- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

Bye, bye, Halloween. Hello, Thanksgiving. We move from tricky costumes for the youngsters to new and old ways of roasting the bird and coping once again with renewing ties with far-flung family members.

Fortunately, the world of magazines, despite the obligatory features on the month’s major event, has delivered a sprightly collection of lively — even downright provocative — articles.

November’s American Spectator, in spite of its slightly bizarre choice of a cover illustration featuring an article on Marthe Richard (a Frenchwoman who died 24 years ago at the venerable age of 93 and whose principal distinction is having closed down the brothels of France in the postwar years), delivers Norman Podhoretz on “A Masterpiece of American Oratory.”

Mr. Podhoretz, who has never shied from taking a bold stance where others may have flinched or failed, has set forth his defense — his total admiration — for President Bush’s second inaugural address. The title, in fact, says it all.

First, Mr. Podhoretz ticks off (with some polite dismay) those folks whom he may have thought would have savored the speech as much as he does: William F. Buckley, George Will, Patrick J. Buchanan, David Frum, Peter Robinson and Peggy Noonan. He goes on to note that he expects the speech to go down in history along with President Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a masterpiece of American oratory.

Mr. Podhoretz quotes from dismissive remarks made in Lincoln’s time by the New York Herald and Chicago Times and says that he expects today’s judgments on Mr. Bush’s speech will sound puzzling and even laughable in the future.

Mr. Podhoretz goes through other key presidential addresses as well — by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He goes on to quote the visiting president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili who told Mr. Bush, “Your freedom age does, indeed, work. You can see it in Georgia.”

For Mr. Podhoretz, this lends weight to “the universalist claim in the second inaugural that ‘we have lit … a fire in the minds of men,’ and that ‘one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.’”

Referring to the “incandescent words of George W. Bush,” Mr. Podhoretz states simply in conclusion that his second inaugural is “one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American President.” High praise indeed.

One does, however, wish that somewhere in this heartfelt encomium he might have found the space to mention the name or names of the people who crafted such eloquent prose. In a footnote, he mentions that Lincoln was the only president to have written his own second inaugural, “but we are long past the era when presidents wrote their own speeches.”

Even if the thrust and political points were of Mr. Bush’s choosing, the author of those eloquently expressed thoughts and concepts surely merits a mention, however brief.

That article could keep a Thanksgiving dinner going all the way from the main course to the pumpkin pie — if the assembled guests don’t get caught up on another major topic that also is attracting attention of late: the new atheists.

Perhaps that’s not completely surprising.

In its Oct. 22 edition, the New York Times Book Review featured an in-depth critique of “The God Delusion,” the new book by Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist and professor at Oxford University. Not coincidentally, it seems, a full-page advertisement for “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris, billed as a “courageous, nationwide bestselling book that arms rational Americans with powerful arguments against their opponents on the Christian right,” appears on the reverse page of the review of Mr. Dawkin’s book.

Mr. Dawkins is quoted as saying that being an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration but that belief in God is not only delusionary, but pernicious. One of his dust-jacket blurbs is from Philip Pullman, the popular British author of books nominally for children, whose “The Golden Compass,” part of his “Dark Materials,” has been adapted as a multimillion-dollar film, due out next year. Also a proud atheist, Mr. Pullman, in one of his books, describes God as a feeble old man blown away in a puff of wind.

• • •

Wired, that very cool monthly geared toward those who inhabit the world of cyberspace and technology, offers a 12-page cover story, “The New Atheism.” (A subhead on the cover reads: “No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the Crusade Against Religion.”)

The story, written by Gary Wolf, features comments from both Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Harris, along with those from another dedicated atheist, Tufts College professor Daniel Dennett. (All three men, by the way, are treated to very glam full-page color portraits that make them appear both handsome and interesting.)

Mr. Wolf sought out these fellows in their lairs in Oxford, California and Maine, spending time with each. His conclusion? Extremism in opposition to extremism is too much for him. “If we reject their polemics … this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith.”

This clearly is a topic and discussion that will continue for years to come.

• • •

Given the interest in theological topics, it seems fitting, somehow, to note the Smithsonian cover story on bonobo — the last of the great apes to be discovered and man’s closest relative, sharing almost 99 percent of our genes.

On a similar note, November’s National Geographic features an imaged reconstruction of the Dikika baby, perhaps our earliest ancestor to date. Her bones, believed to be 3.3 million years old, were unearthed recently in Ethiopia.

Enjoy your turkey.

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