2016 Election, Britain, Russia, Trump, World War II

The Useful Idiot…

 

        “Hillary Clinton’s admission that she has pneumonia after allegedly becoming ‘overheated’ at a 9/11 event has even some in MSM acknowledging that the issue of the Democratic candidate’s health can no longer be ignored, as her tour has been put on hold.” 

How the Russian media outlet RT is covering the Clinton health story.

———-

A few days ago Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a noted writer on Russian and European history and politics, outlined what seems to me a highly likely scenario regarding the American presidential election.

Vladimir Putin, Applebaum wrote, is not so secretly attempting to undermine the U.S. electoral system, indeed his aim may well be to destabilize American democracy. It may sound farfetched, but then again the evidence may be hiding in plan sight.

We should believe that Putin, the creepy Kremlin leader and a former KGB apparatchik, is meddling in the election because he has done it before and, in fact, he does it all the time.

Here's a pair to draw to.
Here’s a pair to draw to.

What Americans might be waking up to – we can hope – is that in Putin’s attempt to interfere with a U.S. election he has for the first time, as an earlier generation of Moscow leaders might have said, “a useful idiot” to help him in the person of Donald J. Trump.

Here’s Anne Applebaum’s informed speculation in a nutshell:

Trump continues to say, as he already repeatedly has, that if he loses the election to Hillary Clinton the whole system must be “rigged,” the polls are “wrong” and “real voters” have been ignored. He constantly complains that the “dishonest” and “corrupt” media is out to get him.

Meanwhile, Russian Internet hackers will continue to use a third party – Wikileaks – to disseminate emails pilfered from Clinton or George Soros or some nameless bureaucrat somewhere in order to, as Applebaum says, “discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the ‘elite’ who supposedly run it.”

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, another of the Kremlin's "useful idiots"
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, another of the Kremlin’s “useful idiots”

Before Election Day or even on Election Day hackers will try to create havoc with one of more state election systems. They don’t need to succeed; just trying will be enough to confirm the suspicion, already firmly planted by Trump and others, that the election is “fixed.” The FBI, we already know, has warned election officials in Arizona that the election machinery may have been compromised. Imagine waking up on November 9th with Clinton having narrowly won Arizona – polls show her within striking distance there – and then imagine what Trump does and says.

I’ll quote Applebaum directly regarding the next step: “The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.”

What a perfect KGB-like operation: Plant a trail of evidence “proving” that Clinton “stole the election.” It all reads like a John Le Carre thriller, but somehow doesn’t seem all that farfetched. “Once revealed,” Anne Applebaum writes, “the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency.”

No Matter What – Putin Wins…

Here is the particularly pernicious aspect of the Russian meddling: there is no downside for Putin or his objectives. Putin wins no matter the outcome in November.

The plot of a novel...or the scheming of a former KGB operative?
The plot of a novel…or the scheming of a former KGB operative?

Suppose Trump wins the election in which case Putin gets his useful idiot in the White House and ends 75 years of Republican skepticism about all things Russian.

Or suppose Clinton wins amid allegations that the election was rigged or stolen. Putin still wins with a weakened American president who is immediately discredited as “illegitimate” by a sizable chunk of the electorate.

Under any scenario the Kremlin gains in its real aim, which is to destabilize western democracy, weaken NATO and diminish U.S. standing around the world. These aims also help explain Putin’s objectives in supporting Brexit, the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union, his encouragement of hard right elements in France and elsewhere in Europe and his embrace of Syria and Iran.

But the critical element in the Kremlin strategy is the utility of the fake billionaire from Trump Tower. Without a major party presidential candidate like Trump, a guy who surrounds himself with advisers with ties to Putin, who praises the Russian dictator as a better leader than the American president and then grants interviews to Putin’s international disinformation network, the election meddling and propaganda campaign would be a good deal more difficult to pull off.

As the Washington Post pointed out Trump’s recent interview with Larry King on the Putin financed propaganda channel RT was all about dissing news coverage of his own campaign. That message fits perfectly with Putin’s larger aims. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and translator who runs a blog dedicated to exposing misinformation in Russian media, put it this way: RT’s “mission now is not to report on Russia but to tell everyone how bad America is. There’s a huge audience for that, not just internationally but in the United States as well.”

Republicans who continue to lionize Ronald Reagan must wince just a little that the new face of their party now echoes the Kremlin line. “Reagan never gave interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter, referring to the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. “Who advised Trump to appear on RT?” Who indeed?

An earlier Republican with a different view of Russia
An earlier Republican with a different view of Russia…”tear down this wall…”

Nothing motivates the GOP presidential candidate more than money, so that fact may offer the simplest, if a no less comforting explanation of the Trump-Putin alliance.“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008 and it has been widely reported that his old man has been trying to cut a fat hog in Moscow for years.

