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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE

‘State Funeral’ Marches Viewers Past Stalin’s Coffin

History may be, as Napoleon wrote, the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon, but national histories in the 20th Century left behind something they couldn’t in earlier eras: a fatal evidence trail of cinema. Whatever the propaganda message and temperature, state actors would nearly always film everything, film too much, and therein freeze themselves and their efforts at self-justification in nitrate amber forever. Needless to say, the rank odor of guilt and complicity and self-delusion becomes unmistakable given a little time passing, a fact that found-footage films — in the original, avant-garde-film meaning of the term — have been exploiting and exploring since Bruce Conner first reused atomic bomb footage in 1958. History can’t escape judgment when it’s been nailed by a camera.

Arguably the most ambitious, and historically conscientious filmmaker from the ex-Soviet regions at work today, Sergei Loznitsa has always had a jones for the revealing hypocrisies of old footage, to resurrect and reconsider the deranged visual legacy of Communism and Fascism over the last 100 years. His newest film, State Funeral takes a gargantuan reappraisal of a gargantuan event: the 1953 public funeral rites for Joseph Stalin, a kind of sleepwalking mass madness that exploded all over the empire, from Tallinn to Minsk to Azerbaijan to Krasnoyarsk. Whether in his documentary mode or not, Loznitsa is no hand-holder, insisting that we join this trudging mass for reasons we must arrive at on our own; he doesn’t even drop the revelatory fact that he’s repurposing footage, half black-&-white and half lushly Sovcolor, shot specifically for a propaganda epic to be titled The Great Farewell — which in effect made the entire republic a film set, and the huge nation-wide mourning ritual a staged mega-drama. There were, apparently a number of high-profile auteurs helming the shoot, including die-hard vet Grigori Alexandrov, Dziga Vertov’s wife and cine-partner Elizaveta Svilova, and Sergei Gerasimov, who’d make Quiet Flows the Don a few years later. The film they thought they were making was never completed or released — the anti-Stalinists were gaining force by then, and it’s rumored they may have hurried the world-class liquidator to his death bed. In any case, Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin came less than three years later, so the yen for a big-screen hagiographic send-off may already have seen its day come and go by the time Uncle Joe shuffled off for good.

The long-neglected footage was cobbled into a modest video release in 2013, intended for Russophiles, but for Loznitsa that was hardly sufficient — his film is over an hour longer, all the better to mutely eyeball this massive orchestration of meta-bereavement at disheartening length. There are no set-pieces, just staggering but dumbly repetitive parades of Soviet citizens queuing up by the tens of thousands at a time, hefting a zillion wreaths and potted plants to the coffin side and various designated shrines, with the implacable demeanors of unhappy movie extras. This, despite the radio speeches we hear constantly describing the “joy” that Stalin brought to his people. (It occurs to you that the millions’ lack of animation is another reason why The Grand Farewell might not have made it to the finishing line.) The bouts of tear-wiping look genuine, and Loznitsa includes them for ambiguity’s sake — how much of this colossal foolishness is movie-making coercion, or brainwashed derangement, or the mere madness of crowds?

Then there are the speeches, with Loznitsa turning a weird and contrived spectacle about mass obedience into an overt, and droning, public con job, almost exactly the way Triumph of the Will helplessly transforms itself from a giant map of human menace into a litany of weaselly rhetoric. You can hardly walk away without wondering about the Russians’ capacity for collecting into monstrous, orderly hordes on command, as well as their tolerance for snowballing bullshit. Ultimately, the experience of Loznitsa’s film depends upon one’s appreciation for Communism’s ceremonial absurdity – your mileage may vary. The filmmaker only nods toward his intentions with the final title card, reminding us of Stalin’s mass-murder scorecard of upwards of 42 million deaths. With that as context, the whole, exhaustive film replays in your head as a farce without laughs.    ❖

State Funeral
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Mubi
Opens at Film Forum on May 7

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stop the G.O.P.! The Rise of the Counter-Constitution

I’VE BEEN WATCHING THE HOUSE Foreign Affairs hearings on television and am struck with the much­ remarked Yogi Berra sense of “déja vu all over again.” For it’s not just that current happenings bring to mind the televised Watergate spec­taculars. Dimly I recall from earlier eons, as an infant sprawled at my mother’s feet, watching yet other congressional hearings illumined on the screen. Senators were put­ting questions to their colleague, Joseph R. McCarthy. And the thought occurs that in each of the Age of Television’s three great contests over the Con­stitution, the rogues’ gallery has never really changed. Those are proud and pa­triotic Republicans sitting over there.

Gerald Holton tells the following story. Sir Peter Medawar, the British scientist, applied for a visa to America, went to the consul, and was asked if he intended to overthrow the Constitution. Sir Peter re­plied: “I would certainly not overthrow it on purpose, and I can only hope I wouldn’t do so by mistake.” The best that can be said of modern Republicanism is that three times in a generation it has nearly done so by mistake.

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Each of the three modern scandals has derived from a mania for anticommun­ism. Exactly what loosed that mania in the McCarthy era hasn’t ever, in my view, been adequately explained, and can’t be, since it has to do with the irrational. But there’s no mystery regarding the causes of the more recent scandals. In Watergate and Irangate alike, the mania got out of hand because of the big dys­function in American political affairs, which is the crisis, by now endemic, in foreign policy.

Everyone describes that crisis differ­ently, but the people to listen to are the ones who evoke it with the despairing phrase “the country has become ungov­ernable.” They mean, of course, that poli­cies acceptable to themselves no longer command automatic consensus, hence can’t be put into effect without going to a lot of bother. In the old days, from the late 1940s to the Vietnam War, things were different. There was a national poli­cy, the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine quite properly declared commu­nism a tyranny and worried about its spread. It identified Soviet tanks and machinations as principally responsible for the expansion. It pledged a stalwart American resistance. And since the doc­trine was drawn with an eye toward East­ern Europe, where its analysis was accu­rate enough, most Americans approved and in regard to Europe generally still approve, and aren’t entirely wrong to, as the trade unionists of Poland will leap to instruct us.

Unfortunately, the Truman Doctrine, having been devised for Europe, was de­ployed planet-wide. A fatal mistake: to err is Truman, as they used to say. Like all superinstitutions, the Catholic church, for instance, communism has different meanings in different places. On the banks of the Vistula it was a spearhead of Russian imperialism, but in regions far from there, in countries of the Third World, it was a spearhead of anti­colonialism. It wasn’t necessarily any more decent or democratic in these re­moter regions. Most places where com­munism led the anticolonial revolt it proved a disaster, just as Islam, Hindu­ism, and Negritude proved disasters. But like these others, the disaster that was communism didn’t lack, in one region or another, for popular support and national legitimacy. This fact turned the Truman Doctrine upside down. The same policy that led us, in countries like Poland, to champion the rights of the ordinary Poles, led us, in countries like Vietnam, to outdo the communists themselves at exterminating the peasantry. It became a monstrosity, that policy.

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The old Truman consensus split into three. Some people wanted to guide American policy along lines of realpolitik and have done with costly crusades­ — these people were the pragmatic center. Others wanted to follow a compass of humanitarianism and sympathy for whatever was sympathizable in the global anti-colonial revolt — they were the liber­als and the left. And these defections from global Trumanism placed the third group, the hard-line ultras, in a difficult spot. The ultras wanted no retreat at all from the “containment” crusade, or wanted something even tougher — active aggressions against communist move­ments and states. They wanted the sort of policy that, since it touches on mortal­ity and fate, requires, in democratic soci­eties, a consensus. But they didn’t have a consensus.

What happens when such a movement gets into power? Richard Nixon is what happens. Nixon is recalled as a man ani­mated solely by mean motives, namely the desire to be reelected. That’s unfair. Nixon’s motives ran high as well as low. His hairline was their graph. In wreaking his havoc over Indochina, be was making the usual fight for Western ideals and values. He was resisting the ruthless worldwide enemy. But he was discover­ing, too, that America was “ungovern­able.” No country can prosecute a war when TV nightly alarms the public and students riot in the streets and the oppo­sition party runs a virtual pacifist for president.

So the Republican president faced a choice. Either bend with the political winds, which some might call democracy, and lose the war that was defending Western civilization … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people were with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of them­selves. Then summon the FBI and CIA to their miserable duties. Set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Call in a bit of California ruthlessness. Enlist those high-spirited right-wing Cubans.

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It’s said on Nixon’s behalf, hence on behalf of modern Republicanism as a whole, that Nixon did nothing that wasn’t pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt or by Truman and other presidents who stepped beyond the law, cut legal corners, swelled the powers of their office, operat­ed unconstitutionally. Well, true. When Dean Acheson was acting secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt ordered him to take the country off the gold standard. Ach­eson refused. There were laws; the laws forbade it — to which Roosevelt thun­dered, “That will do!”, promptly accepted the acting secretary’s resignation, and the gold standard was gone with the wind. So the imperial presidency is not a GOP invention.

But this argument evades a rather large point about the great Republican scandals. All government outrages aren’t alike. Every breaking of a law causes two injuries: to law itself, and to the victims at hand. The victims at Roosevelt’s hand tended to be marginal groups, tiny minor­ities, splinter factions. To oppress these people, to persecute small ethnic commu­nities, to harass the Socialist Workers Party, to torment and destroy the politi­cal groupings that champion or are sus­pected of championing one or another foreign power — that is terrible, horren­dous. Government abuses of that sort subvert democracy.

But Joe McCarthy, it will be recalled, ultimately started in on the U.S. Army. Nixon, not content with persecuting the Socialist Workers, went after the Demo­crats. The obstacle that Reagan has found ways to get around isn’t just the pesky peace movement; it is the House and Senate. There is subversion, and there is subversion. Democracies, let’s say, are governments that trample minor­ities. Despotisms are governments that trample majorities. And if, in America, the trampling of minorities has in prac­tice turned out uglier than the trampling of majorities, that’s only because Ameri­can majorities eventually notice what’s going on, and reflect on their historic rights, and then the Constitution does take care of itself, and the gates of Allen­wood prison fly open.

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CALAMITIES LIKE THAT WEREN’T supposed to happen to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Revolution was supposed to be the modern colossus in American politics, something almost geological, a new mountain range, “the realignment.” It was the right-wing New Deal and Reagan was the new FDR, impervious to the ups and downs of political life. And if the administration was truly in tune with the moment, if it represented that great a shift in American life, what damage could a few moronic escapades inflict? New Deals don’t slip on banana peels.

Yet here are the peels, there is the slipping, and suspicion dawns that Rea­gan’s relation to the public is not like FDR’s. It is, on the crucial issues, like Nixon’s, the famous personality notwith­standing: Nixon with a human face. We haven’t really needed obscure Lebanese newspapers and down-at-heels Wisconsin mercenaries to see this. It’s been plain in the entirely open and public debate over Nicaragua. For what happens when a Reagan Revolutionary stands up to ex­hort the public on this topic? He begins with honest sentiments. Call them Rhetoric A. Global struggle between incompatible systems, says the exhorter. Ruthlessness. Western values. Strategic catastrophe. The Truman Doctrine and its militant codicil, the Reagan Doc­trine — all of this offered in justification of the administration role in Central America. Until suddenly, aghast, the Rea­gan Revolutionary espies his audience. There are canny pragmatists out there, sneers upon their lips. There are de­ranged nuns, people who have never heard of Nicaragua, readers of The Vil­lage Voice, Vietnam War widows. It is the American population. It is ungovernable.

So the Reagan Revolutionary makes a mid-breath shift, the shift we’ve been watching for six years with fascinated horror. From the speaker’s platform pours an unexpected new language, strangely left-wing in origin, of Human Rights, Resistance Movements, Demo­cratic Revolutions, Founding Fathers. It is Rhetoric B, offered in the same cause. Rhetoric A was coherent and plausible, though it makes most people duck. But Rhetoric B is preposterous. You can’t lis­ten to three words without reaching for a mental blue pencil. Nicaragua, no democ­racy, you remind yourself, still is not the human rights hellhole that El Salvador and Guatemala surely are. Somocista thugs are not the legions of the Lord. No one honestly believes in Rhetoric B, no one has ever been convinced by it. Yet it drones in our ears, and for an obvious reason. Any clever government that wished to stuff a minority policy down a majority throat would drone on like that. Who can’t convince, confuses. Who can’t lead, manipulates.

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I pick up the summer issue of Irving Kristol’s foreign affairs quarterly, The National Interest — a sectarian journal named with the right-wing hubris that has brought the country to its present fix — and flip through various disagreeable but honest celebrations of the Tru­man Doctrine, until I come to pages by Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state, El Maniotico of the Managua press, who is instructed with applying that Doc­trine. The assistant secretary assures his fellow ultras that from 1984 to 1986 the contras received no armaments aid, as per the congressional ban: “Thanks to the Democratic leadership in Congress, our humanitarian aid program to the resistance forces in Nicaragua has expired, and for two years we have given them no military aid whatsoever.” This from con­tra aid’s “general strategist,” in an article published at the very moment the strate­gist is now reported to have been conspir­ing with the Sultan of Brunei for the $10 million that subsequently disappeared! And if the urge to confuse and manipu­late is at work so cynically in even the soberest journals of the right, what skul­lduggery and disinformation campaigns must have been launched in less friendly terrains?

The Irangate details, what we know of them so far — the role of stupidity, in par­ticular — testify further to the uncolossal quality of the Reagan Revolution. Wash­ington is full of brand-new right-wing in­stitutions reeking with intelligence, de­scribed by Sidney Blumenthal in his brilliant and witty book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. They are think tanks and foundations and they account for Reaganism’s heft and deft, the eco­nomic ideas (such as they’ve been), the strategic initiatives, the administration’s ability to find ideologically suitable staff­ers. If we mention Reaganism at all in the same breath as the New Deal, it’s because of these new institutions, which were never available to Nixon and Republicans of long ago. But the right-wing counter-establishment is strangely limited. On its own it could never have captured Wash­ington. Right-wing thought hardly domi­nates the 1980s the way left-wing thought dominated the 1930s. An ordinary right­-wing politician could never have led the new organizations to spectacular double landslide triumphs. The right-wing move­ment was able to conquer only one way: by attaching itself to a miracle candidate, a once-in-history vote-getter.

Something peculiar results. The new right-wing institutions offer Reaganism an extraordinary base of power; but these same institutions depend helplessly on the one irreplaceable man. Nothing in the literature of American politics describes what such an arrangement can be like. I turn therefore to Leon Trotsky, the ex­pert. In his History of the Russian Revo­lution, Trotsky analyzed strengths of the Czarist Regime. There were powerful in­stitutions of every sort, the army, the bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the big capi­talists, who counted among them many capable and decisive people. But by the nature of their system, these people wielded power only by gathering around the throne. The regime was therefore cru­cially compromised. It was no stronger than the czar who held it together, and nothing at all could guarantee that a giv­en czar would be anything more than a royal jerk.

