New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Monday, April 28, 2008
Meanwhile, anyone interested in how the Reverend Jeremiah Wright happened to give an inflammatory address at the National Press Club yesterday should look here. I will have more to say about this this weekend.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Parallels from the past
Previous posts have focused on the parallels early in the civil war crisis, asking whether this election will be remembered as our 1856 (in which Compromiser/Artist James Buchanan defeated Transcendental/Gilded cusper John C. Fremont, largely because of fears that the election of the Republican Fremont would break up the Union) or that of 1860, which really kicked off the crisis. But 1932 offers some interesting parallels as well, both politically and with respect to the state of the country, and thus a brief review of that year is also in order.
The Democrats in 1932 faced a one-term incumbent whose popularity (then unmeasured by polls) must have sunk to about where George W. Bush's is today, and who insisted, like Bush, that his policies were sound and that history would vindicate them. They were fortunate, as it turned out, to have three, not two, major candidates--and the rivalry between the top two, Alfred E. Smith, the former Governor of New York and 1928 standard bearer, and his successor Franklin Roosevelt, had something of the same emotional tenor as that between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Ten years older than FDR, Smith had been four times elected Governor of New York, and had gone down to a crushing defeat against Hoover, largely because of his Catholic religion, in 1928. In that same year he had hand-picked Roosevelt, whom many in New York politics had always seen as a dilettante and a lightweight, to run for Governor, only to see Roosevelt very narrowly elected while Smith, who never struck most Americans as Presidential timber, lost his own state. During the next four years Roosevelt made a good impression as governor and carefully cultivated Democratic leaders all over the country, all the while declining even to ask Smith's advice on questions of policy or patronage. Smith however remained as determined to be the first Catholic President as Clinton is to be the first woman, and he felt just as entitled to the nod, feeling vindicated by the events of the last four years. The third candidate, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner from Texas, competed with Roosevelt for support in the South and West, while the two New Yorkers battled it out in the Northeast.
Had three candidates remained strong in this year's race, the third one would now be able to decide the outcome. That is what happened at Chicago in 1932, when Garner, backed by William Randolph Hearst, switched to Roosevelt Democrats still needed a 2/3 majority for the nomination in 1932 (FDR had the rule changed, fortunately, four years later), and Roosevelt began on the first ballot with 666 votes, just 104 shy of the nomination, as Smith polled 202 and Garner 90. Garner switched on the fourth ballot in exchange for the Vice Presidency--a decision he bitterly regretted for the rest of his life and in 1960 urged Lyndon Johnson not to repeat. Smith was never reconciled to the party's choice (and actually opposed Roosevelt in 1936), but that had little effect on the outcome.
Essentially the Democratic Party in 1932 had everything going for it. The depression had brought terrible hardship to millions of workers and farmers and Hoover was in effect promising more of the same. The country was isolationist, and FDR at that moment was if anything more isolationist than Hoover. In addition, the most important social issue that year--Prohibition--was undoubtedly working in the Democrats' favor. (Recently my wife and I watched a fascinating movie, The Wet Parade, on Turner Classic Movies. Illustrating the evils of drink against the background of American history from 1916 to 1932, it nonetheless sent a clear message that Prohibition was doing more harm than good.) Hoover lost a full 18% of the nation's vote compared to 1928, falling from 58% to 40%--and the Republican Party took twenty years to recover. (That swing is very comparable to what happened to the Democrats between 1964 and 1968, and at the Presidential level the effect of those four years has been equally profound.)
Comparing the two elections, one sad fact stands out: the Democrats had the good sense to hold their convention in late June, giving their candidate two months to rest before the Labor Day kick-off. In recent decades conventions have been moving closer and closer to the beginning of the campaign itself, and those chickens, to coin a phrase, are now coming home to roost for my dear old party. If the contest really lasts through August and features a floor fight over seating the Florida and Michigan delegations, the winner will get off to a terrible start.
Regarding social and identity issues, the picture looks less favorable. Smith's failure in 1932 removed the Catholicism issue from the table, but this year's candidate will have to contend with either racial or gender prejudice, both of them still formidable factors. John McCain seems unlikely to try to exploit anti-gay prejudice than George W. Bush, but one cannot know to what he will be driven by electoral need. Certainly there is nothing this year like Prohibition around which Democrats and independents might rally.
