Friday, November 17, 2017

Sex and politics

Lying in bed last night, I began running through the list of 20th and 21st century Presidents and comparing their sexual behavior.  Here, divided by party, are the results of my survey.

                President                                             Known misbehavior
           Teddy Roosevelt                                             None
           William Howard Taft                                     None
           Warren Harding                                             Extramarital affairs, love child
           Calvin Coolidge                                            None
           Herbert Hoover                                             None
           Dwight Eisenhower                                      Wartime affair
           Richard Nixon                                              None
           Gerald R. Ford                                              None
           Ronald Reagan                                             Nothing alleged after 2nd marriage
           George H. W. Bush                                      Extramarital affair alleged
          George W. Bush                                            None
          Donald Trump                                              Two divorces, extramarital affairs, groping

          Woodrow Wilson                                         Extramarital affair during first marriage
          Franklin Roosevelt                                      Extramarital affairs
          Harry Truman                                              None
         John F. Kennedy                                           Extramarital affairs
         Lyndon Johnson                                            Extramarital affairs
         Jimmy Carter                                                None
         Bill Clinton                                                  Extramarital affairs, unwanted physical advances
         Barack Obama                                             None
   
Summarizing, we find that out of 12 Republican Presidents, seven, as far as we know, would not have been vulnerable to accusations of scandal.  Of the other five, four of them--Harding, Eisenhower, Bush I and Trump--were elected, two of them by landslides, despite widespread rumors (or, in Trump's case, multiple accusations) of misbehavior.  Eisenhower's case is more interesting than I realized.  Kay Summersby, his wartime driver, had actually written a book in the 1940s detailing their association, albeit without any reference to sex, and reviewers did not shrink from using the word "intimate" to describe it.  Yet this had no impact on his candidacy.

Of the 8 Democrats, only three led blameless personal lives in this respect.  Overall, we see 20 Presidents, exactly half of whom did not, apparently, lead strictly monogamous lives after marriage.That, interestingly enough, exactly matches the figure for male marital infidelity published by Alfred Kinsey, based on a very respected survey, in the middle of the last century.

Looking at these lists, I personally can't see any correlation between personal behavior on the one hand and performance in office on the other.  Franklin Roosevelt was a far greater President than Herbert Hoover; Barack Obama was certainly superior to Warren Harding; etc.  Bill Clinton occupies an interesting historical niche within this list: he was the last Presidential philanderer, it seems, who (barely) got away it.   There is general agreement, in the wake of the controversies over non-politicians Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and political figures Ray Moore and Al Franken, that Clinton would never have survived in office today.  Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump was elected President after he bragged about serially abusing woman on tape, suggesting--as does the attitudes of Alabama Republicans--that Republicans may take such behavior less seriously than Democrats.

Why was it, then, that so many Presidents were elected and remained in office despite personal sexual misbehavior?  In part, of course, this was the result of a kind of gentleman's agreement that such matters were private and not a fit topic for discussion in major media.  Today many people would regard that as an all-male conspiracy designed to protect men, while others might still see it as a sensible custom that allowed our government to function, often very effectively.  In any case, those days appear to be gone.

It is heartening, in a way, that none of the contemporary controversies involves a consensual affair between adults.  I still believe that thsoe episodes are no one else's business, but we are dealing today with something else altogether, allegations of actual physical abuse or attempts to exploit power to secure sexual favors.  Few people, if any, will defend behavior like that.  Yet we don't have a clear standard for what level of bad behavior constitutes disqualification from public office.  At the moment, Al Franken's career is threatened by one clear instance of an unwanted advance and groping. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times has already called for his resignation and asked the Governor of Minnesota to appoint a woman to succeed him, not because she thinks he deserves to go--she doesn't--but because only this will sustain the current momentum to do something about sexual harassment.  With that I cannot agree, but many will.  (If more women come forward to accuse Franken, the situation, of course, will change very rapidly.  In addition, if Ray Moore wins his election in Alabama, Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly push to have both of them expelled from the Senate.)

I think, as I tried to indicate last week, that we are having trouble keeping various issues in perspective; but that is largely the fault of the politicians themselves. Everyone (including myself) agrees that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that sanctions against it have heretofore been inadequate.  And many of us have almost no respect for any sitting politician, and therefore see no reason not to sacrifice any of them to our current crusade or even to allow them ordinary privacy in their personal life.  There is, however, one enormous exception.  Donald Trump's supporters did not care about the revelations about his behavior during the 2016 campaign, and apparently they still don't.  It will, I think, inevitably occur to many politicians and commentators that if in fact Franken deserves to be driven out of the Senate, Trump should not remain in the White House.  Yet remain he probably will, and this will raise new questions about the attempt to discipline powerful and abusive men, what impact it will have, and whom it will benefit.                         

Friday, November 10, 2017

News content, 1937 and 2017

Today, the world is sinking into crisis--really, into a whole series of crises--just as it was 80 years ago.  In Europe Britain is leaving the European Union and Spain is threatened by civil war.  The Middle East is riven by a new Thirty Years' War between Shi'ite and Sunni powers, which has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to the brink of war over Yemen and destroyed the nations of Iraq and Syria.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just begun a massive purge of the royal family, the government, and Saudi society as a whole.  Turkey, for more than 80 years a westernized democracy, has become a dictatorship and the government has locked up tens of thousands of citizens. The Philippine government is murdering thousands of citizens as part of a drug war.  Tens of thousands refugees have fled Burma for Bangladesh.  War threatens on the Korean peninsula.  The Chinese government wants recognition as one of the world's great powers, a status that the United States sill disputes.  War over nuclear weapons threatens the Korean peninsula.   Separatist movements threaten several major African states.  Socialist Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, and dictatorship threatens there.  And in the United States, the ruling Republican party, dominated by megarich energy producers, is trying to undo the political achievements of the last century to remove obstacles to the accumulation of wealth.

The situation was equally serious, if not more so, exactly 80 years ago. Civil war was raging in Spain, where General Franco was using the Spanish colonial army to try to subdue the elected government and the workers, while Italy, Germany and the USSR intervened on behalf of their preferred sides.  The brutal, bloody Sino-Japanese War was sweeping down the Chinese coast and into the interior.  The recovery of 1933-36 had been interrupted by a new, severe worldwide recession.  Hitler had consolidated power in Germany, although his great political offensive of 1938 lay a few months away.  The USSR was in the midst of Stalin's great purge.

To show how our world differs from theirs, I am going to compare the front pages of the New York Times from today and from November 10, 1937, exactly 80 years ago.  What will readers find there today, and what did they learn then?

Reading from the left hand side of the front page of the 1937 paper, we find three stories dealing with the war in China.  One details the day's fighting, the second reports a speech by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressing the hope that the UK and the US might reach a "closer understanding" on the crisis in the Far East, and a third reports that the Japanese government wants the German government (which had ties to both sides) to mediate the crisis.  Next comes an obituary for the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, J. Ramsay MacDonald, who had died at sea.  (I do not think any retired British PM's death would rate a headline above the fold today.)  Then comes a local story, about a dispute over the presence of police officers at the count of ballots in the recent New York city elections.  And on the far right of the top of p. 1 are two stories on federal economic policy.  In one, which is quite technical, President Roosevelt asks the nation's utility companies to change the way they value their assets, which will in turn lower their rates, and the very last story,. in column 8, reports various Administration ideas to use federal funds to ease credit, stimulate enterprise, and get the nation out of the recession without returning to the deficit spending of FDR's first term.  

Moving down the page, we learn that the government of Quebec has invoked a new law to ban a Communist newspaper.  In New Jersey, the CIO--the more left wing of the nation's two national labor blocs--announces a plan to form a new party to challenge the state's Democratic machine.  Joseph P. Kennedy, the Chairman of FDR's maritime commission, proposes an increase in subsidies for the construction of merchant ships.  And at the bottom of the page, Mayor LaGuardia, fresh from re-election, announces that he will demand the end of a Transit Board. That makes a total of eleven front page stories, divided among foreign, national and local news.

