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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.


Our Manchurian Candidate…


           “The final and most worrying similarity between Putin and Trump is that so many are unwilling to believe that someone like Trump could ever become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed to great jubilation, we never would have believed that a former KGB agent would become the president of Russia just nine years later. The moral: Be careful whom you vote for, it could be the last election you ever have.”

Russian dissident Garry Kasparov on the similarities between Putin and Trump.


Hang around politics long enough and you will ultimately come to embrace an ironclad rule. There is no such thing as a coincidence.

None of these (seemingly) unrelated facts/events/developments that I unspool below are matters of chance. Together they do not constitute a wildly improbable “coincidence.” Arrange the bullet-points anyway you want and then conclude the whole thing is amazing…or shocking…or worse.

Praise for Putin – Authoritarians as Stablemates…

The curious bromance - Trump and Putin

The curious bromance – Trump and Putin

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump astounds many Americans with praise – not once but time and again – for autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the first widely acknowledged incidents of Trump evoking his relationship with the former KBG operative occurred during one of the many Republican primary debates. Of course Trump lied about what happened when he said, “I got to know him [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates.” And then referring to the television show’s ratings, Trump said, “We did well that night.”

Trump and Putin had been featured in separate segments on the same night on 60 Minutes, but the rest of Trump’s claim was a fabrication. He – and we – shrugged it off as another whopper from the Orange Haired Wonder.

A couple of months later Trump went even farther when he discounted allegations that Putin has had journalists murdered. “Our country does plenty of killing also,” Trump maintained and then added that at least Putin is “running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country.”

Putin has returned the compliments. As Trump noted: “A guy calls me a genius, and I’m going to renounce?” I’m not going to renounce him.” Putin didn’t use those exact words, but never mind, this is Trump. The very next day Putin did call Trump a “colorful person” and said he welcomed Trump’s proposal for a “full-scale resumption” of U.S.-Russia ties.

Trump’s bromance with Putin is not a recent phenomenon. In 2013, long before he was considered a serious political candidate, Trumped Tweeted: “I just got back from Russia-learned lots & lots. Moscow is a very interesting and amazing place. U.S. MUST BE VERY SMART AND STRATEGIC.”

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until 2014, said Trump’s position toward Russia “makes everyone I talk to around the world nervous — and it makes me nervous.” And David J. Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with Russia during the George W. Bush administration, said simply he is “appalled” by Trump’s approach to Putin.

Trump has never – big surprise – backed away from any of his praise for Putin or vice versa.

Remember Brexit, NATO and Support for Nationalist Movements…

Among the relatively few in the world to celebrate the United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the European Union were Trump and Putin. The French rightwing, nationalist political leader Marine Le Pen was another who praised the UK move. Most close observers believe Brexit serves Putin’s aim to fracture European unity and complicate western economies, while also encouraging nationalism everywhere. It has been well documented that Russian money has propped up rightwing, nationalist movements in Hungry and, of all places, France.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, another Putin favorite

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, another Putin favorite

Trump’s recent astounding and completely unprecedented assertion that he would not automatically honor the 70 year old commitment to the NATO alliance is of a piece with his embrace of Brexit and, of course, is precisely the same position held by Vladimir Putin.

Putin, meanwhile, lavishes attention on separatist, anti-globalization movements from Northern Ireland to Texas – really. As NBC reported, “Northern Irish, Scottish, Basque, Catalan and Italian secessionists have been invited to Moscow for a conference, partly funded by Russia, planned for August. They will mingle with Texan, Californian, Puerto-Rican and Hawaiian wannabe-separatists from all over the world, the conference organizer says.”

It is no overstatement to say that never before in American history has one party candidate been so completely in sync with the world views of a Russian leader. In order to align with Putin, Trump has had to dump generations of foreign policy consensus. All by itself that is simply an amazing development in American politics.

Paul Manafort: Political Fixer Here and Abroad…

As Trump’s campaign both powered forward earlier this year winning one Republican primary after another, his campaign organization was widely seen as a mess. Enter long-time Republican operative Paul Manafort who was installed as the campaign chairman. Before long Manafort, a long-time lobbyist and GOP operative,  consolidated his role when Trump’s campaign manager was forced out.

Paul Manafort, Trump's Ukraine connection

Paul Manafort, Trump’s Ukraine connection

One of the great unreported stories of the current political cycle is how and why Manafort came to the Trump orbit. He is reportedly “volunteering” his services.

