Six Degrees of Separation

BerezkhovThe Day I Met Stalin’s Interpreter

My old friend and former business partner Chris Carlson has a belief about meeting a total stranger. Chris contends that if you talk long enough and ask enough questions about the stranger’s friends, family, job and geography you’ll discover some person you both know. I’ve seen him do it and I’m a believer. It is a small world.

It has been said that we are all connected to everyone else by no more than “six degrees of separation” and often it’s really only one or two degrees of separation.

This then is the story of my, dare I say it, one degree of separation with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and most of the other leading figures of World War II.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been enjoying a fine new book about the historic and controversial Big Three conference of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. The man who served as an interpreter for Stalin and Russian Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov – the Molotov Cocktail was named after him – was quoted in the book. I met and interviewed the interpreter for Stalin and Molotov in Moscow in 1984. As I look back on that encounter, it feels like my own first hand brush with the history and personalities that shaped the 20th Century.

Valentin Berezhkov - that’s his photo at the top of this post – had quite a life and I’m confident my interview wasn’t on his Top Ten list of big events. In addition to providing translation services for Stalin at the wartime conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, Berezhkov was present when Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop – that’s the Ribbentrop who was executed after the Nuremberg war crimes trials – signed the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in Berlin in 1941. That infamous deal divided Poland between the Russians and the Germans and cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin World War II. Later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Berezkhov burned papers at the Russian embassy in Berlin before the SS broke in and kept him captive until he could be exchanged for German diplomats who had been trapped in Moscow when war broke out.

Later in his life, Berezhkov was a writer and diplomat. He served in Washington and was often a spokesman for the Kremlin on a whole range of political, diplomatic and historical issues. He left Russia in 1991 and re-settled in California where he taught at Occidental College. Berezhkov died in 1998.

In 1984, I had the remarkable opportunity to make a reporting trip to the Soviet Union. My Idaho Public Television colleague at the time, Peter Morrill, now the general manager of Idaho PTV, and I accompanied a group of Idahoans on a “people to people” exchange. We spent more than two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Minsk and Vilnius in Lithuania. The film Peter shot and the interviews we conducted were shaped into two documentaries. During the course of that remarkable trip – quite the adventure for an aspiring young reporter from Idaho – we spent an hour in the Russian capitol with Valentin Berezhkov. I still have his business card.

I confess to not understanding much about Berezhkov’s importance or personal story at the time of that interview. We had asked to speak with someone who could talk about the Russian experience during “The Great Patriotic War.” Our Soviet-era handlers offered him up and he spoke with authority and vividly about the horrible suffering of Russian civilians during the war. He treated us with genuine respect and kindness and seemed to take the rookies from Idaho seriously. I remember wondering just how much of what he told us was pure Soviet propaganda, carefully scripted for the rubes from the West.

When I read the new book on Yalta, and saw the reference to his role in the history of World War II, it all came together. This guy was an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the 20th Century. He participated in some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern world. I wish now that I had been smart enough to ask him more and better questions.

In Berezhkov’s memoir, published in 1994, he recalled shaking hands with Hitler at the Fuehrer’s office in Berlin in 1940. ”His palm was cold and damp,” he wrote in the book, ”giving me an unpleasant sensation, as if I were touching a reptile.”

As the Independent noted in his obituary, during his translating career, Berezhkov, “to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership – and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.”

In his memoir – At Stalin’s Side – Berezhkov writes with critical insight about how his own life spanned the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to “the disappearance of the great empire in which I lived all my life.” He acknowledges the great tragedies and the awesome failures of communism, but also remembers the sense of hope that existed before what he calls the ultimately “doomed” experiment of communism came crashing down. Late in his remarkable life, he wished for a democratic future for Russia and that his own grandson will enjoy a better life.

I am glad I met and talked, even for a few minutes, to an eyewitness to the history that fascinates me; the history that I can only read about. I’m also glad to know that Hitler handshake was unpleasant. After all, I shook the hand that shook that hand. Small world, indeed.

