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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Hitting bottom?

 Last spring and early summer, I gave an on-line version of my favorite course, Generations in Film, which uses movies from the 1930s to the present to illustrate different generations and turnings.  Beginning with movies about young members of the GI generation like They Made Me a Criminal and Mister Roberts, the course traced the decay of American institutions, culminating with The Social Network and The Big Short.  Then, as I have often in the past, I ended with one of my favorite films of all time, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Set in the 1930s, this film features three main characters played by actors from the generation they are portraying: the Missionary Walter Huston (a Canadian, and their generations are a few years behind ours); Humphrey Bogart of the Lost Generation; and the young GI Tim Holt.  Strauss and Howe defined Missionaries as the Prophet archetype, the Lost generation as Nomads, and the GIs as Heroes.  They are thus parallel to today's Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, which is why I have always liked using the movie to wind up.  Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the movie you might want to skip the next paragraph--I don't want to spoil the great treat you have in store.

The film begins with Dobbs (Bogart), down and out in Tampico, Mexico, and his chance meeting with another, younger American, Curtin (Holt.) Later, spending a night in a flophouse, they meet the elderly Howard (Huston), talking about his many experiences as a prospector.  Before long, the three of them are embarked on an expedition into the mountains, where they eventually strike it rich.  Howard quickly emerges as the leader--rather like his contemporary FDR--not only because he's an experienced prospector, but because he knows the psychological pitfalls of the trade, as well.  Dobbs, it turns out, trusts no one, and is just out for himself.  Curtin tries to be a loyal teammate and is the only one with real plans for the future--he wants to acquire land and grow fruit.  Eventually they start for home with $35,000 apiece, but chance takes a hand.  Howard has to stay behind for awhile with some local Indians while Dobbs and Curtin continue alone.  Dobbs decides to try to make off with the whole haul himself and tries to kill Curtin, but fails.  Later he encounters bandits who kill him, and don't realize what it is that he has stashed on the back of is burrows.  Howard and Curtin eventually catch up, but by then, the wind has blown all the gold away. Philosophical as always, Howard bursts into hysterical laughter, and Curtin joins in. And then, Howard assures Curtin that he has plenty of time ahead of him--time enough to make three or four more fortunes.

It occurred to me preparing for that last class last summer that at the end, Howard and Curtin have hit bottom, with all their dreams in ruins.  And it also occurred to me that our nation today, wracked with partisanship and dysfunction, apparently unable to cope responsibly with the pandemic, and struggling under the yoke of a hopelessly inept leader, was waiting to hit bottom as well.  I could not however imagine exactly what that would look like.  Now we know.  We can't yet be sure, but I think we hit bottom on January 6, when an angry mob stormed into the Capitol in a vague, largely unorganized attempt to terrorize the House and Senate into refusing to certify Joe Biden's election--brought together and encouraged by Donald Trump, by far the worst President in the history of the United States.

Although much remains to be learned about the origins of those events, I cannot bring myself to describe them as an actual coup attempt.  We have survived Donald Trump because his primary characteristic isn't narcissism or power lust, but ineptitude.  Had he put the Pentagon in the hands of al all-out supporter and formed a secret organization to coordinate mob action all over the country as a pretext for martial law, storming the Capitol might have been part of a real coup, even a successful one.  That however was way beyond the capability of him or his minions.  A lack of organization characterizes political movements on both sides of our fence today. Black Lives Matter opposes organization in principle, since any leadership enjoys a privileged identity, the concept it is formed to combat.  Extreme Trump supporters are anarchists.  These are not the kind of movements that make successful revolutions.

The events of January 6, it seems to me, have done two things. First, they clearly established that Trump and his supporters have been engaging in indefensible behavior, including not only their insurrection, but the whole campaign against the election  That has finally united a significant number of Republican officials with all the Democrats behind the position that Trump must not only leave the White House, but also face disqualification from further political office through impeachment.  Meanwhile, Joe Biden is already planning an all-out attack on the pandemic and the recession it caused--a demonstration that the government can solve big problems.  And thanks to the Georgia electorate, he has a real chance to do so.  Narrow Democratic control of the Senate will not bring about a rebirth of the New Deal, or Medicare for all, but it will allow the Senate, as well as the House, to function, and to pass important relief measures.  That's the first step on the road to political recovery.