Today's front page, by contrast, has only six columns instead of eight (a change that dates, I believe, to the 1970s), and only six stories instead of eleven.  Only one of them is foreign, dealing with President Trump's surprisingly friendly speech in Beijing, in which he blamed his predecessors, not the Chinese, for our trade imbalance, and sought cooperation dealing with North Korea.  Two other stories deal with the Republican tax cut proposals, the first detailing the Senate plan and how it differs from the House version, and the second arguing (under the heading "News Analysis") that the middle class is unlikely to reap much of a benefit from the plan.  The last three stories are the most characteristic of our time.  In column 1, we read of a debate in Texas over whether video of the church shooting in Sutherland, Texas, should be released to the public.  Next, five women accuse the comedian Louis C. K. of exposing himself to them.  And last but not least, the Times tries to catch up with its rival the Washington Post, reporting that Judge Roy Moore, who is on the verge of election to the U.S. Senate, dated, or tried to date, four teenage girls nearly 40 years ago, and did some largely (but not completely) unclothed petting with one of them, then aged 14.  The other three women  interviewed by the Post were between 16 and 18, admit that they were not bothered by Moore's attentions at the time (when he was in his early 30s), and do not allege any sexual relations with him, consensual or otherwise.

How has this happened, and what does it mean?

Clearly, both the Times and its readers--as well as dozens of other newspapers around the country--took their obligation to stay informed about world, national and local affairs much more seriously in 1937 than they do today.  In addition, as I discovered while writing No End Save Victory, the Roosevelt Administration had focused the nation on its attempts to create more employment, regulate economic enterprise, promote the rights of labor, and make better use of our national resources, whether individual Americans or newspapers agreed with those efforts or not.  Since the Progressive Era, government at all levels had enjoyed a very creative period in which the nation was taking a great interest.  Today, our ruling party is trying to finish undoing nearly everything they did--a process that began in the 1980s, if not earlier, and has continued apace under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  On the foreign front, this was (although no one knew this for sure in 1937) late in the era of two world wars, and Americans were accustomed to the idea that events in faraway plans could affect them as well.  Just two months earlier, FDR had shocked the nation by declaring that the "contagion" of war would reach the United States if it could not be halted.  Americans still took world events very seriously all the way through the Cold War, but their interest has ebbed since then.

And what about the three stories with no counterpart in 1937?

Semi-automatic weapons were not readily available to citizens in the 1930s, and while mass shootings took place, they took the lives of only a few people at a time, not a few dozen, as they do from time to time today.  No national, politically powerful organization frightened our politicians away from imposing restrictions on gun ownership.  More importantly, perhaps, newspapers regarded themselves as the primary source of the news, of telling the public what had happened, instead of commentators on videos generated by the citizenry with their smart phones.  As the news has become more visual, beginning with the advent of television, it has become more emotional and much less verbal.  The Times story on the fate of the Sutherland videos illustrates these trends.

And meanwhile, the educated elite of the United States has become extremely concerned--or obsessed--with sexual misbehavior by well-off and powerful men.  We have had so many court cases and news stories about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many more, that any new story--for instance, about Louis C. K.--is instantly newsworthy.  So is any story, even a 35-year old one, involving a political figure's sexual behavior.  The kind of behavior detailed in those stories today undoubtedly was taking place in 1937 and possibly on a larger scale than it is today, but it didn't make the news.  Most would say that was because of deference towards white males.  I think that is partly true, but I think it also reflected a different sense of what serious newspapers were for.

I am depressed that forty years after the first breakthroughs by the modern woman's movement, problems in the workplace do not seem to have gotten a great deal better.  I reject most of the easy answers as to why this is so but I have no better ones to offer.  My question for my readers today is different.  Could the citizenry and the leadership of the 1930s have coped with the enormous domestic and foreign problems they faced if all their newspapers had been been just as full of such stories as ours are now?  And will we be able to give sufficient attention to the parallel problems that we face if we spend so much time illuminating the misbehavior of the rich and powerful--and continually expanding the definition of newsworthy misbehavior, as the Washington Post story about Moore certainly did?

We shall  not be returning to the political and news culture of the 1930s any time soon.  The question is whether we want to continue down the path we have been on for the last few decades, or to shift our focus back a bit towards the actual business of politics and government.  To the extent that the public is distracted by personal misbehavior, I expect that the rich and powerful will continue to thrive.  The Cosbys and Weinsteins among them may be disgraced, but in a sense, they will be battlefield casualties in our new class war, one which the 1% will easily be able to absorb.  We clearly need a new set of rules and procedures for relations between the sexes, especially in the workplace, and I hope they can evolve relatively quickly so that our attention can shift once again to other matters of concern to every citizen.















Sunday, October 29, 2017

Drew Pearson, the sequel

In 2006, I did a long piece here about one of my favorite books, the diaries of newspaper columnist Drew Pearson from 1949 through 1959.  Pearson was probably the single most famous and influential journalist of the middle third of the twentieth century.  He and his one time partner, Robert Allen, created a sensation in 1932 with their anonymous book, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which combined a scathing portrayal of the federal government in general and the Hoover administration in particular with a great deal of high-level Washington gossip. (Pearson at the time was related by marriage to the Patterson family, which owned the Washington Post.)  He lost his job after his authorship was revealed, but The Washington Merry-Go-Round became a seven-day-a-week column that was carried by more than 600 newspapers around the country as late as the 1960s.  He also became a network radio broadcaster and did some television broadcasting as well.  The stories he broke included General Patton's slapping of an enlisted man in a hospital in Sicily during the Second World War, the payroll padding and kickbacks by the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities committee, J. Parnell Thomas, which landed Thomas in jail, and the payments accepted from industrialist Bernard Goldfine by Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams--and dozens more.  Jack Anderson began his career with Pearson and eventually became his collaborator, and took over the column after Pearson's death in 1969. 

Pearson had begun keeping his diary in 1949 and left instructions in his will for his stepson Tyler Abell to publish them, and to edit them "not from the viewpoint of what willhurt people, but wha tmight hurt the public good."  In the preface to the first volume, which appeared in 1974, Abell indicated that he had had to make very large cuts in the enormous diary.  He anticipated two more volumes at that time, which extrapolating from the length of volume 1 would have amounted to more that 1600 pages.  That, however, he wrote, would be only about 1/3 of the total.

Somehow I missed the publication of the diary in 1974, but I discovered it in the 1980s and have eagerly looked forward to more of it ever since. By the 1990s Tyler Abell had given most (but not all) of the original to the LBJ Library in Austin, but under terms that did not allow researchers to view it.  Some key passages from the 1960s were released in the 1990s in response to the JFK Assassination Records Act, because they bore upon the assassination of JFK and its aftermath.  At some point in the 1990s I wrote Abell a letter protesting that his father-in-law would be most unhappy to know that most of his diary was still closed, but I received no reply.  Just last month I was in Austin giving a talk at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and I contacted the library again to see about access. The original remains closed, but when I did a google search I found, to my amazement, that the University of Nebraska Press had published a second volume on 1959-69 just two years ago.  It received only one visible review, in The New Yorker, which I had missed. Within a week, I had a copy, and I have now finished it.

I do wish that I could have made contact with Abell and edited the book myself.  In place of the two volumes of about 500 pages each that Abell had foreseen in the early 1970s, we now have one of 700 pages of diary text.  The published volume is a bit unbalanced: its first five years (1960-4) take up just 278 pages and the next four take up more than 400.  (The diary doesn't get very far into 1969 because of Pearson's failing health.)  Oddly, some of the material that was released by the LBJ Library in the 1990s is not included, but at least one very important entry bearing on the JFK assassination from 1967 is in the published version even though it was not released then.  The book is edited by Peter Hannaford, a long-time Washington consultant and friend of Abell's, and I can't say that he did a particularly good job.  He did not, unlike Abell, make much of an effort to identify the players or to to provide necessary background in the midst of the text so as to enable readers to understand long-forgotten parts of the story.  Many names are misspelled and some people are misidentified. Carmine Bellino, to cite one example, was an investigator who had worked for Robert Kennedy, not a Congressman as alleged here.  There is relatively little material on the election campaigns of 1960 and 1964, compared to what Abell had published in 1952 and 1956 and what we find here on 1968.  Pearson was not merely a columnist--he was a Washington player who promoted his favorite candidates and causes.  He supported Lyndon Johnson over JFK in 1960 but that story is largely untold here.  It is tragic that the full ms. remains unavailable to researchers at the LBJ Library.  The editor unfortunately also failed to include any reaction at all to the Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, that provided new protection for journalists tried with libel suits.  Pearson was the king libel law, having faced literally dozens of suits, trying many, and losing only one.  There is indeed a whole book devoted to the suits with which he and Jack Anderson had to deal.