Even if you don’t buy the full extent of Anne Applebaum’s conspiracy, just consider this: Is there anyone who knows anything about American politics who would have predicted two years ago that the Republican candidate for president would have at the center of his candidacy a bromance with a Russian hatchet man? Four years ago Mitt Romney, you remember him, was condemning Russia and Putin as our nation’s greatest strategic threat. In fairness to Romney, many allegedly smart people in both parties disagreed with his assessment. Now Mitt looks like a genuine prophet.

Not only has Trump embraced Putin and essentially offered cover to Russian outrages in Ukraine he has neutered GOP hawks like John McCain who are left to mumble, as House Speaker Paul Ryan did last week, that Vladimir Putin really isn’t a nice guy. The former KGB agent really isn’t a nice guy, but he may understand U.S. politics better than many American voters.

Nothing Like This Before…

So, has anything like this ever happened before, has a foreign power ever attempted in such a comprehensive way to mess with a presidential election and influence American policy? The answer is both kind of and no.

One somewhat analogous historical precedent is the presidential election of 1940 and the tumultuous foreign policy debate immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II. While far less obvious than the Russian effort in the current election, Britain clearly tried to influence U.S. politics, policy and public opinion – with willing help from Franklin Roosevelt – in 1940 and 1941.

British-born historian Nicholas John Cull has documented the extent of the British effort in his 1995 book Selling War – The British Propaganda Campaign Against American “Neutrality” in World War II.

Winston Churchill authorized British propaganda efforts in 1940-1941, but didn't attempt to weaken American democracy
Winston Churchill authorized British propaganda efforts in 1940-1941, but didn’t attempt to weaken American democracy

During the 1930s, as Cull has written, British policy “explicitly forbid any such endeavor in the United States,” but that policy changed as the war situation darkened after the fall of France in 1940. British policy makers began to believe “through judicious use of propaganda and publicity” that they might “undermine U.S. neutrality and somehow sell Britain and a second world war to a skeptical American public.”

A key tactic was to plant “subversive propaganda” through a network of middlemen – “cut outs” they were called – who were charged with distributing up to “twenty rumors each day with the ‘leading home reporters of the New York and Chicago papers.’”

Given the sensitivity at the time to the notion that Britain was trying to maneuver the United States into the war, public disclosure of a propaganda campaign or covert lobbying of Congress would have been politically explosive. The British, however, deemed feeding useful information to popular reporters, both low risk and effective. They used a well-connected political operative with relationships inside the government and with columnists and radio personalities like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Thompson to shape public and political opinion. Over time the effort was quite successful.

However, what Winston Churchill’s government did not do, unlike Vladimir Putin’s, was attempt to hijack an election or destabilize American democracy. There is no obvious historical precedent for what has been quietly happening in plain sight with Trump’s campaign.

Now with media obsession focused on Hillary Clinton’s health, an issue sure to dominate news coverage for days, and with the Kremlin’s candidate climbing in the polls we may learn just how sinister a former KBG henchman can become when at last he has a useful idiot in the Oval Office.

 

2016 Election, Brexit, Britain, Churchill, Great Britain, Trump

Stop, Think and Ask “What If…”

 

According to the Financial Times, Michael Gove, a champion of Britain’s exit from the European Union and now a candidate for prime minister, refused during the recent Brexit campaign to name any economists who back exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” 

——–

It can be difficult, when watching politics unfold in real time, to identify and see clearly the larger currents and fault lines that define where we are and where we might be headed. This reality – not always being able to comprehend the present – is why history matters and why, regrettably, so many Americans – and Brits apparently – have forgotten lessons from the past.

Americans face an obesity crisis and a epidemic of gun violence, but perhaps just as seriously we face the plague of historical amnesia. Increasingly we cannot connect the dots of the past with the issues of the moment. That can be a fatal disease in a democracy.

Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos
Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos

The recent decision by voters in the United Kingdom to abandon more than 40 years of increasing interconnection with Europe, and in the process turning their backs on the last century of European history, and the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump illustrate how we forget our history at our peril. Two striking examples make my case.

Europe in 1940…

Imagine the world, and particularly Europe, in the spring of 1940. Nazi armies have overrun Poland and Norway, invaded the Low Countries and are pressing toward Paris. Hitler’s Panzers and Stuka dive-bombers have terrorized Warsaw, Krakow, Brussels and Antwerp. The Wehrmacht – perhaps the greatest offensive army the world had ever seen – was routing the French army, thought at the time to be the best fighting force in the world, and guns booming on the front lines could be heard at the Eiffel Tower. Would France fight on, resist the awful weight of invasion or would defeatists in the French government and military surrender?

A German tank in France in 1940
A German tank in France in 1940

The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a Francophile who loved Champagne and the ships of the French Navy among other things, was desperate to keep France in the war – and the French Navy out of German hands – and he embraced an audacious plan to buck up the faltering and besieged government in Paris.

At the suggestion of several French diplomats serving in London – among the group was Jean Monnet, considered the founding father of the European Union, and the junior French General Charles De Gaulle – Churchill pitched to the French Premier Paul Reynaud a “declaration of indissoluble union.