In 2014, Politico published a profile of Manafort referring to the one-time Reagan and Bush aide as “an invisible man” and “a notorious political fixer.” At the time of the 2014 piece, Manafort was emerging as the top advisor to the pro-Putin Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. You may recall your recent world history and the fact that Putin has been working hard for years to destabilize Ukraine and prevent NATO membership even to the point of invading and occupying the eastern part of the country.

‘What’s already certain is this,” Politico wrote two and a half years ago, “Even among the many American strategists who test their fortunes abroad, Manafort’s journey from the front lines of the Reagan revolution to the right hand of a Moscow-backed Eastern bloc pol straight out of central casting ranks as one of the more unusual escapades of the Washington consulting class.” Little surprise: lots of money has been involved.

Additionally, a Trump “energy advisor,” Carter Page, has extensive ties to Putin and the Russian energy giant Gazprom and a retired three star general, Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who recently spoke to the Republican National Convention has been cozy with Putin. Flynn sat with Putin at a dinner recently in Moscow celebrating the founding of Russia Today, the ‘news organization’ that is a key element in Putin’s international propaganda apparatus. Flynn has frequently appeared on RT and may be a paid contributor to the network. He refuses to confirm or deny.

If Flynn’s name sounds familiar it is because he had a brief run as a potential Trump vice presidential candidate.

Trump’s Russian Beauty Pageant…

In a fascinating piece of reporting in June, the Washington Post noted this: “The overwhelming consensus among American political and national security leaders has held that Putin is a pariah who disregards human rights and has violated international norms in seeking to regain influence and territory in the former Soviet bloc. In 2012, one year before Trump brought his beauty pageant to Moscow, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical threat — an assessment that has only gained currency since then.”

Trump comparing finger length with a beauty pageant contestant in Moscow in 2013.

Trump comparing finger length with a beauty pageant contestant in Moscow in 2013.

The Post story went on to recount how a Trump-organized beauty pageant in Moscow garnered several million for Trump, that various Trump family members have made numerous trips to Russia seeking financing and development projects and then offered this fascinating quote from Donald Trump, Jr. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Anyone paying attention knows that Trump’s financial empire is as messy as his campaign organization. Most U.S. banks long ago refused to deal with Trump and his ties to Russian banks have covered his mounting debt.

In a brilliant piece on the Trump-Russia connection blogger Josh Marshall, he edits the Talking Points Memo website, said of the Republican candidate, “He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.” Trump seemed to confirm that suggestion when he bragged to a real estate publication that “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” when he traveled to Russia for his beauty pageant.

The release of Trump’s tax returns – the fact that he refuses is unprecedented in modern American politics – would go a long way to illuminate the extent of his indebtedness to Russian banks and billionaires. That Trump won’t release those documents, which if they contain exculpatory information would be helpful to his cause, speaks volumes.

The Platform Fight That Wasn’t…

You needed to be paying really close attention last week to catch this story. During deliberations over the content of the Republican Party platform, Trump representatives killed a resolution that would have placed the party on record supporting “lethal” military aide to Ukraine. That is a position backed by virtually every Republican with any type of foreign policy experience, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, for example, but hotly opposed by the Kremlin. So Trump forces killed the resolution, apparently one of the few times Trump or his minions paid any real attention to the party platform.

Coincidence? You have to wonder why it happened.

The Leaked Emails…

Here’s what The Atlantic says: “Close your eyes and imagine that a hacking group backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin broke into the email system of a major U.S. political party. The group stole thousands of sensitive messages and then published them through an obliging third party in a way that was strategically timed to influence the United States presidential election. Now open your eyes, because it looks like that’s what just happened.”

A view of the main stage for the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A view of the main stage for the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

American security and intelligence officials have confirmed that Russian hackers, likely Russian intelligence agencies, were responsible for the cyber theft of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The FBI is now investigating. The Russian hackers apparently turned the email trove over to Wikileaks, which dumped the material at precisely the moment it would have maximum impact on the Democratic National Convention that began Monday in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, state sponsored Russian media outlets have played the story big, focusing particularly on the forced resignation of the chairwoman of the DNC, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The email dump, of course, implicates the DNC in a “conspiracy” to thwart the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders and help Hillary Clinton. Not incidentally, the Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, spent all weekend highlighting the email issue.

