Saturday, December 28, 2019

What the decade meant


The web site Politico has just asked 23 historians or other authors to predict how history books will remember the 2010s in just one paragraph.  The results are rather interesting.

Only 9 of the 23 suggested that this decade will become part of a story with a happy ending.  James Goodman of Rutgers predicted a Biden victory in 2020, followed by steady progress on a Democratic agenda in Congress.  Sara Igo of Vanderbilt predicted that the citizenry would rebound and turn things around and repair our politics in the 2020s.  Keisha Blaine of the University of Pittsburgh argued approvingly that Black Lives Matter has transformed the American political landscape.  "The story of the 2010s," wrote Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College,  "is of increasing American polarization, but also the rise of politically active women to defend American democracy against the growing power of a Republican oligarchy."  While the decade of the teens was "marked the demise of a still white, post-industrial, baby-boomer society filled with men and women resisting their decline, . . .2020 was a powerful new beginning built on the destruction of the previous years," wrote Jeremy Suri of UT Austin. "The United States renewed its democracy through a messy, prolonged and ultimately productive generational change in leadership at all levels— from local businesses and schools to the White House. It was an ugly time that generated bright reforms thereafter." Claire Potter of the New School saw final four years of the decade marked by "by the collapse of the political center, by the consequences of moving conservative populism to the center, and by the determination of left populists to remake the Democratic Party—and retake the government,"  and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu of UC Irvine said that after a decade of "civil war," "the 2020 [sic] brought the possibility of a faint, new hope." Nicole Hemmer was similarly tentative.  Jack Rakove, a Professor Ermitus at Stanford, laid out the most sweeping optimistic scenario, predicting that after the Supreme Court gutted the ACA and Roe v. Wade in 2020 and Biden defeated Trump, the blue states would force a Constitutional convention upon the red ones and put through sweeping constitutional changes, including direct popular election of the President, an end to gerrymanders, a larger Supreme Court, and much more.  The vast majority of the optimists, interestingly enough, said nothing about the sources of increasing inequality or anything that might be done about it.  

The 23 lacked a single optimist of another type:  someone who sincerely believed that our recent economic changes are good for us and that we are moving into a new era of prosperity and progress.  The closest person to that was my one-time colleague Tom Nichols of the Naval War College, a Never Trump Republican, who pointed to a rise in everyone's standard of living, complained about the growth of bitter partisanship, and suggested that the real question was whether democracies could cope with success.  I would suggest however that were Donald Trump to be replaced by a centrist Democrat like Biden, or even by a calm, sane Republican who could inspire confidence around the world, the view that all was well in the land would gain ground.

Leaving Nichols aside, the remaining 13 contributors, while making few predictions about the future, could not find it in themselves to offer any specific hopes.  Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown lamented the rise of white supremacy under Trump, which had grown partly through the use of new technology.  Vanessa Walker of Amherst, who focused on the growth of big data, concluded that "without meaningful transparency over what was collected, who had access and how it was used, the looming surveillance state’s threat to individual freedom and collective security dwarfed those potential benefits.”  The venerable David Kennedy of Stanford cited a number of developments over the last 30 years that had "swept away the very foundations of the social and political order that had prevailed since World War II.," and declined to predict what might come next.  David Greenberg of Rutgers thought while many still hoped for a more equal and just society, "there seemed at least as great a chance that it would fatally undermine the liberal international order that had underwritten peace and prosperity for so long."  William Imboden of the University of Texas lamented that Trump's rejection of our traditional foreign policy had allowed China and Russia to fill a new void.  Peniel Johnson of the same institution cited Presidents Obama and Trump as the polar opposites of the 2010s and made no predictions.  

"As the decade ended," wrote George H. Nash, "no one could say with certainty whether the worldwide ferment was a passing spasm of discontent or a harbinger of deeper upheavals," and Kevin Kruse of Princeton found that  the United States in 2019 "seemed more deeply divided and directionless than it had been in a half century." (I would call that an understatement.)  "The shape of the next decade," wrote Geoff Kabaservice, "was thus determined by whether parties of the center-left and center-right could revive anything like the post-World War II social unity and capitalism that produced steadily rising living standards for all, or whether the 2020s would look more like the 1930s."  "The signature of the ensuing Age of Trump," wrote my friend Andrew Bacevich, "was venomous division. In terms of policy, the theme of the 2010s became drift, with issues such as climate change treated as an afterthought, if at all."  David A. Hollinger, an emeritus professor at Berkeley, more specifically lamented the collapse of the New Deal state created at midcentury.  "Ultimately," he wrote, "it was the Democratic Party’s failure to use the political and cultural resources available to it to enact and maintain an appropriate regulatory structure as late as the mid-1990s—during the neo-liberal administration of Bill Clinton—that did more than any other single factor to determine the course of American history in the 2010s. Rarely in the history of industrialized societies had a political leadership equipped with such magnificent opportunities squandered them so spectacularly, and thus betrayed the nation of which they were entrusted to be the stewards." Eric Rauchway of UC Davis lamented the rise of conservative populists, whose "principal proponents won and kept office, weakening the alliances and institutions entrusted since 1945 with keeping the peace."  Alone among the contributors, Elizabeth Borgward of Washington University speculated that Trump might be the start of something.  "Democracy in America did not end with Trumpism, of course. But younger, smarter politicians such as Josh Hawley were taking notes even then, and as of 2020 the writing was already on that initial slice of border wall: The 2010s were when a demagogue willing to promote division, disfranchisement, and corruption first dealt himself a winning hand."

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that I had not been asked to contribute.  My work (see above right) has never fitted conveniently into the kind of pigeonhole that editors look for in these situations.  What would I have said?

"The 2010s marked a collapse of the American political system more profound than any since 1860.  They began with the Tea Party victory that put an end even to Barack Obama's very tentative steps to create a fairer economic order.  In Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the government pursued new variants of the wasteful, useless policies introduced in the previous decade by George W. Bush.  And in 2016, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party could produce a candidate who could defeat an ignorant, inflammatory, narcissistic reality tv star, who took only a few years to establish a stranglehold over the Republican Party, while governing incompetently and in many ways illegally.  Only a great new national enterprise commanding both the assent and the resources of our whole society could restore the kind of faith the government had enjoyed in mid-century, and none such was on the horizon a 2020 dawned, whatever the outcome of the coming election."

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Three Decades of Best Films

A funny thing happened on the way to this post.  I was going to blog on some politically correct themes in this morning's New York Times, but I looked on my favorite facebook page, where acolytes of Strauss and Howe meet, and was challenged to name my 10 best films of the decade now coming to an end.  After checking some lists, I did so.  Then I stared at my own list for a while, and decided to a quick comparable list for the previous decade, the 2000s.  Here are the results, with some comments.

My 10 best films of the current decade, in no particular order:

The Social Network
Her 
The Big Short
Blue Jasimine
The Artist
Inside Job
The Death of Stalin
Roma
Green Book
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


I believe I have already seen six of these more than once and there isn't any of them that I wouldn't enjoy watching once again.