The formal proposal declared, “The two governments declare France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union…every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain and every British subject will become a citizen of France.” Once united the two countries would have a formal association of Parliaments, joint management of defense and finance and a single war cabinet to direct the defense of western Europe. “Its all embracing character,”as one historian has written, “went further than anything before in the history of war-time alliances. Even in the subsequent history of European unity, no Government ever proposed a more radical and far-reaching plan for supernatural integration.”

Astounding.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

Great Britain and France would, symbolically and practically, become one and fight on against Hitler’s armies. We know how the story turned out. Reynaud could not sell the idea to his government, most members of whom had already indicated a willingness to throw in the towel and surrender. The World War I hero Marshall Henri Petain, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis and was later found guilty of treason, rejected Churchill’s proposal out of hand saying it would be better to become “a Nazi colony” than to unite with Britain. Reynaud resigned as prime minister without a formal vote on the British proposal and later said the failure of Churchill’s idea was the greatest disappointment of his political career.

As for becoming a Nazi colony, France certainly did, to the enduring shame of many who advocated capitulation rather than embrace new and radical thinking. The name of Petain is forever stained, while De Gaulle is celebrated as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th Century.

I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own Brexit takeaway from this little historic tableau from 75 years ago, but one lesson seems clear: when faced with the greatest threat in modern times Winston Churchill was prepared to join his nation’s fate in the most fundamental ways with France, indeed with all of Europe. His imagination was equal to the moment.

Reed Smoot is Smiling…

The presumptive nominee of the Republican for the presidency is, on the other hand, beyond imagination. Donald Trump spent the week, with a few Trumpian deviations, outlining his remarkable views on trade. Reed Smoot must be smiling.

Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time
Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time

To the extent that Smoot, an austere apostle of the Mormon Church and a Republican senator from Utah, is remembered at all today it is for being the architect of the 1930 tariff legislation that bears his name. The Smoot-Hawley tariff – Hawley was Willis Hawley, an Oregon lawyer and educator who became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – dramatically increased tariffs, led to a stifling of American exports just as the Great Depression took hold and sparked an international trade war against the United States.

As historian Douglas A. Irwin points out in his history of the tariff legislation, Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner in 1930, immediately retaliated with its own trade sanctions, while other countries formed “preferential trading blocs that discriminated against the United States” shifting world trade away from the U.S.

Saddled with the political, not to mention financial cost of protectionist trade policies after Smoot-Hawley, Republicans generally became “free-traders,” adopting a fundamentally conservative view that goods and services should move freely in the global economy, largely unhindered by artificial controls. Trade wars were to be avoided, exports encouraged and imports not feared. Trump’s approach – a trade war with China and mostly incoherent, but clearly protectionist measures regarding U.S. imports – as much as any policy he proposes, upends long-established Republican orthodoxy and flies in the face of historical experience.

Smoot-Hawley was largely designed to protect American farmers. It didn’t and many voices, including hundreds of economists, warned against its passage. The widely respected columnist Walter Lippmann called the protectionist legislation “a wretched and mischievous product of stupidity and greed.” You wonder if he knew Trump? And one advisor to the Republican president who signed the controversial legislation said, “I almost went down on my knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff. That Act intensified nationalism all over the world.”

America in the Great Depression
America in the Great Depression

Donald Trump’s rhetoric about trade, in addition to doing violence to a deeply held Republican tradition dating to the Great Depression, would almost certainly cost rather than protect American jobs. Other nations would surely retaliate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out this reality in what amounted to a stunning rebuke by American business of the GOP nominee. Even some of those who developed the economic analysis Trump relies upon for his position on trade repudiate his approach. Experts, of course, are so out of fashion, just like facts and history.

Meanwhile, across the pond, after more than 40 years spent embracing European integration the United Kingdom is certain to discover in the days ahead that the cost of isolation from Europe will be great and painful. In both cases – Brexit and Trump – opportunistic politicians, feeding on the fears of worried citizens, peddle fanciful ideas that simply can’t withstand careful evaluation. But, unfortunately our collective historical amnesia leaves us susceptible to the crude charms of charlatans.

Historical analogies are never perfect, of course, but history can help illuminate enduring truths, one being that simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong.

Another lesson taught by history is simply to stop, think and ask “what if”? What if the French government in 1940 had had more courage and imagination? What if Herbert Hoover would have listened to his advisers? What if?

 

2016 Election, Brexit, Britain, Trump, World War I

Brexit and America

   

       “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit.”

Nigel Farage, advocate of the UK exit from the European Union

——–

It will be remembered as one of the great unforced errors in modern political history. In the language of soccer – this is Britain after all – soon to be former British Prime Minister David Cameron scored an “own goal,” kicking the ball into his own net. In one crazy act of political suicide Cameron threw a referendum bone to his political opponents. They ate the bone and then consumed him for good measure.

