is exquisitely poised on every 
political fence, perfectly in tune with the Zeitgeist. 
But that name! Is he for real, or is he some weird test 
of our sense of humor, like the movie BORAT?

Whatever Happened to Hell?

     Last year the prolific and scholarly Garry Wills 
published a little book called WHAT JESUS MEANT. Though 
Wills still calls himself a Catholic, he denies just 
about every distinctive Catholic doctrine, from the 
papacy to the priesthood, even as he affirms the 
Resurrection. (He has also written a little book 
recommending the practice of saying the rosary, but with 
no suggestion that prayers to our Lady are actually 

     Now Wills has published a sort of sequel, WHAT PAUL 
MEANT, in the same vein. What puzzles me most about his 
explications of both the Gospels and the Epistles is the 
near-total absence of any reference to Hell. This is also 
true of the very interesting Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, 
also a prolific author who denies many Catholic 

     If there is one striking theme throughout the entire 
New Testament, from John the Baptist to the Apocalypse, 
it is that we have been rescued from damnation, but that 
time is running out and we must be prepared for the end 
and a terrifying final judgment =soon.=

     Yet here is where both Wills and Wright leave me 
wondering: Just what do they think our Savior saved us 
from? Do they believe in Hell at all? Why is the message 
of the New Testament so insistently urgent?

     That message is wonderful and consoling, but also 
frightening. We disregard it at our peril, a peril almost 
unbearable to think of, as many great Christian teachers 
and writers have attested. Is mentioning Hell and Satan 
now considered bad taste? Come to think of it, it's been 
a long time since I've heard a sermon by even the most 
orthodox priest warn us of the ultimate spiritual dangers 
we face. I often think of Chesterton's remark that 
"optimism" is the modern word for the ancient sin of 

                 +          +          +                  

     Yes, this country is in bad shape, terrible shape, 
in fact; but it's still pretty funny, says SOBRAN'S. If 
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                                        --- Joseph Sobran


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