I did not think that this volume told as coherent a story of the period it dealt with as its predecessor until 1965 or so, but it was filled with fascinating detail nonetheless.  A good deal of it is salacious. Pearson loved gossip, and he identifies previously unknown girl friends of JFK, LBJ, Robert Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater, among others.  He also goes in some detail into the emotional collapse of Phil Graham, the husband of Katherine Graham and editor of the Washington Post, which led to Graham's suicide in the summer of 1963.  But the bulk of the material reflects Pearson's policy interests and political stance.   He was a New Deal liberal domestically who fought corruption and the influence of money on politics, and he continually sought better relations with the Soviet Union and a durable peace.  As a result, he visited the USSR and had long interviews with Nikita Khrushchev more than once, and they are detailed here. 

Pearson had strong personal likes and dislikes, but they did not prevent him from appreciating what political figures actually said and did.  He was initially very cool to John F. Kennedy because he had disliked his father and he referred repeatedly to Kennedy's compulsive womanizing, which he expected sooner or later to end in scandal.  He had as I mentioned tried to stop Kennedy's nomination in Los Angeles in 1960 but he immediate praised him for a "great acceptance speech" and warmed to him during the campaign.  Late in that campaign, he broke another of his biggest stories: that airline magnate Howard Hughes had lent Richard Nixon's brother Donald $206,000.  That was one of many of his columns that the Washington Post and other papers refused to print.  The diary notes that the Kennedy campaign, confident of victory in the last two weeks of the campaign, decided not to do antying with it either, and they may have paid the price when Nixon carried California and turned the election into a squeaker.  Pearson was also very unhappy during 1961 when Kennedy turned to hard liner Dean Acheson for advice on the Berlin crisis and started a military build-up, but he warmed to Kennedy's efforts to bring about detente with the USSR in the last year of his life.  He never, however, warmed to Robert Kennedy, whom he remembered from his days as minority counsel on the Senate committee chaired by Joe McCarthy, a critical Pearson antagonist, and whom he regarded as cold and a ruthless campaigner. 

Pearson's relationship with Lyndon Johnson provides much of the drama of the last 2/3 of the book.  In the 1950s Pearson had often been critical of Johnson as a conduit for the money and influence of Texas oil barons, but in the 1960s they developed a family connection.  Tyler Abell's wife Bess became Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary, and after Johnson became President he appointed Tyler Abell assistant postmaster general. Pearson had interviewed FDR from time to time, had been estranged from Harry Truman for most of his turbulent  presidency, and had never been close to Eisenhower or Kennedy.  Johnson was the first President to whom he had frequent access.

Pearson's personal ties to Johnson were not enough to turn him into a loyal supporter, particularly when it came to the Vietnam War, which the columnist opposed from the beginning.  Johnson repeatedly invited him to the White House for a chat in an effort to win him over.  The diaries provide a revealing glimpse of Johnson's one-on-one technique: he delivered nonstop emotional harangues, which gave his interlocutor almost no opportunity to dissent. He could not win Pearson over on Vietnam but he successfully fooled him about certain aspects of his position.  Neither Pearson nor anyone else in Washington outside the Administration understood that Johnson had approved full-scale war in Southeast Asia in early December 1964 and given the word for both the bombing and the ground war in March 1965, as I showed in American Tragedy.  Until 1966 he bought Johnson's line that he was hoping for peace talks at any moment while doing the minimum necessary militarily.  After that, the book painfully documents the way in which the war destroyed the Democratic coalition that had been put together by FDR, Truman, JFK and Johnson himself, the coalition that reached the height of its power after the 1964 elections but disintegrated thanks to the Vietnam War, leaving Hubert Humphrey with 43% of the vote in 1968 compared to Johnson's 60% in 1964.  He also has insightful things to say about changes within the civil rights movement, and the diary includes some extraordinary conversations with the comedian and activist Dick Gregory, whom Pearson had come to know well.

The published volume treats the 1968 election campaign in great detail.  Pearson was one of the few to speculate in 1967 that LBJ might not run again.  "Maybe he isn't going to run again," Leonard Marks, the head of the US Information Agency and a Johnson confidante, said to Pearson on November 10, 1967. "This may be true," Pearson wrote in his diary. "He has acted and talked like a candidate, but he coudl do what Harry Truman did in spring 1952, after Kefauver beat him in the New Hampshire primary and was about to beat him in the Wisconsin primary. Harry just bowed out."  That, of course, was exactly what Johnson did do after Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a peace candidate, nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire and was clearly destined to win in Wisconsin.  Pearson liked McCarthy and was not impressed by Robert Kennedy's decision to jump into the race after McCarthy had proven LBJ to be vulnerable, after previously saying that he would not run.  Indeed, Pearson hurt RFK during the primary season by publishing the story of how he, not J. Edgar Hoover, had insisted on wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, after Courtney Evans of the FBI had advised against it.  (The FBI showed Pearson the memo that proved this, which was published about 15 years later by David Garrow.)  According to the editor, Pearson's immediate reaction to RFK's assassination is missing from the diary; I hope eventually to be able to verify whether it is lost forever.  Pearson remained sympathetic to McCarthy but fell behind Humbert Humphrey after the Democratic convention, while trying, together with Averell Harriman and George Ball, to move Humphrey away from the Administration position on Vietnam. Humphrey moved, but only slightly. 

Thanks to both LBJ and Humphrey, Pearson was denied a scoop of potential historical impact.  Right up until election day, Pearson found it hard to believe that Richard Nixon could become President.  He had always been, in his estimation, a crook, and he expected--rightly as it turned out--that he would remain so.  He wrote some more highly critical columns during the campaign which the Washington Post and other papers refused to publish.  Neither Johnson nor Humphrey, however, told him about Nixon's attempts to stall the peace talks in Paris by telling the Saigon government to boycott them.  They had decided that the good of the country required that these contacts be kept secret. Pearson would surely have published them and they could have swung a very close election.  It was clear to Pearson--as it is to me now, having read some of Johnson's published conversations from that fall--that Johnson was so angry at Humphrey for staking out his own position that he preferred Nixon to win.

Jack Anderson's name comes up quite a few times but the editor did not give us a real sense of his relationship with Pearson.  He served as an alibi for stories powerful people did not like--Pearson could always say, usually truthfully that Jack had written them.  (He was writing more and more of the columns in the 1960s because Pearson spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit to make up for lost income.)  It turns out that Anderson unilaterally decided to publish the March 1967 column that broke, for the first time, the story of the CIA's assassination plots against Castro and alleged a possible connection between them and the assassination of JFK.  Pearson had gotten the story from Edward Morgan, a Washington attorney who represented Johnny Roselli and Robert Maheu, both of whom were involved in those plots.  Hannaford bizarrely left out the diary entry in which Pearson gave the story to President Johnson.  Pearson did not know that Johnson immediately called CIA director Richard Helms to demand an explanation.  The document generated by the CIA's inspector general's office in response is the reason we know about those plots at all.

After Pearson's death in September 1969, Anderson carried on his tradition.  As Seymour Hersh once pointed out, Anderson broke some very important stories during the Nixon Administration which most major news outlets refused to pick up.  Pearson would have thrived in the days of the internet--if he could have found a way to monetize his independent reporting.  But reading the second volume of his diaries is painfully said not because of what has happened to journalism, but because of what has happened to politics.  It is a story of a different age, when political leaders worked hard to correct racial injustice, spread prosperity, and maintain the rights of labor.  It was a most hopeful moment in American history, one beginning to be swept away by the tragic, catastrophic mistake of the Vietnam War


Friday, October 20, 2017

Living in a dangerous world

At least since the time of the French and American Revolutions, international politics have involved conflicts among different domestic political systems.  In the periodic crises in the international system since the 1790s, the warring parties have fought in part to establish their own form of government.  The Napoleonic Wars ended with the old aristocracy firmly entrenched in Great Britain and bureaucratic monarchies firmly in control in nearly all of Europe.  In the 1860s the victory of the democratic North over the aristocratic South in the American civil war helped lead to the institution of some form of democracy in Britain France, and Germany.  William II of Germany and Woodrow Wilson both saw the First World war as a context between absolute monarchy and democracy.  In the Second World War, the communist USSR and the democracies in Britain and France fought National Socialism in Europe and the Japanese military regime in Asia.  In each case, the resolution of the crisis left some forms of government more popular than others, helping to determine the course of politics for decades to come.

We are now sliding into the next great international crisis.  I have never thought that it was going to lead to all-out world war on the scale of twentieth century conflicts, but it does revolve, in part, around an ideological struggle.  Among the three most important world powers, the United States still stands for democracy, in theory at  least, and for an open global political and economic order.  Both Putin's Russia and Zhi's China stand for something very different: an authoritarian model of government that they specifically distinguish from the weak, divided, socially permissive democracies of the decadent west.  Both also have rhetorically challenged the US claim to lead the world and determine the rights and wrongs of international disputes.  And both have festering territorial demands.  Putin clearly wants to restore more of the old USSR, and looks longingly at the Baltic states.  China insists that Taiwan remains a part of it and has extensive claims on the seas and islands surrounding them.