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

The Brits may have become the first people in the history of the world to vote for a recession. For sure they have voted for months – maybe years – of financial turmoil, economic and political isolation and very likely an independent Scotland. Brits also voted to validate the ugly kind of nationalism that is seeping across Europe. When the Brexit outcome is applauded by France’s ultra-right Marine Le Pen, the Kremlin and Donald Trump you instinctively know you are on the wrong side of history.

The Self-Inflicted Wound…

Cameron, a nominally successful politician before Brexit, will now be remembered for crashing his Conservative Party and speeding the disunion of Europe at the very moment the region needs even greater unity to deal with everything from trade to terrorism. Comparisons to Neville Chamberlain are inevitable. Meanwhile, the chief opposition party, Labour, is also in disarray and it seems inevitable that the party’s far left leader will have to go.

Why? Why reduce the United Kingdom’s long-term future to a plebiscite? Why risk it all on a one-off election with the highest of high stakes? The answer, of course, is political and here we begin to see the real relevance for the United States in 2016 of what has so dramatically happened in Britain.

Cameron set off these falling dominos of destruction in 2014 when in order to win an outright Conservative majority in the British parliament he attempted to placate radicals in his own party and in the uber-nationalist rightwing UK Independence Party (UKIP) with an up or down, in or out vote on the EU. Rather than fight the 2015 election over staying in Europe, Cameron tried to have it both ways even saying at one point that he might led the effort to leave the EU after he was re-elected. It was rank political opportunism from the guy one British Labour Party member recently dubbed “Dodgy Dave.”

Cameron compounded the dangers of his risky EU gamble by presiding during the recent campaign over a shambling Conservative Party that spoke with many discordant voices. Several of Cameron’s own cabinet ministers campaigned against him and remaining in the EU. Chaos follows chaos.

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson - more in common than a bad hair day
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – more in common than a bad hair day

The “leave” campaign was led by another artful dodger, albeit one more colorful than Cameron, the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, a New York born gasbag with Churchillian ambitions who now maneuvers to replace Cameron. Leave it to an Irishman, the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, to correctly sum up BoJo, as Johnson is nicknamed: “He has a streak of Churchill’s brilliant opportunism and reckless charm, but he does not have behind him the national consensus that an existential struggle created behind Churchill and he is, in everything but girth, a lightweight.”

The U.S. Plays This Cynical Game Too…

None of this so much compares to Churchill-type politics as to the cynicism and recklessness of Congressional Republicans in the United States like Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (not to mention all of Ryan many predecessors, one of whom just reported to federal prison). This is why the British action looms so very large across the American political landscape.

The vote to leave the EU doubtless has its roots in a variety of toxic soil – anti-immigration, fears of globalization, misunderstandings about free trade, hatred of the “privileged elites,” long simmering class resentments and totally valid concerns about growing income inequality. Johnson and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, Britain’s Donald Trump with a better haircut, are ironically both men of wealth and privilege who played on the fears of many Brits, concocted fanciful stories about the benefits of leaving and now inherit a diminished UK more badly divided than ever. Sound familiar?

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage

Writing in The Guardian Zoe Williams condemned Farage’s hateful rhetoric after the referendum, language that sounds remarkably like Trump’s “knock the crap out of ’em” talk. “But for poor taste and ugly triumph,” Williams wrote, “nothing matched [Farage’s] assertion that [the Leave vote] had happened ‘without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired.’”

A ridiculous comment, of course, since a pro-EU Member of Parliament was murdered days before the voting, the first MP lost to an “act of terror since the darkest days of the IRA and, leaving Ireland aside, the first since 1812. His words seemed to carry a tang of regret – echoing his dark mutterings of some weeks ago, when he predicted violence on the streets and sounded exhilarated by it.”

This is not the political talk or action of a western democracy, but something much more sinister, something to be condemned and defeated. It is the politics of cynicism, hatred and despair, of yesterday not tomorrow.

For most of the last eight years Congressional Republicans have done something similar by promising their mostly white, older base that obstructing political action on everything from immigration reform to climate change was the American way. They have mostly refused to condemn the fevered claims of white supremacists and talk radio that a duly elected president of the United States is somehow not one of us. They set out not merely to merely disagree with Barack Obama, but as McConnell infamously said, to “make him a one term president.”

Refusing to Set Expectations with Your Voters…

Republicans refused to really engage on big issues from health care to Syria, even voting no on a sensible economic stimulus and an essential auto bailout in the wake of The Great Recession knowing all the while that they could gin up the base with Barack bashing and yet one more promise to repeal Obamacare.

Now their presidential candidate tweets regularly about what “Obama has done with the debt,” while never acknowledging – or probably knowing – that no president spends money that has not been authorized and appropriated by the Republican Congress. Trump’s own claims to eliminate the debt are as unrealistic as the claims made by Britain’s anti-Europe crowd and just as widely discredited.