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As it happened, Trotsky tells us, the czar in 1917 was the sort of man who, with revolution breaking out around him, wrote in his diary: ”Walked long and killed two crows. Drank tea by daylight.” He was “a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry-colored shirt.” His own aides were perplexed. “‘What is this?’ asked one of his attendant generals, ‘a gigantic, almost unbelievable self-restraint, the product of breeding, of a belief in the divine predetermination of events? Or is it inadequate consciousness?’ ”

Really, Trotsky has the last word on the Age of Reagan. “The sole paper which Nicholas read for years, and from which he derived his ideas, was a weekly published on state revenue by Meshchersky, a vile, bribed journalist of the reactionary clique, despised even in his own circle … He felt at ease only among completely mediocre and brainless people, saintly fakers, holy men, to whom he did not have to look up … He selected his ministers on a principle of continual deterioration. Men of brain and character he summoned only in extreme situations when there was no other way out, just as we call in a surgeon to save our lives. The czar was might­ily under the influence of the czarina, an influence which increased with the years and the difficulties.” She in turn was un­der the influence of “our Friend,” Raspu­tin, and complained that the country didn’t appreciate the mad monk. And this czar was actually governing.

Thus the life of the vast Republican coalition. We always knew about Rea­gan’s brain; but bamboozled by the mythology of realignment and a right-wing New Deal, we never really thought the brain was making decisions. We thought the miracle candidate was a sort of dum­my put up by the real government, the way bubbleheaded newscasters read scripts written by the real journalists. We thought George Shultz and Caspar Wein­berger were the government and Reagan their newscaster, which was, of course, reassuring, since Shultz and Weinberger appear to be moderate mullahs among the medieval fanatics, to indulge a crazed distinction. But no: Shultz and Weinber­ger were the dummies, there to project the proper image. Reagan was ruling all along. The right-wing institutions pollulating along the Potomac, the national conservative alliance, the cabals of new capital and Sun Belt entrepreneurs that we took to be the powers-that-be — none of these counted in the end. They were strong, but without the miracle man they were nothing. The miracle man therefore held the power. This we learned at Reykjavik, when the jolly, sprightly fellow went into the room all alone with Gorbachev, and not even the American press doubts Gorbachev’s version of what next occurred.

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Events have followed, then, an intelligible course. The ultras are committed to policies like overthrowing the Sandinistas that can only be accomplished with broad consensus support. They get in office and learn there is no consensus. Their own philosophy obliges them to forge on nonetheless, meaning, to connive and manipulate. And since they hold power only because they made the cynical deci­sion to back a miracle candidate, the con­nivances and manipulations necessarily take no shrewder form than the miracle man is capable of providing. Power seeps into the hands of Oliver North, the mad monk. And the path proceeds thusly: In­competence (the blowing up of the Beirut Marines and CIA station), Panic (the ef­fort to ransom Agent William Buckley after he’s instantly captured trying to re­build the CIA), Sentimentality (the effort to ransom everyone). Next comes Cupid­ity (the discovery that the Ayatollah pays cash, good for undercutting congressional bans on contra support). And finally the decision was taken, probably the weirdest move ever made by an American presi­dent: the decision to sell off half the na­tion’s foreign policy under the table in order to subsidize the other half. The popular part of the nation’s policy, ad­mired worldwide, the policy, that is, of antiterrorism: sold! The unpopular part, terrorism of our own: bought! It was a moronic thing to do. It was an action that probably thousands of Republican office­holders could have accomplished with more finesse. But in its main lines, in its ruthlessness to battle what is imagined to be the Soviet foe, in its willingness to have done with the inconveniences of de­mocracy, in its sense that now is the moment of danger and all is permitted, no matter what Congress or the people may desire — in these ways it answered perfectly to what the right has wanted of its president.

Of the members of the Nixon adminis­tration and underground, 20 were con­victed in the aftermath of Watergate. In the present affair, the pile of broken stat­utes has already grown knee-high, even without knowing what happened to the Sultan’s $10 million and the profits from the Ayatollah. There’s no way to figure, of course, who exactly will be convicted. North, the half-late William Casey, John Poindexter, Felix Rodriguez (who wears Che Guevara’s plundered watch), Luis Posada (the mass murderer), Elliot Abrams (the essayist), Richard Secord, George Bush, Robert MacFarlane, Robert Owen, Colonels Mott and Broman — these have to appear on everyone’s list of possibilities. The trials, when they come, will center on specific offenses, such as violat­ing the Arms Export Control Act (pun­ishable by two years in jail or $100,000 or both). But as always in cases like these, the real offenses will have been the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of traditional English law, meaning crimes against the essence of the state.

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THE HEARINGS SHORTLY TO radi­ate anew from every television will spread gladness and delight, of course, and for weeks and months to come, oh joy; but they will spread nonsense, too. For there is a reigning ideology in affairs like this, shared by prosecutors and legislators of both parties and the lawyer class general­ly, according to which politics is nothing and procedure is all. If only Defense and State had been consulted, as correct pro­cedural rules mandate. If only the Na­tional Security Agency was kept to size and not allowed improperly to swell. If only Oliver North’s long-ago hospitalization for “an emotional illness” had not been covered up, thus keeping the ex­-patient’s hands off the national steering wheel. If only Senator Pat Moynihan and select colleagues had been brought into the secret, as by law ought to have oc­curred. If only, then surely …

Lists of new procedures will therefore be proposed for the purpose of “saving the presidency,” as variously interpreted by conservatives and liberals, to wit: the conservatives wish the presidency saved from the liberals, and the liberals wish it saved from itself. The conservatives will seek less restraints for White House may­hem, reasoning that what really caused the Nica-Persian fiasco was a meddling press and hypocritical liberals. The liber­als will seek congressional control, rea­soning that sanity and common sense vary inversely with the geographical spread of a politician’s electorate. The liberal proposals will be vastly preferable. But what will even the most liberal of procedural reforms accomplish in the end? It can be predicted.

The year is 1995. For six years there’s been a new president. It is Jack Kemp. Why shouldn’t he be? Looks like Bob Forehead. Never been accused of selling a nuclear weapon to the Ayatollah. Ex-star. Chairman of the House Republican Con­ference. And President Kemp, a sincere man, sets about enacting his program. This program is not a secret. He outlined it on the New York Times op-ed, Decem­ber 23, 1986, under the ominous title “Trust the President’s Foreign Policy.” Key points are: support for the South African-backed mercenaries in Angola (“freedom fighters”). Support for the So­mocista cocaine traders in Nicaragua (more “freedom fighters”). Opposition to the Contadora negotiations, in spite of State Department preference for diplo­macy. No SALT II. Opposition to any congressional attempts to restrain these extremist policies (the president “must draw the line, and, if necessary, veto any reduction in his authority to conduct for­eign policy”). Also, “immediate deploy­ment” — never mind r&d, those are for sissies — of star wars. The reason: only thus can “Western ideals and values” be defended against the “ruthless, dangerous enemy.” The source of legitimacy: the Truman Doctrine, or rather, “the Roose­velt-Truman-Kennedy tradition.”

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So Kemp acts, and since his program is war-ish and produces actual corpses at the hands of U.S. proxies, he stands in need of across-the-board political back­ing, the kind of backing that the Truman Doctrine enjoyed in its early years. A large Cold War consensus is what he needs.

But there is no consensus. The scien­tists balk at star wars, hardly anyone likes the Somocista drug runners, support for South African mercenaries is confined to three counties formerly under federal occupation in Alabama. Since Kemp’s forehead is, after all, hirsute, Congress votes halfway support. But halfway mili­tarism is no use. President Kemp there­fore faces a choice. He can bend with the wind, which some might call democracy, and abandon his ultra position … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people are with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of themselves. Then set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Hold a meeting with some aging but ever-spry Cuban-Americans. Be decisive, by God.

So it’s 1995, and the TV is on. Con­gress is holding hearings. Prosecutors prepare preliminaries. Much has gone wrong, the simplest laws have been vio­lated, and everyone is astonished. Shocked! Everybody agrees what caused this new fiasco. It was the violation of procedures; they need to be strengthened. No one will propose the other explana­tion: that political parties can go bad, traditions can turn rancid. Yet this has plainly happened to the GOP, once the party of the upright business aristocracy, now the party of plots and conspiracies, the gangster party in modem politics. ❖

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From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Richard Nixon’s Real Motive Was Tyranny

Despite all the Watergate disclo­sures, despite the now-public re­cord of perfidy, crime, and repres­sion, we have not yet taken the measure or Richard Nixon’s vil­lainy. In an odd way, the Water­gate scandal, in the very process of exposing that villainy, diminished and domesticated it. What, after all, was Nixon’s intention when he covered up the Watergate burgla­ry — to safeguard his reelection, a political motive so commonplace that the very people who hated Nixon the longest were the least moved by his Watergate doings. They saw no essential difference between the young Nixon who red-­baited an election rival and the president who committed a number of crimes to avoid losing a number of votes. We have been in danger of remembering the first American president who ever harbored despotic ambition as just another crooked office-seeker in the long gray line. If so, the danger is past, thanks to a 32-year-0ld New Yorker staff writer (and native New Yorker), Jonathan Schell.

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In THE TIME OF ILLUSION (which Knopf will publish early in January — it first appeared as a six-part article in the New Yorker, last summer) Schell, the author of two books on the Vietnam war, has done what no Watergate expositor has done or could do. He has shown for the first time that the story of the Nixon administration, told fully from start to finish, from Judge Carswell to Judge Sirica, is nothing less than the tale of a tyrant’s rise and fall. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon. It is not the least merit of this powerful and perceptive book that we learn why Nixon thought he was telling the truth.

In January, 1969, when the 37th, president of the United States took his solemn oath of office, the American Republic presented a spectacle which filled him with personal loathing and high stra­tegic fears. Nixon believed, or eagerly chose to believe, that the United States was in dire peril, its security radically impaired, its defense against Communist aggression perilously weak. Nixon’s fears were not based on anything either Russia or China were doing or threatening; both had been not­ably docile for years. Nixon’s fears, according to Schell, were entirely theoretical. They were based on an elaborate strategic doctrine first espoused by Presi­dent Kennedy and distinguished both by its rigorous internal logic and its complete want of common sense. It is known, says Schell, as the “credibility doctrine” and Nixon’s adherence to it was immediately attested by his appointing its chief intellectual sire, Dr. Henry Kissinger, as his chief foreign policy adviser.

According to the credibility doc­trine, the only way the United States can forestall world-wide Communist domination without resort to nuclear warfare is to present to the totalitarian enemy an “image” of national “toughness” so ruthless and frightening that the masters of the Kremlin will think twice about reaching for global hegemony, thus sparing the human race from nuclear destruction. The price for this would be trifling — the occasional “limited war” in remote places to demon­strate America’s “determina­tion,” its “will and character” as President Nixon was to put it.

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By the time Nixon was elected, however, the credibility doctrine had developed a serious hitch. Be­sides omitting all human experi­ence except the 1938 Munich Pact, the doctrine had overlooked two salient domestic truths: (1) that the American people were not as “logical” as Dr. Kissinger, and were unwilling to offer up their sons’ lives indefinitely so that America might look “determined,” and (2) that the American people still had a voice in their own affairs. Specifically, as Schell rightly emphasizes, the American people wanted out from Vietnam, and by 1968 had proven themselves powerful enough to prevent a war president from seeking reelection and to exact from the new incumbent a hedged-about pledge to get us out.

In voicing their opinions and exercising their liberties however, the American people had committed the gravest of offenses in Nixon’s eyes: They had undermined America’s “credibility.” How would America project an image of toughness and determination when the body politic was corrupted by antiwar sentiment, by “neoisolationism” and war-weariness in general? How could America prove its credibility as the foe of totalitarian designs when the electorate was not only weak­-kneed and corrupted, but free to express its views? “It was Ameri­cans, not Russians or Vietnamese, who aroused the bitterest hatred in the administration. There might be foes abroad, but the ‘vultures’ and ‘eunuchs’ were all at home.”

Given the new president’s ad­herence to the credibility doctrine, given his absolute faith in its logic, Nixon felt compelled, in Schell’s words, to “make war against the American people” and against their ancient liberties in order to save America from Americans. This is Schell’s brilliant and fruitful thesis. At one stroke, all the deeds and misdeeds of the Nixon administration, its public policies and private machinations, its siege mentality, its secrecy, isolation, and obsessiveness, and, above all, its despotic ambitions, fall into place as intelligible elements of a consistent, compulsive strategy: to force a war-weary people to appear as ruthlessly tough and bloody-minded as the credibility doctrine required them to seem.

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How an American president and his henchmen waged war against their fellow citizens is the story Schell unfolds, and no brief sum­mary can do justice to Schell’s skill and intelligence in telling it. Consider, for example, what the White House conspirators re­ferred to as the “Presidential Offensive.” This was the bitter assault on the peace movement which the administration launched in late 1969 and conducted with increasing frenzy through the 1970 elections. At the time, the cam­paign alarmed and puzzled the commentators and since they could imagine no motive for dubi­ous presidential deeds save cheap electioneering, it was taken for granted that Nixon was simply trying to pull together an alleged “Republican majority” (in the 1970 elections Republicans lost 11 governorships). In fact, as Schell shows, the “Offensive” was dictat­ed, not by election tactics, but by Nixon’s overall credibility strategy, that of recreating the national image of toughness.

Knowing he could never hope to revive prowar sentiment, Nixon was attempting, with all the massed power of his office, to arouse what might be called anti-antiwar sentiment. Exploiting and provoking every rancor and re­sentment infecting American hearts, the administration un­leashed them like firebombs against the organized peace movement, which was variously held to be the advance guard of foreign Communist governments, of “rad­ical-liberals,” of the Democratic party, of a sinister “Establish­ment” and by the time of the 1970 elections, of nothing less than our entire corrupt “permissive soci­ety.” By silencing vocal antiwar critics Nixon hoped to repair somewhat the prevailing image of national weakness; by creating an atmosphere of rancor, hostility, and “hard-hat” nastiness, he hoped to arouse a kind of left-­handed support for terror-bombing, “incursions,” and nastiness in general. As Schell very shrewdly points out, even Nixon’s appoint­ment of Judge Carswell to the Supreme Court was part of his campaign of rancor. By deliberately provoking the Senate to re­ject a southern appointee, Nixon intended to fire the wrath of the South and so pump sectional bitterness, too, into the general emotional tumult.

The Presidential Offensive proved a limited success. Only a totalitarian dictator, wielding the weapons of terror, is powerful enough to make white appeal black by fiat. The more Nixon tried to turn America into the appanage of the credibility doctrine, the more impotent he felt himself to be, the more obsessed he became with his “enemies” the more se­cretive and lawless grew his tactics. “The most powerful men in the country — men armed not only with the great, unimpaired constitutional powers of their offices, but with an awesome array of new powers — had, in their own minds maneuvered themselves into the position of victims, whose rights were menaced by usurpers in television studios, rambunctious citi­zens in the streets, upstart congressmen, and saboteurs in the federal bureaucracy.” The more Nixon felt his “rights” being infringed, the more he was determined to concentrate all national power in the bunkers of the White House.

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What Nixon ultimately sought, says Schell, was power so great that he and he alone would repre­sent America. His power would be such that his own ruthless will would be the nation’s one will, his “toughness” the sole image of the national character. Congress, the press, the people, all the institu­tioos of a free republic were to be cowed or corrupted into silence and impotence, capable no longer of marring the image on which national survival ostensibly depended. At the end of Schell’s long and complex narrative we know beyond all doubt that this was Nixon’s mad final ambition, and that he had almost achieved it when the Watergate scandal broke and turned his ambition to dust.

One difficult and nagging ques­tion only does Schell leave unresolved in his narrative. The question, to put it starkly, is this: Did Nixon aspire to a presidential dictatorship because of his fanati­cal devotion to an abstruse stra­tegic doctrine or did he cling to that doctrine, with all its despotic implications, because he harbored despotic ambition? At first Schell gives an equivocal answer: “When President Nixon arrived in power, it seemed, he entered a realm of complex and demanding global military strategy … It was as though there were an isolated world of cold, abstract strategic theory which endured unimpaired from administration to administration.”