Joe Biden will take office as the first President from the Silent generation, of which he is one of the youngest members.  He was fully shaped by the last great era in which the US government could do things like building the interstate highway system, encourage the construction of millions of new houses and schools, and pass civil rights bills   He wants to revive that legacy.  Meanwhile, Generation X is taking over from Boomers in positions of power throughout our society--although Boomers, alas, still numerically dominate the Congress. Gen X will go along with new measures not out of ideology, ut out of necessity.  The conviction of Trump--and I think he will be convicted because Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment need to drive a stake through his political heart--will send a signa about acceptable behavior  We don't know whether we will face a long outburst of random political violence.  It might conceivably become necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus--a measure which the Constitution allows "in time of invasion or rebellion, as the public safety may require."  But in any case, for the first time in a long time--certainly since 2010--things seem to be moving in the right direction.  Let us hope that continues.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Real Analog to Trump

 On Wednesday morning, about 140 Congressmen and about a dozen Senators planned to argue in effect, that Joe Biden had not really been elected President.  Well after midnight that night, the House and Senate certified Biden's election.  Now, three days later, the impeachment of Trump is almost certain, he has been forever banned from Twitter, several key cabinet members have quit, Mike Pence is under pressure to invoke the 25th amendment, and his two foremost Senatorial defenders face pressure to resign.  Trump's spectacular fall, parallel to his extraordinary rise, confirms the parallel between his career and the most famous demagogue of the last century, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.  That parallel is worth exploring.

One important parallel relates to their personalities. McCarthy was an alcoholic who died in 1957 of liver failure, just three years after his political downfall Trump does not drink, but it occurred to me the other day that he is a perfect example of what some therapists call a "dry drunk"--someone who displays all the instability, narcissism, and continual rage of an alcoholic without drinking.  I googled this association and was astonished to find only a few hits, although one of them was this excellent article by a 12-step veteran.  The question  of why such people can exert such a hold on those around them--and in some cases, on the broader public as well--remains open.

Let us first review the key details of McCarthy's career.  A judge in Wisconsin, he reached the Senate in the Republican sweep of 1946 thanks in part to a split in his own party.  He made no real impression in Washington for three years.  Then, in February 1950, in a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, he announced that he had evidence that 205 members of the Communist Party were working at the State Department.  This was what Trump's ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal called "truthful hyperbole." The evidence was simply a letter written by the Secretary of State to Congress in 1946, explaining that extensive security investigations had led to a "recommendation against permanent employment" for 284 employees of which 79 had been "separated from the service." McCarthy had subtracted 79 from 284, assumed without evidence that the rest still worked there, and converted them into Communist Party members.

Like Trump with his rants about NAFTA and immigration, McCarthy was building on a foundation of actual facts.  Alger Hiss, once a high State Department official, had recently been convicted of perjury for denying that he was a Communist spy.  We know now thanks to Venona intercepts that the Soviet spy network within the government was much larger than anyone realized at the time. McCarthy, however, never added anything to what was already known.  He accused many people of Communist ties in the next four years, but he never uncovered a single Communist himself.  Everyone he identified had either already been so identified, like Hiss, or was innocent of the charge.

 In addition, McCarthy, like Trump, tapped into the enormous resentment of large parts of the American people against the eastern (now bicoastal) elite, which seemed to feel that it knew best for everyone, and had led the nation into the Second World War and was about to lead it into the Korean War,. Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State who became McCarthy's no. 1 target, symbolized that elite then in exactly the same way that Hillary Clinton came to symbolize it in the 2010s. And just as the tide was running somewhat against the Democratic Party in 2016 after eight years in power, it was running against the Democrats in 1950-2 after nearly twenty  years in power.  After McCarthy's initial charges, a subcommittee of the Senate led by four term Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, a Democrat, investigated them and found them baseless. McCarthy threw everything he had against Tydings in his campaign for re-election that fall, including a faked photo of Tydings with the head of the US Communist Party, and Tydings lost his seat.  McCarthy also developed the same symbiotic relationship with the press that Trump has: although they knew most of what he said was false, they felt they had to report it--and he sold a lot of newspapers.  And he used the Senate floor the way Trump has used Twitter, blasting anyone who dared to stand up to him as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy behind the cloak of Congressional immunity.