This list, I suppose, tells you as much about me as it does about the movies on it.  Eight of them are, in one way or another, historical, either because they deal with actual events (The Social Network, The Big Short, the documentary Inside Job,The Death of Stalin) or because they were excellent portrayals of earlier eras (The Artist, Roma, Green Book, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)  Three of them--The Social Network, Green Book, and Inside Job--won academy awards, showing to me that the academy can get it right.  Other films that I initially flagged while making the list were Manchester By the Sea, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, Argo, Midnight in Paris, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, Birdman, Lincoln, The Florida Project, What Maisie Saw, Love and Other Drugs, The Ghost Writer, Can You Ever Forgive Me, and The Company you Keep.  Seven of those are also historical in one way or another.  Of the non-historic ones on my lists, most tend to be rather emotional adult dramas, though children are also very much involved.  They don't include any superhero movies, obviously, or cartoons, even though I've enjoyed some of the latter.  Like Martin Scorsese, I have an idea of what a serious movie is.

Meanwhile, on the small screen, this has also been the decade of Breaking Bad (in part), Homeland, The Americans, Billions, and (here in the US) A French Village, five long-running tv series that each probably meant to me than any of those movies. 

As I looked at my list, however, I didn't think it stood up that well to earlier decades, and I decided to test that proposition out with a little more tweaking of my memory and additional research. It took only a few minutes to come up with this list for the 2000s (also in no particular order):

Good Night and Good Luck
13 Days
After the Wedding
The Lives of Others
Lost in Translation
In the Bedroom
Match Point
The Pianist
Zodiac
Man on Wire


A lot of film fans have never seen After the Wedding, a Danish drama that lost the best foreign film Oscar to The Lives of Others in 2007.  It's amazing.  A recent American remake was apparently disastrous and sank like a stone at the box office. This time I have picked six films with an historical theme including one documentary (Man on Wire, about the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers in the early 1970s.)  What disturbs me is that I think this is a much stronger list, whose films consistently engage the viewer more intensely from start to finish.  Other films that I decided not to include were Little Miss Sunshine, The Departed, Up in the Air, Before Sunset, and De-Lovely.

Now let me see what I can do, off the top of my head, for the 1990s.

Schindler's List
A League of Their Own
Quiz Show
Good Will Hunting
Sleepless in Seattle
Pulp Fiction
Fargo
Deconstructing Harry
Leaving Las Vegas
Apollo 13


That list seems to be better than either of the others.  This was also the decade in which The Sopranos debuted.

Hollywood writers have become extraordinarily adept at writing 10-episode season plots, that is, stories that would make a good long novel.  The first seasons of The Sopranos and Homeland were as brilliantly plotted as any comparable works of literature, and the cumulative impact of the first three seasons of Breaking Bad was even greater.  Billions has also been extraordinary.  "Adult drama," however, has become unfashionable in Hollywood, and it shows.  I think we are seeing the impact on film of the decline of serious literature.  I hope there will be a good many comments on this relatively unusual post.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The State of the Democrats

I have remarked many times that Donald Trump's nomination and election could only have happened thanks to a collapse of our political system.  Neither of our two major parties could come up with a candidate who could defeat a serial bankrupt and reality tv star who obviously lacked the knowledge and the managerial skills necessary to be President.  Had the Republican Party still possessed some sort of national organization, it would surely have unified around one candidate, and if the party had retained real links with its voters, that candidate could have defeated Trump.  Unfortunately, a similar story may be playing out among the Democrats this year.

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much I value my right to say what I think.  Truth is truth, no matter what it says about particular political parties, individuals, or institutions (like the press.)  And truth, I think, should be an asset, not a disability, in the kind of crisis we are now going through.  Some readers will feel that a good Democrat (such as I certainly feel myself to be) owes it to the party and the nation to be upbeat about the current situation and the chances of one of our candidates.  While I'm certainly going to vote for any Democratic candidate against Trump in November, I think that the emerging field says a lot about the sad state of my party and our political system, and I can't keep my mouth shut about that.

Joe Biden not only remains the front runner, but has widened his lead in recent weeks.  The RealClearPolitics poll average shows him with 28% of the vote, a full 10 points higher than his next rival Bernie Sanders, and only 5-6 points behind Sanders and third-place Elizabeth Warren combined.  How did Joe Biden achieve the stature of front-runner?  In the same way that Richard Nixon (1960) and George H. W. Bush (1988) did among the Republicans, and Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984), and Al Gore (2000) did among Democrats: by serving as Vice President of the United States, which gave them national name recognition and access to Democratic donors.  Except for Nixon and Mondale, every one of these men--like Biden--had also run for President before becoming Vice President, and none of their campaigns had gotten anywhere.  Only one of those five men, Bush, was elected,  although Gore had the presidency taken away from him by the Supreme Court, partly because of his own fatally flawed strategy in the Florida recount controversy.  Biden is of course one of the oldest major candidates ever at 77, and he has always been loose cannon on the stump.  He has loyal support from older and blacker Democrats but very little from younger ones--and many of the black Democrats who may win him the nomination live and vote in states that the Democrats have no chance of carrying in November.

Bernie Sanders's whole remarkable career as a presidential aspirant testifies to the residual strength of our democracy.  He came out of nowhere four years ago and won some key primaries, but couldn't overcome the structural advantages of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose service as first lady had played the same role in her career as the vice-presidency had in Biden's and others'. He clearly stands for the average American, and his personality has convinced millions of Americans that he honestly speaks his mind and doesn't fear anyone.  He, however, will be 79 by next November, and he just suffered a heart attack.  More importantly, he represents a type familiar in American history, one that contributes importantly to progressive politics but rarely reaches the top.  The type included many of the more famous leaders of the Progressive era, who were identified, and brilliantly characterized, by the Washington journalists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, in their anonymous classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which earned them fortune and fame when they published it in 1932.  They called them the Senate Insurgents, among whom they identified George Norris of Nebraska, young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin (who had essentially inherited his Senate seat from his father), William Borah of Idaho, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, and others.  "The Senate insurgents," they wrote, "are the strongest and weakest element in American national affairs.

"Individually they are the strongest.

"Collectively they are the weakest.

"Individually they are the most righteous and forward-looking men in public office in the capital. They are sincere, law-abiding, and intelligent.  Collectively they have been without plan or purpose, unorganized and ineffectual. . ."

Herbert Hoover, Pearson and Allen noted, had recently coined the phrase "rugged individualism." Certainly he had not intended it to describe these men, but Pearson and Allen thought it fit them perfectly--as it surely does Bernie Sanders as well. "They personify all the noble qualities of character he implied when he used that pat phrase.

"And just as completely they demonstrate the pathetic and utter inadequacy of individuals, no matter how admirable, to cope with the colossal economic and political problems of the present day as long as they are nothing more than individuals persisting in an individualist philosophy. . . .Against the might and unified power of national and international capitalism they have had nothing to offer but their own individual forthrightness."