Well, is there or isn’t there? The Founding Fathers, who took poli­tics more seriously than theories, would not have equivocated this way. Here was an American ruler willing to destroy liberty in Ameri­ca in order to avert a danger which was entirely theoretical and, at best, remote. Indeed, the enemy was so far from our gates that Nixon visited their capitals to swap toasts, compliments, and trade agreements. Here, moreover, was a ruler who amply revealed a despot’s passion to control every­thing in reach (including the dura­tion of applause at the 1972 Repub­lican Convention) quite apart from any “global military strategy.” The Founding Fathers, I believe, would have concluded in a trice that Nixon’s tyrannical ambition was primary and that the credibil­ity doctrine, consciously or semi- consciously, provided the fuel upon which it fed. Of course Nixon would see himself as the national savior. Does anyone suppose that any man would lay siege to a 200-year-old republic armed with anything less than a savior’s pre­tensions?

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While reading The Time of Illu­sion I wondered why Schell had hedged. I thought perhaps he was reluctant to unsettle his narrative with that harsh, half-forgotten po­litical truth which the founders never forgot for a moment: that the love of lawless power is a genuine passion of the soul and though it appears in many guises — nation-saving is the gar­den-variety — it requires no politi­cal explanation, least of all by dubious talk of an “isolated world theory.” Then in a final chapter devoted to the credibility doctrine Schell cleared up the puzzle in a manner I can only describe as astonishing.

In this chapter, a sort of appendage to the book, Schell comes to the defense of the credibility doctrine. It is, he says, the first and only “sustained, intellectually co­herent attempt to incorporate the implications of nuclear weaponry into national policy.” He believes that the rulers who adopted it­ — Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon­ — were honestly, responsibly, and courageously groping for a means to stop communism without re­course to nuclear war. He believes further that if these three ruled in isolation from the people it was because the people, wallowing in consumer pleasures, lacked their leaders’ courage to stare mega-death in the face.

What is astonishing in this is its sheer credulity. Schell is ready to admit that the credibility doctrine is flawed even “on its own terms.” He grants that much of it is “pure guesswork.” But his criticism is mild and his heart is plainly not in it. Understandably so, for if the doctrine is flawed on its own terms, if its arguments consist largely of guesses, why on earth does he think Nixon was compelled to believe it. There is nothing compelling about a syllogism with a hole in it or an argument propped up with conjecture.

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The truth is, the credibility doc­trine is scarcely more than a concoction of begged questions, official effrontery at its worst. Its essential ingredient is not, as Schell supposes, the fact of nuclear weapons, but the old tattered Cold War assumptions about America’s need to stop a Communist drive for world domination, a mouthful of begged questions if ever there was one. Masked behind its fancy verbiage, the credibility doctrine lays d0wn the ridiculous proposi­tion that the only way America can show its will to fight for its vital interests is to show its eagerness to fight for nothing. The credibility doctrine did not provide Kennedy with a rational means to avert nuclear war. It provided him in 1961 with a handy rationale for reviving armed intervention and for fabricating endless foreign “crises” (“tests of will” as Ken­nedy called them) at a time when the old Cold War ideology was crumbling and Cold War passions waning. What “credibility” pro­vided Richard Nixon the reader of Schell’s book can judge.

Here, in all fairness to Schell, I must cease and desist. The final chapter of The Time of Illusion forms no essential part of the story he tells. He is rather like the author of a first-rate novel who foolishly appends to his narrative an afterword stating his “credo.” Such being the case, we ought to follow D. H. Lawrence’s advice about Tolstoy: “Trust the tale and not the teller,” for no one has told the story of the Nixon years with a tenth part of Schell’s intelligence, penetration, and eloquence. ❖

Walter Karp is author of “Indispensible Enemies,” an analysis of American politics.  

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From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Memories of the Reagan and Bush Administrations

“A scraping sound,” H. M. Enzensberger describes as the beginning of the end in his famous poem. The iceberg tore a jagged opening across the Titanic‘s hull, like the trail of a can opener. Not a very long or gaping breach, but just enough to ship tons of water into the engine room. As everybody knows, the biggest casualties were among the steerage passengers, huddled below decks with their bales of belongings, their infant chil­dren, and their identity papers.

Prevailing codes of civility required that women and chil­dren be placed in the lifeboats before the adult men. There are never enough lifeboats to go around; John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, along with several other bridge-playing gentlemen on A Deck. Like Enzensberger, and you, I have eidetic images of this event, jumbled with memories of Barbara Stan­wyck and Clifton Webb in A Night To Remember. There was that one cowardly million­aire in drag whose pant cuffs betrayed him in a Collapsible B as it floated away from the blazing lights of the Titanic. This individual was, I feel certain, the prototype of a kind of social criminal that flourished in Ameri­ca under Ronald Reagan, who had himself portrayed many spineless, good-fornothing playboys in films of the 1940s.

We spent a lot of time in the 1980s look­ing at TV and newspaper pictures of these arrestingly unenigmatic men. Rat-faced Elliott Abrams, lying through his teeth about Nicaragua on the 6:30 news. Grinning so­ciopath Oliver North, in full battle drag for the CNN cameras, exposing the Mafia in the White House basement while falling on his sword. Charles Keating, the Alvaric of Lincoln Savings, Dr. Mabuse hair in dire need of a rinse. The faces never stopped. Ivan Boesky. Michael Milken, Frank Lor­enzo. Whenever one of these hapless but stubbornly unrepentant glove puppets was thrown to the wolves, another was sighted in the middle distance, snapping the reins of Dracula’s carriage. The dogs bark, as Truman Capote noted in a different con­text, but the caravan moves on.

Where did they come from? It seemed that they had always been there, in one guise or another, pilot fish attached near the gills of much heavier marine life, si­phoning blood through strata of flesh and fat. Their social betters, born to rule, had swum through Phillips Andover and Yale, sometimes Choate and Princeton, though the Glove-Puppet-in-Chief, a petit bour­geois and adult child of an alcoholic, at­tended a farm college. (His Eve Harrington made Skull and Bones.) In a quieter if not more gracious time, the smaller fish would have been dashing parasites in the middle reaches of municipal banks and govern­ment agencies, brooding for years before skipping to Antigua with a bimbo and the monthly payroll. Or fourth-string advisers in Third World consulates, quietly going to seed while waiting for an Evelyn Waugh to become their Boswell.

The ’80s “empowered” such people, puff­er fish from the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution who inflated every 24 hours on Nightline, icky crustaceans like Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Al­lan Bloom, and Mary Matalin, weird left­over mollusks like Evans and Novak, Pod­horetz and Deeter, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Cap Weinberger. For the millions of outsiders whose noses were pressed to the aquarium glass, the most colorful and scary fish were the bot­tom-feeders. These creatures of the cold depths ranged all across the floor of the cultural cesspool, iridescent, luminescent, compellingly stupid. Their visibility in the tank sufficed to divert attention from the increasingly cannibalistic escapades of the larger fish. Randall Terry, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Richard Viguerie, Henry Kravis, Peggy Noonan, Al D’Amato: just a few of the lower phyla swirling among the grasses and weeds, aquatic ruminants emitting neurotoxins while nourish­ing themselves on fish droppings.

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I remember that in 1981 we were wor­ried about a war.

We were children of the ’50s who had cowered under desks during air raid drills, and some of us had had, through most of our lives, recurring nightmares about the hydrogen bomb. Then came Nixon and dé­tente, and Ford, who really seemed harm­less, and “the little Carter,” a man who grew peanuts for a living and clearly had no interest in blowing up the planet. At the tail end of 1979, though, all hell broke loose. The Shah was flown out of Iran, and some pious American imperative to add insult to injury caused us to bring him here. The American embassy in Tehran was seized. China resumed border skirmishes with Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union, being an ally of Vietnam and hav­ing already invaded Afghanistan, seemed poised to invade China. Nineteen eighty turned out to be a very nervous year, and at the end of it Ronald Reagan became president.

Ronald Reagan became president, and as he was sworn in the hostages were set free, and you did not need a congressional inves­tigation to figure out that some type of mickey mouse had occurred, some deal brokered by the dark forces that had steered Reagan through his years of selling out the Screen Actors Guild to HUAC, his stump speeches for GE, his Death Valley days, his gubernatorial terms in California. They were, it went without saying, the campfire guys from Bohemian Grove.

In the depths of the fait accompli, many of us lost all interest in politics. Some were turning into cocaine, others into heroin. Perhaps you, reading this, will say that you personally were trampling through the vin­tage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and if so, good for you, but I wasn’t.

I was interested in Mrs. Harris, who had shot the diet doctor. I was interested in Mark David Chapman, who had shot John Lennon. I was not especially interested in John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan that March, partly because he missed, and the assassination attempt somehow made Reagan more plausible, a hologram taking on ectoplasm.

At her trial, Mrs. Harris would say that under the spell of Dr. Herman Tarnower she had felt like a character in “Somerset Maugham’s Magnificent Obsession.” When it was pointed out to her that Maugham was not the author of Magnificent Obsession, Mrs. Harris claimed that it had just seemed too painful to say Of Human Bond­age. Mark David Chapman had a much-­thumbed copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket as he waited in front of the Dakota for John and Yoko; like Holden Caulfield’s, his innocence had been violat­ed by “phonies,” though Holden Caulfield never shot one. Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope that year, looked really, really cute in photographs. Another poor shot, though. One of the lessons of the 1960s was that only relatively useful people encounter competent assassins.

Martial law was declared in Poland. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. My friend Cookie Mueller, always in the van­guard, began watching MTV as soon as it came on the air.

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Surrealism sifted down from the top, a sense of unreality spreading out into unex­pectedly pliable parts of what had seemed solid, immutable. The new government, the new president, exhibited an implacable nut­tiness, the kind of drollery that can’t be argued with. It would be like arguing with Lucy Ricardo. The Department of Agricul­ture announced that ketchup could be con­sidered a nutritious vegetable in school lunches. The president wanted to cut more social services and pour billions into the military, to put an end to the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society type of programs. Hasta la vista the compassion thing, the affirmative action thing. He fired the air traffic controllers. He dissolved the board of the Legal Services Corporation on New Year’s Eve to keep block grants from going out to advocacy groups. He cited welfare princesses in Cadillacs. He recommended tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination.

It became evident that the new president could not talk. Or rather he could, being an actor, talk if he were reading lines, but his spontaneous verbiage never coalesced into sentences or paragraphs or even into intelli­gible non sequiturs. I suppose if you had asked him about Barbie he would have con­fused Barbie the war criminal with Barbie the fashion doll. He could not, after all, remember whether he had helped liberate the death camps in Poland, or had merely narrated a documentary about them, The soft, chewy, evasive language that had been such a remarkably damning feature of the Nixon crew’s Watergate testimony had re­turned to the penthouse level of govern­ment with a vengeance. Everything was hindsight, everyone misspoke himself, the most unequivocal statements needed to be clarified the next day, turned inside out, rendered meaningless.

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If you traveled a lot in those days, you were certain to notice this problem, this phenomenon of displaced persons, economic refugees, political refugees, people in flight, people from troubled Third World countries sweeping the streets of Germany and France, sweeping the streets and clean­ing the sewers, and it was clear that the local people, the ones who had rallied around Hitler and Marshal Petain, no champions of the melting pot, were becom­ing restive. A certain Nietzschean ressenti­ment could be detected in the daily papers of Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Par­is, Lyons.

There was Strauss in Bavaria, Le Pen in Marseilles, the National Front skinheads in Manchester and Liverpool and London. Something was taking its course, probably the incurable in human nature.

U.S. unemployment hit 10.8 per cent, though it was a boom year for the stock market. The war on drugs was announced, emphasis on interdiction and mandatory sentencing. And there was this new illness going around, something whispered about in gay bars, some people called it gay can­cer and some people called it GRID, you had to look hard in the papers for it, be­cause in 1982 gay people were decidedly not news, and the deaths of gay people, whether by homicide or disease, were welcomed, not at all quietly, by the people the new government coaxed out of the wood­work: Jesus freaks, white-collar criminals who would become Jesus freaks in country­club prisons, military brass who wore Jesus on their lapels with their kooky decora­tions, abonion-clinic bombers with Jesus at their side, civil-rights opponents with a spe­cial relationship to Jesus, John Wayne.

I was spending a lot of time in Berlin. You did not hear much about the epidemic in Berlin. The disease was something peo­ple picked up in America. It was widely believed that only a certain type of person got it, a person who had too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or took too many drugs, or the wrong kind of drugs, and people would tell you this, sometimes, just before or just after having sex with you, or doing drugs, etc., etc.

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In 1983, a lot of people who were mak­ing a lot of money decided that if they jumped up and down every day in a health club, they would never get cancer, heart disease, or old.

In 1983, several people I knew were car­ried off by AIDS-related pneumonia.

In 1983, traveling behind the dreaded Iron Curtain, I discovered Ronald Reagan’s true constituency: Central European intellectuals and professional types who were, for the most part, immersed in politics as an all-male, heterosexual club, an arena for jousting between randy cocksmen, some armed with state power, others clad in the drag of superior moral truth and historical victimhood. They despised feminism, and indeed any systemic critique of the status quo except the concepts of anticommunism or anticapitalism. In Budapest and Prague and East Berlin, only the Jews seemed aware that the CP had kept the lid on pogroms, ethnic warfare, border clashes, etc.

It was the would-be Kundera types, the Brodsky and Milosz wannabes who had been unlucky enough to stay behind, the ones who weren’t getting that foxy tight pussy in Paris and London and New York, the chauvinists who wrote elegant and pow­erful books about repression and who yet maintained a stubbornly repressive attitude toward women, homosexuals, and quite of­ten people of other races and nationalities, who adored Ronald Reagan and his rhetorical willingness to go nuclear. The Soviet Union, they said, would only back down in the face of massive military confrontation, endless threats, endless displays of Ameri­can force around the world.

At home, polling data revealed that throughout his presidency Reagan was not an especially popular chief of state, and that the political views of most people had shifted, if anything, further left. This didn’t translate at the ballot box because more and more people stayed away from ballot boxes, perceiving no practical advantage in endorsing one or another spokesperson for the superrich and the defense industry.

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That year, Reagan announced his Star Wars vision. It had, it was said, come to him in a dream, screened through some vague memory of an army propaganda film he’d acted in during World War II: an ultrapowerful death ray, mounted on an ultrafuturistic multibillion-dollar orbiting space station full of special sensors and laser mirrors and stuff like that, could, with one press of a magic emergency button, zap intercontinental ballistic missiles in mid-­flight and turn them into butterflies. No one believed this, really, but it was an en­chanting fantasy, and Congress passed most of the money for it.

CDs hit the market for the first time.

The Cabbage Patch doll, with its cute computer-generated face, dominated the Christmas toy market. Two hundred and forty-one marines were blown to pieces in Lebanon by a kamikaze truck driver. Gre­nada, with its ominous stranglehold on the world’s nutmeg supply, was suddenly recog­nized as a threat to America’s national se­curity. An invasion was launched, resulting in the bombing of a mental hospital and the capture of four or five Cuban engineers who were rolling an airfield for the Minis­try of Tourism Eventually, 8612 medals for valor would be awarded for the Grena­da microwar. Fewer than 7000 people had participated.