Yet simple lessons in civics and finance eludes not only the candidate, but his followers. Facts be damned. Even if a claim is pure poppycock, shot down by an “expert” who knows something, so what? it still makes a good message in 140 characters.

Failing to deliver for their base on undeliverable promises the GOP leadership now finds itself roughly where Dodgy Dave Cameron sits – on the outs with one-time supporters who feel conned, left trying to explain how a phony billionaire “populist” who traffics in insults and conspiracy theories has hijacked their party.

The Farage-Trump analogy even works to the level of both men’s penchant for the sleazy insult. Farage once told a former Belgian prime minister and top EU official to his face that he had “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” At least Farage’s insults are more original than Trump’s.

Chaos leads to chaos
Chaos leads to chaos

This stunning turn of events in both the UK and the U.S. is evidence of an appalling lack of political leadership, leadership willing to acknowledge that moderation in the pursuit of progress is actually a virtue.

It should also be said that the American left hardly has clean hands at this moment of upheaval. Bernie Sanders continues to stoke too many of his supporters into a populist lather with a message that, while more optimistic and forward looking than what is coming from the populist right still often ignores political reality. The hardest thing to do in politics is to say no to your supporters and the second most difficult is to temper their expectations. We are seeing this populist revolt in no small part because of a failure to do either.

Cameron likely could have shutdown the EU debate in 2015 by forcefully making the conservative case for the UK staying in Europe – British conservatives led the country into the EU in the first place in 1973 – but he gambled the country on his own election and now he has lost it all.

Finding the Center Again…

McConnell and Company have embraced a similar level of political opportunism, shunning any obligation to negotiate with Obama and displaying no willingness to instruct their base voters in the finer points of how democracy works. On the immigration issue alone Republicans might have found a sensible middle ground with Obama years ago. Some of them, including Marco Rubio, came close in 2013 to a political solution only to cave to the rampant xenophobia among the Tea Party faithful that now powers Trump’s campaign. The resulting division, exacerbated even more by an evenly split Supreme Court unable to rule in a recent critical case – again McConnell’s doing – has created racial tensions not seen in the country since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Writing from his own political exile brought on by his reckless embrace of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, former British prime minister Tony Blair nevertheless made an essential point in a post-Brexit op-ed in the New York Times. With Britain and the U.S. clearly in mind, Blair wrote, “It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties. What wasn’t clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can.”

Blair might have noted that Brexit and Trump have completed the transition of the once principled right of center conservative parties in Britain and the United States into collections of angry, aggrieved nationalists whose real currency is neither the pound or the dollar, but rather fear and hatred.

Remembering History, Acting Responsibly…

“The center must regain its political traction,” Tony Blair says, “rediscover its capacity to analyze the problems we all face and find solutions that rise above the populist anger. If we do not succeed in beating back the far left and far right before they take the nations of Europe on this reckless experiment, it will end the way such rash action always does in history: at best, in disillusion; at worst, in rancorous division. The center must hold.”

Battle of the Somme , 1916
Battle of the Somme, 1916

Next Sunday – July 1st – marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, the worst battle on the western front in The Great War. A million Europeans and most of a generation of Britain’s finest perished in one of the worst battles in human history all in order to prevent Europe from descending into a new dark age. The peace following The Great War lasted barely twenty years before an even more destructive war ravaged Europe. From that wreckage, barely seventy years ago, Europe began to come together in a genuine union – some wanted to call it a United States of Europe – with the belief that economic connections and open borders were the keys to security and peace, that cooperation was vastly more productive than national rivalry. All that idealism, all that reality stands torn and tattered now and the future is, at best, uncertain.

Winston Churchill, considered by the EU as one of the movement’s founders, once quoted a French politician as saying, “Without Britain there can be no Europe.” Churchill immediately added, “This is entirely true. But our friends on the Continent need have no misgivings. Britain is an integral part of Europe, and we mean to play our part in the revival of her prosperity and greatness.”

That is what political leadership sounds like.

These are not the times for opportunists and demagogues who peddle simple answers for the problems of a complex, rapidly changing and profoundly interconnected world. Send the populists of all stripes packing. They are the sowers of discord, the merchants of chaos. Britain has sent us a signal. It would be wise to pay attention.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Bush, CIA, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Libya, Middle East, Military History, New York, Obama, Otter, Politics, Truman, World Cup, World War I, World War II

The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)
George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings
British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters
Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.

 

2016 Election, Baseball, Britain, Civil Rights, Politics, Reagan, Supreme Court, Television, World Cup

Defining Moments…

Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.

A defining moment...
A defining moment…

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.

More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Defining Changes in American Politics…

After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.

ReaganReagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.

The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.

Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.

The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”

Sharpening the serrated edges…

But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz
Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.

Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.

The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.

You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.

Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.

All that is left is bigotry…

Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams
Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”

What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.

The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other  lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

The difficult things to do…

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.

All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.

Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”

I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.

Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…

David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.

‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”

That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.