Like all such historical comparisons, this one illuminates the differences between two time periods, as well as the similarities between the main actors. McCarthy became a national figure and the center of controversy as a junior US Senator because of one speech in a small city in the heartland.  No sitting Senator today could get 1/10 as much attention from anything he or she said or did on the floor of the Senate or off of it, because we no longer take our politics so seriously,. Trump on the other hand became a national figure with a personal following no other Republican candidate in 2016 could match thanks to reality TV.  Radio personalities like Father Coughlin on the right and Drew Pearson on the left had enormous followings in the 1930s and 1940s, but none of them ever tried to parlay their stature into high office. And no one ever regarded McCarthy as a serious presidential candidate--even the man himself. 

Still crucially, McCarthy, like Trump, quickly got the active help and support of most of the Republican establishment, who welcomed a new weapon against the hated Democrats and thought that they could control him. Senator Robert Taft, the Mitch McConnell of the day, told McCarthy to keep swinging for the fences--"if one case doesn't work, try another."  Senator Richard Nixon, who had already made his name from the Hiss case, became a staunch ally.  Dwight Eisenhower kowtowed to him in his 1952 campaign for President.  McCarthy had accused General George Marshall of having handed China to the Communists, and Eisenhower planned to defend Marshall--who had made Eisenhower's career--in a campaign stop in Wisconsin.  Campaign operatives talked him out of it.  Trump took longer to win the support of the Republican establishment, but by 2018 they were firmly in his pocket, and loyally defended him in his impeachment trial, at enormous cost to the nation, in 2019. Eisenhower won in a landslide, and the Republicans narrowly regained control of the Congress.  That gave McCarthy an important committee chairmanship. 

Over the next year McCarthy turned out to be just as dangerous to a Republican administration as to a Democratic one.  His subcommittee on investigations continued terrorizing various government agencies with phony investigations, including the Voice of America, the US Information Agency, and the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.  That last investigation led to the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 and to his downfall.

The sources of McCarthy's political demise also make for interesting comparisons. One key episode was Edward R. Murrow's masterful attack upon him on CBS, beautifully dramatized nearly 20 years ago by George Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck,.  Fourteen years later Walter Cronkhite used his comparable prestige to help turn public opinion against the Vietnam War, but there is no nonpartisan television personality today with anything like that degree of respect.  Another big factor in the McCarthy hearings--at least as important as Joseph Welch's famous monologue--was the revelation that one of his staffers, Roy Cohn, had constantly interceded with Army authorities to try to get special treatment for his good friend and fellow staffer G. David Schine after Schine was drafted.  Every young American man had been subject to the draft for most of the last fourteen years in 1954, and they and their families were accustomed to standing up for their equal rights. Now we have lost that sense of shared service, shared sacrifice, and common rights.  Trump was a draft avoider, and proud of it.

The televised hearings showed McCarthy to the country as he really was, and the Republican Party now recognized him as an embarrassment with Congressional elections just months away.  They agreed to a new, bipartisan committee which majority leader Lyndon Johnson handpicked to ensure McCarthy's downfall. The committee found that he had brought disrepute upon the Senate recommended his censure.  While the issue was hanging fire, the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and Senate in the Congressional election.   A month later, the Senate "condemned" McCarthy by a vote of 67-22.  The parallels to Trump's downfall are almost exact.  Like McCarthy, he had turned against leaders of his own party after they failed to back his attempt to steal the election.  He had been heard browbeating the Georgia Secretary of State--a Republican-- and his own Vice President in the same way that McCarthy had publicly blasted an Army general before his committee. And last Tuesday, the day before the storming of the Capitol, Trump had cost the Republicans their Senate majority.  When he once again did the indefensible on Wednesday, they had no reason to defend him.