Alarmingly, the governments of both Russia and China seem far more firmly established, at this moment, than our own.  Zhi is strengthening the control of the Communist Party and the state over public opinon and the economy, reversing the trend of the last couple of decades.  Putin has a stable authoritarian regime without serious opposition that has weathered the impact of economic sanctions.  The United States government is unorganized, almost leaderless, and floundering on mnay fronts.  Most key State Department positions have not even been filled.  Low-level functionaries in the White House such as Steven Miller and Jared Kushner are evidently exerting important influence on foreign policy.  The kind of policy process that has allowed our government to survey the world scene and identify the most important threats seems not to exist any more.

Meanwhile, the President has brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, and is reversing the Obama Administration's move towards peaceful co-existence with Iran.  What disturbs me more than anything is how easy it would be to set off a replay of the events that led to US involvement in the Second World War.  In an increasingly anarchic world, war anywhere can easily lead to war almost anywhere else.

Thus, in 1939, Japan was already in the third year of its attempt to subjugate mainland China, and the Japanese were claiming a special leadership role in Asia, an idea that the United States rejected in favor of the maintenance of an "open door."  In September of that year, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and the British and French declared war on Germany. Then, the next spring, Hitler successively invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, forcing France to conclude an armistice, and leaving Britain perilously exposed to a possible German invasion.  Those events had enormous repercussions in the Far East,.  The French, who ruled Indochina, and the Dutch, the rulers of what is now Indonesia, would clearly not be able to defend those territories against a Japanese attack.  The British would be hard put to defend Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and perhaps even India.  The Japanese moved into northern Indochina almost at once and laid plans to go further.  Meanwhile, the US government also prepared to meet German or Italian moves into French, Dutch and British possessions in the western hemisphere.  The lend-lease agreement of September 1940, in which FDR gave Churchill 50 destroyers in exchange for US bases in an Atlantic arc of British possessions from Newfoundland to Trinidad, moved the US defense line hundreds of miles to the east.  A year later, in the second half of 1941, with the US effectively at war against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the Japanese decided to attack British, Dutch, French and American possessions in the Far East, beginning on Decmeber 7, 1941.

The possibility that some one in Washington, it seems to me, needs to think about,. is that war--perhaps in North Korea--could easily tempt Putin to move into the Baltic states, claiming a need to protect their ethnic Russian inhabitants, or China to move further away from its coastline.  It would be extremely difficult, I think, for the US to react effectively to such moves while fighting a war against North Korea (or, for that matter, while fighting one against Iran.)  Putin has pointed out many times that successive US Administrations have acted unilaterally to alter borders (in Yugoslavia in 1999) or to overthrow governments (in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011) without getting the permission of the world community.  He did the same thing in Crimea in 2013 and has weathered the subsequent sanctions.  He could certainly do it again.

Traditionally the world's leading power has a strong interest in maintaining peace.  That was what Bismarck understood in Europe after 1871, and what American leaders including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon understood in their time.  Peace does not seem to be one of Donald Trump's priorities. He is more interested in intimidating or defeating enemies and proving that we can "win" again.  Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush managed to achieve similar goals in Grenada and Panama, but those nations were close to the US and did not have nuclear arms.  War against North Korea and Iran could very easily set off a new era of worldwide conflict.  No one would come out of it better off than when they began.


Friday, October 13, 2017

LeCarré Looks Back

John LeCarré has been a major figure in my literary landscape since 1964, when I read his sensational best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was in fact his third book, but his first big success, and it established him as a major Cold War novelist.  I discovered later that Spy (as I shall call it) had used an interesting literary device.  It was in fact a kind of sequel to an earlier, less successful novel, Call For the Dead, which had introduced the character of British spy George Smiley, and the German Hans-Dieter Mundt, who had worked for a while in Britain, committed several murders, and returned to Germany to become (by the time of Spy) the head of East German intelligence.  It turned out theta LeCarré, real name David Cornwall, had been a British spy himself, but he left the Secret Service in the 1960s.   After writing three stand-alone books in the next ten years, LeCarré revived Smiley (who had been a minor character in Spy) in his 1974 masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with the hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.  Tinker, Tailor spawned two sequels completing the story of Smiley's duel with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.  During the 1980s he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, about Israelis and Palestinians; A Perfect Spy, in which he re-created his father, a con man, as the father of another treacherous British spy; and The Russia House, based on a true case of corrupted intelligence during the Reagan years--just as Tinker Tailor  was based on the case of the real defector Kim Philby.  Then the Cold War came to an end, and LeCarré went in another direction.

I do not mean to put off my faithful readers for whom all this may be new, but if you have never read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I must urge you to stop reading now, go to your local library (or to abebooks.com), and get it.  It is one of the most brilliant and provocative thrillers ever written, complete with one of the most shocking denouements, and I cannot do what I want to do today without giving away the key to the plot.  If cold war thrillers will never be your style, I suppose you may as well go ahead; but I feel both sad and deeply envious for anyone who still has this book ahead of him or her. I feel the same way about Tinker, Tailor, although it is a somewhat longer and more difficult read.  The reason for all this is that LeCarré has now published a new sequel to Spy, A Legacy of Spies, which I want to discuss--more as a literary critic than an historian, although this post will have historical points.  And I can't do it justice without giving away a great deal about Spy.

The title character in Spy was Alec Leamas, a hard-drinking British agent, who at the beginning of the book watches his last agent inside East Germany shot as he tries to cross the relatively new Berlin Wall into West Berlin.  The killing is the handiwork of Hans Dieter Mundt, who years earlier, serving his country in London, had murdered an agent and her husband--and nearly murdered George Smiley--but somehow managed to escape before being apprehended.  Leamas now returns to London, and the mysterious Control--the head of the Service until his death years later, just before the main action of Tinker, Tailor begins--suggests to him that they "take another crack at Mundt."  Leamas agrees.  He leaves the Service, and finds work in a small public library.  There he meets Lis Gold, a pretty young woman who happens to be a Communist, and they become lovers.  He drinks heavily, behaves erratically, and then, without warning, beats up his grocer, and serves some months in prison.  When he gets out he keeps drinking, and then is approached, indirectly, by East German intelligence, who want him to defect.  Eventually, he does.

Brought to East Germany, Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's deputy and rifle, Fiedler, whose Jewish parents had returned to East Germany after 1945 because they were Communists.  He is Mundt's rival in part because Mundt is an ex-Nazi who has not changed his views about Jews.  Fiedler wanted to talk to Leamas because he suspected Mundt of having become a British agent after being arrested for the murders he had committed in London.  Leamas, it becomes clear, has prepared various stories that will convince Fiedler that he is right. Leamas thinks he is arranging for Mundt's removal, and probablyi his execution, as a British spy.  He establishes a kind of personal bond with Fiedler, who is portrayed as a man of good will and genuine feeling.

Eventually Mundt is indeed arrested and put on trial, with Fiedler in the role of prosecutor.  Leamas continues to insist--as he believes--that Mundt was never a British agent, but the evidence has mounted that he was.  Then, in the midst of the trial, who should appear, to Leamas' astonishment, to Lis Gold, who has been brought to East Germany as part of a Communist exchange program.  On the stand, she is forced to reveal that she has been visited by George Smiley and another British official since Leamas's department and that she suddenly received a paid-for lease for her flat.  Leamas's cover is exploded, Mundt is saved, and Fiedler is obviously headed for execution.  Then, Leamas realizes that his mission, all along, has been the reverse of what he thought: he has been sent to save Mundt from Fiedler, not to get revenge on Mundt. Mundt is, indeed, a British spy.

And for this reason, Mundt puts Leamas and Liz in a car to drive to East Berlin, where they will cross over the wall.  On the way, in a brilliant scene, Leamas tries desperately to convince Liz, and himself, that all this really is necessary because of Mundt's value to British intelligence.  But she is not convinced, and in his heart, Leamas isn't either.  She also cannot understand why Mundt would let her return to Britain.  Her intuition is apt.  As they climb up the wall, she is shot by one of the sentries.  Leamas pauses literally at the top of the wall, with Smiley screaming at him to jump from the other side. Instead, he climbs back down next to Liz, and is shot and killed himself.

