Paul Greenberg

It would take someone who cared more about principle than popularity to point out that, whatever Nuremberg was, it wasn’t an exercise in ideal justice. Someone like the late Robert A. Taft, who had a way of offending popular opinion for no better reason than adherence to principle.

In 1946, as he prepared to run for president yet again, Sen. Taft was invited to give a talk at little Kenyon College in Ohio. He used the occasion to say the obvious — that the court assembled at Nuremberg was anything but an exercise in universally accepted principles of law. “The trial of the vanquished by the victors,” he warned, “cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice.”

Robert A. Taft was promptly rewarded for his honesty by being branded a Nazi sympathizer by his critics — on both sides of the aisle. Yet his warning against staging a trial to make a political point still holds. Or it would if anyone remembered it.

Instead, Nuremberg is now cited as an example to emulate by a presidential candidate who, whatever his faults, has demonstrated an almost unfailing ability to please the crowd.

It may be justified to take vengeance for the unspeakable wrongs inflicted on the world’s innocents, but to do so under color of law isn’t.

Given my druthers, I’d rather see Osama bin Laden hanged from a sour apple tree than have him languish indefinitely, like his confederates at Guantanamo, under the aegis of the Supreme Court of the United States. Not that his summary execution should be confused with enlightened jurisprudence. Like any act of vengeance, it would be the rawest form of justice, but at least it wouldn’t be the exercise in hypocrisy that Nuremberg was.

However much various defendants at Nuremberg richly deserved hanging, or maybe drawing and quartering, to cite those trials as the embodiment of universal legal principles is … well, ahistorical. We all know Sen. Obama is a young man, but there are times when he sounds as if he’d been born yesterday.

At his best, which is when he is speaking, Barack Obama is an impressive figure. This isn’t some John Kerry or Hillary Clinton going down a list of talking points hoping that one will strike a chord. Sen. Obama usually responds directly to the question he’s asked rather than riding off in all directions. He pays his interlocutor the courtesy of careful attention and a respectful answer. In that regard, he reminds one of Bill Clinton when that former president still had his touch, and could establish a personal bond with a questioner.

But once Barack Obama is no longer trading in some staple of his party’s appeal — identity politics, say, or class warfare — and starts messing with history, he demonstrates only the most tenuous hold on his subject. And he winds up, again like Bill Clinton, sounding profoundly superficial.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.