As Richard Rovere pointed out more than sixty years ago in his masterful polemic, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthy still had plenty of resources to work with early in 1955--including, like Trump, a devoted following of millions of Americans. But he fell apart because he could not live with defeat, and because most of the press now ignored him and he could no longer secure the attention he craved. In another hopeful sign, "McCarthyism" died with him.  Anti-Communist smears soon became unfashionable, the Supreme Court reversed itself on at least one key point, and within five years the Hollywood blacklist was broken. Indications suggest that Trump is staring at the same fate.   He now seems certain to be impeached and Mitch McConnell seems to be seriously considering convicting him to make sure that he cannot run for President again.  Much worse, for Trump personally, he has lost his Twitter platform, apparently forever.  (The major social media platforms have at least temporarily become the gatekeepers that define unacceptable speech, just as the major newspapers and tv networks were in the 1950s.)  He will probably try to create some new platform but anyone who can help him will come under enormous pressure not to. He has evidently contemplated living abroad, and I will not be surprised if he does.  Whether the tone of our politics will change remains to be seen.

Yet despite their parallel fates, the comparison of Trump and McCarthy still shows how much worse off we are in 2021 than in 1955.  McCarthy was never a serious candidate for higher office; Trump became President.  Between the 1950s and the 2020s, our political elites lost the confidence of the American people, and until they get it back we remain in grave danger.  The great crisis of 1929-45 gave us Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then the whole generation of GI politicians from JFK through George H. W. Bush.  Not a single comparable political or military figure has emerged from the crisis of the last twenty years. Trump won election because he realized that tens of millions of Americans rejected the bipartisan political consensus on issues like trade, immigration, and the shape of our economy.  He did not, of course, do anything to really help his voters, but they, and many Democrats as well, still feel the same way.  Our greatest task still lies ahead.


Sunday, January 03, 2021

The Possibilities for Wednesday in Congress

 Three months ago,  I discussed at length the law specifying how electoral votes must be counted in Congress on January 6, and how Senator and Representatives can raise objections to a state's votes, and potentially invalidate them.  Since then, the people of the nation have elected Joe Biden president, and more than sixty lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign have failed to overturn the count in any state.  Nonetheless, it is now clear that more than 140 congressmen and at least 12 GOP Senators will make some objection to the count, leading, in all probability, to a debate in each House.  Meanwhile, President Trump has called for large demonstrations in Washington on that day, and reports state that some demonstrators plan to try to block access to the Capitol.  Today I'm going to look at the legal basis--or lack of one--for the Republican objections, and to try to predict what might happen on Wednesday.

Passed in the 1880s, the law on the subject aimed to resolve controversies such as had arisen during Reconstruction, and most notably in 1876.  In that year, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida all submitted two sets of results, coming from competing state authorities. The Republican Rutherford B. Hayes needed the votes of all those states to win the Electoral College over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.  Detailed historical research into the election later determined that Hayes probably carried Louisiana and South Carolina fairly thanks to the black majorities in those states, but almost certainly lost Florida, and, therefore, the election.  With no obvious way to settle the dispute, many felt that the Civil War might be renewed. Eventually, thanks in part to a bargain that led to the withdrawal of federal troops (and thus the end of effective Reconstruction) in Louisiana and Florida, Congress created a 15-member commission, composed of five Congressmen (from the Democratic-controlled House), five Senators (from the Republican-controlled Senate), and five Supreme Court Justices, to advise Congress on the counting of the votes under the 12th amendment.  The Commission sided with the Republicans, with Justice David Davis, the swing vote, taking their side, possibly induced by a bribe.  Hayes was declared the victor.

The dozen Republicans led by Ted Cruz have now referred specifically to the 1876 precedent and called for the creation of "an electoral commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of elections returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.”