The novel shows how two people are caught in the great Cold War struggle and destroyed.  But there is another level to it, and nearly all LeCarré's spy writing, which did not occur to me until much later.  Never in LeCarré's books do the intrigues of the spies, on both sides, mean anything to anyone but each other.  Nearly all the information they seek and the operations they run relate to their own loyalties and disloyalties.  They live and die playing a deadly game of interest to no one but themselves.

A Legacy of Spies (hereafter Legacy, picks up the story of Spy  at some unspecified moment in the relatively recent past.  Its exact date is never given away, but based on the ages of some of the characters I would put it early in the 21st century, that is, at least 10 years ago.  Its protagonist is another old friend, Peter Guillam, who had a brief role in Spy and a much larger one in Tinker, Tailor, as a protege of Smiley's.  Guillam, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, is pretty clearly LeCarré himself.  They are about the same age and share (from what I have been told) a great interest in the opposite sex.  As the book opens Guillam is living in retirement in France, but the Service contacts him to help deal with a lawsuit.  The suit has been filed by two new characters, the illegitimate son and daughter, respectively, of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold--two characters we never learned about in Spy. They want damages for their parents' deaths, and in the entirely new climate of post Cold War Britain, they may get them.  Guillam realizes that the government has settled on him as a logical candidate to take the rap. 

To write Legacy, LeCarré uses the same technique that he used to write Spy a year or two after Call for the Dead: creating new characters and plot lines out of gaps left in an earlier work.  We learn a whole new story of how Mundt was captured and recruited as a British agent.  We learn much  more about Leamas's network of agents in East Berlin.  We learn a lot more about Liz Gold, whom Guillam, it turns out, had briefly courted as well.  And that involves some fascinating scenes. No one is more aware than LeCarré of the huge differences between the world of the 1960s and our own--yet when he dexcribes Liz's brief romance with Guillam, she becomes very much a 21st-century young woman, not the reserved, proper girl we met in Spy.  Leamas, seen in flashbacks, is far more emotional and loquacious than the stolid cold warrior  of Spy.  Of course, younger readers would probably have trouble accepting their old portraits--but they were true to life all the same.

Legacy ends suddenly and equivocally, without telling us what happened to the lawsuit.  LeCarré is now 86 and he indicated in a New York Times interview that this book might be his last, but a sequel to this one could easily be in the cards.  It would allow him to fill out another new plot line he introduced: that Control and Smiley decided to recruit Mundt to in the hope that he would rise high enough in the esteem of Soviet intelligence to be able to tell them the identity of the mole they suspect is hiding in their own service.  There was never a hint of such a mole in Spy, but that has not stopped LeCarré from adding this new dimension. We shall see if that part of the story also gets fleshed out.

Meanwhile, the books LeCarré has written since the end of the Cold War do drive home the enormous differences between its world and our own. In those days the state reigned supreme in East and West, exerting extraordinary claims on soldiers, spies and citizens alike in the pursuit of something bigger.  The books were, among other things, a commentary on the excesses of civic virtue. By contrast, civic virtue is nowhere to be found in books like The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Delicate Truth.  Now Russian oligarchs, greedy corporations and and privatized intelligence groups seem to rule the world, and they grind honest individuals to powder just as the Cold War did Leamas and Liz.  In just a few decades we have gone from a world ruled by ideology to one ruled by the self-interest of the powerful.  LeCarré has documented that very well, and that is probably his greatest achievement.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

A radio appearance

Ten days or so ago I participated in a radio panel discussion in Austin, Texas, talking about many of the issues I talk about here.  You can listen to it here--it is currently the top of the list--dated October 6, 2017. Enjoy!
Don't miss the new post, below.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Burns's Vietnam

I must admit that when Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Vietnam series started, I was not eager to watch it.  Two or three years ago--I am not sure which--I had heard about the series by accident, and I had called Burns's office in hopes of taking part in it.  I was summarily informed that the series was already in post production, and that was that.  I was frustrated by the first two episodes, which covered things I had researched and written about myself, with some significant gaps.  But after the major American involvement began in 1965, I changed my mind.  To begin with, Burns had used almost no historians at all on camera and very few, apparently, in preparing the script.  I had no reason to take my own exclusion personally.  But more importantly, Burns had decided to present the war almost entirely from the perspective of combatants and their families on all sides--American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese.  That he had done superbly, and I was very grateful for it.  I think it is probably the best film that he has produced.

The single best thing about the series, for me, was its portrayal of combat.  Burns combined interviews with participants in battle--again, on all sides--with extraordinary footage.  At times I wondered, and I still don't know, if the footage really was footage of the exact day and place the veterans were talking about, but it certainly looked as if it might have been.  And in his battlefield episodes Burns demolished one of the enduring myths of the war:  that the United States never lost a battle  Several of the battles that veterans described in excruciating detail fit the classic pattern of Vietnam combat.  An American unit--generally anything from a company to a battalion--patrolling in the jungle or the highlands, walked into a VC or North Vietnamese ambush.  The Communist forces tried not to open fire until the Americans were just a few yards away.  This tactic, to "grab them by the belts," meant that the US forces would not be able to call in their devastating artillery or air support during the battle for fear of hitting their own men.  For hours, North Vietnamese and US forces would exchange rifle and machine gun fire and grenades, inflicting heavy casualties.  Many American companies suffered losses large enough to put them out of action as effective fighting forces in these firefights.  The North Vietnamese, of course, wanted to continue these encounters until US casualties had become so high that the American people would insist on de-escalating, and, eventually, quitting the war.  In the end, the turning point came at Hamburger Hill, in May 1969--one of so many battles that fit that pattern, and which forced the US to try to avoid many more of them.  That battle, coincidentally, took place nearly at the very moment when American forces in South Vietnam had reached their highest point.

Burns not only decided not to use historians, but he also decided not to use anyone, really, who had become famous during the Vietnam era.  The highest-level civilians he interviews are Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon papers, and John Negroponte, who was then a junior diplomat at the Paris peace talks.  He did not interview Henry Kissinger, or Daniel Ellsberg, or John McCain (who is seen in an interview in a hospital bed shortly after his capture.)  Nor did he interview James Webb or Ron Kovic, two activist veterans with opposing views of the war and its lessons.  But I thought the ordinary veterans he selected gave a fine portrait of my own Boom generation as it was then.  Many joined out of idealism, and we forget how many of us (like me) fully supported the rationale behind the war when it began in earnest in 1965.  The treatment of changes on campus during those years was also excellent.

Burns did what he can do, very well.  I have done something very different throughout my career--reading, researching and studying to understand the decisions US leaders took to intervene, fight, and withdraw, and why they were not successful.  I would like to make a few points that Burns did not address,  or where he contributed to longstanding misconceptions.

The first concerns the role of the Eisenhower Administration, on the one hand, and the Kennedy Administration, on the other, in involving, or not involving, the United States in wr in Southeast Asia.  Eisenhower in 1954 refused the entreaties of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to intervene actively on the side of the French.  But in subsequent years, I found researching American Tragedy, his administration laid down policies calling for American intervention to stop Communist aggression in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam--using nuclear weapons as necessary, and accepting the risk of all-out war with China. And indeed, in late 1960, a civil war in Laos, which the American-backed forces were losing, brought the Eisenhower Administration to the brink of carrying out those policies before Ike left office and dumped the situation in JFK's lap.  Burns said almost nothing about any of this.

That, in turn, leads to the aspect of JFK's policies that I and other historians have highlighted, but which Burns did not really explore.  From the moment that Kennedy took office through early November 1961, he was besieged with a series of proposals for full-scale American intervention, including large ground forces, in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both countries.  Virtually all his senior advisers--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy's deputy Walt Rostow, and most of the Joint Chiefs--pushed for intervention. Kennedy repeatedly rejected it.  In the last meeting in which he did so he laid out a series of excellent reasons why war in South Vietnam would be a dreadful mistake: that the war would be hard to explain to the American people, that the Saigon government had not managed to handle the insurgency, and that we would not be supported by major allies.  He also abandoned the civil war in Laos in favor of a negotiated settlement, which he eventually achieved.  He did all this, in part, because he had a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda aimed at easing tensions in the Cold War, which war in Southeast Asia would not help.  His successor had no such agenda.