The playwright slept with me for a while and then he stopped sleeping with me, which was fine, except that I missed him, not all the time, but regularly at three 1n the morning, when I had often kissed him in my sleep, or in his sleep, or wrapped my legs around his waist, or rubbed his back. or his feet, and quite often he spoke 10 me in his sleep, he called me Swee1ie. But of course, looking back on i1, he may not have been talking to me at all.

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There were wild men roaming the back hills of Idaho and Colorado, men with large, cultlike families, children with straight greasy hair who’d been yanked out of public schools to learn marksmanship at home, where a ten years’ supply of canned food was kept next to the AK-47s in the bomb shelter. They believed in skin color as the organizing principle of their particu­lar mammal clan. They believed that Ron­ald Reagan might himself be a socialist, a tool of the Trilateral Commission. or a dupe of the Kremlin. Every so often, these people shot a policeman, or clubbed an Asian to death, causing the media spotlight to settle, briefly, not on their alarming numbers, but on the special features of their delusional system. These included the concept of survival as a full-time obsession, tax revolt as a revolutionary tool, and old­-time patriarchy as the will of God. Which turned out to be not unlike the opinions aired on Crossfire, or printed in Commentary and The New Republic, except for the inside-the-beltway caveat that, of course, it was wrong to attack people, wrong to kill people one disagreed with, unless the vital economic interests of the country were at stake.

It must have been that winter that I fell, deeply and insensibly, in love with a junkie. I have always had a weak place for junkies, for semi-helpless people with Christ fixa­tions, people who believe, usually for good reasons, that they are doomed. Beautiful losers, debutantes gone awry. He could’ve done the cover of GQ without much effort, but he wanted, I think, someone with ex­travagant will to scoop him up and save him, and this is where, perhaps, Mark Da­vid Chapman’s favorite novel and I have something in common. I tried, and after he sold the entire contents of my apartment on the street, I gave up.

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At any given moment, you had an investi­gation or a set of hearings or a probe going on, often several at the same time, in the House or Senate or Justice Department or FBI, and along with these investigations, hearings, and probes, you got leaks, fol­lowed by denials, and eventually by confir­mations, followed by subpoenas and indict­ments. A chestnut from the Nixon period­ — “how much did he know, and when did he know it?” — became the favorite, irrelevant question of the White House press corps.

Language as a medium for describing re­ality underwent deconstruction. “I don’t re­call,” “I can’t remember,” “I have no recollection of that,” were considered acceptable euphemisms for “I’m not going to tell you.” If an embarrassing or litigable fact leaked, one could credibly claim to have been “out of the loop,” even if one happened to have been in the same room where the loop was.

The president was said to be a grandfa­therly type, naturally charming, genial, who never became ruffied by anything. And it was said, later, by people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, that these ingrati­ating qualities, added to the fact that the press was always accused of excessive liber­alism and therefore felt obliged to be more than fair, accounted for the media allowing him a free ride, never clocking his mistakes, never finding him accountable.

The principle of unaccountability was an important nuance. It signaled that the Cap­tain really was just a Spokesperson, a com­fortingly wrinkled ventriloquist’s doll. The unaccountability thing became the Wash­ington drug of choice. When the White House chief of staff’s proximity to Iran-­contra fell under scrutiny, he asked, with a note of pique, “Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books?”

It was the year of Miami Vice and Bho­pal. Daniel Ortega won a free and fair elec­tion in Managua, an election heavily monitored by representatives of the previous U.S. government. The Reagan people im­mediately declared it null and void, and for years this election was treated by New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer and in most U.S. newspapers as if it had never occurred.

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Even though I did a fair amount of cultur­al reporting in 1985, it’s hard to remember in any detail what was going on. Words like simulacra, Other with a capital O, appropri­ation, and infotainment were in high vogue. The art world had already seeped past its usual coterie boundaries when national magazines discovered the East Village Art Scene, causing a flood of suburban trust­-fund bohemians and boutiques to inundate the neighborhood, displacing thousands of working-class stiffs. Now painters and sculptors and their newly decorated country homes were turning up in People, in Archi­tectural Digest, and on Page Six, their par­ties and benefits and plans for world domi­nation reported in gossip columns.

Real estate values were pushing through the roof. The Dow Jones average finished the year at 1546, an all-time high. Buying and owning were the art world things to do. Ditto the Wall Street thing to do. Buying, owning, getting married.

“We Are the World” went platinum.

General Dynamics was indicted for con­spiracy to defraud the army. Years later, General Dynamics would opt to lay off thousands of employees rather than retool for civilian industry. Capital Cities Com­munications seized ABC. General Electric seized RCA, which controlled NBC. Laur­ence A. Tisch, owner of Lorillard tobacco, seized CBS.

A volcanic eruption in Colombia killed 23,000. An 8.1 earthquake in Mexico City killed 7000. Mob boss Paul Castellano was shot outside Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. A hole in the ozone layer was reported by British scientists.

The president had cancer, or, as the Rea­ganese du jour had it, a little, noncancerous thing inside the president had some cancer in it. Namely his colon. A few months be­fore the little thing inside the president had cancer, the president visited an SS ceme­tery in Bitburg, Germany. He declared that the soldiers of the SS were, in their way, victims, just like the Jews in Auschwitz. Because they were all, you know, kind of inside a little thing called World War II.

Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and it was felt that his death would bring the epidemic into focus for people who had so far ignored it. Rock Hudson had been, after all, a friend of the Reagans, beloved by millions, and, in private life, by all accounts, a sweet guy. But the focus settled a bit to the side of the larger issue: on Rock Hudson’s secret gay life, Rock Hudson’s ex-lover’s lawsuit, the actual size of Rock Hudson’s estate, and on whether or not Rock Hudson should have kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty. The lesson of Rock Hudson’s death became boilerplate for every celebrity AIDS death, i.e., “even a movie star can get AIDS,” as though it were widely assumed that fame immunized a person against physical misfortune.

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The next year, we retaliated for the bomb­ing of a disco in Germany by bombing Tripoli. In the absence of hard evidence that Libyans were actually involved in the German disco bombing, the State Depart­ment assured us, as did the president him­self, that the ruler of Libya was a “mad dog,” similar to Hitler, and therefore crazy enough to lash out at a vastly superior mili­tary foe.

The Senate approved $100 million in aid to the contras, an army of mercenaries left over from Somoza days in Nicaragua, most of them drug dealers with ties to what was traditionally referred to in Pentagon circles as the “disposal problem,” i.e., the old Bay of Pigs veterans who, with backup from jailbird flotsam from the Mariel boat lift, now ran the coke business in Miami. Ever since they may or may not have helped assassinate JFK, the anti-Castro Cubans had been on one or another federal payrol — of the CIA, FBI, NSC — biding their time, with scapulars of the Virgin Mary and Batista clasped to their chests along with the gold chains and the coke spoons.

Baby Doc fled Haiti with most of the national treasury. Years later, the Bush people would open a concentration camp for Haitian refugees at Guantánamo, re­minding many Americans who’d forgotten that throughout 30 years of economic blockade, the U.S. has maintained a mili­tary base on Cuba itself.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines with billions. The space shuttle exploded. The Chernobyl reactor exploded. A lake in Cameroon exploded, killing 1700.

William Rehnquist became chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. An­thony Scalia was confirmed as associate justice.

Mergers in the airline industry. More mergers in communications.

The Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal was reported in a Beirut newspaper.

Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was shot on the street in Stockholm.

Unemployment fell to 6.6 per cent.

In The World Almanac’s Sixth Annual Heroes of Young America poll, Eddie Mur­phy was chosen as Young America’s “Top Hero,” followed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Cosby, Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Spring­steen, Eddie Van Halen, and Harrison Ford.

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What do you call these things, I asked the psychiatrist, where you don’t sleep with the person, but become so involved with him that the two of you behave like people in the throes of passion? You have fights, you make scenes, you spend hours gazing like cows into each other’s eyes, and even the people you are sleeping with become secondary figures in the drama, extras you go home to, members of the chorus.

Well, the psychiatrist said, I’d call it barking up the wrong tree, frankly.

Everyone was under indictment. The principle of unaccountability was part of the mandate of surrealism. Unless you were caught, preferably on videotape, with your hand in the cookie jar, what you knew and when you knew it, or what you did and how you did it, were matters of pure conjecture I and speculation. Unless someone had actu­ally seen you hurl your wife out the win­dow, or shoot her up with an overdose of insulin, the beau monde would flock to your defense, throw cocktail parties and banquets in your honor, write profiles of you in Vanity Fair.

Nobody was responsible for anything bad. And if you had, in fact, been caught doing something terrible, your entertain­ment value shot up.

Wearing a green velvet Carolina Herrera dress, Nancy Reagan presided as guest of honor at a fund-raising dinner at the Met: pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce. In Managua, Times journalist Stephen Kinzer valiantly continued report­ing the horrors of Sandinista land reform and free day-care centers.

There was a stock market crash in 1987. The Dow ended the year at 1938, down from 2640 on October 5. Ivan Boesky pleaded guilty to insider trading.

In 1988, Panama’s General Noriega was indicted for drug dealing by a Florida grand jury.

The largest leveraged buyout in history occurred in 1988, when RJR Nabisco, which employed 12,000 people in its tobac­co division alone. was acquired by Kohl­berg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., an investment firm with 15 dealmakers. Thanks to Willie Horton and Read My Lips, the baton of shininess passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush.

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We had, according to the papers, partially overcome “the Vietnam syndrome,” which meant, as far as I could tell, partially forget­ting the experience of losing a war. Reagan had sounded this theme and backed it up by bombing various backwaters where actu­al battle and troop loss were unlikely, though Lebanon was a miscalculation. Ever since Vietnam, Americans had displayed the petulance and pettiness of sore losers, stoking the issue of MIAs, which involved some satanic fantasy of GIs pressed into slave labor long after the war was finished. It did not matter to anyone that the Vietnamese had over a million dead to mourn, or that their landscape was still toxic from American chemicals. In Vietnam. it is com­mon for two men or two women to hold hands while walking in the street. Here it’s an incitement to murder, and we have an active lobby on our local school boards determined 10 keep it that way.

I suppose I fixated on him because of the rotten times we were living in, with more rotten times expected ahead, and we ended up clinging to each other like two wet rags stiffened by a sudden drop in temperature. He wouldn’t make love because he was scared, and I convinced myself, you see, that having him around would be enough, and then, in a tentative frightened way, he began to open up, began getting physical, and I thought, Well, there, he loves you after all. Months passed. He became more and more open, more available, more talk­ative, more passionate, more insistent about the convolutions of his psyche, the turmoil our relationship was stirring in his soul. I thought he was coming to love me, and actually he was having a nervous breakdown.

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George Bush was not loved by the peo­ple who simply lived in the country, the faceless thousands strung out on revolving credit and bad mortgages, the people who lost their jobs when their plants packed up for Mexico, the folks who found themselves without enough insurance when the inevita­ble neoplasm rolled around. He was not loved by people with HIV infection and AIDS or the people who cared about them. He was unloved by people of color.

The press enjoyed, especially at the end, telling us that Barbara Bush was, in fact, widely admired, but I despised her chicken­wattle face and that gleeful malice in her eyes — this phony grandmother who proba­bly carried on in private like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, cya­nide pellets hidden in the pearls — and a lot of people fell the same way.

George Bush was not loved, because he’d had the silver spoon thing going from Day One, and that Yale Skull & Bones thing, and everything he did, to cop a phrase from Robert Wilson, was just Instant Hitler. The deals with China, the April Glaspie cables, Clarence Thomas, Iran-contra, and that ghastly massacre in Iraq. The land of hope and glory thing didn’t work on him, not really, not for long. He’d climbed on the ticket in 1980 by renouncing abortion rights and endorsing what he’d previously called voodoo economics, and rode the coattails straight into a brick wall.

Everybody knew he had no principles except Me First. He epitomized hypocrisy. He had that whale Marlin Fitzwater blubbering in the briefing room, and that other horror Margaret Tutwiler, two dead ugly people who blinked so often you knew they were pulling one over, and it won’t surprise me, you know, if they’re all under indict­ment tomorrow morning, Tutwiler, Fitz­water, Mephistopheles Baker, the whole greasy crew with their High Episcopal pre­tentions, their sycophants from Fordham, that Kristol nightmare whom they brought in to teach Quayle the alphabet, the Council on Competitiveness, and all the other no-neck monsters who went that extra mile to make ordinary people’s lives a living hell.

George Bush was not loved by the people who own the country. He was jumped-up, not in a brash oil millionaire sort of way, or a Kennedy Mafia bootleg sort of way, but in a thin, simpering, obsequious way. He whined. He was obviously vindictive and mean-spirited. He believed, you see, in no­blesse oblige in New England, but he kept a hotel room in Texas as a phony sunbelt pedigree, and that showed you he was neither fish nor fowl. He was the American Andropov, with too many ugly things on his resumé. He had to go. David Rockefel­ler endorsed Clinton.

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As I write this, Channel 17 features, at certain hours, several seriously disturbed individuals posed in front of an Israeli flag, vowing vengeance for Rabbi Kahane. They refer to Arabs as “Jew-hating cockroaches on two legs.”

There is, still, years after the 1967 war, a widely held view of Israel as a victimized and embattled state, surrounded by hostile Arabs, when, in reality, the state of Israel is a heavily armed welfare client of the U.S., actively engaged in what would be called, in a different setting, ethnic cleansing. The Israelis deport and jail people arbitrarily, engage in torture, bulldoze houses belong­ing to Palestinians.

I’ve always believed that the state of Isra­el should have been established in Lower Bavaria, to keep things secular. The state of Israel was established like this: you are sit­ting in the living room of the house your family has lived in for several generations. Strangers smash down the front door and, using their gun butts, force everyone up to the attic, declaring that they owned your house a thousand years ago, it says so in some sacred book, and anyway, some other people threw them out of the place they were living in, etc., etc. Now they want the attic, too, since you have relatives living next door that you can move in with.

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We could do the Berlin Wall, or the mi­raculous Fall of Communism. The refugee populations pouring over the old borders, the Balkanization of the Balkans, the break­up of the Soviet Union into myriad nucle­ar-ready zones, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Time-Warner merger, Tiananmen Square, HUD, the $ 166 billion price tag on the S&Ls, Mitsubishi’s acquisition of Rockefel­ler Center, Sony’s buy-up of CBS and Co­lumbia Pictures. We could do the invasion of Panama, the execution of Ceauscescu. We could do the budget deficit. We could do the trade deficit.

Or the Quayle thing, which everyone said was impeachment insurance for George Bush, but it said something else to the country at large, and what it said was, We’ve had Charlie McCarthy for eight years as Number One, and now Number Two is going to be Howdy Doody.

A theory. It was something about taking things on faith for a little while, and some­thing, in the end, about exhaustion. Since the beginning of the Cold War, American governments had misidentified the Soviet Union as the enemy of the country, when the actual adversaries of American business and its partners in the Pentagon were Japan and Western Europe.

The false enemy was forever depicted as technologically inept, incapable of manu­facturing a working light bulb, yet dangerous, because of its state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal. The real enemies were persuaded to underwrite our budget deficit, with the false understanding that their markers would never be called in.