Thinking about this, it seems to me that things could actually be worse.  The situation today differs in a critical respect from 1876, insofar as Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have all certified their Democratic electors and submitted their votes.  Although President Trump has personally tried to persuade Republican authorities in at least some of those states to dispute these decisions, they have refused to do so.  Now as it happens, someone did persuade the Republican electors in all of those states (I believe) to meet separately, cast ballots for Trump, and send them to the Congress.  The Republicans are not however arguing that Congress should accept those submissions as valid and award those electoral votes to Trump.  To have so argued would have created exactly the kind of controversy that led in 1876 to the appointment of the commission and the eventual Republican victory.  Instead, they simply want their commission to declare the results in various states in doubt.  That could in theory have allowed Congress to reject the electoral votes of enough states to deprive Biden of his majority and throw the election to the House of Representatives, voting by state, where Trump would win.  But rather than do that, they want the state legislatures in these states, most of which are dominated by Republicans, to award the electoral votes instead of the voters. 

The Republican problem is this: neither the 12th Amendment to the Constitution nor the relevant statute allows for action simply because one, or even both, houses of Congress question the results.  The law states that when at least one representative and one senator have objected to one or more state results, "no electoral vote or votes from any State which shall have been regularly given by electors whose appointment has been lawfully certified to according to section 6 of this title from which but one return has been received shall be rejected, but the two Houses concurrently may reject the vote or votes when they agree that such vote or votes have not been so regularly given by electors whose appointment has been so certified."  The law gives Congress  no power to reject results on a whim, or because of its own opinion about how an election was conducted: if the electors submitting the votes have been "regularly certified," then they must count.  To my knowledge there is no present dispute over the certification process for any of the electors from any of the controversial states, and thus, no remotely legal reason to accept their votes.  The law leaves the power to certify a state's electors with the state and only prescribes a role for Congress when the state has not managed to submit a clear and unchallenged result--unchallenged, that is, by state authorities.  Bush v. Gore was a terrible precedent (so terrible that the majority decision itself declared that it should not serve as a precedent) because it took the power to decide who had won the Florida election away from the state government of Florida.  Now the Republicans want to give the same power to a commission whose membership they do not even define. 

To get any action, the Republicans would need a majority in both houses of Congress.  They clearly will not get a majority in either one, since Democrats control the House and several Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Pat Toomey, had made clear that they will accept the election results. The number of Republicans who will join Cruz and company will tell us just how powerful Trump remains within their party.  Unfortunately, nearly two years will pass before any of them have to face the voters again. 

One other danger remains. In a White House meeting more than a week ago, Michael Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell apparently encouraged the President to declare martial law to seize control of the process of counting the votes.  Representative Louie Gomert of Texas has called upon Trump supporters to "go the streets [sic] and be as violent as Antifa and BLM."  Neither Flynn  nor Powell is actually part of the government, and I don't think Trump has anyone below him in the chain of command that would go along with this.  But I will feel better when night falls on Wednesday, the Republican objections have been voted down, and Biden has been declared the next president.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Why Trump Can't Pardon his Closest Associates

 

Leading media outlets are full of speculation to the effect that President Trump might now issue blanket pardons to Rudy Giuliani, to his immediate family, and even to himself.  A Washington Post reporter, Gillian Brockell, writes such “preemptive pardons have a long history.”  Jane Mayer, perhaps the leading political journalist in the United States, discussed blanket pardons in a long piece on Trump’s future in the New Yorker.  While many question whether Trump can pardon himself, hardly anyone has even questioned his right to free family and associates from any legal worries growing out of his administration.  In my opinion as an historian, this is a grave mistake based almost entirely on a single relatively recent episode in our history: Gerald Ford’s sweeping pardon of Richard Nixon.  Although that pardon was never litigated in court, it had no precedent when Ford issued it, and a recent law review article by Aaron Rappaport points out that it violated a fundamental principle of pardon law.  President Trump, in short, has no demonstrated right to issue a blanket pardon to his family members, to Rudy Giuliani, or to himself.