A Passion For Anonymity

FDRWhen the Staff Becomes the Story

What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR – Woodrow Wilson, for example – presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House.

When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a “passion for anonymity.” What happened to that idea?

I’d be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR’s day. FDR didn’t have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn’t become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn’t a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group.

I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week’s Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president’s Chief of Staff is – take your pick – tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Can you say overexposed?

I’m admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren’t always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story.

After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton’s staff and John McCain’s advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president’s closest advisers. Naive indeed.

Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO’s underlings or the third baseman’s relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem.

Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn’t immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization.

I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers – Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance – but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions.

A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven’t been elected to anything would be a good thing.

My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers – me included – that “there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot.” In other words, I’m the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business.

Words to govern by.

Knowing When to Quit

richardsonOur Culture of Non-Resignation

Elliot Richardson was the Attorney General of the United States when he resigned in 1973 rather than carry out an order he couldn’t agree with. Richardson, who looked (that’s him to the left) every inch a pillar of the GOP, eastern political establishment, was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. Richardson refused to carry out the presidential order and resigned – on principle. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and he also resigned – on principle. The third ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, eventually fired Archibald Cox in a famous episode that came to be known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.”

The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus were seismic in their impact, in part, because the principled act of resignation is so rare in our political culture. I wonder why?

In countries with a parliamentary system – Britain and Canada, for example – it is not uncommon, indeed it is expected, that when a politician loses a major policy debate, faces a loss of confidence, reaches a breaking point on policy, or is engulfed in scandal, they resign. Scandals in the British House of Commons involving members expenses have contributed to the substantial political troubles of the ruling Labour Party. If Labour loses the upcoming elections in Britain, some might consider that punishment enough for the string of ethical transgressions. Still, a number of British ministers and even the Speaker of the Commons have resigned related to the scandal. It is part of the political culture in a parliamentary democracy.

In fact, the propensity of British politicians to resign over scandal caused the Independent a while back to question whether resignations had become too common. Needless to say, that is not a problem here.

With the notable exceptions – thank goodness – of the truly weird Rep. Eric Massa and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rule in American politics seems to be to hang on against all odds and the culture of not knowing when to quit is a bipartisan phenomenon.

South Carolina’s embattled GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has been twisting in the winds of scandal for months now, while the state’s political structure heaved under the on-going discussion of whether Sanford ought to be impeached. Sanford appears to be the last to realize that his “hike on the Appalachian Trail” – really a visit to his girl friend Buenos Aires – long ago rendered him ineffective and unable to do his job. The principled path would have been to accept that reality, resign, move on and work on rehabilitation. In such circumstances a decision to exit signals a strength of character; not a show of weakness. Still, it happens so rarely.

Democratic politicians in New York, most notably the Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel, are caught up in scandals. Quitting doesn’t seem to be an option for either man. The former governor of Illinois embarrassed himself and his state for weeks before being impeached and apparently never considered stepping down.

United States Senators routinely hang on in the face of scandal. Ted Stevens and Larry Craig come to mind. Even as Sen. David Vitter leads in the polls in Louisiana, a “porn star” is threatening to trivialize that state’s senate race by entering the contest and keeping Vitter’s admission of “serious sins” front and center in the current campaign. Just yesterday, a Las Vegas television station broke the news of a slew of subpoenas issued in a Justice Department ethics investigation involving Sen. John Ensign.

The rarity of a high profile political resignation due to scandal makes Bob Packwood’s exit from the Senate in 1995 and the departure of Harrison Williams in 1982 really stand out. Both resigned before the Senate could vote, almost certainly, to expel them. It wasn’t all that obvious at the time, but Packwood’s resignation proved to be the first step toward his rehabilitation. Williams spent three years in prison.

