Eric Cantor, J’accuse! (updated)
I’m not sure what bugs me more-that Congressman Eric Cantor’s Washington Post op-ed today “Obama’s 32 Czars” plagiarizes a piece I wrote months ago or that it was a bozo like Cantor who felt compelled to plagiarize me. No. I know. It’s the latter. OK, I’ll admit it, whenever I see an article that picks ...
I’m not sure what bugs me more-that Congressman Eric Cantor’s Washington Post op-ed today “Obama’s 32 Czars” plagiarizes a piece I wrote months ago or that it was a bozo like Cantor who felt compelled to plagiarize me.
No. I know. It’s the latter.
OK, I’ll admit it, whenever I see an article that picks up on something that I’ve written here days, weeks, or months before, I glow with a kind of smug self-satisfaction that would be odious in anyone else. (The smugness of others is repellant. One’s own smugness is just like a warm hug that we deserved but never got.) For example, this week’s New York Times ran an op-ed discussing deteriorating Israeli attitudes toward Barack Obama and citing a June Jerusalem Post poll, I was quietly pleased that I got there almost two weeks before. It happens every so often. It makes up for the ridiculously low stipends … it’s more like a transit allowance or beer money actually … that FP pays its bloggers.
But Cantor’s piece crossed a line. Not only did he rehash an idea that was first broached in my April 16th post “It’s official: Obama creates more czars than the Romanovs” but he did something worse: he stole the punch line. Lift an idea from one of my pieces and I feel influential. Zei gesund, I say, which is Yiddish for “It’s OK, I know that in the policy community imitation is often the sincerest form of thinking.” But snatch a joke and you’ve crossed a line.
Now if my post was only on some backwater Web site, I’d just write it up to a misunderstanding. But first of all, FP is no backwater site. Why just yesterday a guy in an elevator mentioned it to me … and … and um, and then there’s my mother, who every few days sends an email saying “nice blog…but stop beating up on that nice Joe Biden…” But more importantly, the “More czars than the Romanovs” piece got picked up widely across the web and even led to an appearance by yours truly on the Fox Television — which is known to be the main intellectual teat at which Eric Cantor suckles.
So he … or rather the 22-year-old staffer who actually wrote the piece … should have known better. I mean yes, in my post which is now apparently so classic that it has passed out of copyright protection, I said that Obama had “passed the Romanov dynasty in the production of czars” and Cantor built his entire piece around the line “the administration has more czars than imperial Russia.” While this is not a verbatim lift, the DNA is mine. I’m the father. And while Cantor may use the “sampling” defense that was pioneered by his intellectual predecessor Vanilla Ice during his precedent-setting “Ice, Ice Baby” controversy, let’s call a spade a fucking shovel here folks. Dude stole my wry worldview.
Worse still, Cantor stole the idea and then misinterpreted it. He used the now practically immortal concept … which will be soon be known in literature as the Romanov gambit or better, the Rothkopf gambit, which would be a nice twist given how the Romanov’s treated my shtetl-dwelling relatives a few decades back … to argue that by having so many czars, Obama was pre-empting the power of Congress. While given their current shenanigans the term “power of Congress” seems destined to join the long list of Washington oxymorons (also covered here in an earlier blog posting… but when I cite myself it’s not plagiarism, it’s just narcissism), Cantor fails to recognize that having lots of czars actually diminishes the power of Obama. It makes it hard to get things done and it inevitably creates turf wars between officials who once had the mandate to do what the czars are supposed to and the czars themselves. Sometimes it even creates jealousy between czars who seek greater territory.
Cantor argues that putting authority in the hands of people who aren’t vetted by Congress undercuts vital checks and balances. First, there is the small fact that there are roughly 4,000 political appointees in the executive branch and “only” 1,100 of these require Senate approval. Second, there is the fact that this number of 1,100 would almost certainly be seen by the framers of the Constitution as grotesquely bloated and evidence of a congressional power grab. Third, many of the most influential positions in the U.S. government do not require congressional approval (the national security advisor and the head of the National Economic Council come to mind but there are scores of other such vital positions) precisely because the chief executive is entitled to some prerogative in choosing his advisors. And finally, look how screwed up the congressional approval process is. As noted earlier this week in my post on Senator Grassley, the right individual senators have arrogated to block approval of presidential nominees is regularly abused for wholly self-serving, shallow, special-interest driven (which is to say, typical for Congress) reasons.