At the risk of seeming to sound like Donald Trump who has rarely met a conspiracy theory he didn’t embrace – Ted Cruz’s father helping Lee Harvey Oswald kill John Kennedy or Barack Obama the Kenyan Muslim – I have to conclude the Trump-Russian connection story is one of two things. Either the dots really do connect and Putin and Russia are actively – and effectively – attempting to influence an American presidential election and doing so with the active support of the GOP nominee…or this is all just one huge, remarkable coincidence. Take your pick.

Or consider this.

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

In 1962 United Artists, a big Hollywood film studio, released a film with a crazy, convoluted and politically explosive plot. In the film a foreign government sends a brainwashed ex-American serviceman to assassinate a U.S. politician. The film was something of a box office flop and many critics concluded that the plot of The Manchurian Candidate was just too farfetched, too implausible.

But Pauline Kael, the great film critic of The New Yorker, saw something else and she called the movie, “A daring, funny, and far-out political thriller about political extremists. … This picture plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.”

Today John Frankenheimer’s film is considered a classic. Maybe it is just a coincidence that I think about this old film when I think about Putin, Trump, Russian email hackers and the presidential election campaign.

Or maybe it is not a coincidence at all.


Trumping the Shark…


        “And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there [in South Korea] watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?’”

Donald J. Trump in an interview with the New York Times


Republicans, particularly those from the traditional post-war internationalist wing of the Grand Old Party, have devoted most of their waking hours over the past seven and a half years to assailing Barack Obama’s “fickle” foreign policy.

Obama has been bashed for “leading from behind,” for constantly “apologizing” for the United States, for being unwilling to double down on a purely military response to the violence and political turmoil from Egypt to Syria, from Ukraine to Iran.

Neville Chamberlain in 1938

Neville Chamberlain in 1938

In this Republican view Obama is a Kenyan socialist update of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who redefined the word “appeasement” so that it has become the most damning of all foreign policy epithets.

Then the GOP nominated Donald Trump.

I’m going to posit that never before in the history of modern U.S. politics has one party, a party that has for so long held rock solid views on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, so quickly and violently changed direction. The Trumpian “pivot” on foreign policy is now complete and the implications are coming into focus. As usual with Trump there is little doubt or nuance.

The Republican presidential candidate detailed for the New York Times yesterday his belief that as president he would not automatically guarantee 70 years of commitments to European security, would not condemn the massive violations of civil liberties underway in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey and would remove American military and security commitments from far east allies like Japan and Korea.

And that’s just for openers.

The only thing missing from Trump’s capture of the Republican Party were seconding speeches of his nomination from anti-democratic thugs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's Erdogan

Turkey’s Erdogan

Imagine Barack Obama making a statement like Trump made yesterday. Reminded by the Times David E. Sanger that since the attempted coup in Turkey Erdogan “put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”

Trump’s reply: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

Forget the messenger, worry about our own rule of law with such a man in the White House. Worry also about the cognitive dissonance on the new GOP ticket. At the very moment Trump’s interview was posted online Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was saying this: “We cannot have four more years of … abandoning our friends. … Donald Trump will … stand with our allies.” Right. Got it.

The Reagan doctrine of American Exceptionalism has been reduced in the Age of Trump to: “We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.” Apparently fixing “our own mess” will cause Trump to look for inspiration to the dictators he refuses to condemn.

Loyal readers know that I have often voiced my own profound concerns about an American foreign policy based on the constant expansion of U.S. military power or the belief, held by Hillary Clinton among others, that nearly every foreign policy challenge demands a military response, but Trump has gone where no Republican has gone since at least Robert Taft in 1952.

Goldwater slogan in 1964

Goldwater slogan in 1964

Trump has torn the Republican Party from its post-war moorings, even more so it is now clear than Barry Goldwater did in 1964. His appeal to nativist, know nothingism, his exploitation of fear, his appalling ignorance of our own history and the world’s has gone way beyond anything we have seen since McCarthy in the early 1950’s. This is truly the GOP’s McCarthy Moment and no time, as Edward R. Murrow said of the Republican’s earlier demagogue, for citizens – particularly Republicans – who oppose his nonsense to remain silent.