I also found fault with Burns's treatment of Lyndon Johnson in 1964-5.  He made extensive use of Johnson's phone conversations, which often show the President agonizing over what to do in Southeast Asia.  I too was fooled, initially, when I heard some of those.  But gradually I realized that while Johnson loved to agonize, he had never seriously considered any alternative to fighting a war to try to save South Vietnam from the Communists.  His plan to do so was clear as early as March 1964, although he was determined to wait until after the election.  More seriously, Burns, like so many historians, gave the misleading impression that Johnson first decided on sustained bombing of North Vietnam in early March 1965, and then was gradually pushed into a ground commitment.  In fact, Johnson in December 1964 approved a planning paper that linked the anticipated bombing of the North to "appropriate deployments to handle any contingency."  In the late 1990s I got the appendices to that document declassified, and they showed a specific plan to deploy hundreds of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of troops to Southeast Asia, beginning with the Marines who landed in Da Nang the week the bombing of the North began.  Subsequent events followed that timetable quite closely, although plans to send forces ot Thailand were dropped, and those troops wound up in South Vietnam instead.  There was only one decision to fight a huge war in Southeast Asia, and it was taken in December 1964.

Burns also failed ever to identify the real issue in the peace talks that began in 1968: the issue of who would rule South Vietnam, and what would happen to it in the long run.  The Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French war had recognized the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Vietnam, and for the next 18 years the US had struggled to establish, and define, South Vietnam as a separate and independent nation.  Beginning in 1965, North Vietnam had demanded not immediate reunification, but the establishment of a coalition government in the South and the withdrawal of American troops, leaving that new government to negotiate eventual reunification.  Not until the fall of 1972 did the Nixon Administration abandon its position.  It did not agree to a coalition government, but the agreement it signed put the Viet Cong on a footing of equality with the South Vietnamese government and directed the two parties to work out new political arrangements.  It also, of course--as Burns did show--allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam.  To his credit, Burns gave almost no support to the idea that the South might have remained independent if the US had simply given it more aid.

Over the course of the 18-hour broadcast, viewers got to know Burns's select group of US veterans (and similar groups of North and South Vietnamese) very well.  The last hour or so on the aftermath, featured the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial--and their own visits to it.  Many of them cried as they described them, and I found myself crying as well.  I return again to the theme I struck at the end of American Tragedy.  The war marked the end of an heroic era in American history, and set off a process of political disintegration that is still continuing.  We live with it to this day.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The New Nature of Politics

The agenda of the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress is rather confusing but in recent weeks a light has dawned, for me at least, revealing to me what is really going on in Washington.  I owe my new insights (if such they are) largely to Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money, which I reviewed here some weeks ago.   That book, I am discovering, has not had nearly the impact that it should have.  I just gave a talk on the current crisis to about 30 students and faculty at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and a show of hands revealed that not one audience member had read it.  Neither had a reporter for a major newspaper whom I called to discuss a story about one piece of the network that Dark Money described.  But I have kept the picture it drew of the influence of the Koch brothers and their allies in the Bradley, Scaife, Olin and other foundations in mind, and Jane Mayer herself pointed out an important story in the Guardian about what they have been up to lately.  Here are my conclusions.

This past week, the Senate and House Republicans finally had to abandon their last attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.  The alternative put forward by Senator Lindsay Graham and three others was the most radical yet, eliminating mandates, subsides, and mandatory protection for those with pre-existing conditions, capping medicaid, and putting a major hurt on blue states while helping red ones.  The mainstream media was initially amazed by the emergence of this new bill, since the earlier iterations had proven so unpopular with the medical establishment and the public.  It explained this as an appeal to the "Republican base." So it is, I think--but only if one gives up the idea that the Republican base is composed of voters.  It isn't--it's composed of billionaire contributors, led by the Kochs, who have discovered ways to put their agenda through without reference to the voters.  They control today's Republican Party as completely as the steel industries and railroads controlled our politics in the late 19th century, because they can fund any campaign that they want.

Al Franken, I believe, has commented that only half the Republicans in Congress hold views similar to Michelle Bachmann's, but the other half are terrified to losing their next primary to another Michelle Bachmann.  In recent elections Tea Party candidates have repeatedly toppled establishment Republicans, including long-time officeholders like Richard Lugar of Indiana.  The Kochs periodically hold donor retreats to meet with Republican officeholders, and last June, the Guardian reported, their representative warned Republicans that campaign contributions would dry up unless they passed Obamacare repeal and tax reform this year. That, presumably, is why the latest and worst health care bill arose like a Phoenix during September.  The real question, about which I have seen nothing, is where and by whom the bill was drafted.  I would bet a good deal of money that intellectuals within the right-wing donor network did it first and found the sponsors later.  Graham is smart enough to know the bill would be very unpopular, and Charles Grassley of Iowa has been quoted admitting that it is a bad bill.  Yet the Republicans felt they had no choice but to cave in to their financial, as oppposed to their electoral, base.  So many of them live in one-party states or gerrymandered districts that they have no reason to think about what Democratic voters think, but remain vulnerable to the votes of tea party activists (themselves part of the Koch network) in primaries.

The tax reform proposal unveiled this week is probably part of the same story.  It will eliminated the inheritance tax, which is significant only for multi-millionaires like the Kochs.  It will protect the low rates of many in the financial community thanks to "pass throughs."  And by eliminating state and local tax deductions, it will increase taxes on residents of blue states that have significant income taxes.  The network that is producing these plans is obviously pursuing a conscious strategy of regional war.  And it is powerful enough to have induced Republican "deficit hawks" to swallow a bill that will add an estimated $200 billion a year to the federal deficit.

This week we are learning that the new division in the Republican party isn't between radicals and moderates, it's between two rival groups of mega-donors.  Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the patrons of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, were the chief contributors to Judge Ray Moore, who just won the Republican nomination (and therefore, surely, the election) for Jeff Session's Senate seat in Alabama over the Trump-backed establishment candidate.  Today's New York Times indicates that the Mercer network plans to run many Republican primary candidates next year.  The Koch brothers' model of using their billions to field candidates, subsidize media outlets and maintain a retinue of friendly intellectuals is being adapted by other millionaires.  One or two liberal billionaires have even tried it in recent years, but without much success.  In Republican states--and most states are now Republican--such networks can effectively take any meaningful choice away from the mass of the voters.

Donald Trump is not a significant player in the policy battles now taking place, except insofar as he can be relied upon to deny the obvious--claiming, for instance, that his tax plan does not help the rich--and sign conservative legislation.  He and Mike Pence have handed environmental regulation and educational policies over to allies and members of the ultraconservative donor network.  They have also formed an alliance on social issues with the religious right.  Their economic proposals, I believe, are coming from outside the Administration.  If the anti-Trump media really want to make a contribution to our national life they should uncover where the drafts of the health care and tax bills are coming from, and how they will benefit certain specific people.  The Democrats need to speak up on behalf of the whole people.  For the time being, robust democracy is a thing of the past, a victim of the tax policies and conservative activism of the last 40 years.  To learn more, go to your public library or bookstore and get your hands on Dark Money.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What's happening on campus

Last week I know I raised some eyebrows when I suggested that Betsy DeVos and the Education Department might do some good by changing the Obama Administration's Title IX guidelines for university handling of sexual harassment charges on campus.  I based that comment largely on a remarkable book I had read a couple of months back, Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University.

To make the long story of how the book came to be written rather short, Kipnis became interested the case of a colleague (broadly defined) or hers, a philosophy professor named Peter Ludlow, who had lost his job an his livelihood thanks to accusations by an undergraduate whom Kipnis chooses to refer to pseudonymously as Eunice Cho, and a graduate student she calls Nola Hartley.  Cho, who was only a freshman at the time she got to know Ludlow, never accused him of having sex with her, although she claimed he had spooned against her while they spent one night in hsi apartment after they had been out having drinks together.  Hartley on the other had had a substantial and very well-documented relationship (this is the age of texts) with Ludlow, obviously based upon mutual affection, but had subsequently decided that he had used his power as a professor (even though he was not her professor at the time) to coerce her into the relationship.  What evidently struck Kipnis, a younger baby boomer who is now about 60, was that both cases were based on an idea she had learned to reject in her youth: the idea that women of 18 or older were fully capable of making, and living with, their own decisions about whom to have sex with.  Kipnis, a heterosexual herself, has continued to take advantage of that freedom all her life, she lets us know, and even admits to occasionally having had sex with students.  She wrote an article making this argument for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and was soon informed that she was the subject of a Title IX complaint brought by some women at Northwestern who accused her of creating an unfriendly environment.  Rather than back down, she got more deeply involved in the whole subject.  Meanwhile, university officials had found Ludlow guilty of sexual assault and ended his career.