In 1915, then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s actions following the sinking by a German submarine of the passenger ship Lusitania. Bryan’s actions, principled in that he had been the foremost voice in the Wilson Administration in favor of U.S. neutrality in World War I, allowed him to credibly and aggressively speak out, which he did, as the president moved to support British and French war efforts.

Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned in 1980 over his opposition to the rescue mission designed to free the U.S. hostages held in Iran. Vance voiced his opposition to the effort on the grounds that it would likely fail, which it did and disastrously so, and then – after the fact – he resigned. It was an act of courage and principle.

One wonders what the impact would have been in the darkest days of American involvement in Vietnam had a high official of the Johnson Administration – we know a number were quietly voicing skepticism over the course of the war – had resigned on the principle that they could no longer serve in a government with which they so profoundly disagreed. We now know that Robert McNamera harbored grave doubts about the country’s Vietnam policy, but unfortunately, another principle – political loyalty or maybe it was a lack of courage – kept him quiet. The one-time whiz kid spent his last years trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain himself.

Bryan and Vance, Richardson and Ruckelshaus. Their resignations were based on policy and principle and each is remembered today for an act of ethical courage. History has treated each well, but still such resignations are as rare as bipartisanship in Washington. Resigning in the midst of scandal remains just as rare in our politics

Who knows, a little more responsibility in the form of a quick resignation and exit from the political stage just might help rebuild voter confidence. That’s something the country could use about now. Quitting and leaving can truly display that there is something more important in public life than clinging to a job as long as possible, no matter the personal, political or policy cost.

In some cases the well-timed resignation also can preserve the chance for a comeback. It’s hard to envision a comeback for Eric Massa, but Spitzer is certainly trying and don’t bet against it.

Americans are usually a pretty forgiving bunch. Stay tuned for the second act in the Tiger Woods saga as proof of that American attribute. It is human nature to give the wayward a second chance, but only if responsibility is taken, the offender gets off the front page and out of the way and works hard to re-establish credibility.

More politicians, for purposes of principle and rehabilitation, should try it. Americans would come to expect and appreciate such acts of public acknowledgment, as the British have for years, and, who knows, there might be more honor and character in our politics. But, like the return of bipartisanship, I’ll not hold my breath.

Hard Times in Ireland

st. patrickRotten Economy, Sex Scandals…At Least There’s Yeats and Whiskey

St. Patrick’s Day has always been a bigger production in places like Boston, Chicago and Butte than in Dublin, Cork and Dingle. Good thing. There isn’t a lot to celebrate this St. Patty’s Day on the ol’ sod. The Celtic Tiger has become the sick kitten of the EU. Unemployment has soared, bankruptcy has flourished and real estate has tanked. No potato blight yet, thank goodness.

Additionally, the Irish Catholic Church is reeling from yet another clergy sex abuse scandal. The Irish Times called this week for the resignation of the Cardinal who, it is said, should have reported the 20-plus year old incidents to the authorities, well, 20 years ago. Predictably, Cardinal Sean Brady said he would not resign unless asked to do so by the Pope. Meanwhile, the Pope is expected any day to speak out on the Irish scandal, while he fends off questions about the growing sex abuse scandal that occurred during his time in Germany. Did you follow that?

Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis over the Euro and the continuing fallout over the collapse of the Irish real estate bubble, an Irish writer, Ann Marie Hourihane, makes the case that ol’ St. Pat himself has fallen on hard times.

The old boy, she writes, “invested heavily in property during the boom, buying houses and apartments not only in Ireland but also in Wales, Brittany and even Scotland…(and) recently St. Patrick has had trouble sleeping. The crozier is in hock. It is an ignominious position for a saint who has worked so hard for, and been worked so hard by, his country.

“It’s not that St Patrick objects to us being poor – again. He loved us most during the centuries in which we were destitute, badly fed and flirting with cannibalism. As far as any patron saint who takes the long view is concerned, things have just about returned to normal.”

There you have it.

Even Guinness – remember, “It’s Good For You” – is facing new competition in, of all places, Britain where a cross between lager and bitter – black lager – grows in popularity. Talk about a scandal.