Like so many of the insurgents of another era, Bernie Sanders represents a small and rural state.  He has all the courage of his convictions that one could wish for and he has an acute sense of what is wrong with America.  Yet he was not even part of a recognizable faction in the Senate and has very little legislative record.  His independence--including his refusal even to be formally identified as a Democrat--has helped win him a devoted following among liberal and younger Americans.  I voted for him in my primary in 2016 and I wish he could have been the candidate, but he has many vulnerabilities going into a general election this year and I have no idea if he would be an effective President.

Elizabeth Warren is both my Senator and my candidate, as I informed a telephone pollster just the other night.  (Interestingly enough, I could not bring myself to give an opinion about the Senate primary pitting another septuagenarian, Ed Markey, against young Joe Kennedy, but that's another story.)  Like Sanders and myself, she has genuine New Deal values.  Bernie and I learned them in our youth; she, interestingly enough, appears to have come to them much later as a result of her work as a bankruptcy lawyer.  She did create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at least in theory an important new regulatory body, under the Obama Administration.  But as a recent article showed, that was a very uphill battle, fought against the real policy titans of the early Obama years, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Typically, Obama himself, while blessing the idea, gave in to her opponents and refused to appoint her to head the bureau.  Now the bureau has been gutted by the first Republican administration to have taken office.  Similarly, Warren has now had to back away from Medicare for All, the only real solution to our health care crisis, because it lacks enough of a constituency in the country or even in the Democratic Party.  And she too is in her eighth decade, and her candidacy would have to deal with anti-elitist prejudice and sexism around the country.  Her career, like Sanders's, would have fit easily into Pearson and Allen's discussion of the Senate insurgents in 1931.  Were the Democratic left truly organized, it seems to me, the Sanders and Warren forces would be planning to coalesce around one candidate, but I see no evidence that that is happening.

Pete Buttigieg, who currently polls at 9.2% nationally but ranks first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire.  He represents the Millennial generation.  Like Barack Obama, he is a bright young man who has eagerly jumped through every hoop that society has put up in front of him, from Harvard to Oxford to the U.S. military, and like Obama and Hillary Clinton, he has excited some voters because he would be the first representative of a particular demographic to occupy the White House.  Among elite Democrats that is a recommendation, but it has not necessarily proven to be so in the country at large.  A close friend recently wondered with me whether the nation was ready for the image of Buttigieg and his husband on the podium on the last night of the Democratic national convention.  I don't think that he really has much chance of being nominated, and I would not be confident of his chances against Donald Trump if he were.

Traditional politics sought candidates with an impressive record in public service, whose demographic matched the great bulk of the American people, whose age was somewhere between 45 and 60, and who came from an electorally important state.  None of the top four Democrats fit that mold, and Democrats who came closer to it, such as Mitch Landrieu, Sherrod Brown, and Beto O'Rourke, either declined to run or flamed out early.  No governing political intelligence, it seems to me, now plays a major role in our nominating process.  Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, but it is not clear that the Democratic Party will come up with a candidate who can take sufficient advantage of that to defeat him.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Are We in a New Era?

In 1995 I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and it changed my life.  Two amateur historians had identified an 80-year cycle in American history--a cycle that also applied, as I realized fairly quickly, to modern Europe and East Asia as well.  Three great crises: the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the 1933-45 period--had each created a new order, a new set of allegiances, and a new consensus about political and even social values.  That was almost 25 years ago and there has not been a week in all that time that I did not think about this view of history and what it meant for the future--since the next crisis was due to arrive by 2010 or so, if not sooner.  I now think, as I have said here many times, that began in 2000-1, marked by two key events: the election of 2000, in which a partisan Supreme Court and an inept Gore campaign did not allow us to discover who had actually won the presidency, and 9/11, which started a new era in American foreign policy that continues to this day.  Yet it now seems clear that this crisis will not end like any of the others, and that it will have weakened our institutions to the point that I am wondering if they will begin to function effectively any time soon, and even if they will survive at all.

We tend to assume in the United States that the excellent design of our institutions guarantee that they will survive, but that has never really been the case.  In 1860-1 secession would have destroyed the Union had not Lincoln refused to recognize it and undertaken a war to prove that a democratic nation could preserve itself.  The victorious Republican Party, which remained in power for another 20 years, abolished slavery, paid off most of the national debt, established high tariffs, and turned loose a gigantic wave of industrialization.  The Civil War experience effectively assimilated Irish and German  minorities whose presence had been quite controversial as late as the 1850s, and new immigrants flooded in at a rapid rate.  In 1932 the Depression threatened the economic and possibly the political collapse of the nation, but Franklin Roosevelt restored confidence in the government, found ways to put many of the unemployed back to work, and changed the whole relationship of the federal government to the economy.  Confronted by the rise of aggressive dictatorships in Europe and Asia, he warned the people that the western hemisphere was threatened, won an unprecedented third term, and prepared the nation not merely to fight, but to win, the greatest war in history.  That war assimilated new waves of immigrants and created a bond between the government and the men who had fought it and their families.  After the the war, the US embraced a new world role.  The postwar consensus, however, did not really survive the Vietnam catastrophe, and by the 1980s, the Republican Party had embarked, slowly but surely, on the destruction of the New Deal legacy.

We easily forget, now, that George W. Bush and Karl Rove--whether or not they ever read Strauss and Howe, which I suspect that Rove did--wanted to build a new Republican consensus around another great foreign crusade.  After 9/11 they embarked upon the conquest and transformation of key parts o the Middle East.  Yet their new crusade proved disastrous both in the targeted area and here at home.  While they could destroy organized enemy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, they could not govern them effectively, and they created power vacuums in which chaos and extremist movements thrived.  Meanwhile, at home, they remained true to Republican principles, and cut taxes instead of raising them while piling up trillions of dollars of debts to fight these wars.  The failure of their wars, in my opinion, has destroyed the national consensus on behalf of an activist foreign policy--something which Donald Trump does seem to have understood.  Yet while cutting back on the Iraq war, the Obama Administration continued the crusade to democratize the region in Libya and Syria--both times, with disastrous results.

In 2008 the financial crisis swept the Republicans out of power and gave President Obama a chance to reverse course domestically and re institute a New Deal--but he did not take it.  Relying on centrist economic advisers, he restored the deregulated financial system that had emerged in the last two decades rather than replacing it.  Losing the Congress, he had to accept big cuts in government spending, and the Affordable Care Act was his only important domestic achievement.  Then, in 2016, a huckster who had survived repeated bankruptcies and become a reality tv star decided to run for President, and neither major party could produce a candidate that could beat him.   Three years later the Republican Party is completely in thrall to him, and cares nothing about his clear unfitness for office.