It is now truly time to contemplate the consequences of turning over the country’s foreign policy – the nuclear codes for crying out loud – to a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the key to the executive washroom. The country has been here before. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 proclaimed that “In your heart you know he is right,” but American voters saw through Goldwater’s bizarre suggestions that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used in Southeast Asia, that a nuclear warhead was “just another weapon” and that North Vietnam could be reduced to a “mud puddle” if only we had the right leadership.

The last time a radical hijacked the GOP, American voters agreed with Democrats who countered Goldwater’s slogan with their own: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”

Donald J. Trump is certifiably “nuts.”

The Rules Matter…

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest offering – Bridge of Spies – works on several levels as his best films tend to. In fact, it may be one of his very best films.

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

The movie is a classic big screen thriller with adequate action and suspense. It’s a finely tuned period piece (mid-century modern) complete with old cars, vintage billboards, and “duck and cover” filmstrips.

Bridge of Spies is also an actor’s movie with superb performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed stage actor, and a talent that will be new to many movie goers.

And since this is Spielberg, the film is also an American history lesson.

When the Cold War Was Really Cold…

Hanks, who seems to hit his stride when working with Spielberg, plays New York attorney, James B. Donovan, who improbably becomes the key player in arranging a celebrated Cold War prisoner swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action is set at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and continues on into the Kennedy years – days of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and spy versus spy.

The key figures in the prisoner swap – again all true – were the young American Air Force lieutenant Francis Gary Powers, who is appropriated to fly spy planes for the CIA, and the notorious Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel.

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Powers became a Soviet prisoner in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down in the Ural Mountain region of the Soviet Union during a photography run. Powers survived the crash – great scene in the movie – and was captured by the KGB.

The Eisenhower Administration originally tried to pass off the incident as a wayward weather aircraft, but the Soviets produced wreckage of the super-secret U-2 and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reaped an international propaganda windfall. A summit meeting in Berlin was cancelled and efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations were temporarily derailed. It was a major international incident that also had the human dimension of a young American with a head full of secrets about U.S. spy activities sitting in a Russian jail.

Earlier, in 1957, after a long string of events that read, appropriately enough, like something out of John Le Carre, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service identified Colonel Abel as a Soviet spy who had been operating in the United States for some time. Abel was arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. The New York lawyer, Donovan, was appointed by the federal court in New York to defend him.

The film mangles some of the timeline and a few things are invented out of whole cloth – this is Hollywood after all – but the real power of the story and its great relevance today is in the courtroom scenes where Abel is first convicted and then loses an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

After seeing and completely enjoying the film, I got to wondering what really happened in the U.S. justice system during the height of the Cold War when the government tried a man thought to be a Soviet spy.

Does a Soviet Spy Deserve Due Process…

The film understandably compresses a good deal of the story, which played out over several years, but makes some powerful and important points in the telling.

A basic question is raised early on when attorney Donovan (played by Hanks) has to confront the dilemma of an upstanding attorney, a pillar of the New York Bar, signing on to do his best to defend a Russian spy. What are the implications for his career, his law firm, his family? I immediately thought about the private attorneys who continue to represent Guantanamo detained terror suspects.

The real Rudolf Abel

The real Rudolf Abel

The film makes us confront whether it is merely enough to give Abel a defense that goes through the motions of due process or whether he deserves a no-holds-barred defense, including appeals on grounds that his hotel room and apartment were improperly searched.

At one point a CIA operative shadows Donovan in order to question him about what his client has been saying. Donovan, in one of the film’s best moments, tells the CIA fellow that he won’t – indeed can’t – talk about what his client is telling him since it is protected by attorney-client privilege. There are rules, Donovan says, most importantly the Constitution that make our system different than the system that is detaining Gary Powers.

Abel’s case, both in the film and real life, eventually reaches the Supreme Court over the question of the lack of a proper warrant that specifically authorizes a search the defendant’s rooms. Give Spielberg credit, he even gets the Supreme Court courtroom correct. Abel’s case was argued, actually twice, in 1959 and the courtroom has since been remodeled.

The case turned on a complex question about whether a warrant for an “administrative arrest” – Abel was actually arrested by the immigration service after being detained and questioned by the FBI – allowed the subsequent FBI search of his rooms. The celebrated Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the rather technical 5-4-majority opinion upholding the legality of the search and Abel’s conviction stood.

This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant…

As is often the case, the dissents in such cases make for better reading and offer more insight into the workings of our justice system. Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the dissents in the Abel case and Justice William J. Brennan another.