 

Baseball, Britain, Civil Rights, Civil War, Hatfield, Libya, Politics, Reagan, Television, World War I

America’s Great War…

The marvelous British historian David Reynolds argues in his latest book – The Long Shadow – which explores the lasting legacies of World War I, that every country has a national narrative about its “great war.”

Photo - The Telegraph
David Reynolds author of The Long Shadow. Photo, The Telegraph

For Great Britain the “great war” remains World War I, which is being commemorated right now with solemn ceremonies, television documentaries, a raft of new books and even government financed field trips by school children to France to witness first hand the trenches and cemeteries where many of a generation fought, fell and remain.

War deaths from Great Britain, including those who died from disease and injury, were more than 700,000 from 1914 to 1918. The total reaches nearly a million when the soldiers of the empire are counted. The Great War, more even that World War II, remains a searing event in modern British history and memory.

America’s Great War…

In the United States, by contrast, the Great War remains, in Reynolds’ phrase, “on the margins of American cultural memory.” Our “great war” Reynolds correctly contends – the war that never ends for Americans – is the Civil War. More than three-quarter of a million Americans died. “More than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars.” Our great war re-wrote the Constitution, ended slavery, realigned American politics and touched, often profoundly, every family and institution in the re-united nation. It also caused the death of our greatest president and cemented decades of resentment and hatred in a sizable chunk of the population.

Confederate troops under their flag
Confederate troops under their flag

“Both the Union and the Confederacy,” the British historian writes, “claimed to be fighting for ‘freedom’ – defining it in fundamentally different ways…in retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861-1865 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘Southern strategy’ – not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008.” That pretty well sums it up.

Yet the legacies of our “great war,” engaged afresh in the wake of the recent horrible events in South Carolina, never seem to be completely acknowledged by our political leaders. The war, many seem to believe, can be rightly treated as a cultural artifact, a historic aberration or a mere blip on the national path to the perfect Union. But the war remains with us in big ways and small, including in the rebel flag.

South Carolina Capitol
South Carolina Capitol

As symbolically and practically important as are the call by the Republican governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds and the moves by Walmart, Amazon and others to quit selling Confederate-themed merchandize, the war over our great war, including its meaning and importance, will continue. The battle goes on, in part, because even a century and a half after the war ended our national conflicts about race, civil rights and national and state politics are fueled by two great and hard to combat realities – myth and ignorance.

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

Scarlett and her "boys of the Lost Cause..."
Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

The South lost the Civil War, but in very important ways won the war to define the conflict. The still greatest Civil War film, for example, is Gone With the Wind, a glorious piece of Hollywood myth making that helped ensure that Scarlett O’Hara’s love for her southern home, Tara, and her determination to survive evil Yankee depredations would frame our great war as a noble “lost cause” fought to maintain a genteel Southern culture. It’s all hooey done up in hoop skirts. Myth with a southern twang.

The noble Ashley Wilkes, a cinematic stand in for Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, was a traitor who took up arms against his country. Scarlett, the determined southern belle, aided and abetted the rebellion in order to maintain her piece of the South’s slave dependent economy. One commentator described Scarlett as the “founding Mother of the Me Generation,” unwilling to bother her pretty little head about anything beyond her own self-interest. An enduring line from the film, the Best Picture of 1939, is Scarlett’s dismissive line: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So it goes with our great war and its meaning.

As laudable as her actions are in calling for the flag to come down in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley still seems to embrace another great myth about the war. She said this week that some troubled souls, like the alleged killer of nine black Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, have “a sick and twisted view of the flag” and that those who simply respect southern “heritage” by displaying the flag are effectively victimized by those who embrace the banner as the ultimate racist emblem. This distinction is another myth.

The American Civil War was fought to maintain a way of life all right, but that “heritage,” that way of life, was all about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. While we’re taking down the Stars and Bars perhaps we ought to petition Turner Classic Movies to send Rhett and Scarlett off to a museum, too.

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

The myths about our great war also feed directly into a shocking degree of ignorance about the seminal event in American history. Numerous studies have shown that many students have trouble placing the Civil War in the right decade of the 19th Century and some, even at very  good public universities, don’t know who won the war or why it was fought.

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket
The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

As ignorance intersected with mythology over the decades the Civil War became about “heritage” and “culture” rather than violent opposition to African-American civil rights. Meanwhile, politicians from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond to Richard Nixon invoked “states rights” as a cause as pure as Jefferson Davis’ motives.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat who eventually became a Republican, denounced civil rights and espoused states rights when he ran for the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond’s campaign wrapped itself in the Confederate flag and won four Southern states and an electoral vote in Tennessee.

Even the great liberal Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance from race and civil rights while in the White House even when pestered to take action by his more liberal wife. FDR had no desire to upset the delicate balance of white political power below the Mason-Dixon line that kept southern Democratic segregationists in his party and in position of great power until the last half of the 20th Century.