These fables worked long enough to dump a lion’s share of 40 years of public money into research and development for General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, Boeing, General Electric, and other defense contractors, who were the true welfare queens of the era. As capital was diverted into increasingly pointless products like the 8-1 bomber and Star Wars, with no reinvest­ment in civilian enterprise and infrastruc­ture, our competitors were able to outstrip us in most areas of practical benefit and con­oern to the general population.

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A theory. It was something about the por­cine lack of inhibition that the newly rich displayed while celebrating their ascendan­cy: the $1000-a-plate fundraisers, the con­stant parading of patriotic symbols, the ero­ticization of contempt. It was about the pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce juxtaposed with three million homeless rooting around in garbage cans for bits of food. It was George Bush com­plaining to Florida hurricane victims that his own little shack in Kennebunkport had sustained a bit of damage, too, so he knew how they felt. It was George Bush telling Katie Courie on Today that he’d testified 450 times, under oath, about Iran-contra, when he in fact had testified exactly once. It was too many dubious foreign affairs, too many tin-pot dictators transformed into mad dogs and Hitlers whenever the presi­dent’s approval rating hit a slump, too many telegenic bombings of sleepy desert capitals. It was George Bush trying to win an election with a war everyone had forgot­ten, since hardly any of our own people were killed, and the Hitler du jour, re­mained in the saddle.

The Big Lie works great when you’ve just built the autobahn and invented the Volks­wagen. It doesn’t work at all when the auto­bahn’s falling apart and no one can afford a Volkswagen.

But it worked for 12 years, and the people it worked for aren’t the types to fade quietly into outer darkness. They’ll be around, some waiting to do a few months in a resort slam­mer, others blowing bubbles in their think tanks, ruminating on family values, the evil lifestyle of homosexuals, the glories of war, the absolute sanctity of money, and the mot­to of Republicans the world over. Admit Nothing, Blame Everybody, Be Bitter. ■

Research Assistance by David Lewis 

Categories
From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

The Avengers: Journalists of the Right Rejoice

A happy new year to you, and now let’s lend an ear to some of our more prominent national commentators who have in the last few weeks or days proposed:

• The mining of Iranian harbors;
• The threatened mining of Cuban ports;
• The theorem that opposition to General Haig’s appoint­ment is tantamount to appeasement of the Soviet Union;
• The resurrection of the House and Senate Internal Security committees;
• The appointment of Henry Kissinger as secretary of state;
• The notion that Ronald Reagan has confirmed the view of 19th century German philosophers that “if we could but pierce the veil of appearances we would see that History is intelligible, logical and progressive.”
• The … but let us pause for a moment, doff our hats, and listen to the words of James Reston, vintage ’45:

“The principle that governs the press, or should govern it, is that the selling of news is a public trust. When the reporter writes a story that affects the interests of the people and the newspaper sells it, they in effect say to the reader: here is the truth to the best of our knowledge; these are the true facts; you can base your judgement on them, in the full knowledge that in this country the judgements of the people de­termine our actions as a na­tion.

“The same kind of rela­tionship exists between a doc­tor and his patients. The doc­tor affects the physical well-being of his patients; the reporter affects the men­tal well-being of his readers; unlike the doctor, the reporter is neither asked nor permitted to prescribe what his readers need to make them ‘well.’ But, like the doctor, he has the opportunity to poison them, and the main difference, it seems to me, is merely that the reporter can poison more of them quicker than the doctor.

“The reporter is thus performing a social and public service of the highest possible value …”

It’s a little unclear, actually, whether Reston was talking about the provision of truth or poison when he invoked “service of the highest possible value.” That was back in 1945. Today, certainly, it’s just a matter of citing poison of choice.

Every age gets the journalism it de­mands and the journalism it deserves. Right now, ankle-deep in the Reagan era, the situation looks pretty grim.

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A Straight Line
The proposals quoted at the start of this article stem from William Safire, Nor­man Podhoretz, Patrick Buchanan, James Reston, and (the one about History) George Will. These propagandists and their colleagues on publications from The Wall Street Journal to The New Republic — a shorter distance than you might sup­pose — are the paramount cantsmen of our time, our ranking opinion molders, hegemonic, as poor old Gramsci used to say.

Once in a while newspapers and news magazines take an interest in facts and encourage reporters to go out and discover them. Probably the last time this occurred was in the “investigative era” of Water­gate. Facts everywhere you looked back in 1974, and the readers couldn’t get enough of them. Investigative journalism was the dominant idiom. But it all dragged to a halt in the late ’70s and our friends the cantsmen took over as the dominant force.

By way of illustration, consider the coverage given of Richard Allen. All through the campaign of 1980 Allen was Reagan’s chief foreign-policy adviser. The Voice, in early summer, raised the possi­bility of a million-dollar bribe request from Allen when he was in the Nixon White House. No commotion ensued, which was not particularly surprising. On the eve of the Republican convention Mother Jones displayed the slimier aspects of Allen’s record in considerable detail. In the brave old days of full-tilt investigative journalism Allen would have been denying on the first day, unavailable the next, and over the side of the Good Ship Reagan by cock-crow on the third. Not in 1980. Then, on the eve of the election, Jonathan Kwitny of The Wall Street Journal gave Allen’s record a heavy dose of carpet-bombing. This time Allen did take himself out of the Reagan com­paign. Not for long. Here he is, back again as national-security adviser to President-­elect Reagan and not much the worse for his experience.

It isn’t that investigative journalists did not do their best, it’s more that nobody particularly cared. Same thing with Haig. When news of his impending appointment as secretary of state began to circulate, The Washington Post dutifully stamped on his fingers, reciting infamies of the (bad old days of) Watergate. Anthony Lewis uproared in The New York Times. Reagan smiled, went to the barbershop (“Get me the president!” “He’s under the drier.”) and the nomination of Haig proceeded apace. The Washington Post stamped on his fingers a little harder, displaying at length his record as an accomplice in crimes and misdemeanors, and all reliable sources agreed that his confirmation is virtually assured.

Time was when the announcement that the prospective secretary of labor was in the construction business in northern New Jersey would have sent the investigative teams surging forth high in heart and appetite. In fact someone did surge forth, and duly reported that there was this little matter of a payment to a political slush fund and so forth, and next thing you knew everyone was talking about the Times Sunday magazine story on the de la Rentas. (“In the rarefied atmosphere of New York society, Francoise and Oscar de la Renta have created a latter-day salon for le nouveau grand monde — the very rich, very powerful and very gifted.” Hard to know where that leaves the magazine’s editor, Ed Klein, but that’s another story.)

So far has the pendulum swung that when Ronald Reagan came out from under the drier to suggest that it was really enormously big-hearted of these big busi­nessmen to momentarily abandon their huge salaries and sink their teeth into big government — a step down, I think he said­ — no one got too exercised at this particular way of commending a cabinet to the coun­try.

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Opinion in Disguise
Outrage has become a sort of hiccup: Reagan appoints his personal attorney; Reagan appoints noted phone-tapper; Reagan appoints pre-eminent environ­mental rape & pillage man to run Interior; Reagan … Oh well. Then he calls the Iranians “barbarians” and vanishes under the drier again.

What has happened is investigative journalism — conducted from the liberal end of the journalistic end of the spectrum — was the appropriate mode to deal with Watergate. In its period of baroque decline which followed, it became the weapon with which William Safire harried the Carter administration. Bad luck for Bert Lance, but it didn’t do much, long-term, for investigative journalism.

Amid the ebb of investigative journal­ism, opinion mongering became the pre­ferred mode, in reconsolidating consensus post-Vietnam and in battering flat the fringe of progressive or liberal ideas that accompanied Jimmy Carter into office in 1976. The opinion-mongers sometimes came in semi-disguise.

Consider the post of what we may call the national security correspondent of The New York Times. Once upon a time this slot was filled by Leslie Gelb. In this particular firmament, pre-Carter, he could be described as a liberal in matters of defense, arms sales, and so forth. He later joined Cyrus Vance’s State Depart­ment. Gelb’s place was taken by Richard Burt, formerly of the Institute of Strategic Studies in London, who vastly impressed A. M. Rosenthal as the person best suited to bring some hawkish snap back into the Times‘s defense-cum-national security coverage in the Carter era.

For four years Burt banged the Brzezinski/Brown drum in The New York Times. Now paralleling the elevation of Gelb, he is accompanying Haig into the State Department. This job at the Times is becoming so politicized that Rosenthal should properly hold confirmation hear­ings for his successor.

There is, then, the Richard Burt type of opinion-mongering, dressed up in the cloak and whiskers of “high sources,” “high of­ficials,” and “intelligence analysts.” In­sidious and highly effective. People stopped talking about Pentagon boondog­gles and cost overruns (old days of in­vestigative-journalism) and began to worry about the encryption menace to SALT II.

With that treaty now trodden safely underfoot, maybe the trend will swing back to boondoggles. Grumman made the enormous mistake of allowing the civilian sector (New York City) to examine one of its products at close quarters. Perhaps someone will ask why we should believe that a corporation which cannot get a bus to the next corner can get a plane to the next war.

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Role Call
But nowadays, Burt aside, most opin­ion comes dressed nakedly, as opinion. The day of the conservative columnist, editorialist, even “news analyst” has come round again: The tasks are simple enough: restoration of confidence in conservative ideas, business ideals, and imperial verve. The executives are familiar, in the shape of Safire, George Will, Buckley, the Com­mentary gang, the editorials of The Wall Street Journal, Peretz’s slice of The New Republic, the Georgetown mob, the Kissinger claque (overlapping), and the ideo­logical imperatives more or less summed up in the thoughts of Norman Podhoretz and the Mobil commentaries.

The executive-level columnists operate in differing tempi of malignity. There are the traditional courtiers: a Hugh Sidey in Time, a Reston in The New York Times, for whom the essential project is to crook the pregnant hinges of the knee and gobble cock. Whether Nixon’s, Rockefeller’s, Ford’s, Carter’s, or now Reagan’s is almost irrelevant. Form here dominates content.

Such courtiers aside, you can take your pick in almost any paper from here to Los Angeles: the manly parafascism of a Bu­chanan or a Buckley, whose recent trip to Latin America produced a rich trove for his fans, as in this magnanimous report on the Pinochet regime: “But no American can say, with any sense of historical au­thority, what liberty he would now be enjoying if he had had a bout with Salvador Allende. Certainly those Ameri­cans who wrote the laws governing licit political activity in Germany after Hitler understand what some people consider to be the imperatives of political re-educa­tion.”

For those who find these two a little raw, there is the high-toned approach of George Will, who preferred Baker to Bush and Bush to Reagan until, the victor clear­ly in view, he discovered that the Califor­nian had realized the views of the German philosophers quoted here. Since he quotes dead people a lot, Will is commonly re­garded as a man of culture and refine­ment. And as befits such a gentleman, you sometimes have to read him twice to dis­cover what he is actually saying. For ex­ample: “In the 1970s the nation deferred investment in productive capacity, de­ferred investment in defense, even de­ferred having babies. I do not think it is fanciful to see a connection between the conservative tide from the polling booths and the bustle of activity in maternity wards. The decade of deferment is over. The nation now says what the philosopher says (Waylon Jennings, philosophizing in song about Luckenbach, Texas): ‘It’s time we got back to the basics of life.’ ”

The notion here seems to be that the Democratic way of life is sterile, that “the basics” amount to having babies and then wars to get rid of the results. This is like the recent endorsement of the American insurance companies for fat— that Ameri­cans should be fatter, and thus more able to tolerate chemotherapy in old age. Given Reagan’s plans for the environment (cancer), this may not be such a bad plan.

For those who find Will a shade pom­pous there is Emmett Tyrrell Jr., pasticheur in sub-Menckenese, for Meg Greenfield, high priestess of The Washing­ton Post ed and op ed, representative of neo-conservatism with a human face. The prose is cute but not the sentiments, at least au fond as we say in the restaurant business.

I could ramble on down the broad high­ways of mainline journalistic con­servatism: and sometimes it is almost comical to spend a morning’s newspaper reading trudging through the familiar ter­rain, from Kraft to Evans & Novak to the incoherent hysteria of the New York Post‘s editorial columns.

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Safire’s Passive Bombs
Liberals often confess to a frisson of pleasure in reading an artful dodger like Safire. And his views are indeed sometimes diverting, as in, “The idea [Safire’s, or Nixon’s, not always clear whose] is to threaten to mine Cuba’s four main ports. Mines are a passive weapon; no ships are sunk unless they choose to detonate the mines …” In the same way, we must assume that bombs are passive, in the sense that no one is killed unless he stands underneath one.

There are even enthusiasts for Norman Podhoretz, living illustration of the fact that structural paranoia is no impediment to success in public life.

But these pleasures should be dis­missed as nostalgia for a way of life that has gone, when Podhoretz was merely Making It, and Safire the distraught apologist for Nixon in his early pundit days. They are now both swimming securely in the mainstream, one giving ideas to Reagan, the other getting them from Nixon, both secure in public esteem. From Podhoretz to Moynihan to Kirkpatrick to Peretz to Jackson to Safire … Bipartisan consensus, ready to march to the ports of Cuba, the harbors of Iran, the domino of EI Salvador. Throw in a brisk bout of witch-hunting, as in the treatment of the Institute for Policy Studies, and you will see how far the clock has moved on — and back — from the high days of Watergate. The mainline press is, more firmly than ever, under the thumb and padlock of the powers that be.

It hasn’t taken long to get the political culture under control again after Vietnam and Watergate: the academics are quiet, the public-interest movement reeling, the poor subdued, and the broad acres of newsprint relatively undisturbed by dis­commoding ideas with only the occasional white tail of a liberal rabbit scuttling across the pastures. So far as ideological consensus is concerned, amid the hosan­nas and homilies of the cantspeople, the stage is set. ❖

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Shirley Chisholm: ‘They will remember a 100-pound woman’

The tiny glittering black woman stood utterly at attention. She wore a suit of stiff brocade that fitted her shoulders so snugly it gave her a faintly military air. There was, in fact, something about her that suggested the Salvation Army. Perhaps it was only her stiff shoulders, or perhaps also her frequent references to the Lord. Then, too, she had a way of drawing herself up even straighter and stiffer in her moments of intensity, looking then totally charged with inspiration, a small quivering ramrod of righteousness.

“I’m here to tell you tonight, yes, I dare to say I’m going to run for the Presidency of the United States of America!” she uttered at the climactic center of her speech. When she said the word “dare,” she fairly squinted with indignation, and, propelled along now by her own anger, she told her audience she was out to prove to the public “that other kinds of people can steer the ship of state besides the white men …”

“Regardless of the outcome,” she continued, more slowly now for emphasis, “they will have to remember that a little 100-pound woman, Shirley Chisholm, shook things up!”

The small and hyper-tense black Congresswoman from Brooklyn was speaking to some 1300 of her supporters in a ballroom of the Americana Hotel three weeks ago. The occasion was the first fund-raising dinner for her Presidential campaign, and she had drawn to it just about everyone of importance in Brooklyn and Manhattan politics, including John Lindsay. A night of glory for her, the dinner raised some $60,000 and demonstrated her considerable drawing power in this city.

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But before another week was out, her still unofficial candidacy would appear to be shaking up Shirley Chisholm every bit as much as it was shaking up the male politicians she so longed to unnerve. For she went at the end of the week to a conference of black elected officials at Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, where she was made to feel only barely welcome. The few female politicians in attendance did react warmly to her, but the black male congressmen, who appeared to be calling all the shots, were almost openly contemptuous of her.