Nonetheless, amid the gloom, I’ll celebrate all things Irish today with a dram of Jameson (or Powers or Red Breast) and think particularly of the great Irish writers – Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and one recent worthy, John Banfield. Thank God for the Irish writers.

I’ll also remember, apropos to the times perhaps, this great line from the great Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Well said and so very Irish. On March 17th, we can all, at the very least, wish to be Irish. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Better Late…

dojU.S. Attorneys Nominated for Idaho, Eastern Washington

If you need any proof that the confirmation process for high officials of the United States government works about as well as Toyota’s braking system, consider the long delayed, but finally announced appointments of U.S. Attorneys in Idaho and eastern Washington.

Barack Obama took office more than 13 months ago and as of last week, according to the website Main Justice, he has nominated just over half of the 93 U.S. Attorneys in the country. The Senate has approved just 34 of the nominees. What is strange about this pace is that no one seems to think its strange.

The good news is that both the nominees recently announced, Wendy Olson in Idaho and Mike Ormsby in eastern Washington, are highly respected attorneys and quality people who should be quickly confirmed by the world’s greatest – and slowest – deliberative body, the United States Senate. The Main Justice site has good profiles of both Olson and Ormsby, including the interesting tidbits that Olson once interned in the Los Angeles Times sports department and that Ormsby is part owner of the Yakima Bears baseball team in the Northwest League.

Olson is the consensus choice of the entire Idaho delegation, which put out a joint statement expressing approval. The fact that a consensus choice of a long-time and highly respected career prosecutor, whose appointment has been the best kept secret in Idaho’s legal circles for months, could take so long speaks volumes about the time consuming, onerous vetting process that now slows down even the most obvious presidential appointment.

In Ormsby’s case, his nomination, also speculated upon for months, was slowed by questions about his role in a controversial downtown Spokane development and by what the Seattle PI correctly called “partisan gridlock” in the capitol. Now that the Justice Department and the FBI have combed over the story, he should receive – and deserves – quick bipartisan approval in the Senate.

[Full disclosure: I've known Mike Ormsby for a long time and know him to be both a quality individual and a fine attorney. That a fellow of his experience and ability is willing to undergo the months-long vetting process, with all the uncertainty and turmoil it must create for his existing practice, is a testament to his commitment to both professionalism and public service. He'll do a superb job.]

Federal prosecutors play extremely important roles in our justice system. They should be people of great experience, sound judgment and outstanding character. The advice and consent of the Senate is properly the place to double check on those qualifications.

By the same token, when an election takes place, a new president – regardless of party – must be able to make timely and considered judgments about the people he wants in important positions. We will soon have new, high quality U.S. Attorneys in place in our neck of the woods, but it certainly hasn’t been a hasty process.

A better approach for these important jobs might be to do what Bill Clinton did following his election and request the resignation of every U.S. Attorney. Then during the long vetting and confirmation process a career prosecutor would be in charge of every office. The opportunity for political mischief is actually reduced under this scenario. The Obama method has left in place for months and months a gaggle of the previous administration’s political appointees, with many likely going through the motions of being a United States Attorney.

Maybe the best that can be said is that the deeply flawed confirmation process in Washington, involving everything from assistant secretaries of this and that to Supreme Court judges, is so onerous and so time consuming that few people with real flaws can possibly survive running the gauntlet. Maybe that’s the point. But, does it have to take so long?

Too bad we can’t apply the same level of scrutiny to the Eric Massa’s of the Congress. That kind of vetting would be worth the wait.

Why History Matters

YaltaKnowing the Past…

For much of the 1950′s and 1960′s, this photo – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin together at Yalta in February 1945 – served as the iconic evidence that hard headed, authoritarian Russian Communism rolled over idealistic western democracy at the end of World War II.