Economically the picture looks a lot more like 1929 than 1932; our great crisis is only beginning and no one knows how far it might go. Personally I am very concerned that our whole new service- and retail-based economy may not survive a deep, prolonged slump. With food and oil prices soaring Americans may no longer be able to afford so much shopping, and they may do more of what they do online, gradually forcing sales personnel even in box stores to follow the way of elevator operators, bank tellers, and gas station attendants. Undoubtedly the economy will benefit the Democrats, but a Democratic President looking for remedies to a whole new set of economic ills will be at least at sea as the New Deal was in 1933. And in one key respect--the financial health of the federal government--eight years of Bush have done much more to make things worse than four years of Hoover ever did.
But the biggest difference is in foreign policy, of course, where war has replaced peace as the American norm during the last seventy years. With the sole (and significant) exception of 1992-2000, when the Democrats won three elections [sic], war or the threat of war has been a critical issue in every Presidential campaign since 1940. War has not always benefited the Party that fights it--see 1952 and 1968--but in all that time George McGovern was the only Presidential candidate who directly challenged the thrust of current American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton obviously had no plans to propose a truly alternative foreign policy this year either, and although Obama has forced her to the left on Iraq, I feel quite sure that she will rejoin the mainstream in the unlikely event that she is elected. (Last week she threatened to "obliterate" Iran if Iran attacked Israel, out-Bushing Bush.) But Obama is another matter, and John McCain is bound to run on his supposedly superior toughness on foreign policy. There is at least a 50-50 chance, in my opinion, that we will have bombed Iran before November, making these issues more emotional and more acute.
This is both the critical problem and the great opportunity of this election--actually to break the conservative grip on American foreign policy. In an interesting review of a biography of Ahmad Chalabi in today's New York Times, Leslie Gelb cites Chalabi's shrewd understanding of American (as opposed to Iraqi) politics as the key to his success. "Chalabi," Gelb writes, "saw beyond the research institutes and policy makers i Washington's national security power structure. He spent little time on liberals, whose influence on foreign affairs is by and large limited to Democratic Party presidential primaries. [!!!!!] If he needed a Democratic senator, and he always did, he went to hard heads like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or Joe Lieberman of Connecticut." During the last forty years "McGovernite" liberals have been whipping boys and girls for the Republican party and the national security establishment even when imperial adventures like Vietnam and Iraq have gone horribly wrong. It is time for a change, not least because we no longer have the economic, military or political resources to make them go right.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Exit poll reading
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The Decline of Hillary Clinton
Let us begin with the sad story of the last few weeks. Since Super Tuesday Barack Obama has been a clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination. After winning the Ohio primary and the popular vote in Texas (where she eventually fell behind in total Democratic delegates), Clinton decided to stay in the race, counting on three stratagems. First, she hoped that party authorities would not only excuse, but endorse, her decision to ignore party rules and field campaigns in Michigan and Florida, thus awarding her a majority of those states' delegates. That has gotten nowhere, and in the long run the precedent this sets will be good for the Democratic Party. Second, she had to win over remaining superdelegates, calling in all the chits that she and her husband had accumulated over the last 16 years. And thirdly, she had to go into attack mode against Barack Obama and exploit every possible weakness he might have, saying that he was not a Muslim "as far as I know," (!!!), criticizing him for not leaving his church, and now, citing his connection to William Ayres. None of this seems in the slightest to be working. Major superdelegates are moving to Obama every week, nothing is going to change about Michigan and Florida, and voters even in Pennsylvania, upon which she is now counting, her attacks seem to be disgusting the voters and turning them against her. Nonetheless she shows no signs of letting up. Just this morning something new has been added. Speaking (like her opponent) with unfortunate freedom at a fund-raiser, she has argued in effect that the active Democrats who have given Obama so many caucus victories should be disregarded because they represent extremes. I quote:
"We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it's primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don't agree with them. They know I don't agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me." [This appears among other things to be an invitation to her supporters not to take her recent leftward movement on Iraq too seriously.]