Mr.  Justice Douglas

Mr. Justice Douglas

“Cases of notorious criminals—like cases of small, miserable ones—are apt to make bad law,” Douglas wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Hugo Black.

“When guilt permeates a record, even judges sometimes relax and let the police take shortcuts not sanctioned by constitutional procedures. That practice, in certain periods of our history and in certain courts, has lowered our standards of law administration. The harm in the given case may seem excusable. But the practices generated by the precedent have far-reaching consequences that are harmful and injurious beyond measurement. The present decision is an excellent example.”

Douglas was saying sure this Abel is a Soviet spy – a notorious criminal – but the rules apply to him just as they apply to “small, miserable” law breakers.

“If the F.B.I. agents had gone to a magistrate, any search warrant issued would by terms of the Fourth Amendment have to ‘particularly’ describe ‘the place to be searched’ and the ‘things to be seized,’” Douglas wrote. “How much more convenient it is for the police to find a way around those specific requirements of the Fourth Amendment! What a hindrance it is to work laboriously through constitutional procedures! How much easier to go to another official in the same department! The administrative officer can give a warrant good for unlimited search. No more showing of probable cause to a magistrate! No more limitations on what may be searched and when!”

Brennan was just as pointed: “This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant. Yet we must take care to enforce the Constitution without regard to the nature of the crime or the nature of the criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ This right is a basic one of all the people, without exception…”

Real American Exceptionalism…

The court case and the film also make the fundamental point that Abel, not a U.S. citizen, still enjoyed the full protections of the country’s justice system, a point worth pondering as the terror suspects sit year after year in Cuba.

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated return of Bay of Pigs captives

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated the return of Bay of Pigs captives

Rudolf Abel languished in U.S. prisons until early 1962 when the Donovan-brokered exchange took place on a bridge dividing East and West Berlin. That bridge gives the film its title. The New York attorney was publicly acknowledge by the Kennedy Administration as having helped make the arrangements.

The negotiations over the swap are some of the best moments of the film and, intentionally or not, Spielberg shows that the New York insurance lawyer who became an Cold War negotiator turned out to be a lot better high stakes deal maker than his CIA minders.

The film is already getting some Oscar buzz – it is certainly worthy – if only for its deft storytelling and the great performances. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Rudolf Abel is nothing short of brilliant. And the script by the Cohen Brothers is first rate. A typical Cohen touch is the reoccurrence of Abel’s response when his lawyer asks him if he’s worried or afraid: “Would it help?” That has become my new mantra.

As good as the movie is as entertainment here’s hoping a few enterprising high school (or college) teachers use the film in class to make the more important points about our justice system and our history.

The hero in the film is, of course, attorney Donovan, a man mostly lost to history whose role in Abel’s trial and in the spy swap may now finally enjoy some long overdue recognition. Donovan, who died in 1970, spent years working on the Russian spy’s defense and appeals and donated half his $10,000 fee to Fordham University and split the rest between Harvard and Columbia. Setting aside the Abel case and the spy swap, the rest of Donovan’s career – naval officer, Nuremberg prosecutor, New York board of education member, U.S. Senate candidate – was truly incredible. A great American story.

Even though he lost at every level Donovan said after the Supreme Court ruling, “The very fact that Abel has been receiving due process of law in the United States is far more significant, both here and behind the Iron Curtain, than the particular outcome of the case.”

That one sentence says a lot about why we won the Cold War.


What To Do With Lenin

What do you do with the body of a man who undoubtedly changed the world, but now has – we can hope – been consigned to the dust bin of history?

Upon hearing of his death in 1924, the true believers reportedly said: “Lenin is dead. Long live Lenin.”  So, they embalmed the mastermind of the Bolshevik Revolution and laid him out for all eternity in his own red granite mausoleum in Red Square just outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Now, with a new dictator in town named Putin, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov – Lenin – has become “the dead mouse on the national living room floor” according to a delightful piece in Sunday’s New York Times by the talented Christopher Buckley. Apparently more than 50% of post-Communist Russians favor burying the old boy once and for all.