In the most popular narrative, largely unchanged for more than half a century, the Cold War started at Yalta and the U.S. and Britain were easily rolled by that cagey Commie Uncle Joe Stalin.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated, more nuanced, and much more important. A new book – Yalta – The Price of Peace - by Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy tells the nuanced story of Yalta and the account helps explain why the famous gathering in the Crimea was neither a victory nor a defeat for the west, but rather one step in the long march of history that helped shape the post-war world.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others exploited many of the myths about Yalta, including the notion that FDR was naive about dealing with the Russians and that somehow Churchill and Roosevelt should have been able to get a better outcome for Poland.

Plokhy’s research makes clear that FDR was far from naive. He went to Yalta to make a deal in the interest of getting Russian approval of his outline for the creation of the United Nations and, under intense pressure from his military advisers, to get Stalin to commit to joining the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. He accomplished both objectives. He also got agreement on post-war occupation of Germany and secured for the French, who Stalin wanted out of the picture, a major role in both the U.N. and western Europe. By contrast, neither Churchill nor FDR had much leverage over Stalin when it came to Poland, since, by early 1945, Red Army troops were occupying much of the country and would win the race to Berlin.

That is the history and the nuance, yet as recently as 2005, George W. Bush, choosing to read (or remember) history with an ideological bias, was declaring that Yalta led to some of “the greatest wrongs of history.” No word on what the former president thinks of Karl Rove’s new book that acknowledges no Bush-era culpability for American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s another history lesson.

Still, both cases – Yalta and the post-war and Iraq today – prove a fundamental truth: where there is no nuance, history gets distorted; where history is abused in the pursuit of ideological ends there can be no truth.

“History can help us be wise,” Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, writes in her new book – Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuse of History. “It can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be.”

MacMillan is the best kind of historian; a skilled researcher and a lively writer on the search for truth. Her last book – Paris 1919 - tells the story of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and helped set the stage for the next war. The book should be required reading for every American politician, since all seem to need to understand the rule of unintended consequences.

Ultimately, history is about trying to arrive at truth, which is why MacMillan tweaks Bush and Tony Blair for invoking Munich of the 1930′s to justify an invasion of Iraq in the 21st Century. But she is no ideologue, also pointing out that a “liberalizing” China is unwilling to deal with the legacy of Mao and that even normally circumspect, mild mannered Canada experienced a full-throated controversy in the 1990′s when a documentary suggested that there might be questions of morality associated with Canadian aircrews and their wartime strategic bombing of Germany.

I think Margaret MacMillan might agree that one of the profound challenges facing the American Republic is a deepening and profoundly troubling lack of understanding of our history coupled with the fact that history is ever more regularly twisted to suit some need to score immediate partisan politic points.

Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times over the weekend, made this fundamental point in a starkly effective way. Rich quotes a former Bush White House press secretary and the ever present Rudy Giuliani, as saying “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Say what?

Obviously, this ultra selective “abuse” of history was rolled out in an effort to portray the current occupant of the White House as “soft or terrorism.” Barack Obama may or may not be soft on terrorism, but abusing the reality of recent history to make that case is beyond comprehension and should be labeled for what it is – a distortion or, if you prefer, a lie. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, or their own history.

The recent race to raise America’s educational standing in math and science has generally meant a diminishment of teaching of what we normally call the humanities, most importantly history. I’m all for better math and science education, but I also know that too many Americans, as surveys and Jay Leno’s sidewalk interviews have shown us, don’t know much about their history.

No less an historian than two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said a while back that the lack of knowledge about our history is jeopardizing our way of life.

We don’t all need to ponder the real impacts of Yalta in 1945 or know in detail the terms of the Paris peace conference in 1919, but we do need to know enough about our own history to call foul on those who would distort it. We can’t rely exclusively on historians to hold the ideologues of the right and the left to account for “abusing” history. Democracy doesn’t – or can’t – work that way.

If we fail to know enough of our history, or, as David McCullough has said, to “know who we are” or we misunderstand “how we became what we are, we’re going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.”

That truly is a threat to our way of life.