The sainted Ronald Reagan, the modern GOP’s answer to Roosevelt, skillfully played the myth card when seeking the presidency in 1980. Reagan launched his campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County fair. Sixteen years earlier, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled in a 2007 column, a young New Yorker Andrew Goodman and two fellow civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a young black man, disappeared in Neshoba County. Their bodies wouldn’t be found for weeks.

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign
Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

“All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

“The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

States Rights…

Reagan used his Philadelphia, Mississippi speech – he was the first national candidate to ever speak there – to explicitly endorse “states rights” and blow the dog whistle of racial politics. Reagan made absolutely no mention of the still white-hot struggle in Mississippi for civil rights, while appealing to conservative white voters. Read the speech today with Reagan’s folksy references to “welfare” and “personal responsibility” and it is easy to see why his Republican Party cemented what appears, twenty-five years later, to be a permanent political deal with white southerners.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.
1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan said in Mississippi in 1980. “I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

The crowd of 10,000 voters – those who were there recall seeing no black faces in the crowd – knew what the candidate was promising and the “re-ordering” myth, at its heart a plea to return to – or maintain – a culture where the Confederate flag flaps in every southern breeze. It’s a small leap from Neshoba County in 1980 to the leader of the nation’s largest white supremacy group lavishing campaign money on Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress in 2015.

It is a moment to pause and praise the South Carolina governor for taking a decent and important step regarding that old and hateful flag. It would be easy to say the action is about 150 years late, but perhaps as symbols finally fall, even slowly, it will help to both destroy the myths and improve the knowledge about our great war. There is more to do.

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860
South Carolina in 1860

The next time you hear some politician proclaim fidelity to “states rights” or argue for the sanctity of the Constitution, remember that South Carolina, where our own great war began, rather skillfully and with no apparent irony invoked the Constitution in 1860 in an attempt to destroy the Constitution and leave the Union.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,” South Carolina declared in seceding from the Union just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected, “and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Our great war really was about ending human bondage and not merely Scarlett’s “heritage.” Both sides knew it then and we should know it now. It should be obvious that the flag hoisted by the rebels represents, even today, the bloody battle to perpetuate black Americans in slavery. The Confederate flag is simply a symbol of racism, bigotry and hatred and having it fly over a state capitol or adorn a license plate is deeply offensive and historically wrong.

A century and a half removed from our seminal event our great war remains shrouded in myth and buried in ignorance, but one need only read Lincoln’s greatest speech to better understand our true history and why we must – finally – come to terms with our great national catastrophe and its roots in white supremacy.

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war…”

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said in 1865, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Taking down the flag is important, but hardly the full answer to our troubled racial past and still troubled present. “The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American, writes in The Atlantic. “The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.”

Some Americans are still willing to “rend the Union” by perpetuating myths and playing on ignorance often while pursuing votes. That awful war never ends. Taking down the flag is a small step, but a correct one. Myths are dismantled and ignorance overcome, too slowly perhaps, but it must happen.

 

Britain, Cars, New York

God Save the Queen…

There is an old joke well known to owners of British automobiles of a certain age. It goes something like this: Question – Why have the Brits never developed an industry based on manufacturing a personal computer? Answer – They couldn’t figure out how to make the PC’s leak oil.

It’s still funny even as I look at the oil spot in the garage.

I once had a British car collection, which is another way of saying I had two British cars. You can’t have a collection with just one. I have, not unlike Picasso dispersing his masterpieces, downsized the “collection” to a single automobile, if you can call a 55-year-old Triumph TR 3 an “automobile.”

Volvo makes automobiles. So does Mercedes, or Chrysler. The Brits make cars.

The 1960 TR3
The 1960 TR3

Quirky and Lovable…

The TR3 is one of the most iconic cars ever made and one of the quirkiest. It has no windows but rather something called a “side curtain.” For a car produced in a country where it rains about 364 days a year, a side curtain is about as useful as a gag order on Senator Ted Cruz. With the side curtains fully deployed you may just get completely soaked in a rainstorm rather than drowned. The side curtain is not a practical answer to moisture in any form.

The car is a two-seater. Really. There is a little shelf behind the two seats that might be comfortable for a Barbie Doll or a small dog, but not for anyone taller than one of those Munchkins from Oz. The rearview mirror on a TR is mounted on the dash at a level that requires the driver to duck and cover to see that eighteen-wheeler bearing down just behind the gas tank. There is a knob on the dash panel to regulate the heater, but it works about as well as the windscreen wipers. The wipers, about eight inches long, are less effective than taking your index finger and flicking it back and forth on the windscreen. You might think a country that is predominately wet and cold would get the wipers and heater thing worked out, but if you believe that you just don’t appreciate the charm of the British automobile, er, car.

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness
Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Much has been written about the electronics in British cars of a certain vintage. A company named Lucas did the wiring harness, the gauges, etc. Lucas is known among we owners as “the Prince of Darkness.” There is actually a website devoted to jokes about the Lucas “Prince of Darkness” problem. One of my favorites: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone. Thomas Edison invented the Light Bulb. Joseph Lucas invented the Short Circuit.”