Now Richard Nixon was a young man from Southern California with something of a talent for politics who wanted to be President. Certainly he could also have done well on Survivor. He ran very dirty campaigns for Congress and the Senate (although they did not differ in their red-baiting from many others in those days), and he got his big break, the Vice Presidential nomination in 1952, partly by stabbing his own Governor Earl Warren in the back. I am not suggesting that he made a net positive contribution to American politics or American life over the following 40 years--he most certainly did not. But he got into the White House largely because, from 1952 onward, party loyalty was one of his first principles. Beginning in 1954 he was always available to stump for Republican candidates of all types all over the country. He complained in that year that Republicans could not afford to waste time complaining that some of their candidates were too liberal or too conservative. Their control of Congress was threatened--in fact, they did lose it--and in his opinion, every Republican vote counted. For the same reason he refused openly to condemn the main extremist in his party, Joe McCarthy--because he knew how much large numbers of Republicans loved him. In 1956 he was humiliated when President Eisenhower publicly suggested that Nixon might prefer to serve in the cabinet in his second term rather than remain Vice President--this after Ike had just suffered a near-fatal heart attack--but Nixon swallowed his pride and replied that no, the Vice Presidency would suit him just fine. By 1960 he had built up so much credit with his own party nationally that Nelson Rockefeller--richer, smoother, and a fresher face--found that he had no chance of winning the nomination and gave up in advance. Nixon barely lost that election, but his standing among Republicans was undamaged. Even his California defeat in 1962 did not as it turned out change things very much.
Loyalty won out again in 1964 when the controversial Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. Nixon undoubtedly knew Goldwater's candidacy was doomed, but he also knew that Goldwater's forces were going to remain powerful among the Republicans. Nelson Rockefeller refused to support the ticket; Nixon campaigned loyally for it. Four years later in 1968 Ronald Reagan appeared to have inherited Goldwater's mantle, but Goldwater's own machine was working for Nixon. Again he was nominated and this time he won the election. His cabinet included several liberal Republicans even though conservatives dominated the White House staff. He fell victim to his own paranoia when his men were caught bugging the DNC.
There is, of course, a generational aspect to all this. Nixon was a GI and a team player. He knew that the best way to realize his ambition was to play the role of a loyal party man. The Clintons, on the other hand, are Boomers who feel that everything they want is theirs by right because they are so special (and, in her case, because she represents generations of hitherto excluded women.) Bill Clinton actually showed very little concern for his own party during his eight years in office. He made no serious effort to regain the Congress in 1996, for instance--he seemed to enjoy the role of restraining the Republican majority. Now Hillary is doing her best to tear the party apart in an against-the-odds effort to keep her hopes alive. No one else seems to find this a very pretty spectacle.
I am pleased the more and more senior Democrats, including Howard Dean, Bill Richardson, and now Sam Nunn, are in various ways trying to keep my party on track. I am also pleased that Obama, although he has made one major slip and looked awfully tired the other night (who wouldn't?) is by and large not taking the bait. An Obama victory in Pennsylvania no longer looks impossible, and a really big Clinton victory there looks less and less likely. I shall be delighted if Jimmy Carter and, above all, Al Gore, then step forward to say that enough is enough. It's time to return to an earlier definition of affirmative action--that it's a right to have your chance. Hillary Clinton has had her chance and the Democratic Party prefers Barack Obama. So, to judge from every trial heat poll, does the country.
My favorite quote on these matters comes from my very distant cousin Horace Greeley, the 19th-century Whig/Republican editor, who was in fact a Prophet like Clinton and myself, but who learned a hard-headed attitude about politics at a relatively early age. In his autobiography, Reflections of a Busy Life, he described the Whig convention of 1840, which has some parallels with the situation Democrats face today. The Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren was obviously vulnerable, partly because of a widespread economic crisis, and the Whigs had their first real chance to get into power. The leading candidates at the Convention were Henry Clay, already a national figure for thirty years and Greeley's own political idol, and William Henry Harrison. Greeley described the proceedings and their outcome thusly.