Thursday evening (November 18) a cocktail party for the visiting black politicians was held in a large room in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill. It was a gathering of black celebrities, who, like their white counterparts at such affairs, basked in the smiles of pretty girls, looked around to see who else of importance was present, and generally gave off that ineffable air of people who have made it and know it. Success seems to break down all philosophical barriers at Washington cocktail parties, and on this evening, at least, success had gathered in the same room black men as disparately oriented as the Nixon and Kennedy officials who showed up at the first Kennedy Center party.

So Robert Lee Grant, the tall, handsome black Republican who was fired last summer from his HUD job for shooting his mouth off against Agnew, stood easily in the same room with General Chaffee James, the black Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense whose job it is to tell the Pentagon’s version of the news to the press. General James was the kind of man who could sound respectably militant on the color question (“I think there are two blacks we can do without, that first one and that only one”) and the next moment sound like General Turgeson on the subject of his son’s 400-plus bombing missions in Vietnam. If you circulated around the room and listened to the talk, you could become quickly disillusioned about the salvific powers of black skin in America­ — that is, if you were white and liberal and secretly convinced that the blacks just had to be better. They had suffered too much at our hands. But there wasn’t much of the halo effect of suffering floating around that room in the Rayburn building. And there was to be a notable absence of halos among conference members during the next two days, an atmospheric condition which you had to be able to sense in order to understand what was really going on between Shirley Chisholm and what has come to be known as the black political caucus.

Omens of Mrs. Chisholm’s problems were evident at the cocktail party. When cornered and asked about her, Congressman Lewis Stokes (the brother of Carl Stokes) shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and uttered mock groans. Congressman William Clay of Missouri said, “Who’s Shirley Chisholm? You don’t represent The Village Voice, you can’t represent The Village Voice!” And he, too, laughed. Mrs. Chisholm was to be dealt with by the cruelest of all insults — she was to be ignored.

She herself soon around at the party looking as if she was having a good time. She was wearing a more functional woolen suit this time, again with the square-shoulders of a Salvation Army uniform. Women approached her in an almost endless stream, some of them just shyly shaking her hand and walking away, the bolder of them saying things like “We have admired you from afar all the time.” A vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women told me Mrs. Chisholm was extremely popular with black women. And for the next two days she did have an extraordinary way of dividing every gathering of blacks quite neatly along strict sexual lines.

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Indeed if there had been a larger proportion of women among the 300-odd blacks who attended the conference that weekend. Mrs Chisholm might have gotten the the endorsement of the black political caucus. As matters stood, however, she was treated to chilly courtesies, being asked to sit on the dais at one luncheon to introduce a speaker, and being given the moderator’s seat on a panel discussion of childhood and early development.

The latter assignment royally peeved her, and she stood up in the first Friday morning session of the conference to let the assembled men know she couldn’t understand why she had been left off the important political panels when she was the only serious Presidential candidate among them.

“For over 21 years this has been a part of my life,” she said, quivering with rage. “They’re always plotting and planning for me, but Almighty God has burned me up… Shirley Chisholm is the highest elected black woman official and, for those of you who don’t know it, the Democratic National Committeewoman from the State of New York. You’d better wake up!”

Her outburst made the evening news and a New York Times headline the next day. It did little to change her status with the black male congressmen.

The conference itself produced little news, and though there were closed discussion sessions, nothing conclusive was decided beyond the vote to hold a black political convention sometime early next year. There were sessions on techniques for designing districts to preserve black Congressional seats, sessions which made the whole black caucus seem like a tardy and futile effort, for it was generally agreed that redistric­ting plans should be ready and presented to the courts by the end of the month, wherever legislatures were gerryman­dering blacks out of their seats. (But one reporter thought even court efforts would yield small gains for blacks, the courts themselves being frequently political provinces.)

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Thus the interesting drama of the conference was the unspoken game of tug-of-war between Shirley Chisholm and the center of the male congressmen’s group, which appeared to be somewhere close to wherever close to wherever the Stokes brothers hung out. Ever since the black Congressional caucus had been meeting with other black politicos and civil rights leaders (a series of meetings, regional and national, which began several weeks ago), reporters had been hearing rumors that the male congressmen had wanted to run Carl Stokes as the black Presidential candidate. But Julian Bond, who had attended some of the meetings, had told people he was for running locally popular blacks in each of their various states. And by Friday night of the Washington conference, Lewis Stokes was to say the same thing.

In any case, Shirley Chisholm had definitely out-maneuvered her male colleagues, spoiling any chances for multiple black candidacies, locally based, and embarrassing them by making the rift between her camp and theirs very public. The whole point of their effort was to bring a solid bloc of united black delegates to the Democratic Convention, to bargain on plat-form issues of importance to their constituents. Perhaps as a result of their efforts, the National Democratic Committee chair­man, Larry O’Brien, had met with Congressman Charles Diggs (the leader of the black Congressional Caucus) and promised him blacks would get 20 per cent of the action in 1972 — whatever that meant. (The 20 per cent was a figure derived from the percentage of blacks who voted for Humphrey in ’68)  O’Brien later made some grand gestures to a group of female leaders (Mrs. Chisholm included), which may mean that by the time he is through dealing with factions, he’ll have promised away a good 200 per cent of “the action” before the convention. (A ‘youth caucus’ is expected to go begging to O’Brien in a few weeks.)

Throughout the conference, Mrs. Chisholm told people she had decided to run in response to the urgings of various individuals and groups. One source, an aide to a powerful New York Democrat, told me he thought she’d decided to run largely because she resented the way the male black leaders had ignored her in their initial efforts to build a national black political caucus. But she had been invited to a large meeting they held in Chicago several weeks ago, and she’d declined the invitation, sending a representative who asked the group to support her candidacy. Imamu Baraka (LeRoi Jones) is reported to have said, in response to this appeal, “Don’t women have race, too?”

When I asked her in Washington who some of the individuals and groups urging her to run were, she got quite indignant.

“I don’t have to reveal my strategy to you!” she snapped. “They’re groups of women, groups of young people, Chicanos. That’s all I want to say.” (She rattled off the same list of groups to a soft-spoken black student reporter.)

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What may really have decided her is something her most trusted political adviser discovered in Brooklyn before she ran for Congress in 1968: there were approximately 3000 more registered females than registered males in the black assembly districts of her Congressional district. Her ad­viser, an old statistician and experienced pol named Wesley Holder, told me he didn’t know whether this kind of sexual demography was the same nationally in black districts — but it may be an educated guess that it is.

There is no question about her appeal to black women. At a reception she held Friday night the weekend of the conference, one man approached her with a warm offer of help for her North Carolina campaign. “My wife is so impressed with you,” he said. He was not alone.

And she can turn on young crowds with her blazing, intense oratory. At the September voter registration rally in Pittsburgh where Lindsay was less than triumphant, she was interrupted by wild cheers and got a hearty standing ovation when she’d finished her talk.

These powers failed to move her black male colleagues, however, and during a reception she held for conference participants Friday evening, she was challenged on her dealings with them. Some of the questions put to her appeared to be drawing blood. She stood, surrounded by the admiring and the curious, answering their question and ultimately taking off into an impromptu speech.

Someone asked her a question about her strained relationship with the black male Congressional leaders.

“This is very, very distressing to me,” she said. “As of this moment the black elected officials have not really come up with their strategy. Meanwhile, people are moving, and the essence is time. This is politics! … In good conscience, I can’t hold back.”

She put in a special word of praise for Ronald Dellums, the freshman congressman from California (he was to make an unsuccessful bid for a Chisholm endorsement in a closed con­ference session later that evening), then she got angry again. Her body quivering, her voice fiercely lowered, she said, “How many of them assembled here do not already have a commitment someplace and still talking about a black thing?” She apparently wanted that to sound like more than a rhetorical question, but she never named a specific conference member who might be committed to another candidate.

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A man asked her whether it wasn’t true that she had been “initially asked to write the black agenda?”

“I don’t care to get involved in those details,” she answered quickly. “I was invited to the big meeting they had out in Illinois, but they knew I couldn’t go because I was in Texas and New Mexico collecting delegate votes … Because I am a woman, because I am black I’ve always had to do that work.”

“Was the caucus involved in your decision?” asked the same man.

“Not involved,” Mrs. Chisholm curtly replied. “Further question,” she said impatiently, turning her head away from the man. Then she appeared to think she ought to expand her answer. “My candidacy first developed from many, many people,” she said, asserting once again that she’d been urged to run by several groups six months ago.

After several additional questions, she warmed to the group and made her impromptu speech. She held her audience spellbound, skillfully alternating the rhythms and tones of her words, at the end looking truly possessed, with her arms drawn in, her eyes shut tight, and her voice deadly serious. She was moving and appealing; her feminism compellingly drew upon the sympathies of her almost solidly black audience, people who knew only too well the cruel pinches of discrimination. But there was a high strain about her, and a constant hint of paranoia. She sounded as if she knew she’d never capture the black caucus and as if this had been a great hope she was having trouble relinquishing.

“I can withstand the abuses, the insults,” she said passionately, “but I’m not gonna let anybody cover me up in a dirt hole.” Then, growing gentler, she said, “My brothers, if you can’t come along with me, I ain’t mad at you. But please, for God’s sake, you know my record. Don’t becloud the picture. Don’t lie!

“When people go out and say, Shirley Chisholm, she may become a captive of the women … and when you hear brothers saying you can’t talk with her, that’s because I’m a different breed of politician. I don’t wheel and deal morning, noon, and night. I am truly unbought and unbossed.”

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“Unbought and Unbossed” is the title of her autobiography. It’s a phrase that does not totally fit her politics. For her trusted ad­viser, Wesley Holder, is on a small scale a very competent political boss. He was borrowed from Brooklyn in 1958 to help J. Raymond Jones and Adam Clayton Powell win a difficult Harlem race. And Holder himself says proudly that “Shirls” makes no major decision without consulting him. Holder handles her Brooklyn office, dealing with most constituent problems and maintaining a policy of non-involvement in local controversies.

There are some indications that Mrs. Chisholm is closely allied with the Lindsay camp, although one certainly couldn’t say that means she has been bought by Lindsay at this point. Lindsay was the chairman of her fund-raising affair at the Americana three weeks ago. And Mrs. Chisholm will, in turn, be a sponsor of a $25-a-head Barry Gottehrer testimonial dinner in mid-­December, which should raise money for Lindsay’s campaign. One Lindsay aide told me that the Mayor’s and Mrs. Chisholm’s organizations in Brooklyn were synonymous. (This aide also spoke highly of Holder, recalling the days during the 1969 mayoral race when Holder would get all the local Lindsay people holed up in his unventilated office, drinking straight bourbon. By the time such meetings were over, said the aide, “I’d agree to everything he said.”)

And Mrs. Chisholm is considered a pragmatist on Capitol Hill. She is reported to be quick­-witted and effective in committee meetings. Mrs. Chisholm made startling news, of course, when she first arrived at Congress and refused her appointment to the House Agriculture Committee. Since then, however, she repor­tedly made her peace with the House leadership. And though she now denies it, it is widely believed on Capitol Hill that she voted for Hale Boggs as majority leader in exchange for an appointment to the House Education and Labor Committee. That vote was done by secret ballot, so even Boggs’s people can’t prove she voted for him, but Washington reporters recall that she didn’t deny it at the time. (In Washington more recently, she angrily told me she had never voted for Boggs.)

Among reporters she is described as a politician who does not do her constituent homework. But she does so much public speaking that such criticism may just be clever speculation. She gets $1500 per speech, and her schedule during the week I followed her fortunes was so packed that her staff told me to interview her between sessions of the conference. (She was always too busy to stop for an interview with The Voice, although she found time for CBS.)

One reporter who is most critical of her — although reluctant to lash out at her in print — is Dick Oliver of the Daily News. In 1969, Oliver was assigned to look into the case of Lance Corporal Ronald V. Johnson, a black Marine who had been convicted for allegedly raping an Okinawan girl. Ultimately Oliver’s investigations got Johnson a new trial and he was acquitted, but along the way, Oliver and Johnson’s supporters found it difficult to get Shirley Chisholm interested in his case — ­though Johnson’s home was in her district.

In the fall of 1969 a Daily News political reporter approached Mrs. Chisholm at a news con­ference to ask her whether she’d seen the stories about Johnson. She told the reporter she was too busy to get involved.

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In early 1970, when Johnson was scheduled to have his second trial, his attorney began to fear he would be hit with a drug charge because the military authorities were so angry with him. The at­torney called Oliver who in turn called Mrs. Chisholm’s office. She was out of town, but her staff did give Oliver permission to say she was upset about Johnson’s predicament. And as Johnson’s case looked better and better, said Oliver, Mrs. Chisholm began to champion it more strongly. “When we needed her, we didn’t have her. But later on, when we didn’t need her, she was there,” Oliver said recently.

Now Mrs. Chisholm is thought of as a staunch defender of blacks in the military. She recently sent one of her aides to Germany to in­vestigate racial problems among American GIs there.

Shirley Chisholm is a mixed bag. She can be calculating and manipulative; she can sacrifice principle to expedience; she can be courageous and moving; she can be hysterical one moment, sharply, dazzling rational the next.

She has announced that she will enter the Florida, North Carolina, and California primaries, the last of which makes no sense for a black who wants to contribute delegates to a black caucus at the convention. Whoever wins the California primary takes all the delegates to the convention; thus California blacks would do better to ride on the slate of a strong black candidate.

At this point, Mrs. Chisholm’s candidacy is obviously troublesome to her black colleagues in Congress. And though reporters find her good copy, they can’t understand why she’s running. It may be sheer ego; it may be her tenacious feminism that has motivated her. But this is the reason I overheard her telling a cluster of black women at the conference: “After this is over, I’ve done my thing for America … This is my legacy for the folks. Somebody has to have the guts to show the others we can do it.” ❖

Categories
From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Good Morning, Mr. President!

1. A conservative is a man who does not think anything should be done for the first time.     Frank Vanderlip 

2. A liberal is a radical with children and a house.

3. A politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man.     ee cummmgs 

4. A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.     Jimmy Walker 

5. Abstain from beans.     Aristotle (From ancient times this phrase has been subject to two interpretations: 1) Don’t eat beans: they’ll make you fart. 2) Don’t take part in politics [beans were used to cast your ballot in ancient Greece]. Actually, of course, the two meanings are the same.)

6. An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.     Simon Cameron, Republican boss of Penn­sylvania, about 1860

7. An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public.     Talleyrand

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8. At three o’clock Thursday afternoon
THEODORE ROOSEVELT
will walk on the
WATERS OF LAKE MICHIGAN
Handbill printed by opponents of TR during the Republican National Convention of 1912.

9a. Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the White House?     Mark Hanna, 1900 (referring to Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination for the vice-presidency)

9b. Now look, that damned cowboy is president of the United States!     Mark Hanna, 1901 (after the assassination of McKinley.)

10. Don’t put no constrictions on da people. Leave ’em ta hell alone.     Jimmy Durante

11. Every Republican candidate for president since 1936 has been nominated by the Chase National Bank.     Robert A. Taft, 1952 

12. Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.     Louis XIV

13. Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.     State senator George Washington Plunkitt of New York and Tammany Hall, 1905 

14. Ez to my princerples, I glory
In hevin’ nothin’ o’ the sort;
I ain’t a Whig, I ain’t a Tory,
I’m jest a canderdate in short.
James Russell Lowell. 1848  

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15. Generally, young men are regarded as radicals. This is a popular, misconception. The most conservative persons I ever met are college undergraduates.     Woodrow Wilson

16. I always voted at my party’s call
And never thought of thinking for myself at all!
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the ruler of the Queen’s navee!
W. S. Gilbert, H. M. S. Pinafore

17. I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was that all saloon keepers were Democrats.     Horace Greeley, about 1860

18. I never trust a man unless I’ve got his pecker in my pocket.     Lyndon Baines Johnson

19. Henry Clay: I would rather be right than be president.
Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, in reply to Clay’s words:
The gentleman need not worry. He will never be either.