A certain person I adore asked me recently what it was like to drive a car with “basically no electronics?” I declined to answer beyond saying that the TR has a gas gauge (mostly accurate, I think), a heat gauge (accurate), an oil pressure gauge (accurate) and an amp meter that must work because the battery stays charged. Oh, yes, there is a speedo that registers about ten miles per hour faster than the car is actually moving (probably a good thing) and a tach that seems to be reliable. Any or all could fail in the next few minutes.

Ah, that smell…

British cars of a certain age also have a definite aroma. They smell to me like equal parts oil, gasoline, age and burning $100 bills. When I had two British cars I had a mechanic on retainer. A gambling addiction might have been cheaper.

All the quirkiness aside, the TR is a conversation starter. Young males, cute girls and older guys – think PBR or Bud drinkers – tend to “get” the Triumph. They are smart enough to appreciate the craziness involved with owning a car without windows, that smells constantly of oil and that has the most unreliable electronics this side of Apollo 13.

Megan's Austin Healey
Megan’s Austin Healey

No one is likely to confuse a TR with a great car like, say, a Jaguar XK-150 or the sexy Austin Healy roadster slinky Megan was driving when she picked up Don Draper at the LA Airport in Mad Men. Draper was a Cadillac Coupe de Ville-type guy. Probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a workman-like sports car like a TR. Not many frills, these cars, just top down and a tight gearbox. The smiles and thumbs up you get while driving one are pleasant extras.

BMW now owns the Triumph “mark,” as they say and there have been rumors of the car making a return; rumors denied by BMW. Would that be a triumphant return if it were to happen? Maybe it’s the nostalgia or the quirks or that I’m a sucker for most everything British, but should there ever be a revival, I’ll still like the old smelly TR3 best. There was a long series of TR’s – all the way up to a TR7, but the old 3’s remain the classics. (The TR6 would be next best in my view.) After the TR3, the company went into a long, slow decline and produced some truly hideous cars before going out of business in 1981.

The Triumph Wikipedia page says it well: “It is alleged that many Triumphs of this era were unreliable, especially the 2.5 PI (petrol injection) with its fuel injection problems. In Australia, the summer heat caused petrol in the electric fuel pump to vaporize, resulting in frequent malfunctions.” Maybe that is what you deserve when you take a British car to a hot summer climate.

My own ‘special relationship’…

My TR3 nameplate - well worn
My TR3 nameplate – well worn

The nameplate mounted on the firewall says the car was built in Coventry, while Harold MacMillan was prime minister. How British. That combination confirms my own “special relationship” to the TR3 and to Britain.

Coventry, an industrial and manufacturing city north and west of London, got some of the worst of The Blitz in World War II. MacMillan, a conservative and contemporary of Churchill’s, was a great friend of the young liberal American President John Kennedy. Mostly forgotten in the United States sadly, MacMillan was brave, funny and politically talented. Wounded five times in the Great War, MacMillan nearly died in a plane crash in North Africa in the second, while serving as the top British official there. Unlike so many politicians today, MacMillan was also blessed with a marvelous sense of humor, once saying, “I have never found, in a long experience in politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.”

British PM Harold MacMillan
British PM Harold MacMillan

There is no record of MacMillan’s views on cars like mine, but he might have had a TR3 and its owner in mind when he observed: “It has been said that there is no fool like an old fool, except a young fool. But the young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realize what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool.” How can you not love the Brits? Do you think he was talking about fanatics for cars from his homeland?

The TR’s boot – trunk to you colonials – is tidy, but will hold a weekend bag and you can (maybe) poke the golf clubs in behind the front seats. Your passenger will probably want to hold the picnic basket on her lap or risk the chicken salad tasting like high-test petrol. If it rains, just fasten on the tonneau cover (it won’t fit very well) and wait it out in a pub. Strangers will approach you with stories about how they “once had a car just like that. Damn, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of it.”

Who needs windows or efficient windscreen wipers anyway and the oil spots on the garage floor seem a small price to pay for a love affair. God Save the Queen.

 

2014 Election, American Presidents, Baucus, Borah, Britain, Churchill, Congress, Coolidge, Foreign Policy, Iran, John Kennedy, Labor Day, McClure, Nixon, Obama, Reagan, Thatcher, U.S. Senate

Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

 

Al Gore, Baseball, Britain, Libraries, Organized Labor, Politics, Reagan, Reapportionment, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman

A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to 101823174-451523212.530x298Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight. Teddy-Roosevelt-the-Anthracite-Coal-Strike-the-Railroad-and-Civil-Rights-_picture_-2When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” – harrystrumanTruman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr. TaftRepublican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a Time - Taftprovision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that 3384-20Acelebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.

 

Britain, FDR, New York, Public Television, Uncategorized

Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.