"The sittings of the Convention were protracted through three or four days during which several ballots for President were taken. There was a plurality though not a majority in favor of nominating Mr Clay but it was in good part composed of delegates from States which could not rationally be expected to vote for any Whig candidate On the other hand delegates from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana said, "We can carry our States for General Harrison but not for Clay." New York and New Jersey cast their earlier ballots for General Scott but stood ready to unite on General Harrison whenever it should be clear that he could be nominated and elected and they ultimately did so. The delegates from Maine and Massachusetts contributed powerfully to secure General Harrison's ultimate nomination. Each delegation cast its vote through a committee and the votes were added up by a general committee which reported no names and no figures but simply that no choice had been effected until at length the Scott votes were all cast for Harrison and his nomination thus effected when the result was proclaimed.
" Governor Seward who was in Albany (there were no telegraphs in those days), and Mr Weed, who was present and very influential in producing the result, were strongly blamed by the ardent uncalculating supporters of Mr Clay as having cheated him out of the nomination. I could never see with what reason. They judged that he could not be chosen if nominated while another could be and acted accordingly. If politics do not meditate the achievement of beneficent ends through the choice and use of the safest and most effective means I wholly misapprehend them."
Thank you, cousin Horace. I could never have said it half as well myself.
Now Senator Clinton is now arguing privately (most notably in a famous phone call to Bill Richardson which she refuses to discuss) that only she can be elected, but the polls say otherwise. In addition, her behavior will keep a lot of voters (especially younger ones) away from the polls in November in the most unlikely event that she can be successful. Anyone who really wants the Republicans out of the White House should in my opinion face the facts. Obama not only deserves the nomination but remains by far our best hope. I hope I do not have to write another post like this in a month or so.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Denver Post review of The Road to Dallas
Where the secrets lie
Special to The Denver Post
Historian David Kaiser's meticulously researched new work, "The Road to Dallas," about the shocking and clandestine maneuverings of our CIA and FBI under President John F. Kennedy, paints a disturbing portrait of what often goes undetected at the highest levels of government.
Kaiser chronicles amazing accounts of our government's dangerous collaborations with major organized-crime figures in an attempt to remove Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders from Latin American countries that were tilting toward communist rule by methods that included planned coups and assassination plots, the bribing of foreign politicians, the spreading of lies and the invasion of other countries with secret armies.
The majority of these exercises were enacted with the consent and knowledge of the Kennedy White House.
Kaiser was able to bring his book to fruition as a result of the Kennedy Assassination Records Act of 1992. This permitted scholars to gain access to millions of pages of original documents that had never been available before. Kaiser points out that some articles were still withheld.
Much of the new data focuses on the events leading up to the assassination and information on Mafia crime bosses that was obtained for the most part by illegal wiretapping. After reviewing vast amounts of new material, Kaiser puts forth his thesis that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy at the behest of the leaders of organized crime who were disturbed by JFK'S inability to remove Castro where they had been reaping huge profits in gambling and casino interests prior to Castro's revolution.
The Mafia bosses were also furious with JFK's brother, Robert, the attorney general, for using them for his own purposes in Cuba and elsewhere, and then turning upon them with zeal for their criminal activity here. They felt double- crossed.
Kaiser's investigation seems to put to rest the long-held notion put forth by the Warren Report that Oswald acted alone and was simply a nutty gunman. He examines new evidence that lays out Oswald's extensive entanglements with suspicious persons prior to the assassination.
The most chilling is the testimony of Cuban exile Silvia Odio, who claims to have met Oswald in the company of Cuban activists. Kaiser describes Oswald as a troubled man prone to bouts of aggressive behavior. He was extremely secretive and interested in firearms.
The complexities and contradictions of the Kennedy brothers' personalities are particularly upsetting when considered in contrast to their clean-cut and eloquent public personas. Kaiser reveals Bobby to be intensely driven, self-righteous and religious, and simultaneously insecure and determined to make his mark among his competitively charged brethren.
Jack was much cooler and more hidden, someone who though "at ease with everyone" revealed himself to no one. Jack was a compulsive womanizer who became seduced by the Frank Sinatra crowd and its hedonistic lifestyle, which brought him into close contact with many shady figures.