Seeing Buckley’s story reminded me of my own fleeting, but memorable encounter with Lenin. It was 1984, a time of some of the greatest tension between the Soviets and the United States. We didn’t know then that the Soviet Union was on its last legs. After all, Ronald Reagan had referred to the Communist state as “the evil empire” and tensions ran very high.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of Idahoans who went to the Soviet Union for about two weeks as part of a people-to-people exchange. We were there to make a television documentary and one of the genuine highlights of the trip was time spent gathering film footage in the vast expanse of Red Square where then, as now, Russian soldiers stand guard over Lenin’s Tomb.

Not everyone gets inside the mausoleum, but somehow we did, but no photos were permitted. Apparently our Soviet minders wanted the visitors from the capitalist west to see the man from which the revolution had sprung.

I remember that a long line of gawkers snaked by Lenin’s body in single file and, in my case, both fascinated and a little creeped out at seeing the extraordinarily well  dressed (and preserved) dictator bathed in soft and flattering light. His dress shirt was an immaculate white. The French cuffs adored by gold cuff links and his necktie perfectly knotted. Lenin looked like he’d stretched out for a long afternoon nap without bothering to remove his suit jacket.

The whole visit lasted maybe 30 seconds and the well-armed Russian guards did not encourage any loitering, but obviously I still remember the cuff links and being in the presence of the body, at least, of one of the century’s most consequential figures.

Lenin’s body, indeed his tomb in Red Square where so many generations of Soviet leaders stood and watched the high stepping Red Army march by, are  today symbols of a failed and discredited system, but are still symbols of our – and Russian – history. So, do Russians bury Lenin and with him hope that a distant, but still telling part of world history is pushed underground, too?

In the French capitol Napoleon’s Tomb is a tourist attraction that political correctness seems hardly to have touched. The Corsican did, after all, try to conquer European, but is honored still as a great man of France. Even Adolf Hitler couldn’t resist a visit when he toured Paris just after the fall of France in 1940.

Robert E. Lee, arguably guilty of treason for leading a war of rebellion against the United States, is buried inside the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the state that still celebrates his birthday as an official holiday.

What do we do with the elements of our past that no longer seem relevant or appropriate? Do we, as the Stalin regularly did, airbrush those elements from history? (Stalin, by the way, was embalmed after his death and for a while laid out next to Lenin, but that pairing didn’t last.)

Lenin has been sleeping the sleep of the old, dead Bolshevik for nearly 90 years. What Lenin did must be remembered. Perhaps Russians can remember his role in 20th Century world events without keeping his corpse on morbid display in the very heart of their capitol city.

As Buckley calls him, “Sleeping Beauty from Hell,” deserves a final resting spot, not out of mind for sure, but finally out of sight.



A Simple Story of a Battle

April 6, 1862 – 150 years ago today – Americans came to understand that their Civil War would be not be over easily or soon. Edward Ayers, a fine historian of the war, has written that the battle near Shiloh Meeting House in Tennessee changed everything about the war.

“Thousands of men with little training and no experience in war were thrown against one another in days of inexpressible suffering and waste,” Ayers writes. When the two armies disengaged, 23,000 Americans were dead, more in a few hours than in all the wars the nation had fought to that point.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant “won” the battle, but the slaughter that went with the victory – 13,000 of his soldiers died – brought demands on Abraham Lincoln that Grant be removed from command. Lincoln refused, famously saying he could not spare Grant because “he fights.”

“Up to the battle of Shiloh,” Grant would later write, “I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

As horrible as Shiloh had been, Grant began to make his reputation as a fighting general on April 6, 1862. He had been initially surprised by a Confederate attack, but by force of will and battlefield smarts he recovered. The southern army left the field and suffered a grievous loss with the death of perhaps its best solider Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. I’ve always wondered how history might have turned out differently had the events at Shiloh been reversed and Grant died on the battlefield and Johnston lived on to command increasingly important Confederate armies.

The 19th Century writer Ambrose Bierce, one of the great writers about the conflict, captured the awful essence of Shiloh in his enduring essay “What I Saw at Shiloh.” The first line of Bierce’s story was “this is a simple story of a battle,” but, of course, it was very far from simple. The last line of his essay told the real story.

“Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.”

The sesquicentennial of the horrible war gives us reason to think again about the legacy of the American Civil War and reassess the conflicts lasting meaning. The awful bloody reality of the war that never ends truly became clear to Americans on a Sunday in April 1862 – 150 years ago today.


The Vermont Humanities Council is producing a marvelous weekly piece on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I salute them for the effort and for the rich content this week on the Battle of Shiloh.