I think the chances are somewhat better than 50-50 that Trump will be defeated next fall, but I have no confidence that the election of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or even Elizabeth Warren will restore a vigorous and effective national government.  Voters under 60--the vast majority of them--have literally never seen the government do anything big and effective over a sustained period of time.  Partisanship has paralyzed the Congress and will probably continue to do so no matter who wins.  Under our system as it has evolved, many key decisions are now the province of the Supreme Court.  Worst of all, as this election shows, it has apparently become impossible to become a national political figure by making an impressive record of public service.  As I write, the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic polls shows Joe Biden with 27.8%, Bernie Sanders with 15.6, Elizabeth Warren with 14.2, and Pete Buttigieg with 11.4   Biden leads for one reason: he was Vice President for 8 years, giving him name recognition and a reflected glow from Barack Obama.  Sanders is second because he has won the allegiance of some millions of voters by bluntly speaking his mind, and Warren has established herself as a genuine heir to the New Deal tradition.  Buttigieg, like Barack Obama in 2008, is drawing on general personal qualities and the novelty of his candidacy.  Three other Senators have a total of 7.8%, and none of them (Harris, no longer in the race, Klobuchar and Booker) has any legislative accomplishments to their name--largely because the whole Congress doesn't.

The American people have lost a sense of citizenship based on participation in a great common enterprise that serves us all.  The Republican Party wants nothing but to set private capital and private enterprise free; the Democratic Party is making some noises about equality, but focuses more on social issues, including gun control and minority rights, and pays lip service to the very serious crisis of climate change.  We also desperately need a huge common enterprise to integrate our millions of now-illegal immigrants into our polity, rather than continuing to rely upon a large working class that cannot vote.  But a common enterprise would require a common view of certain problems facing us and a broad faith that we can use our brains and energy to solve them, and these things are lacking as well.  Our faith in rational solutions to problems peaked quite some time ago, and only effective action can restore it--but where will this come from?   

A Democratic victory would at least temporarily restore some respect for our institutions, and Democratic appointees, unlike Trump's, would make a real effort to make the federal government function.  That alone would represent a significant gain from our catastrophic state under Trump.  But it will not solve the crisis of democracy that has struck not only the United States, but Europe and some Asian nations as well.  Of all the major nations, only France at this moment appears to have a leader with a strong majority behind him and a definite course of action.  Inevitably he has aroused a great deal of opposition, as de Gaulle did before him in the last stage of the previous great crisis, but if he can prevail against it he will have shown that democracy can still work.

In the 1990s Strauss and Howe showed how disunity and strife had threatened the nation and, crucially, how we had overcome them.  That is what we have failed to do this time.  Perhaps historians in a century or two will conclude that the United States of our time--by which I mean the nation of the last 50 years or so--was too spoiled and too self-confident, and came to believe, in many different ways, that old rules no longer applied to it, and that, like Athens in the 5th century BCE, we could have whatever we wanted by wishing for it.  We couldn't.  No one, I think, really knows where this will lead.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Further Ukraine update

The Washington Post has discovered that when the US government in May 2018 decided to supply Javelin missiles to Ukraine, the Poroshenko government had just closed its own investigation of Paul Manafort and stopped cooperating with the Mueller investigation.  It seems that this may have been an earlier quid pro quo.  It's appalling that no House staffers thought about this and asked then-Ambassador Jovanovitch about it.  They should.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Have we had a Trump before?

In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, both supporters and opponents of Donald Trump have looked for similar presidents in the American past.  Steve Bannon famously encouraged Trump to see himself as the new Andrew Jackson, another populist who encouraged the forcible movement of Indian tribes from the deep South to what is now Oklahoma, and plenty of Trump's critics have been delighted to embrace that analogy as well.  Today's New York Times includes an op-ed by Manisha Sinha, an historian at the University of Connecticut, comparing him to Andrew Johnson, who rejected equality for freed slaves, opposed Reconstruction, and escaped removal by the Senate after impeachment by a single vote.  The Johnson comparison in particular has some merit, since both of them have held office during one of the great crises in American life, and both certainly have pandered to white bigotry.  Yet at the same time, a different kind of comparison of Trump on the one hand, and Jackson and Johnson on the other, shows that Trump remains an utterly unique phenomenon in American history, and one that illustrates how far our political life had to deteriorate before he could even get within shouting distance of the White House.  Today's critics of earlier generations of American leaders feel much too self-righteous to pay much attention to what they actually said, or to acknowledge a very real decline in the quality of our political life.

Let us begin with Andrew Jackson, and specifically with the first annual message--what we now call the State of the Union address--that he submitted to Congress in December 1829.  That message began with a lengthy survey of the foreign relations of the United States, including a careful discussion of the major issues then being disputed between the US and the great powers of France, Great Britain, and Spain.  Donald Trump, asked to do the same, would undoubtedly content himself with one sentence apiece about his wonderful personal relationships with the leaders of various countries, and a complaint about the excessive burdens that the nation bears.  Later, however, Jackson made a remarkable proposal for the amendment of the US Constitution, one designed to make it more democratic.  I quote:

"To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the House of Representatives. Experience proves that in proportion as agents to execute the will of the people are multiplied there is danger of their wishes being frustrated. Some may be unfaithful; all are liable to err. So far, therefore, as the people can with convenience speak, it is safer for them to express their own will. . . .

"In this as in all other matters of public concern policy requires that as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will. Let us, then, endeavor so to amend our system that the office of Chief Magistrate may not be conferred upon any citizen but in pursuance of a fair expression of the will of the majority.

"I would therefore recommend such an amendment of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the election of the President and Vice-President. The mode may be so regulated as to preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election, and a failure in the first attempt may be provided for by confining the second to a choice between the two highest candidates. In connection with such an amendment it would seem advisable to limit the service of the Chief Magistrate to a single term of either 4 or 6 years. . . ."

It is noteworthy, to begin with, that Jackson, whom we are now taught to believe was one of our most reactionary presidents, was proposing a reform that is once again very much vogue, the abolition of the electoral college and the direct election of the President.  He was to my knowledge the only president that we have ever had to make this proposal.  How exactly he thought he could "preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election"--an apparent reference to the 3/5 clause--is not clear, and I am curious to look into this further, but this proposal was not one designed to preserve an oligarchy, nor could it have that effect. Jackson also had the sense to realize--as many current proponents of this reform do not--that his proposal would have to provide for two rounds of voting to make sure that the winner enjoyed an actual majority--the system now used in France and many other countries.  Jackson's proposal, of course, reflected his own history as a candidate, since in 1824 he had been the first candidate to win a substantial plurality of the popular vote, but fail to win a majority of the electoral college, and then losing the election of John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives.  Jackson thus differs from Trump by being a sincere small-d democrat.  He was also a bitter foe of economic privilege,  whose veto message killing the Bank of the United States reads as if it could have been written by Franklin Roosevelt or Elizabeth Warren.  I quote:

"Every monopoly and all exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent. The many millions which this act proposes to bestow on the stockholders of the existing bank must come directly or indirectly out of the earnings of the American people. It is due to them, therefore, if their Government sell monopolies and exclusive privileges, that they should at least exact for them as much as they are worth in open market. The value of the monopoly in this case may be correctly ascertained. The twenty-eight millions of stock would probably be at an advance of 50 per cent, and command in market at least $42,000,000, subject to the payment of the present bonus. The present value of the monopoly, therefore, is $17,000,000, and this the act proposes to sell for three millions, payable in fifteen annual installments of $200,000 each. . . .