Kipnis discusses the two accusations and how they were adjudicated at great length with the help of the files on the investigation that Ludlow gave her. I will confine myself to some observations of my own.  The most important thing to understand about the new campus doctrine and procedures, in my opinion, is that they are totally contrary to Anglo-American legal traditions as they have evolved at least since Magna Carta in 1215.  To begin with, there is no presumption of innocence for men accused of sexual harassment.  The women who bring accusations are routinely referred to not as accusers, but as survivors, implying that the question of whether a crime took place has already been resolved.  That is connected to a second principle of the new procedures: the survivors, not impartial third parties, decide whether a crime has been committed, based on their own feelings.  That is how Hartley, the grad student, could get a finding against Ludlow despite reams of texts showing that she had been not only a consensual but a very enthusiastic and lovestruck participant in their relationship.  She had subsequently decided that his superior power had coerced her (without the slightest indication that he had tried in any way to use it to force her into bed), and that was that.  That in turn leads us to the whole question of reasonable doubt, one of the standards of proof that the Obama Administration told colleges not to use in sexual assault cases.

When sexual assault activists are asked why colleges cannot simply leave criminal accusations to the criminal justice system, they routinely reply that survivors (that is, accusers) do not want to undergo the ordeal that would result, and that it is very difficult to get convictions there.  That is true, and there are two reasons for it. The first is that much of what constitutes "sexual assault" on campus today, such as simple unwanted touching with clothes on, isn't illegal at all.  But the second is that our criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which by definition is most unlikely to be available in what is referred to as a "he said, she said" situation.  When the accused tells one story and the accuser another, and there is no very damning evidence ot undermine the credibility of either one, there is very little basis for a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that one of them is telling the truth.  That in turn requires them to find the accused innocent.  That, for many sexual assault activists, is an unacceptable outcome.


The nature of the argument we are having is confirmed by an op-ed and a letter in the New York Times of Monday, September 18.  The op-ed by two grad students in sociology protests possible changes in the Department of Education's sexual assault policy. The article by Miriam Bleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera begins as follows: "Who should have the right to define rape: survivors who have experienced sexual violence or those who are accused of perpetrating it?"  Later, they add that "accused men's pain does not excuse rape, and men shouldn't be the ones defining it."  We have never had a criminal justice system, as it happens, in which either the accused or the accuser gets to decide the case.  The question of whether a crime has been committed has always been the province of third parties, chosen to be as impartial as possible--that is, judges and juries.  A letter to the editor from an attorney, Marian E. Lindberg, makes the same argument: "Whether one agrees with a preponderance-of-evidence standard turns largely on whether one thinks that women are more likely to lie about sexual abuse, or men more likely to lie about consent."  Our whole legal system--which, to be sure, has never functioned perfectly--is designed to substitute the impartial judgment of third parties of the facts of a particular case for blanket rules such as "believe the woman."

The Obama administration advised campuses not only to ignore presumption of evidence, but also to discard another standard, one of "clear and convincing" evidence that charges were true.  Instead they ordered them to make judgments based on the "preponderance of evidence," the standard used in a civil suit.  Even that standard, obviously, isn't much help when the evidence consists of opposing statements by an accuser and the accused--unless one decides that in these situations, women are inherently more credible than men.  The files Kipnis quotes show that the college bureaucrats charged with investigating these cases and the lawyers whom colleges often hire to investigate them routinely believe the accuser and disbelieve the accused.  And they do this, often, because of preconceived notions of how men and women do, and do not act.  Here an analogy is in order.  Kipnis does refer frequently to witch trials, but she never mentions what is to me a much more apt analogy: the Stalinist justice of the 1930s and 1940s and Mao's justice during the cultural revolution.  In those days, any class enemy was automatically guilty of any accusation against him and her, by virtue of who he or she was, regardless of the specifics of what they had done, or not done.  Indeed, justice in those regimes wasn't even supposed to be impartial: it was a front in the class struggle.  Now unfortunately, for at least three decades, university humanities have been teaching that the history of mankind is the history of the oppression, by white males, of everyone else.  Thus, when Cho (whose credibility on many points was shredded by cross-examination) said that she had spent the night with Hartley spooning, while he said that he had put a pillow between them, the administrator simply decided to believe Cho and find him guilty.

It occurred to me, as it didn't to Kipnis, that the practice of hiring attorneys to conduct investigations and report their findings, upon which the university then acts, has another huge problem, which is also related to how our judicial system really works. Attorneys are not trained to investigate situations impartially; they are trained to represent the interests of their clients, and they instinctively slant every fact in favor of their client.  In these cases they seem to wind up representing the accuser. I raised this point with a very experienced attorney of my acquaintance. He agreed with me, but he added that there were two kinds of attorneys, mediators and arbitrators, who are accustomed to listening to both sides of the question, and who would do a better job.  Mediators and arbitrators, however, use impartial procedures--the only reason anyone would hire them--and colleges and universities, threatened with the loss of federal funds under title IX, aren't interested, clearly, in impartial procedures that respect traditional principles of American justice.

Late in the book, Kipnis makes another critically important point about sexual assault on campus.  Many complaints, of course, involve situations in which both parties have consumed large amounts of alcohol.  Campus officials now argue routinely that no one can really consent to sex when under teh influence of alcohol (how much alcohol is required to deprive one of that power, I do not know), and therefore, sex with an inebriated woman is rape.  Leaving aside the question of whether this really makes any legal sense, what Kipnis argues--and she is clearly right--is that such rules criminalize what has become normal behavior on many campuses.  It is very clear that both young men and young women to go parties to get more or less drunk and "hook up."  They know they are going to drink, and that they may have sex, when they arrive.  But the adults who claim to supervise their lives have declared this behavior to be criminal--but only for the man, in a heterosexual encounter at least.  I do not think this is a healthy situation for anyone concerned.  For the record, if I had a daughter (which I never have), I would tell her in no uncertain terms never to get drunk with anyone she did not trust.

It is something of a miracle that Kipnis's book was ever written. The sex crimes bureaucracies on campus, she makes clear, also try to impose a high degree of secrecy on their proceedings, try to prevent the accused from keeping thorough records of them (for instance, by recording hearings or bringing attorneys with them), and say very little, normally, about how decisions were reached.  Publicity worked for Kipnis. Her acocunt of her own case suggests to me that the Northwestern hierarchy realized that it could do a lot of harm, and she was found innocent of creating a hostile environment rather quickly after she became nationally known.  Others, however, might not be so lucky.  There is not the slightest doubt that if I were still teaching on campus, this blog post could easily be cited by any member of the university as an actionable attempt to create an unfriendly environment.

I had planned this post for some time, but this morning I was delighted to find that I am not alone. The Boston Globe, whose coverage of campus sexual assault usually reflects the new orthodoxy, included a long story this very morning quoting a large number of liberals, many of them women, who, like me, believe that the Education Department does indeed have to reform its title IX guidelines.  I hope that readers here will be able to break through the firewall.  It's a good story, and it suggests that, thank heaven, reverence for our legal traditions is, even now, far from dead.  We still need a two-party system to remedy the excesses of both sides. This is one case where, even now, this might work.

                     . 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Struggling through the Crisis

We are now passing through the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel to the American Revolution and the Constitutional period (1774-94), the Civil War (1860-8) and the Depression and SEcond World War (1929-45.)  This was what William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted 25 years ago, and they were right.  Like the other crises, this one is cutting us loose from our political moorings and making it very hard--like a battle--to keep a clear head.  Let me try to make our predicament, as I see it, just a little clearer.

Each of these crises, it seems to me, has had two different dimensions. To begin with, they all involve a very real struggle over the shape of America's future, and an attempt to replace a dying old order with a new one.  In the 1770s and 1780s this drama played out twice, first as the colonies overthrew British rule, and then as they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.  In the 1860s we struggled over whether we would remain one nation, and whether it could continue to allow slavery.  The New Deal established new and critical roles for the federal government and changed the relations between labor and capital.  Now, we are fighting, and have been for some time, to see what, if anything, we shall preserve from the largely vanished New Deal leadership.

Yet each crisis had another even more important dimension as well: the question of whether a national government could either be created, or whether the existing one could continue to function at all.   Only barely did the Continental Congress and the state governments manage to keep the revolutionary armies in the field after 1775, and the constitutional convention convened in 1787 because the nation was sinking into anarchy.  Federal authority seemed to be disappearing when Lincoln took office, and he used emergency powers to preserve it.  A complete economic and political collapse seemed possible when FDR took office in 1933, and three years later the functioning of the federal government seemed to be threatened by a recalcitrant Supreme Court.  Because our forefathers overcome all those challenges, the United States still exists today.

