By Rich Lowry
Let us pause and reflect. The left's favorite self-aggrandizing thug has shed this mortal coil. Hugo Chavez, R.I.P.
All the country's least-reflective and most-reflexive ideologues of the left immediately issued warm farewells -- Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and, of course, the nation's 39th president, Jimmy Carter.
Carter praised Chavez for his commitment "to bring profound changes to his country," which, by installing himself as the effective president for life, he certainly did. Carter noted his "formidable communications skills," a quality that is not unusual in successful populist demagogues. In the gentle tone of someone who regrets that his good friend sometimes cheats at bridge, Carter allowed that he did not agree "with all of the methods followed by his government."
New York Rep. Jose Serrano rushed to praise Chavez: "He understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life." As a technical matter, Serrano is right: Chavez understood democracy exceedingly well, if by that you mean he understood how to exploit its forms while hollowing out its institutions to entrench himself in power in perpetuity.
He displaced a corrupt, conscienceless oligarchy when he took power in 1999 with his own corrupt, conscienceless rule. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch detailed how "the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chavez government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents."
Fidel Castro was his mentor, and he propped up the Castro regime with Venezuela's ample oil. He praised every heinous dictator around the planet as a brother-in-arms. He was hell on the plutocrats, and also on the Jews. "Don't let yourselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews," he warned his countrymen, in a sentiment worthy of the 15th century.
All of this should make Chavez an unsympathetic figure for everyone in America. Not so, sadly. For some, all is forgiven if you hate the rich with a white-hot passion and talk the language of populist redistribution, while wrapping your program in a bow of rancid anti-Americanism. Then, every allowance will be made for your thuggery. Everyone will obsess about your colorful and charming personality. And praise you when you're gone.
Chavez's American admirers apparently consider his program as being SCHIP with teeth. They must envy that while we endlessly debate ending "tax breaks for oil companies," Chavez got to run a state-owned oil company and nationalize other industries besides.
They must rue that someone here in the U.S. who speaks the truth about the noxiousness of American power merely gets a tenure-track position, while down in Venezuela he gets to run a country by decree.
During Chavez's time in office -- blessed by high oil prices -- poverty fell in Venezuela. But it fell in other countries in the region as well, according to The Economist, thanks to a commodity boom. Chavez left his country crime-ridden, wracked by inflation and beset by a shortage of goods.
The night of his death, Rachel Maddow had Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson on her program to discuss him. She asked Robinson in a voice heavy with sarcasm whether Hugo Chavez was really "the monster" he was made out to be.
Robinson explained that Chavez bonded with the poor and had lots of popular support. Maddow gently prodded Robinson to address criticisms of Chavez for not advancing freedom.
Unable to muster any of the denunciatory venom he lavishes on Republicans once or twice a week, Robinson issued forth with a strangely tortured construction: "He was not what we would call a lover of democracy as we would like to see it practiced." Robinson noted that Chavez gerrymandered electoral districts, but, hey, "that happens elsewhere as well." All in all, he was "a man of contradictions." You know, like Disraeli or Gladstone.
Goodbye, Hugo Chavez. All your friends who got to admire your authoritarian savvy and gross economic mismanagement from a safe distance will miss you very much.