Max Boot is more machine than man. His Washington Post column is a space not for a writer with a distinct or coherent worldview to make arguments about varied political and cultural topics but for a contradictory and single-minded robot to try to make the same point over and over and over again. It’s the journalistic equivalent of “we programmed a bot to write 1,000 columns about how Republicans are bad™ using headlines from the previous two days and disregarding any previous arguments it’s made.” Democrats cancel Abraham Lincoln? Republicans are at fault for pushing back. Trump-skeptical Republican senator announces he’s retiring? Good riddance, he’s worse than Marjorie Taylor Greene. Highly regarded former Republican statesman passes away? Use his memory to bash the GOP.
This last, most recent example makes for the perfect specimen of the Boot Bot at work — the platonic ideal of its remarkable willingness to adapt and improvise in the service of its ultimate aim. The great George Shultz, President Reagan’s second and final secretary of state passed away on Saturday at the age of 100 (do yourself a favor and read National Review’s editors on Shultz’s remarkable life). Naturally, where most of us saw an opportunity to celebrate a uniquely American life, Boot — a sincere adherent of the old “the only good Republican is a dead Republican” adage — saw a hook for his next column.
Most of the piece is Boot’s typical fare: simplistic and incomplete arguments conveyed awkwardly. He includes a throwaway line implying that the worst portion of today’s GOP can trace its roots back to Barry Goldwater, a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. He calls Shultz an advocate for “progressivism.” He even asserts that Shultz and Reagan represented a bulwark against the “far right” because of their willingness to sit at the negotiating table with Mikhail Gorbachev during Reagan’s second term. His evidence is that a single New York Times article from 1988 quoted a conservative activist who accused the president of being “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” That Reagan’s hard line on the “Evil Empire” during his first term, a posture decried by Democrats at the time (Walter Mondale called his support of the Strategic Defense Initiative “madness”), was what brought the USSR to the table goes unmentioned.
His typically superficial treatment of history aside, this column is remarkable because it represents the final evolution of Max Boot from Bush-era, flag-waving, third-wave neoconservative to beliefless machine. In the penultimate paragraph, while lamenting the end of responsible (again, dead) Republicans, Boot writes: “Republicans such as [Dick] Cheney and [Don] Rumsfeld, once seen as sensible conservatives, were radicalized by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and sent the United States blundering into ‘forever wars’ that discredited the Republican elite much as the Vietnam War had discredited the ‘best and brightest’ Democrats.” This comes from the man best known for writing an October 2001 cover story for the late great Weekly Standard called “The Case for American Empire,” in which he argued that “the September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition” and that “the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.” More specifically, he submitted that the solution was the “invasion and occupation” of Iraq. Once his wish was granted, Boot became one of the war’s most outspoken defenders, telling anyone who would listen that it was not only justified but necessary. It’s no crime for Boot to have changed his mind, but his (again, simplistic) explanation of how Republicans (not him, though) were “radicalized” by 9/11 is not just uncharitable but dishonest. So too is his dismissal of his previous policy preference as “forever wars,” a buzzword used only by the most unserious of isolationists.
Boot had his reasons for arguing that the United States should wage an ambitious war on terror in the aftermath of the attacks, and I’m not fully convinced he was wrong. It can certainly be defended. Indefensible, though, is his buzzword-quality smear of everyone else who backed it, which included George Shultz, by the way. His use of Shultz’s memory to execute the smear is indefensible, indeed downright ghastly. It’s not the first, and I’d venture to say won’t be the last, time Boot makes moral compromises to fill his quota.