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles."

Is such a President necessarily a man we must consign to the moral dustbin of history because he owned slaves and supported the removal of the Indians, or would we do better to recognize, as earlier generations did, his very real commitments to political democracy and greater economic equality?  I turn now, for the moment, to Andrew Johnson.

I have no good to say about Andrew Johnson's policies.  Originally a Democrat from the border state of Tennessee, he had left his party early in the Civil War and supported Lincoln's all-out attempt to crush the rebellion.  He had become the war governor of his state, and the Republicans had chosen him as Vice President in 1864 to broaden their appeal among Democrats and the border states.  As President, however, he immediately tried to allow the defeated states to re-enter Congress on generous terms, opposed the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal rights, and would have happily allowed the white populations to treat the freed slaves however they wished.  After the 1866 elections the Republicans in Congress, who enjoyed veto-proof majorities, had passed sweeping reconstruction laws over his veto, to which they eventually added the 15th amendment forbidding disenfranchisement based on race.   They also tried to take his authority to remove and replace federal officials away from him in the Tenure of Office Act, an unconstitutional measure that he violated early in his last year in office by trying to remove Secretary of War Stanton, leading to his impeachment and trial.  Let me again simply quote a couple of paragraphs from one of his annual messages, in December 1867, to show what a great gulf separates him from Donald Trump.

"It is . . . a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation. . . .

"It is therefore a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation."

Now Andrew Johnson had origins at least as modest as any other American President, and may have been the only one never to have attended a school of any kind.  Originally a tailor, he went into politics in his late twenties.   But clearly, the above paragraphs show, he had developed a sense of the history of the United States and a command of the English language to which Donald Trump has never even aspired, and which he most definitely does not possess.   Neither he nor Jackson had a team of speechwriters who could provide these documents for them. They wrote them themselves. Literary and historical knowledge, for the first two centuries of our history, qualifications that successful politicians were expected to possess--and those who had modest origins were if anything more eager to acquire them.  The nomination and election of Donald Trump, who entirely lacks either one, reflects a profound decline in our political life and our broader culture.  Although himself a child of privilege who attended a leading university, he clearly has less intellectual ability, and probably less historical knowledge, than anyone who ever occupied the White House before.   George W. Bush, who also held office recently, would not rank much higher, in my opinion, in either of those categories either.  That says something about the 21st century United States.

The leaders of earlier generations--particularly in our previous crises periods of 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45--specifically put their own struggles in the context of a broader history of the development of liberty and human rights.  Lincoln and FDR explicitly built upon their ancestors' achievements, about which Trump knows little and cares less.  The American sense of a key role in a broader historical drama has been under attack from both sides of the political spectrum for some time.  My own profession of history has also lost interest in keeping it alive.  That is one reason why about half the nation, at least, has abandoned our political class, allowing Trump to get into the White House.  We have had other presidents who pursued evil policies, but our political life, in important respects, has reached a new low.








Monday, November 25, 2019

Giuliani initiative update

I have posted some additional information relevant to the weekend's post at the end of it.  See immediately below, the conclusion.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Giuliani Initiative


In my autobiography, A Life in History, I showed how real history—the study of national and international political events, based upon contemporary primary sources, within some framework of long-term political development—has fallen out of fashion, and how few undergraduates in  √©lite schools get any exposure to it.  That trend relates closely to others:  the decline of serious reading, the use of images rather than words as our prime means of communication, and our increasingly emotional political discourse.  Combined, these and other trends make it almost impossible for anyone—including, or perhaps I should say especially, journalists—to get their arms around complex events that take place on several levels at the same time. Such an event is what I am calling the Giuliani initiative—even though we can see now that this initiative very closely followed the whims of our unstable, fantastical President, Donald Trump.  In Congress, Adam Schiff certainly strikes me as a man who could grasp such a complex event, but he and his staff and colleagues didn’t make much of an effort to present it in all its complexity in the hearings that have just concluded.  They focused on about four months of the story—which in fact has been going on for at least 18 months, and probably longer than that.  Less than half of the scandal’s iceberg, I suspect, is visible today, partly because the Democrats want to move the inquiry forward very quickly, and perhaps because they don’t trust the public to absorb the whole story.

I have written what follows today, November 22, based on research right here at my computer over the past week or so.  As always, I have a number of other projects of various kinds going, and my research hasn’t been exhaustive.  But I think I have been able to understand the basic story and to identify additional that need to be answered—but which probably never will be in a systematic way.

The major players in the drama appear to be Rudy Giuliani, the former U.S. prosecutor [sic!] and mayor of New York who became one of President Trump’s personal attorneys during the Mueller inquiry, and two USSR-born associates of his, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.  Parnas and Fruman are now awaiting trial on serious campaign finance charges growing out of the 2018 midterms, having been arrested at Dulles International Airport about six weeks ago, as they tried to leave the U.S. on one-way tickets.  Parnas and/or Fruman have attended a number of fundraisers for Trump, and ten days ago, the Washington Post reported that at one such meeting, in April 2018, Parnas spoke to Trump and told him that Marie Jovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, was unfriendly to the President.  One of the recipients of their contributions was Republican representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who in the spring of 2018 faced a difficult re-election fight, one that he eventually lost.  It’s not yet clear exactly when they began working with Giuliani to influence the Ukrainian government, but on May 9, 2018, Parnas posted photos on Facebook showing him posing with Representative Sessions. Just two days later Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arguing that U.S Ambassador to Ukraine Marie  Yovanovitch should be removed, because, according to sources that Sessions declined to identify, she had spoken negatively about President Trump.  “I have received notice from close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current administration,” he said.  Although Yovanovitch didn’t learn about the letter for about nine months, a State Department superior told her after she was fired that Trump had wanted her out since the middle of the summer of 2018.  

Thus began a campaign that heated up over the next year, culminating in Yovanovitch’s removal at the end of April 2019.  Yovanovitch herself still does not understand why they targeted her, and I don’t either.  The campaign that Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman waged to get Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate the Bidens and promote the false idea of Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 elections had not yet begun.  Parnas and Fruman were also trying to arrange some profitable energy deals in Ukraine, and they later said that they thought she might block them, but since she had never heard of them, this claim doesn’t’ make a great deal of sense. In any case, this was the start of something big.   They may already have been in touch with another key figure in the story, Ukrainian prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko.  Lutsenko’s extraordinary political career, including prison time on dubious charges, can be followed in his Wikipedia entry.  In a surprise move in May 2016, the Ukrainian Parliament made him Prosecutor General of Ukraine, even though he has no law degree.  He was an old friend of the current Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, who had won election in 2014 on a reform platform and who according to Ambassador Jovanovitch had a mixed record in carrying out his promises or making major changes in the corrupt politics of Ukraine. And according to a Ukrainian press release, Giuliani had met both Lutsenko and President Poroshenko at an event in Ukraine in June of 2017. (Yovanovitch deposition p. 179.)