20. It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.     Mark Twain, 1894  

21. It is a fine thing to command, though it be but a herd of cattle.     Spanish proverb

22. It’s all so solemn. Somebody will get up and say: “I thank the gentleman for his contribution,” when all the guy did was belch or gargle. Now I’m all for back-scratching, but I’d like to see a wink once in a while.     Representative James Tumulty, Democrat of New Jersey, 1955. 

23. Let 100 flowers bloom.     Mao Tse-tung
Let 100 flowers be drowned in manure.     Stalin
Let 100 flowers be exported.     Fidel Castro
Let 100 flowers be DDT’d.     Senator Joe McCarthy
Let 100 flowers be shot.     Enver Hoxha
Let 100 flowers be smart bombed.     Kissinger
Let 100 flowers be sold.     Richard Nixon
Let 100 flowers be rented.     Nelson Rockefeller
Let 100 flowers be dropped.     Gerald Ford
Let 100 flowers be dried.     Senator James Buckley
Let 100 flowers be fired.     Mayor Beame 

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24. More men have been elected between Sundown and Sunup than ever were elected between Sunup and Sundown.     Will Rogers 

25. One out of four U.S. Senators is a millionaire.     AP report, 1971
In the highest lowest places O
I’ve heard that premise defended:
Rich men can’t be bought: No!
(But they can be rented.)
Tuli Kupferberg  

26. Open each session with a prayer and close it with a probe.     Representative Clarence Brown, Republican of Ohio.

27. Reactionary concepts plus revolutionary emotion result in Fascist mentality.     Wilhelm Reich

28. Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.     Mark Twain, 1882 

29. Socialism changes its color according to its environ­ment. For the street corner and the clubroom it wears the flaming scarlet of class war; for the intellectuals its red is shot with tawny; for the sentimentalists it becomes a delicate rose-pink; and in clerical circles it assumes a virgin-white, just touched with a faint flush of generous aspiration.     Ramsay Muir, 1925

30. Some defeated candidates go back t’ work an’ others say th’ fight has jest begun.     Kin Hubbard

31. That the politicians are permitted to carry on the same old type of disgraceful campaign from year to year is as insulting to people as would be a gang of thieves coming back to a town they had robbed, staging a parade, and inviting citizens to !all in and cheer.     Edgar Watson Howe  

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32. The dispensing of injustice is always in the right hands.     Stanislaw Lee

33. The necessary and wise subordination of the military to the civil power will be best sustained when lifelong professional soldiers abstain from seeking high political office.     Dwight D. Eisenhower 

34. The only crack that got under his skin was Secretary of the Interior Ickes’ comment that “Wendell Wilkie is just a simple barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”

35. The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for a man with political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent.     George Washington Punkitt 

36. There is always some basic principle that will ultimately get the Republican party together. If my observations are worth anything, that basic principle is the cohesive power of public plunder.     Senator A. J. McLaurin, Democrat of Mississippi, 1906. 

37. Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.     Dwight D. Eisenhower  

38. Today the world — tomorrow the United States!     CIA

39. Upon the slightest resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, annoyed, hunted down, pulled about, beaten … sold, be­trayed … bound, imprisoned … judged, condemned, banished … shot … sacrificed … that is to be governed.     Pierre Joseph Proudhon

40. Vote for me and I’ll fuck you forever.     Hip politician

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41. We always contribute to the funds of the political parties for their election campaigns in the states. Where the issue is too uncertain the (sugar) trust subscribes to the funds of both parties, in order to have some influence on the winning side, whichever it may be. Henry O. Have­meyer, 1951 

42. We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future, unheeding of our individual fates, with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!     Theodore Roosevelt, 1912

43. We’d all like t’ vote for th’ best man, but he’s never a candidate.     Kin Hubbard  

44. The constitution provides for every accidental contin­gency in the Executive — except a vacancy in the mind of the president.     Senator John A. Sherman, Republican of Ohio.

45. What a man that would be had he … the least knowledge of the value of red tape.     Sydney Smith 

46. When change of rulers happens to a state
‘Tis but a change of name unto the poor.
Phaedrus, about 25 B.C.  

47. Who are they, as bats and night bogs, askant in the Capitol?
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great judges? is that the President?
Then I will sleep awhile yet — for I see that these States sleep.
Walt Whitman, To the States, 1860  

48. Ye could waltz to it.     Finley Peter Dunne, referring to the oratory of Senator Albert J. Beveridge, Republican of Indiana.

49. You don’t set a fox to watching the chickens just because he has a lot of experience in the hen house.     Harry S. Truman (on Vice-President Nixon’s candidacy for the presidency, 1960)

50. You tell me where a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.     Mark Twain. 

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES News 2021 POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Bill Barr: The “Cover-Up General”

Attorney General William Barr Is the Best Reason to Vote for Clinton

A federal judge accuses the Justice De­partment of trying to “shape” a case in­volving illegal loans to Iraq. The House Judiciary Committee blasts federal attor­neys for compromising their reputation for impartiality in the investigation of a com­puter-software theft. CIA officials charge a deputy attorney general with advocating the suppression of evidence in a sensitive sentencing hearing.

To even the most avid scandalmonger, these may sound like the ravings of a fe­vered Orwellian imagination. But in fact they are all part of a litany of wrongdoing leveled at George Bush’s Justice Depart­ment in the past two months alone. And at the center of the criticism is the chief artic­ulator of Bush’s imperial presidency, the man who wrote the legal rationale for the Gulf War, the Panama invasion, and the officially sanctioned kidnapping of, foreign nationals abroad — Attorney General Wil­liam P. Barr.

So fast has Barr’s star dimmed in recent months that even conservative pundits like The New York Times’s William Safire have taken to calling him the “Cover-Up General.” But so poorly understood are Barr’s ties to the president himself that the fires now threatening the Justice Department have barely singed the Oval Office.

To some Washington insiders, that comes as a surprise, for Barr is surely the closest thing this administration has to a court philosopher. Through the policy deci­sions he has authored, first as assistant at­torney general and finally as the chief him­self, he has fashioned a coherent, radical ideology for a White House that is only ostensibly middle-of-the-road.

While the president, for example, hails a “new world order” based on the rules of law, Barr’s briefs give us broken interna­tional covenants. Though conservative pur­ists pretend that the Justice Department remains reactive, the attorney general, bol­stered by an activist Supreme Court, sets aggressively conservative social agendas on everything from abortion to immigration­ — while stalling off inquiries into a myriad of scandals. Indeed, nothing better sums up the political gospel and failings of George Bush’s reign on the eve of this election than the handiwork of his chief lawyer.

SON OF THE CIA

It was 21 years ago, in 1971, that I first encountered William Barr. Both of us were working for the CIA at the time, he as a novice China analyst, I as a member of the agency’s Vietnam task force. Jovial and un­assuming, he took his cues easily from an overly politicized office chief. It was a to­ken of things to come.

Three years before, we had brushed shoulders unknowingly on Columbia Uni­versity’s roiling campus. Both of us were on the other side of the barricades as antiwar demonstrations there blasted our genera­tion into a decade of rage. Barr, a conserva­tive student spokesman, preached tough­ness to the university administration, of which his father, then dean of the engineer­ing faculty, was a leading light. Years later, this same damn-the-torpedoes zeal would commend Barr to his ultimate father figure, George Bush. When Cuban refugees penned up at an Alabama prison rioted and took hostages in the summer of 1991, depu­ty attorney general Barr ordered the place stormed. Soon afterward, Bush tapped him for the attorney general slot itself.

Barr first met Bush in the CIA. In 1976, having shifted to the agency’s legislative office, he helped write the pap sheets that director Bush used to fend off the Pike and Church committees, the first real embodiments of Congressional oversight of the CIA. Intimates say the experience was for­mative for Barr, turning him into an impla­cable enemy of congressional intrusions on executive prerogative.

“The most radical period I had probably was when I was sort of a moderate Republi­can,” he later acknowledged. Sure enough, Barr stayed safe within conservative clutch­es even after leaving the agency in 1977. Armed with a night-school law diploma, he asked for — and got — Bush’s backing for a clerkship appointment to Malcolm Wilkey of the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Years later, as attorney general, Barr would name Wilkey to investigate the House Banking scandal. Wilkey repayed the favor with a wrenchingly partisan in­quiry. Feeding the press overheated charges of wrongdoing, he scored points off the Democratic Congress just as the adminis­tration itself was being pilloried for its failed economics.

THE EDMUND BURKE CLONE ASCENDENT

During the 1980s Barr bounced between government service and a prestigious Washington law firm that would later rep­resent one of the key defendants in the BCCI affair. Barr assured Congress in 1991 that he was long gone from Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge by the time it took on its dubious BCCI client. Still, the appear­ance of compromised interests would dog Barr at Justice, particularly as its own in­vestigation of BCCI stalled.

“Like your typical Wall Street lawyer… not a table pounder” was how one of Barr’s legal sparring partners remembered him during his days at Shaw, Pittman. In­deed, “corporate” was written all over him. Though he never tried a case in court, he took on the causes of some of the firm’s starchiest clients, including a nuclear utility in a whistleblower case.

Briefly, in 1982, Barr left the firm for a stint in the White House’s Office of Policy Development. Congress took no action on his two main portfolios, abortion and tu­ition tax credits for low-income parents of private school students. But he did strike up a useful friendship with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. This relationship would later help propel Barr to the top spot at Justice and nurture speculation among critics that he was a White House toady.

In 1983 Barr returned to law practice and laid low for the next five years, thus avoid­ing the Iran-contra tar baby. But as Bush launched his presidential bid in 1988, Barr joined the campaign team and, among oth­er things, helped fend off attacks on Dan Quayle’s character. His loyalty was quickly repaid. In late 1988, Barr became the first assistant attorney general to be installed in the wake of the election.

He also began flexing his ideology in pub­lic. During a congressional hearing at the time he boldly acknowledged having “doubts” about the constitutionality of the independent counsel statutes because of what he saw as their limiting effect on pres­idential power.

For the next two years, as chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Coun­sel, Barr played a key role in shaping Rich­ard Thornburgh’s stormy tenure as attorney general. In a job that was essentially politi­cal, he helped maintain the administra­tion’s ideological purity by screening out judicial candidates who weren’t conserva­tive enough. He also drafted two key docu­ments rationalizing the U.S. invasion of Panama and the seizure of General Manuel Noriega.

If Barr had made no other contribution to the imperial pretensions of George Bush, these documents would nevertheless qualify him for hero status in the Republican pan­theon. The first “opinion,” written in June 1989, recognized the president’s right to dispatch FBI agents abroad to arrest for­eigners even in violation of international treaties. The second document, issued the following December as American forces geared up to invade Panama, gave a patina of legality to the president’s desire to use the military in similar takedown opera­tions. Together, the two memos enshrine what has come to be known as the presi­dent’s “snatch authority.”

In an inevitable seignorial flourish, the administration refused to release the com­plete contents of these documents, even to Congress. But over the years, enough of their flavor has seeped into the press to take one’s breath away. Writing in the June memo, Barr argued that both the president and, through him, the attorney general have an “inherent constitutional power” to au­thorize certain overseas operations, includ­ing abductions, to fend off “serious threats” to U.S. domestic “security” from “international terrorist groups and narcot­ics traffickers.” Such actions, he said, are mandated by the Constitution and domes­tic law and can be undertaken even in the face of objections from a foreign government or provisions of the UN Charter bar­ring the use of force against member nations.

When Congress first got wind of these astonishing theories, in November 1989, Barr insisted that they represented no poli­cy change. But weeks later, the Panama invasion kicked off, and the following spring federal agents infuriated the Mexi­can government by arranging to have a Mexican doctor, who had helped torture and murder a DEA agent, abducted and spirited to the U.S. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the legality of that action. Though the conservative ma­jority approved it on the grounds that our extradition treaty with Mexico did not spe­cifically bar kidnapping as a law enforcement tool, Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, seemed to be speaking for many Americans when he decried the ruling as “monstrous.”

“It is shocking” he wrote, “that a party to an extradition treaty might believe it has secretly reserved the right to make seizures of citizens in the other party’s territory.”

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IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME

From the moment the “snatch” memos be­came news, nobody on Capitol Hill seemed in doubt about their authorship. But sur­prisingly, the rancor didn’t rub off. Some­how Barr kept even his critics convinced that he was a conciliator, the type of mod­erate conservative you wouldn’t mind hav­ing to dinner. Journalists tell the story of how on the eve of the Panama operation he charmed the guests at a Thornburgh Christ­mas party by showing up in kilts with bag­pipes under his arm to play for hours. Where Thornburgh rankled, Barr soothed. For an administration increasingly beset by scandal and economic malaise, this capaci­ty for the light touch proved a valued asset.

In mid 1990, as Thornburgh’s own prob­lems with Congress deepened, Barr was tapped to run interference, and was named deputy attorney general. The appointment came just in time for him to draft another landmark tract for the administration, the legal pretext for the undeclared war against Iraq. It would have made any Nixonite proud. Explaining it later to Congress, Barr said he believed there was a “gray zone” between a declared offensive war and an emergency defensive action where “there is latitude for the president, if he believes that the vital interests of the United States are threatened by foreign military attack, there is room for him to respond.”

Barr did not make clear how the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait equaled an attack on vital American interests, but to his credit, at the moment of decision itself, he did counsel the president to soften the impact of his unilateral rush to war by seeking a declaration of congressional support. That piece of advice, much akin to Johnson’s leveraging of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, helped to keep the naysayers at bay.

Barr’s service to the administration, how­ever, wasn’t limited simply to such flashes of political savvy. In 1991 he became active in stone-walling the Iraqgate and the BCCI investigations and further gratified conser­vatives by keeping up the tattoo on their favorite hot-button issues. Embracing im­migration policy as his own, he helped craft an exception rule that automatically barred HIV-positive sufferers from entering the country. Civil libertarians charged illegal discrimination and even racism, since many of those excluded were black Hai­tians. Barr assured Congress that the policy was meant only to keep out people who might be thrown back on public welfare.

Flogging another conservative hobby­horse, Barr fought hard as deputy AG to keep federal courts from expanding their right to review state criminal convictions on writs of habeas corpus. As a devout Catholic, he also pandered to the antiabor­tion crowd, even “torquing” the law in Au­gust 1991 to advance their crusade. The challenge came when a federal judge in Wichita issued an order barring anti-abor­tion demonstrators from blocking access to a clinic. The Justice Department inter­vened to try to force a lifting of the ban. Later asked about this by Congress, Barr gave an exquisitely technical rationale, as­serting that though the demonstrators were “lawbreakers… treading on other people’s rights,” they “should be dealt with” in state court, not federal court — thus the federal judge’s order was unenforceable.

It was vintage Barr, a neat fileting of the law for a political end. Democratic prede­cessors had done the same. But what made Barr an irritant to critics was his adeptness at it.