Like our constitutional impeachment law, the Constitution’s pardon provision drew on English precedents established over centuries which the framers knew very well.  In medieval times the King of England had virtually absolute power to pardon offenses, but as early as 1389, Parliament (whose powers fell far short of what they later became) passed a law insisting that the King could not issue pardons for the most serious crimes—including murder, rape and treason—without specifying the exact offense he was pardoning. In 1689, after the Glorious Revolution, Parliament took away the monarch’s right to ignore such laws. By the next century, the most eminent legal commentators, led by William Blackstone, agreed that pardons of felonious conduct could only apply to specific offenses. “A pardon of all felonies,” he wrote “will not pardon a conviction . . . (for it is presumed the King knew not of those proceedings,) but the conviction . . . must be particularly mentioned.”[1] 

It does not require much reflection to see why this is so.  The pardon power existed in England and now exists in the United States because of many good reasons to excuse a particular offense by an individual, or, as has often happened—as we shall see—by a large group of individuals. A new president may reject a law under which people were convicted, or may find mercy a better strategy to deal with an outbreak of lawlessness.  Evidence may show that a convict was innocent. To issue a pardon for any offense that a person might have committed, however, would simply elevate that person above the law.  A chief executive might hire subordinates for the express purpose of committing federal crimes (as Richard Nixon did, indirectly, with the White House Plumbers in 1971), and promise them such a pardon before he left office to protect both them and himself. Such a possibility clearly lies well beyond the limits of legal, legitimate government as understood by the founding fathers.

Unfortunately, that is exactly the kind of pardon that Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon in 1974, weeks after Nixon resigned from office.  In order to prevent the ordeal of a long trial, Ford said, he granted “ a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.”  Nixon appears to have been, literally, the first person in American history to get such a pardon.  At least one contemporary commentator has compared a possible Trump pardon for his family to the “blanket pardons” that previous Presidents have issued.  George Washington pardoned nearly all the rebels in the Whisky Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson pardoned everyone convicted of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts.  After Utah joined the Union President Benjamin Harrison pardoned all citizens of Utah who had committed the crime of polygamy.  Jimmy Carter became the last of a long series of Presidents to pardon all men who had resisted a wartime draft.  Many of those pardoned in these instances had not been charged, but in each case, they were being immunized against prosecution for a very specific crime.  They respected the English common law precedent that pardons had to refer to specific offenses.

Unfortunately, a subsequent President followed in Ford’s footsteps. When George H. W. Bush pardoned six convicted Iran-Contra defendants just before leaving office in 1992, he pardoned them “for all offenses charged or prosecuted by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh or other members of his office, or committed by these individuals and within the jurisdiction of that office.”  Not content to reverse these men’s prior convictions on cases brought by the independent counsel, Bush removed them from his jurisdiction.  Given that Bush himself had been an active participant in the Iran-Contra Affair and that his own superior, then-President Reagan, had agreed to appoint the independent counsel, this was a rather obvious betrayal of our principles of justice as well, and one that should show us how wrong the precedent that Ford set was. Even this, however, did not relieve the six of legal jeopardy for any federal offense that they might have committed during a specific period of time.

The whole career and presidency of Donald Trump testifies to weaknesses in our justice system.  Had Trump not managed to escape serious financial and other consequences from a long series of other legal scrapes, he would never have become president in the first place. Now, he is actively contemplating trying to place key associates, and himself, out of the reach of the federal criminal justice system for all time.  He must not be allowed to do this.  Should he issue such charges, and should prosecutors find sufficient evidence of new, indictable offenses by any of those he pardons, they should bring the indictments and challenge the pardons on the grounds that they did not mention a specific offense, and tried to give the recipients an immunity that the founders never intended anyone to have.  That will give the courts the opportunity to confirm that Ford’s pardon of Nixon is not a valid precedent in American law. 



[1] Quoted in Rappaport, op. cit., p. 289.