In the late spring of 2018, the Mueller investigation was still in full swing, and seemed very likely to end badly for President Trump.  Giuliani, representing the President, had evidently decided that the best defense might turn out to be a good offense.  Lacking to date a thorough investigation of any kind, we don’t know all the details of the campaign he waged with Parnas and Fruman to get prosecutor Lutsenko to announce, and open, investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden and into false stories of Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election.  According to Ambassador  Yovanovitch’s deposition, however—which is much longer and more detailed than her public testimony—she eventually learned from a Lutsenko deputy that Lutsenko had met Giuliani for the first time in June 2018, just a month or so after the Sessions letter. Here, at the very latest, began a campaign to get Ukrainian authorities to announce the investigations that Giuliani wanted.  What the House Committee and the press seem to have lost sight of is that by March of 2019 that campaign had succeeded.  Only the defeat of President Poroshenko in two rounds of presidential elections in that month and in April forced Trump, Giuliani, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, working through some of the men and women who testified last week, to get the same commitment from the new President, Volodymyr Zelensky.  And that effort, we now know, would have succeeded but for the courageous acts of the anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint became public just in time.

In addition to the purported June 2018 meeting between Lutsenko and Giuliani,  Yovanovitch learned later that Giuliani had come to Kyiv to meet Lutsenko in January 2019, and that during their conversation, President Trump had spoken to them on the telephone.  (Deposition, p. 134.)  A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman met Giuliani in New York in late January, and in Warsaw in mid-February.  Then, late in February, Giuliani came to Kyiv with Parnas and Fruman and met both Lutsenko and President Poroshenko, then facing a tough re-election fight.   In that meeting, sources told the Journal, they talked about Poroshenko visiting Washington, meeting Donald Trump, and announcing that he was opening investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden, and of supposed Ukrainian election meddling in 2016.  This was, of course, exactly what the administration later demanded from Poroshenko’s successor, but for some reason, nothing came of this idea.  Perhaps Giuliani knew that Poroshenko’s chances in the election were not terribly good, and that his commitment to help might backfire if he lost.  Meanwhile, in February 2019, Jovanovitch heard from the Ukrainian Interior Minister, Avakov, that Parnas and Fruman—whom she had never heard of—were working with Giuliani to get her replaced.  Giuliani had made contact with Avakov personally, but Avakov explained that he had cut the contact short because he did not want to become involved in American politics.  (Deposition, pp. 41-4.) He appears to be one of the few Ukrainian heroes of the story, and he is still in office.

The Giuliani initiative broke into the open in early March, with the first of a long series of articles by a journalist, John Solomon, on the conservative web site The Hill.  The frequently garrulous Giuliani recently gave more details of what was happening to the New York Times.  When Lutsenko met him in January 29 Giuliani refused a request to represent him, but put him together with “a professional investigator who works for my company,” who wrote a series of memos laying out Lutsenko’s claims against Biden, Yovanovitch, and others.  Giuliani said he gave them to Secretary Pompeo, who should certainly be questioned about this, and that he later heard that State had given them to the F.B.I.  Giuliani also admitted that he had given the same memos to John Solomon, a journalist who has worked for the conservative Washington Times, and was then writing for the web site The Hill.  Solomon is now a contributor to Fox News.  Postscript: On November 24, the New York Times reported that Congressional investigators have also secured a copy of the Giuliani memos.

Giuliani also reached into the House Intelligence Committee, and specifically to Devin Nunes, who fell from chairman to ranking Republican when his party lost the House a year ago.  CNN has just reported that Nunes and some aides took a trip to Vienna after the Congressional election and met a Ukrainian prosecutor--not Lutsenko, but Victor Shokin, the notoriously corrupt official whom the Ukrainians had fired at the request of Joe Biden and many other western leaders several years ago.  Parnas's lawyer revealed this meeting.  He also revealed that Parnas, one of Nunes's aides--a former White House staffer--Giuliani, George Solomon and several others had met a number of times in Washington during the winter of 2018-19 to discuss dirt relating to Ukraine.  In another bizarre instance of a media outlet's failure to google and find out what another major outlet has reported, the CNN story doesn't mention what Giuliani told the Times--that he, Giuliani, had given Solomon his information, which in turn had come from Lutsenko.  Nunes, of course, has been repeating the baseless Ukrainian accusations as if they were gospel all last week in the impeachment hearings, moving Fiona Hill to call him out for spreading a false Russian narrative--although not by name--in her testimony.  Nunes has refused to comment to CNN, but Parnas's lawyer has indicated that Parnas is willing to testify in return for certain guarantees.  In an earlier report, CNN said that during a White House Hanukkah Party last December at which Parnas and Fruman were photographed with Trump, Giuliani and Pence, Trump drew him aside and entrusted him with the mission of finding key dirt on Ukraine.  

Beginning on March 20, Solomon published a long series of articles in The Hill relaying various accusations from Lutsenko.  The articles read like interviews with Lutsenko, but Giuliani’s recent revelations raise the question of whether Solomon really spoke to him at all, or just put the words in Giuliani’s memos back into the Ukrainian’s mouth.  Lutsenko claimed that in his first meeting with Yovanovitch, the ambassador had given him a list of Ukrainians that should not be prosecuted. The State Department immediately denied this, flatly and unequivocally.  The same article reported, for the first time, Sessions’s 2018 letter suggesting that Jovanovitch be fired. In another article published on the same day, Solomon quoted Lutsenko to the effect that he was investigating Ukrainian assistance to the Clinton campaign in 2016, and specifically the release of the so-called Black Ledger including accusations against then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was then forced to resign, and eventually sentenced to prison in connection with large payments from Ukrainian interests.  Solomon tried to link this accusation to the origins of the Steele dossier and the Mueller probe.  On March 26, another long article claimed that  had stopped an investigation of a Ukrainian non-profit, The Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), which he claimed had ties to frequent Republican target George Soros.  The Hill on April 2 published a rejoinder by Ukrainian activist Daria Kaleniuk of AntAC, pointing out that the case against her organization had been closed months before  arrived, and that Lutsenko himself, no less, had labeled the prosecution “stupid” and “a shame.”  Then, on March 31, Solomon reported that when Joe Biden (as Biden had admitted) successfully pushed for the removal of a previous Ukrainian prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016, Shokin had been in the midst of an investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on its board.  Solomon quoted Lutsenko saying that he would be glad to give information on this episode to Attorney General Barr. Another long article on April 7 quoted another Ukrainian prosecutor, Kostiantyn Kulyk, to the effect that American authorities had refused to take any interest in information on all these subjects and claiming evidence that Joe Biden had put pressure on Ukrainian authorities to stop an investigation of Burisma.  (All Solomon’s articles are linked here.  )

As so often happens with accusations like these, they quickly found their way onto Fox News—most prominently on Sean Hannity’s nightly show—and Donald Trump, Jr., even repeated the accusations against  Yovanovitch in a tweet.  Giuliani seemed to have gotten what he wanted: Ukrainian authorities were reportedly confirming a whole slew of utterly baseless accusations regarding the 2016 campaign and Joe Biden’s role in Ukraine, while discrediting a career ambassador based on at least three completely false accusations.  Yovanovitch, meanwhile, was trying and failing to get high State Department officials to defend her in public.   Meanwhile, however, things went badly in the Ukraine election for Lutsenko and his patron, President Poroshenko.  After coming in a weak first in the first round of the elections on March 31, he lost in a landslide on April 21 to political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and television star who played a parody president on a popular series.  Three days later, Ambassador Jovanovitch received orders to return home by the next plane.  When she got to Washington, a superior explained that officials had feared that President Trump might tweet negatively about her if she did not.