Events this week suggest to me that we have been so preoccupied with the first aspect of our own crisis--the struggle over the future of America--that we have lost sight of the second--the possibility that our government might fail to function at all.  And for that reason, a relatively promising development--President Trump's deal with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over the debt ceiling--has been attacked by partisan Democrats and Republicans alike.

Now there is no question that this crisis has a third, nearly unprecedented dimension: the personality of Donald Trump, who is manifestly unfit for office.  The only parallel from history is Andrew Johnson, the President from 1865 until 1869, who immediately fell into a conflict with the Republican leadership in Congress, did what he could to stop Reconstruction from changing the South, and was nearly removed from office.  But Trump did not begin the battle for the future of America that is now waging, nor is he only one on his side waging it now.  The Republican Party, after accepting the New deal from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, declared war on it once again in the 1980s, and that war has only escalated ever since.  Corporate America and corporate money now dominate our politics and critically influence both of our political parties. Economic inequality has increased steadily for 40 years, the antitrust laws have become almost a dead letter, and most of our state governments are in the hands of politicians dedicated to the free market.  While New Deal ideas like single payer health care and free education are gaining ground in the left wing of the Democratic Party, their chances of coming true seem quite slim.  In my opinion we will be fortunate if we get out of the crisis with our economic arrangements more or less as they are right now, and real reform will have to wait perhaps another generation.

Meanwhile, however, the government has to keep functioning--and there are very real threats to it as I write.  One is a possible constitutional convention called at the behest of state legislatures, many of whom have already asked for it.  The Republicans control 32 state legislatures, and only 34 could call such a convention into existence. But the more immediate threat by far would be the Congress's failure to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling, as many of the extreme right wing Republicans in the House have long wanted to do.  That would affect not only our government, but the whole world economy.  And that was the possibility that President Trump and minority leaders Schumer and Pelosi joined together this week to stop, successfully tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the passage of relief for hurricane Harvey.  Many Republicans are furious, and Speaker Ryan felt outmaneuvered.  But some Democratic commentators, such as Michael Tomasky, are already worried that this might be the prelude to another deal with Trump, one that gave him some billions of dollars for his wall while reinstating some kind of DACA program to stop the deportation of "dreamers."

Meanwhile, on another front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general are trying to delegitimize the president's authority altogether. Their lawsuit to stop him from ending  the (entirely optional) DACA program that President Obama put in place argues, among other things, that the President should not be allowed to stop the program because he expressed hostility towrads Mexican immigrants during the campaign. While I feel very strongly that Dreamers need to be put on a path to citizenship immediately, I think it is entirely unreasonable to expect the courts to rule that our duly elected President is debarred from exercising lawful authority because he has expressed views that many, or even most Americans, find repugnant.  The political process is supposed to reflect the views of the American people. It has failed to do so on immigration, but that does not mean that we can count on the courts to stop the executive from functioning the way conservatives counted on them to stop the New Deal in its tracks during Roosevelt's first term.

If we want us to remain one nation--which I for one most certainly do--we must accept that many of the views of those who elected Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will now be put into effect.  The only cure for the ills of democracy, as Al Smith said, is more democracy.  In a few instances--such as the Education Department's plans to rewrite university guidelines for handling accusations of sexual assault--the Trump Administration might even do some good.  (I will be discussing this topic soon, based on Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis's book, Unwelcome Advances.) Those will never be anything more than exceptional, but I am not going to criticize the Democratic congressional leadership for taking steps to allow the government to keep functioning--the kind of steps that their Republican counterparts were so opposed to while Barack Obama was President.


Friday, September 01, 2017

Our Fall of France moment?

For several years now I have corresponded and spoken with my young cousin once removed Ezra Silk, who works for a non-profit called the Climate Mobilization.  They believe that coping with climate change and putting the whole world on a new energy footing will require a mobilization on the scale of the Second World War, when an extraordinary percentage of our GDP was devoted to the war effort.  My last book, No End Save Victory, described how the country became committed to that course, under President Roosevelt, in 1940-1.  Such a mobilization, I have no doubt, would do enormous good for the United States (and the rest of the world) for reasons not directly related to global warming.  Because it would cost so much, it, like the Second World War, would force us to impose confiscatory marginal tax rates on high incomes.  The amount of GDP devoted to public goods would increase.  So, presumably, would employment.  All over the world, private gain would become less important while societies put huge resources into a truly common objective.  This would renew that precious resource, civic virtue.  It is the kind of mobilization Strauss and Howe predicted 20 years ago when they wrote The Fourth Turning--but nothing like it has happened yet.

To understand how it might, I return to my book and to the moment in the late spring of 1940 when the American war effort really began.  I found in my research that Franklin Roosevelt had anticipated a new world war at least since 1937, and that he would have been willing even late in that year to undertake joint naval action with the British to persuade the Japanese to halt their aggression in China.  He also anticipated American participation in a European war, he told the British Ambassador, should one break out as a result of the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938.  But when the war did break out in 1939, the most he could do was to persuade a reluctant Congress to allow France and Britain to buy arms from the United States for cash.  The vast majority of Americans did not yet regard the European war as a threat to the United States, and a significant minority opposed US involvement in an overseas war in any case. 

It took an earth-shattering catastrophe to change their minds.  In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and Norway, using surprise, speed and air power to counter British sea power, one of the cornerstones of American security. Then, on May 10, while the battle in Norway was still raging, the Germans attacked in Holland, Belgium, and France.  Within two weeks they had broken through the allied lines and reached the English channel, trapping the British Army.  France was clearly collapsing, and a great deal of informed opinion expected that Britain would be invaded if it did not agree to make peace.  Although Dunkirk saved most of the personnel of the British Army, all its heavy equipment had been lost, and the Germans briefly appeared invincible in the air.  I discovered in the archives that Roosevelt had asked an Army and a Navy planner to estimate what happen if the British Navy and the British Empire, assisted by the US, tried to carry on the war from the western hemisphere after Britain had been invaded.

The German blitzkrieg convinced the Congress and the American people that the United States itself was in peril.  Even if Britain did not fall--but especially if it did--the Germans could use their air power to leapfrog across the Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, thence to Greenland, and thence to Labrador and Newfoundland.  They might also send forces through the Pyrenees and Spain and Portugal (both ruled by Fascist dictators), into North Africa, and all the way to Dakar, in Senegal, only 1500 miles from Brazil.  The Japanese might simultaneously strike in the Far East.  The new situation called for a drastic response.  From June through September, Roosevelt called for 50,000 new aircraft, for a new naval bill that would nearly double the size of the Navy within five years, and for the first peacetime draft in US history.  The Congress passed them all. 

For some time now--and especially since the election of Donald Trump--I have been telling my cousin Ezra that only a "fall of France moment"--one or more environmental catastrophes that persuaded a critical mass of Americans that we needed drastic action to preserve our way of life--would allow us to begin the huge effort it wold take to stop global warming.  The question now is whether Hurricane Harvey might do the trick.

In many ways, a more inspiring weather event could hardly have been designed by Bill McKibben himself.  Like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey is in  many ways completely unprecedented.  It has broken many records for rainfall and may well create the largest floods of any storm in history.  And while Sandy struck the true blue northeast, Harvey has devastated the largest city in red America, inundating rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Indeed, it seems certain to get a small-scale mobilization effort going on its own, simply to repair the damage and allow Houston to return to something approaching normal life.  That will take years, during which it will be impossible to forget what it did.  Meanwhile, a scientific consensus holds that global warming has indeed contributed to the unprecedented severity of the storm.

Unfortunately, as Jane Mayer showed in Dark Money, the Koch brothers and their allies have built up an impressive climate denial industry--parallel to the isolationist lobby in 1940-1--over the last two decades.  They are committed to further reliance on fossil fuels and to climate change denial, and I do not think this is going to make them give up.  Given that the Kochs and their allies dominate our Energy Department and the EPA under Trump, it seems very unlikely that this Administration will turn tail and propose action on climate change.  In 1940 we had the leader--Roosevelt--who knew how to take advantage of the situation we faced to make things happen. Today, we do not.

Thus I do not believe that even this will provide an adequate Fall of France moment, much less that within two years we will have embarked on an all-out effort against climate change.  This is a good opportunity, however, for the Democratic Party to unite behind an unambiguous call for action based on the idea that Harvey is only the last of a whole series of devastating weather events.  The natural enemies our civilization faces today are at least as relentless as the Germans and Japanese in 1940-1.  They will strike again.  I shoed in No End Save Victory that Roosevelt's administration had figured out what had to be done to defeat our enemies months before we entered the war. That is what we must do now.  The logic of events may well do the rest.