ATTORNEY GENERAL AT LAST

If any single event assured Barr’s final as­cendancy, it was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation. At his confirmation hearings in November 1991 Barr admitted that Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had gathered evidence against Hill and commu­nicated with her congressional critics, but he denied any impropriety. “It is my under­standing,” he testified, “that OLC lawyers did not go proactively to investigate Anita Hill… [but] performed the traditional role of lawyers, which was to take the informa­tion coming in, transcripts, statements, and so forth and analyze them.”

Democratic senators were not convinced, but because the Hill-Thomas fight had been so bitter — and because no one wanted a replay of the fractious hearings that had greeted Robert Gates’s bid to become CIA director — Congress cleared Barr’s nomina­tion with barely a protest.

When Barr finally moved into the AG’s chair in late 1991, he talked tough about combatting drugs and crime and immedi­ately shifted 300 FBI agents from counter-intelligence work to antigang and violent-­crime squads. In addition, an inner-city program that he dubbed “Weed and Seed,” aimed at weeding out violent criminals and revitalizing neighborhoods, was soon ele­vated to administration policy.

For all the fanfare, however, critics sensed little more than smoke and mirrors. The Noriega conviction, which Barr touted as a major blow to narcotrafficking, pro­duced no slackening of the drug flow through Panama. Moreover, the Rodney King affair and the subsequent L.A. riots exposed a glaring contradiction in the de­partment’s get-tough policy on crime.

Responding to the acquittal of King’s po­lice attackers, Barr empaneled a federal grand jury to investigate. But, lest he offend Bush’s law-and-order constituency, he con­tinued to stall off other initiatives. Over a year ago, Representative Don Edwards in­troduced a bill making it a federal crime for a police officer to engage in a “pattern” of excessive force and empowering victims to sue to stop such abuses. But under the hammering of Justice and some friendly senators, the still-pending bill lost its teeth, degenerating into a simple authorization that would permit the attorney general him­self to sue offending police departments.

On top of this, Justice officials have pi­geonholed until after the election two long-promised, potentially explosive studies of 15,000 police brutality complaints from across the-country. The delay outrages black leaders, who fear further frustration and violence. “The department’s response to this issue has been totally inadequate,” the NAACP’s Washington director Wade Henderson recently told the Legal Times.

On other fronts, displays of partisan ex­cess under Barr’s stewardship are becoming bolder, more transparent. Last summer, in deference to the administration’s anti-regulation agenda, the attorney general himself overruled the EPA and his own staff and wrote an interpretation of the Clean Air Act that dismantled its most important pol­lution regulation. He also took another im­perious swipe at the immigration issue by helping devise a new policy that authorizes the Coast Guard to intercept Haitian refu­gees on the high seas and return them to their island. The initiative was a response to the flood of refugees unleashed by the military coup in Haiti last fall. But human rights organizations have gone to court to challenge its legality, declaring that it vio­lates UN protocols that forbid the repatria­tion of those who face political persecution at home. “It is another example,” says hu­man rights lawyer Michael Ratner, “of the Barr regime flouting the law for political ends.”

The truest measure of Barr’s extremism, however, lies in the coils of three unfolding national scandals. The central question they pose is: How far will he go to protect his master? The answer, some feel, already exposes Barr to the risk of a grand jury investigation and maybe worse.

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BCCI

Nobody knows how much the American taxpayer has lost in the BCCI affair, but after years of start-stop investigations it is apparent that federal authorities knew as early as 1983 that the London-based Bank of Credit & Commerce International was trying to buy into the American banking system illegally, even as it engaged in a variety of crimes abroad.

Why the Justice Department was so slow to step in has never been adequately ex­plained. Some accuse Thornburgh and Barr of trying to cover up BCCI links to Iran­contra and the CIA, which has admitted using the bank’s facilities abroad in covert operations. No substantiation has been found for this charge, but few doubt that a stall-off did occur at Justice.

The initial culprit appears to have been the CIA, which, though aware early on of BCCI’s inroads into American banking, chose not to inform the attorney general. Even so, by 1988 the violations were so blatant that Senator John Kerry stumbled on them while heading up a subcommittee on drug trafficking. He alerted the Justice Department — to no avail. Later, a Customs bust prompted indictment of some BCCI officials in Tampa, but inexplicably the Justice Department pursued only low-level prosecutions, while leaving top BCCI offi­cials untouched.

Finally, in July 1991, banking authorities worldwide moved to shut BCCI down. Deputy Attorney General Barr admitted to Congress at the time that there had been “coordination” problems in the investiga­tion and promised to remedy them. But a top federal prosecutor in Miami later ac­cused Barr and other Justice officials of repeatedly thwarting his own efforts in 1991 to indict the bank of fraud charges.

What broke the logjam was Senator Ker­ry’s own impatience. Frustrated with Jus­tice’s inaction, he eventually had one of his investigators, Jack Blum, turn some dirt on BCCI over to New York state district attor­ney Robert Morgenthau, who promised an investigation of his own. That did it. In December 1991, the Justice Department joined Morgenthau in announcing a plea arrangement with BCCI that nailed the bank for various criminal violations and obligated it to fork over $550 million, the largest criminal forfeiture ever obtained by the government. Last July, Morgenthau and federal attorneys in New York dropped the other shoe, announcing the indictments of Democratic Party patriarch Clark Clifford and his law partner on charges of lying to banking regulators, bribe-taking, and falsification of records — all in service of their onetime client, BCCI. Both men pleaded not guilty.

Barr gloated, declaring after the initial plea agreement that this “resolves all United States charges against BCCI as an insti­tution.” But Senator Kerry’s own analysis of the scandal, released only a few weeks ago, makes clear that the Justice Depart­ment’s investigation of BCCI was often too little, too late.

Says Blum, whose approach to Morgen­thau levered Barr into action: “Justice’s handling of BCCI gives the lie to the ad­minstration’s claim to being hard-line on crime.”

INSLAW 

Barr has long been a critic of the indepen­dent counsel law and has argued that Jus­tice officials are professional enough to in­vestigate themselves and their own masters. But a report on the Inslaw affair, released in September by Representative Jack Brooks’s Judiciary Committee, obliterates that claim.

At issue is whether the Justice Depart­ment itself stole valuable computer soft­ware from the Washington-based Inslaw company in the early 1980s. Four years ago, a lawyer for Inslaw called for the ap­pointment of an independent counsel to investigate, but Thornburgh resisted, and at his own confirmation hearings in Novem­ber 1991 Barr announced that he was nam­ing an in-house counsel under his own con­trol to handle the inquiry. According to the recently released Brooks report, that inves­tigation has yet to bear fruit in part because Barr delayed granting his appointee subpoena power.

Even worse, says the report, Justice offi­cials stonewalled the committee’s own ef­forts to get at the facts, by blocking access to witnesses, and by denying and even “los­ing” relevant documents. The report blames this “lack of cooperation” for the tenativeness of its own conclusions, but leaves little doubt where the committee’s sympathies lie. Pointing out that Justice officials concluded as early as 1986 that Inslaw’s claim to the disputed software was “legitimate,” the report says the depart­ment nonetheless spent $1 million fighting the issue in court, thus raising the “spectre” of “an abuse of power of shameful proportions.”

“The Department of Justice is this na­tion’s most visible guarantor of the notion that wrongdoing will be sought out and punished irrespective of the identity of the actors involved,” the report concludes. “The Department’s handling of the INSLAW case has seriously undermined its credibility and reputation in playing such a role.”

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IRAQGATE

Last week the chair of the Senate Intelli­gence Committee lent his voice to a chorus already calling for an independent counsel to investigate how the Justice Department, CIA, and FBI bungled a case in Atlanta involving $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq. Over a month ago, William Barr rebuffed a similar congressional request and bridled at suggestions that his department couldn’t handle the inquiry itself. But since then, the CIA has accused one of Barr’s subordinates of having “strongly advised” that relevant intelligence be withheld from the federal judge in Atlanta who until recently was handling the case. In response, Barr has just announced that he’s appointing a special prosecutor — a Republican judge — to inves­tigate under Justice Department supervi­sion. It’s precisely the kind of stall tactic Barr used so effectively in the INSLAW affair.

In basic terms, the controversy is over the classic cover-up question of who knew what when — and bears critically on the most sensitive foreign policy issue of the Bush presidency, the coddling of Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War.

To be up to speed, you have to under­stand a few arcane facts. First, the adminis­tration is accused of having allowed U.S. agricultural loan guarantees to be used to underwrite military purchases by Iraq during the late 1980s when the official policy was: moderate through conciliation. Sec­ond, the Atlanta branch of the Italian bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro is said to have floated $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq during the same period. Third, the Justice Department is suspected of having deliber­ately singled out BNL’s Atlanta branch manager for prosecution, saying he acted alone, so as to avoid embarrassing his high­er-ups in Rome and opening a can of worms that could reveal deeper administra­tion complicity in the funding of Iraq’s military buildup.

Along the way, evidence has surfaced that the Commerce Department altered documents that pointed to the dual use (read: military) applicability of certain items the Iraqis had purchased with U.S. aid.

Still awake? Please, there’s more. In Feb­ruary 1991, the Justice Department struck a plea agreement with the BNL manager in Atlanta that pledged him to clam up, mak­ing no statement in court, in exchange for having the charges against him lessened. Members of the Senate Judiciary won­dered: what gives? So did the Atlanta feder­al judge, Marvin Shoob, who late last sum­mer was about to sentence this apparent fall guy. Shoob called for an independent counsel to sort out the mess.

That’s when the bureaucrats began quick-­stepping. On September 4, the CIA sent the Justice Department a classified letter that glossed over early intelligence reports indi­cating top-level knowledge within BNL Rome of the Atlanta branch’s illicit Iraqi loans. Ten days later, House Banking com­mittee chair Henry Gonzalez, who’d previ­ously goaded the CIA into giving him the facts, spilled them in a speech on the floor of the House. Inevitable conclusion: the U.S. intelligence community knew, by late 1989, that BNL from top to bottom had played fast and loose with American bank­ing regulations. Why, then, such a delay in prosecution?

The CIA continued to duck and weave, claiming in a letter to Shoob on September 17 that nobody knew nothin’ about the early intelligence reports implicating BNL-­Rome in the scandal.

As the heat intensified, however, so did the weakness in bureaucratic knees. On Oc­tober 8 CIA lawyers, testifying to the Sen­ate Intelligence Committee, declared that a devil at Justice had made them do it – that one of Barr’s subordinates had encouraged them to skimp the truth in the letter to Shoob. Justice officials struck back by play­ing victim. How do you suborn the CIA? they demanded publicly. The CIA again parried by claiming that the early tell-all intelligence reports fingering BNL-Rome had been known to FBI and thus Justice officials since late 1989. Barr in turn or­dered FBI chief William Sessions investi­gated on unrelated ethics charges — a probe that some see as an attempt to buffalo the Bureau at the very moment it might be tempted to investigate Iraqgate on its own.

You can’t be awake. But what’s impor­tant is this: The Justice Department stands accused by the nation’s premier intelligence agency of having abetted the cover-up of a possible crime, even to the point of shaving evidence. Maybe this simplifies it, but the allegation itself should give pause even to the most devout law-and-order conserva­tive. And no, this ain’t a mugging, baby. The lawlessness espoused in Barr’s snatch memos inevitably breeds offspring.

There is, too, the more basic issue of equity: Imagine you’re the manager of At­lanta’s BNL branch who’s wound up in Barr’s cross hairs because the Justice De­partment and everybody else in the Bush administration needed a scapegoat for their own policy errors. On October I he did get a reprieve of sorts: The Justice Department decided to try him rather than embarrass itself further by sticking with the plea agree­ment that so artfully found him guilty with­out giving him a chance to speak. Even so, if you’re in his shoes, do you place any stock in American justice? Or, as one critic said of the snatch memos, do we have here a regime of law that says: when the presi­dent declares it’s illegal, it is? ■

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Before Trump and the “Goldwater Rule”: Diagnosing Hitler in 1943

In September of 1964 the serendipitously named Fact magazine presented readers with a series of articles under the heading, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater.” The cover was even more emphatic, blaring, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!”

Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president, was outraged, and eventually won a substantial libel judgment against Fact. But this was cold comfort considering his landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. The archconservative’s legal victory did, however, chastise the headshrinkers, whose professional association ruled that, going forward, no public figure could be diagnosed long-distance. The “Goldwater Rule” decrees, in part, “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination [of the subject] and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”

That a World War II vet and two-term United States senator from Arizona could be judged unfit to be commander in chief seems a quaint notion in contemporary America, led as we are by a businessman with a checkered financial history and zero government or military service. But there have been earlier questions about presidential competence. In 1987, according to the PBS program American Experience, incoming White House chief of staff Howard Baker was told by his predecessor that President Reagan was “inattentive, inept,” and “lazy,” and that Baker and his staff should consider invoking the Constitution’s 25th amendment. This stipulates, in part, that the vice president can become “Acting President” if he and a majority of the cabinet believe that the commander in chief is unable “to discharge the powers and duties of his office”— whether due to insanity, paranoia, debilitating disease, or what have you. However, the Great Communicator impressed his new chief of staff with sunny banter, and Reagan finished out his term with high public approval ratings, only to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.

Today, a much more public debate rages between psychiatric associations as to whether the Goldwater Rule should be lifted to enable professionals to probe the motives (and manias) of President Trump.

Recently, a group of concerned mental health professionals created an organization, Duty to Warn, that flouts the Goldwater Rule. Their homepage boldly proclaims them to be “an association of mental health professionals (and other concerned citizens) who advocate Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment on the grounds that he is psychologically unfit.” The Duty to Warn group has also sponsored a newly released book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.

As America’s professional mental health experts continue to fight over the efficacy of a long-distance diagnosis of the POTUS, we do have an earlier example of an astral-couch session with another teetotaler of authoritarian bent — Adolf Hitler — which can perhaps give us insight into our current situation.

Version of Langer’s report available on the CIA’s website

In late 1943, psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer was commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services to gather a team of compatriots and plumb the workings of the volatile Führer’s mind. A number of typos betray the haste under which “A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend” was compiled — in 1943, victory for the Allies was far from certain and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government was seeking any way possible to divine what the madman across the water might do next. Despite often misspelling the subject’s name (“Adolph” rather than the correct “Adolf”), Langer and his team accurately predicted a number of Hitler’s moves as the war went south for him, including his suicide in Berlin as the “1,000-year Reich” collapsed, having lasted not much more than a decade. (They also spent quite a few pages speculating on rumors that Germany’s supreme leader was fond of having women urinate and defecate upon him.)

Cover for a 1972 paperback edition of the report, which was declassified in 1968

The report includes quotes from the Führer himself and others, as well as analysis from Langer’s team. Following is a sampling of Langer’s findings reproduced directly from a version of the report available on the CIA’s website (which is more legible than Langer’s hastily typed original). Also note that, where unattributed, the quotes come from Hitler himself.

It should be noted that there are differences (mostly in word choices) between Langer’s roughly typed original report and the later reformatted and illustrated CIA version, which apparently was based on Langer’s revised, declassified version. One example is the phrase “It would be analogous to curing an ulcer without treating the underlying disease,” in the original, which became, “It would be analogous to removing a chancre without treating the underlying disease” in the CIA transcription (pages 143 and 96 respectively).

Perhaps the most curious change comes in the report’s final paragraph. First, we have reproduced the CIA’s version, followed by Langer’s original typescript.