It is not clear who benefited from Jovanovitch’s removal at this point, unless Parnas and Fruman thought that they might more easily proceed with favorable business deals.  Giuliani however had no intention of abandoning his initiative, and even announced plans to visit Ukraine to meet with the new President and ask him to pursue investigations of Democratic malfeasance in the 2016 election and of the Bidens.  An astonished and horrified press reaction persuaded him to back off, but the initiative, we now know, was going into new channels.  Just last week, the Daily Beast reported that ex-Congressman Pete Sessions had been considered as her replacement, but instead, Secretary Pompeo appointed a career diplomat, William Taylor, as charg√© d’affaires.  Pompeo, having sacrificed a fine ambassador to Trump’s obsession, evidently refused to let Giuliani or the White House pick her successor, but this did not matter very much since the President was now turning Ukraine policy over the three amigos, European Union Ambassador (and Trump contributor) Gordon Sondland, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who apparently had some energy-related goals in Ukraine himself.  As we learned from Sondland on November 20, Trump told them to take their marching orders from Giuliani, and that is what they did.
 
The new Ukrainian President, Zelensky, was recently the subject of a long New Yorker profile detailing his television career and his connection to at least one major oligarch.  He had much less political experience even than Donald Trump when elected, and he now faced the problem of putting together a new administration while dealing with a continuing war with the USSR.  He was in no position to resist pressure from a major backer, the United States.  The three amigos immediately began pressuring him to begin investigations of Burisma (and the Bidens) and purported 2016 election interference, after which he might enhance his prestige by coming to Washington to visit President Trump in the White House   There is some evidence, however, that he might have immediately fallen in Trump’s estimation.  Vice President Pence had been scheduled to attend his inauguration in May, but Trump suddenly ordered him not to do so.  It turns out that the President’s calendar that week had included a phone call to Vladimir Putin and a White House visit from Hungarian ruler Victor Orban, neither one a friend of Ukraine or Zelensky.  That increased the pressure on Zelensky to prove himself a friend.

Sundlum, David Holmes, and Fiona Hill, in particular, laid out the key events of the summer over the last few days.  I do not want to rehash them, but merely to note two key points which, once again, have not gotten the attention that I think they deserve.  The first relates to the discussion between Trump and Zelensky in the notorious July 23 phone call.  The passage relating to the Ambassador reads as follows:

(Trump): “The former ambassador from the United States,· the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in .the Ukraine .were bad news, so I just want to let you know that. . . .”

(Zelensky): “. . . with regard to the Ambassador to [sic] the United States from [sic] Ukraine as far as I recall her name was Ivanovich [sic]. It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%.  Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his· side. She would not accept me as a new President· well enough.”

Zelensky’s comments look like a blatant attempt to curry favor with Trump, since, once again, they appear to have no basis in fact. Queried at length during her deposition,  Jovanovitch mentioned that the Embassy had opened up contacts with Zelensky, including meetings between him and herself, as soon as he made a strong showing in the first round of the elections so as to lay the foundation for a good relationship.  While her testimony suggested that she would have been glad to see Poroshenko continue in office, she also knew after the first round that he was almost certain to lose.  Meanwhile, however, Zelensky’s phrasing—“it was that great that you were the first person who told me. .”—certainly suggests that this was not the first time that he had heard Trump’s opinion.  Given that he was speaking Ukrainian and that the transcript does not claim to be exact, we cannot be sure, but both Jovanovitch herself and Adam Schiff wondered about this during her deposition (p. 174). She speculated that it might have been during Trump’s first congratulatory call, but the subsequent transcript of that one does not mention her.

The second piece of news that broke recently relates to the question of why the Trump Administration released aid to Ukraine, and why Zelensky never met the terms that Sondland and others had pressed upon him.  Zelensky had indeed promised to investigate election interference and the Bidens in the July 25 call, but that was not enough.  Sondland and the rest insisted upon a public declaration to that effect, and had even agreed on a venue, a CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria.  On November 21, David Holmes confirmed in public testimony that the Ukrainian government had agreed to do this in early September.  The New York Times had already reported this on November 7, noting that most Ukrainian officials agreed that they had no choice but to give in to keep the support of the US,  but added that the interview didn’t take place because the Trump administration released aid to Ukraine on September 11.  Zakaria, however, now says that he had met Zelensky briefly on September 13—two days later—and that at that time, the interview sill appeared to be on, specifically during Zelensky’s forthcoming visit to the United Nations.  It was the revelation of the whistleblower complaint about July 25 call in the Washington Post on September 18, Zakaria says, that put an end to the interview plans.

To summarize:  in the midst of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections—interference which, as Fiona Hill confirmed, hoped to win the election for Donald Trump—Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, tried to manufacture new stories about corruption involving the Ukraine, the Democratic campaign of 2016, and Joe and Hunter Biden.  He and his helpers Parnas and Frunan—now under arrest—managed to get prosecutor Lutsenko to announce exactly the investigations he wanted, and Fox News immediately blew this announcement into a major propaganda campaign in the spring of this year.  That also resulted in the dismissal of an Ambassador who had done nothing wrong.  Giuliani did not however manage to get a statement about the investigations from Ukrainian president Poroshenko, for reasons that are not clear, before Poroshenko lost the election to Zelensky.  President Trump promptly set up a new team to handle Ukraine, the “three amigos,” and told them to coordinate their work with Giuliani.  They began pressuring Zelensky to promise and announce the investigations he wanted, and he did promise them privately to Trump on July 25.  They continued to push for a public declaration and by early September Zelensky was evidently prepared to give it.  Only the revelation that a whistleblower had found the July 25th call sufficiently alarming to refer it to an Inspector General spoiled the plan to get a public declaration that would have put Zelensky firmly in Trump’s camp.   Meanwhile, Gordon Sondland made it clear that the whole second stage of the plot, at least, was well known to Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Vice President Pence.

Donald Trump, working through his attorney Rudy Giuliani, entered into a conspiracy with foreign officials to disseminate false information, first to counteract the Mueller investigation, and then, to help him in his re-election campaign.  They conspired to spread false statements about a career U.S. Ambassador and removed her from office as part of this plan.  They also put a hold on military aid to a nation at war to make sure they got what they wanted.  Gordon Sondland, who seems to have dealt personally with Trump as much as anyone over this issue, reported in the midst of all this that Trump didn’t give a shit about Ukraine, only about his political opponents.  Meanwhile, prominent members of Trump’s government had to go along with all this as well.  This is a story of a foolish, self-serving perversion of our institutions of government, designed to score political points by spreading lies and ensure Trump’s re-election.  It is characteristic of much of what the Trump administration does, and it is exactly the kind of high crime and misdemeanor that the founders put the impeachment clause into the Constitution to deal with.  A Republican failure to convict will tend to confirm that today’s Republican Party doesn’t care how the President operates, as long as he is a Republican, cuts taxes, and continues to staff the federal judiciary with conservative judges.  That is one aspect of the tragedy of our times.