Friday, December 18, 2020

John LeCarré, Historian

 John LeCarré's extraordinary career as a novelist has ended with his death.  I have learned some new things about him from obituaries and reminiscences that have been published in the last few days.  I discovered him at the same time that most of the world did: in 1964, when I was 17, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold  hit the western world with the impact of a small nuclear weapon.  From then until the end of the Cold War I believe that I read each of his books roughly at the time that it  came out, and beginning in 1978, when I taught my own lecture course for the first time, I found ways to work him into my teaching. It was in the 1980s when finally realized what the underlying point of his Cold War thrillers was--of which more later.  In the thirty years since the fall of the wall that was the scene of the opening and final scenes of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I read his books more intermittently, and I'm sorry right now that I don't have more of them in my personal library upon which to draw.  By by  the last decade, at the latest, it was clear that he had found a new theme.  He emerged, for me, as the critical western historical novelist of the 20th and 21st centuries, because he identified the  most serious human diseases of both the Cold War era and the  very different era that has succeeded it.  Both of them related to a central problem of human existence: individual allegiance to a greater good.

LeCarré's own career as a spy had soured him on the profession, and The Spy Who Came in  From the Cold (whose plot I will have to give away--spoiler alert), showed his disillusionment.  Alec Leamas, its protagonist, is a hard-drinking, burned out agent who   has watched the whole network the British Secret Service has established within East Germany (or "the Zone," as he insists on calling it, since Britain and  the NATO alliance didn't recognize it as a country), fall one by one to East German counterintelligence, led by an ex-Nazi, Hans-Dieter Mundt. I didn't realize when I read Spy that  LeCarré' had laid the foundation for it in an earlier, little known book, Call For the Dead, in which Mundt, then working in London, had killed several people, and nearly killed LeCarré's most famous creation, George Smiley, who played a background role in Spy. Back in London after watching his last agent shot at the wall, Leamas meets Control,  the never-named head of the service who became the tragic hero of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy about a dozen  years later.  Control convinces him to "take another crack" at Mundt.  To do so, Leamas plays the role of a drunken, violent, disillusioned ex-agent, whom East German agents eventually try to recruit to tell them what he can about British intelligence and its assets in their homeland.  This eventually leads him into East Germany.

The man behind his recruitment, it turns out,  is Lens Fiedler, Mundt's Jewish deputy, whose family first fled to Canada under the Nazis, but who returned, dedicated Communists that they were,  to help build the new socialist  Utopia.  Fiedler has watched  the destruction of Leamas's network from a different angle.  He has managed to identify some of these agents, but Mundt has managed to find ways to kill them before he could interrogate them.  Fiedler now suspects that Mundt is himself a British agent, the source of Leamas's best intelligence on the East German secret service istelf--recruited at the end of Mundt's stationing in Britain, when  he  had managed somehow to slip out of the country even though he was wanted for murder.   Leamas quietly encourages Fiedler's suspicions, partly by telling him that they could not be true.  This, we realize, is the whole point of Control's operation--to get Fiedler to take down Mundt by validating his suspicions.

In the novel's shattering climax, played out at Mundt's trial for treason, Leamas, and we, learn that he has been played all along by his own side. Using Leamas's younger lover Liz Gold--an idealistic, Jewish British Communist whom he met on his first job after leaving the Service--Mundt at the trial manages to show that Leamas is still working for the Service and has in fact come on a mission to destroy Mundt.  Fiedler becomes the villain of the piece in the eyes of the East Germans, and Mundt is saved from  his suspicions. In return he promises to let Leamas and Liz (who had been lured to East Germany under false pretenses so that she could testify) escape back over the Wall.  But Mundt hates Liz for her Jewishness, and guards shoot her as she climbs up the wall.  George Smiley, suddenly emerging on the other side of the wall, calls upon Leamas to jump to the western side, but he does not. Instead he climbs down on the other side, almost forcing the East German guards to shoot him so that he can die with Liz.  They are, as the last image of the book makes clear, two lowly individuals caught up in a great ideological struggle, crushed between the two great rivals of the East and West.  