Given that he is this wrong on so many levels, you have to ask where does Cantor’s sense of entitlement to appropriate my joke come from? Well, first of course, if you spent all your time standing next to John Boehner, you’d feel pretty special too. (Listen to Boehner. He makes George W. Bush sound like Blaise Pascal by comparison.) But at a more basic level, appropriating … recklessly, without regard for right or consequence … is what members of Congress do. And when they don’t have the resources they need, their natural impulse is to borrow them.
So, perhaps he can’t help himself. As a result, I forgive you Eric Cantor. If you need more ideas, feel free to graze here. In fact, I encourage it. It’ll almost certainly contribute to your political evolution and help you fulfill your destiny to be the bottom half of the Romney for president ticket in 2012. But please, give credit where it’s due … and even if you can’t do that, try to get your analysis right. Plagiarism is one thing … but making me feel partially responsible for your tortured misinterpretations of the facts is just too much to bear.
Update: Glenn Thrush of Politico has followed up on this story. He says he has found evidence that David Brooks said something about Obama and czars and Russia on the Charlie Rose Show a couple of months before my FP post on the subject. In my defense, I don’t watch Charlie Rose because a.) I have no trouble falling asleep and don’t require outside assistance and b.) I prefer Chelsea Handler.
Also, there is a big distinction between Brooks comment and mine because while he said “there are more czars than in the history of Russia”, this was just a wild assertion. And at the time he made it was not actually true. I counted. My piece was based on a careful review of Romanov family tree. In fact, I limited myself to Romanovs. So while he made a colorful statement, I was reporting real (or at least amusingly contrived) news: the Obama administration had actually moved into the lead. And while this is no place to debate whether or not to include Grand Princes of Moscow or the Rurik Dynasty in our list, there is a bigger point: Cantor lifted the line. And I at least deserve a thank-you note. And if he wants to send one to David Brooks too, that’s fine with me.
Update No. 2:
Glenn Thrush, doing some really good leg work for Politico, has discovered that prior even to my article noting the appointment that nudged Obama into the lead in the czarist league tables over the Romanovs … and prior to David Brooks apparently even earlier observation that Obama had more czars than Russia…other people had also made the connection between Russia and czars. In fact, rather improbably, he has someone making the observation even prior to Obama taking office as president which, I would argue, undermines the point somewhat. In fact, the article he is citing was from the Winter Palace Daily Dictat and is dated 1915. In it, a reporter with the unlikely name of Thrushovsky wrote, “You hear a lot of whining these days about Nicholas II this and Alexandra that and how little Anastasia beat up a serf on her elementary school playground. There’s all this talk about how we have had so many czars and that’s the root of the current blini shortage. Well, it’s very easy for me to imagine a time when even in America they will appoint czars to take care of every little problem in that backwards wasteland and they’ll end up with more than us and we’ll look back on all our wonderful Faberge eggs and infrequent yet colorful pogroms and say, ‘those were the days.'”
I’m unable to read the original Russian so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the quote. But I get the point. I was not the first person to make the connection between czars and Russia. However, I was the person to officially note the moment Obama moved ahead of the Romanovs. (No hyperbole for me, boys and girls. Not ever. I’m the least hyperbolic man America has ever seen.) And secondly, while I cling to that slim distinction to maintain my contribution to this important … if apparently beaten to death … metaphor, I think it can safely be said that Eric Cantor is way at the end of the line. And, as was the more important point of my playful little diatribe yesterday, Cantor came to all the wrong conclusions about the problems caused by Obama’s czarism. (Although one has to note his press secretary, commenting on this major issue in Politico, handled it with considerable grace and humor … as did Thrush.) So I say zei gesund to all of them.
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David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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