Updates, November 25:

Devin Nunes has issued an hysterical statement complaining about the CNN reports that he met with Shokin in Vienna last November--but he did not deny the report.  Meanwhile, the New York Times this morning reports that  Petro Poroshenko, the last Ukrainian President, was indeed prepared to announce the investigations that Giuliani and Trump wanted when he was defeated in a landslide in his re-election bid last April.  At that point, Giuliani sent Parnas and Fruman to Tel Aviv to meet with new President Zelensky's main patron, a Ukrainian oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, who figures at length in the New Yorker article about Zelensky that I linked above. Kolomoisky declined to help them meet with Zelensky.  Last but hardly least, the story reports that when Parnas and Fruman were arrested on their way to Vienna last October, they were going to meet the discredited prosecutor Shokin, for whom they had arranged an interview with Sean Hannity.  So far, President Trump has not cited their arrest as an attempt by the Deep State to hurt his administration.


Friday, November 15, 2019

Echoes of an earlier time

Like so many other people, I felt I had gone through a time warp as I watched Ambassador William Taylor and George Kent testify two days ago.  These men had descended directly from the foreign service officers that I had known during my father's diplomatic service in the 1960s and 1970s and my own summer stints in the U.S. State Department.  In calm and measured tones, they put their particular job--encouraging the growth of a democratic Ukraine--into a long-term historical context.  They identified Russian expansionism as a new threat, similar to the cold war threats with which we had grown up. (The hearings also struck a powerful chord with me because Taylor appears to be my exact contemporary.)  Over decades they had accustomed themselves not to worry too much about changes in administrations, because both parties supported the principles behind these policies.   They also obviously believed in facts, and understood the importance of a detailed knowledge of foreign nations and their history, and of a sense of the long-term significance of political events.  They clearly felt very secure in their mission and their place in the world.

The contrast between them and the sycophants that now surround President Trump, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, jumped off the screen.  They belong to the reality based community, and one can't work for Donald Trump without sinking into denial.  Yet I also felt that Taylor, Kent, and their colleagues in the bureaucracy now live in a bubble of their own.  The tradition they represent dates from a completely different era, one in which the American people cared deeply about our role in the world, followed it closely, and made real sacrifices for it.  That era is over, and our national security establishment has lost its connection to society as a whole.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American people became focused on war and the threat of war in Asia and Europe.  In September 1937 President Roosevelt warned for the first time that ongoing conflicts, if not stopped, would reach the western hemisphere.  After the fall of France in 1940, when many expected Britain to fall as well, nearly everyone recognized the potential threat to the United States itself, and Congress doubled the size of the Navy and instituted the first peacetime draft.  10 million men joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and in another three years American troops occupied Tokyo and Berlin.  The Truman Administration was determined not to throw away the fruits of victory, and the Marshall Plan, NATO, and even the Korean War strengthened democracies and other friendly states within the territory that the US had liberated and created a system of alliances.  The peacetime draft returned after the Korean outbreak, and for more than twenty years, young American men served all over the world.  Nightly news broadcasts frequently led with stories about conflicts and threats on other continents, as well.

In a great turning point in American history--one that I described in detail two decades ago in American Tragedy--cold war foreign policy led us to the disaster of Vietnam.  That turned a good portion of the Boom generation against US foreign policy, and brought the military draft to an end.  But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, the post-Vietnam challenge to the principles of US policy never amounted to very much.  The establishment--and particularly the military establishment--learned that it had to defend  America's informal empire and fight Communist advances without large-scale deployments of US troops.  But cold war principles remained in force during the 1970s and 1980s, and seemed to be vindicated by the collapse of Communism in 1989.

In general, our national security establishment assumed after 1989 that the US could now pursue the same policies it developed during the Cold War, unhampered by the restraints of powerful adversaries.  We enlarged NATO in Eastern Europe and sponsored democratic movements on every continent.  A new turning point, however, occurred on September 11, 2001.  The Bush Administration self-consciously adopted a new mission parallel, in its eyes, to the struggles against Nazism and Communism:  the democratization of the Muslim world.  For a brief moment in the next couple of years, that mission fired the imagination of the American people, and liberal as well as conservative pundits eagerly signed on.  But the Bush Administration made no effort really to engage the American people at large in this new task, either with higher taxes or a new military draft.  More important, it embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could never bring to a successful conclusion, meanwhile wasting trillions of dollars that the nation needed at home.

I have remarked many times here that despite its failures, the new Bush policies survived through the Obama Administration.  The war in Afghanistan continued, the war in Iraq halted but then restarted, and the Administration repeated the Iraq regime change experiment in Libya and tried to do so in Syria, with more disastrous results.   The financial crisis of 2008 did not shift Washington's focus away from these conflicts, but it certainly changed the attitudes of the American people.  And then, the election of 2016 showed that our political establishments no longer commanded enough popular support to elect a new president.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our foreign policy establishment has soldiered on, trying to create a new American ally on the frontier of Russia.  This has involved Ukraine and the US in a new war--and I must admit that I, too, was surprised to hear that 13,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.  I do not think, though, that the average American knew until very recently that that war was taking place, or felt any personal stake in the outcome.  And even as I listened to Messrs. Taylor and Kent proudly talk about the progress Ukraine had made recently, I couldn't shake my doubts about the project in which they are engaged.  Democracy has not taken firm root in most of the eastern European states of the former Soviet empire, or in much of the former USSR itself.  The new Ukrainian President may, or may not, manage to do something about corruption in his nation.  And meanwhile, it has become much more difficult for the US to promote democracy, simply because our own democracy has fallen into catastrophic disrepair.  Men like Taylor and Kent have maintained a civic spirit and a sense of mission, but I'm not sure we can deploy it usefully in Ukraine at this point in our history.  They are artifacts of an earlier age--a status with which I too am familiar.  Only a genuine national project that engages our resources, our time and our attention can restore some of what that age gave us.


Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Impeachment Debate--a Barometer

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.




Friday, October 25, 2019

A blast from the past

It occurred to me this week, reading about the Republican sit-in in the Capitol basement, that today's Republican legislators are using tactics developed 50 + years ago by my contemporaries in the Vietnam era.  This is not unprecedented: John Bolton led a gang of Republican operatives who descended on Miami in 2000 to stop the recount of Florida votes.  Democratic Boomers either dropped out of traditional politics altogether or became respectable.  Republicans, including many from Gen X, show the the same spirit, outlook and tactics that the SDS did back then.  That in turn reminded me of one of the first posts I did here fifteen years ago, which follows.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


George W. Bush--Man of the Sixties

George W. Bush—Man of the 1960s

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Adminstration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their leftwing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . .

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.