When I read that book at 17 in the midst of the Cold War,  I felt that Leamas at the end had had to give up his role in the struggle, without questioning its broader purpose--which he defends, a bit too desperately, in his last conversation with Liz just before their deaths.  It was much later that I realized  LeCarré was asking whether the struggle had any real meaning for the average person at all.  The clue came from the plot of Spy, but also from that of his other masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and really, I saw, from all the Cold War novels.  The issues that  the plots turned on never had any relevance to anyone but t he spies themselves.   A British or Soviet or East German "mole"--a foreign spy within their own service--never provided any information, in these books, except information about his own spy service.  Their deadly game was like a war between Mafia families, and had even less impact on anyone else's life, except those like Liz Gold drawn in as innocent bystanders. 

That point became more explicit in The Russia House, published ironically in 1989, and based upon a key true episode of the Reagan era.  During the 1980s, the US spent billions (and planned to spend billions more) based on a gross overestimate of the accuracy of Soviet missiles--an overestimate that suggested that  the whole US deterrent was vulnerable to a first strike.  In real life, two prized agents of the US within the Soviet mission in the UN--code-named Top Hat and Fedora--had told their handlers that the Soviet ICBMs were nowhere near as accurate as we had thought. So devastating was that information to US defense planners that they concluded that Top Hat and Fedora were double agents and henceforth discounted their information.  That theory in turn collapsed when the Soviets caught Top Hat and Fedora spying, brought them back to the USSR, and executed them.   In The Russia House, an anonymous Russian operative presents a British private citizen with a manuscript revealing what Top Hat and Fedora had said--that Soviet missiles were nowhere near as accurate as US intelligence thought.  But as a condition of providing the material, the Russian--who, standing in for    LeCarré', has grasped  the secret of the Cold War struggle--demands that the Brit release it publicly, rather than turn it over to intelligence services who will find a way to pooh-pooh it because it threatens their own mission!  Alas, the novel's protagonist doesn't manage to make this happen, but meanwhile, as The Russia House climbed the best seller lists, the USSR collapsed, and we found ourselves in a new era.

Within a little more than a decade, LeCarré had found his new theme. The protagonists of his new books  became relatively ordinary men and women who, out of either idealism or simple chance, learn about some private wrongdoing.  In The Constant Gardener, (2001), a British diplomat (not a spy) named Justin Quayle suffers the murder of his wife in Kenya.  He eventually finds that she was killed by a major drug company, after she had discovered that they had conducted a fatal medical experiment on some Kenyans.  It turns out, however, that the drug company has far too much influence around the world--including on the British government--to be called to account.  (I remember one reviewer who made another interesting argument:  that such companies were so impervious to criticism that the murder of the wife would have been entirely unnecessary.)  Similarly, in Our Kind of Traitor(2010), a British academic named Perry Makepiece on a Caribbean holiday meets a Russian oligarch who wants to use Makepiece as a conduit to British intelligence.  The oligarch, Dima Krasnov, wants to buy some international protection from a rival oligarch by providing information on criminal activities.  It turns out,  however, that Krasnov's rival has more influence in Britain than he does, and the story ends very badly for both Krasnov and Makepiece.  Some of the other later books reminded me of The Wire.  Anyone who has any integrity, who takes his job seriously, and who tries to do the right thing is likely to be seriously screwed over.

The world of spies was only one small corner of the  world of the Cold War, and certainly one of the more dysfunctional corners.  The allegiance that world demanded of the spies and of us all could be very cruel, and a new generation in the western world and in the east bloc as well rebelled against it and left that world.  Yet the new world  they created,  LeCarré ultimately felt, was worse. Like Balzac comparing  the 1830s to the Napoleonic era, he concluded that without the value of service to the state, a pure selfish individualism had taken over, with disastrous consequences. LeCarré left behind one more prediction.  Donald Trump, he said, seemed to him a carbon copy of his own father, a con man whom he immortalized in A Perfect Spy. For that reason he was convinced that Trump would eventually turn out to have no assets at all.   I will be watching to see if he was right.