Kaiser's book unwittingly tracks the steady erosion of confidence in government that began with the Kennedy assassination, which 68 percent of Americans today believe was the result of a conspiracy of some sort followed by an official coverup to hide the truth.
Subsequent scandals during the past decades, such as Watergate, Iran-Contra and Guantanamo have further damaged our trust in government.
Kaiser's fine book destroys any romantic view of world politics we might wish to cling to — and shows us a much darker reality.
Elaine Margolin is a freelance book reviewer and essayist in Hewlett, N.Y.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Of all the other academics I know of, Paglia's career is probably most similar to mine. We are the same age (although she managed to graduate from college a year earlier). I got my doctorate in history at Harvard, she got hers in English at Yale. Both of us did very ambitious dissertations. Indeed, hers, which became Sexual Personae, which put her on the map in the early 1990s, was more comparable in scope to my third book, Politics and War, which came out at about the same time as Sexual Personae, than to my first. Both of us taught briefly at a major institution, me at Harvard and she at Bennington, before being turned loose. And both of us, for about two decades, have been earning our daily bread in professional schools--she at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, and I at the Naval War College. And both of us have shown tremendous grief over different aspects of the era of our youth--she at the end of Break, Blow, Burn, and I in the last pages of American Tragedy.
Comparing myself not only to her, but to the other three contemporaries I mentioned, I have to say that I, sadly, have been the straightest arrow. Strauss gave up steady work in the mid-198os and earned his living with the Capitol Steps; Howe is a consultant; and James became a tremendously successful author on baseball purely based upon his wits. Having started out at age 29 with the only job I ever wanted, I long cherished the illusion that I could get another one like it by performing. I was wrong. Paglia in the 1990s embraced her outsider status and became a violent critic of intellectual trends in the academy (as I have been as well, albeit less visibly) and of the feminist establishment. She also published two very entertaining books of essays and, more recently, a book on forty of her favorite poems, Break, Blow Burn. That book employed the new criticism in which both she and I were trained--I in Humanities 6 as a Harvard sophomore, in some ways probably the course that influenced me the most, even though I was already a history major. It taught close attention to sources, you see.
I had seen Paglia interviewed on television a number of times (although I never, alas, saw a notable appearance on Crossfire early in the Clinton Administration, in which she evinced an early and well-founded dislike for Hillary Clinton.) I was surprised at the delivery of her talk, which she read carefully, if effectively, from a text. In the question time I realized why--she needs the discipline! Like Malcolm X, she can give a very long answer to a very simple question, but her sentences always parse and her examples are always wide-ranging and relevant. Her subject was modern feminism, and she began by bitterly criticizing her contemporaries for having failed to pay any attention to earlier generations of feminists--not only those of the late 19th century, but those of the Lost generation such as Dorothy Parker and Amelia Earhart whom, she said, she studied carefully in the 1950s, when I was discovering American history myself. She also castigated them for their complete ignorance of science as it relates to gender differences. But she noted provocatively that the influence of the feminist establishment--the Gloria Steinems and the Catherine McKinnon's--has dropped substantially over the last decade as cable television and the internet have replaced the mainstream press as sources of news. Their last hurrah was the Anita Hill case, she seemed to suggest, when they were go-to girls for the media to get the female perspective. And it is clear that Gen X and Millennial women do not share their obsession with victimhood, and thus are more excited by Obama than by Hillary Clinton (whom, I would speculate, reminds many of them of their own mothers.)
I was delighted, however, by her response when I got the opportunity to ask a question. I said that I wanted to introduce a slightly different perspective, and she nodded with interest. Identifying myself as a contemporary and a historian, I said that her criticism of feminists for ignoring historical examples was part of something bigger. Our whole generation, I said, had had a "eureka" moment around 1968, when, largely because of the Vietnam War, Boomers had concluded that everything our parents had told us was a lie, and that we could safely disregard all of it. In academia this had led during the next twenty years to the repudiation of the whole western intellectual tradition (she began nodding vigorously at that point), and only a few holdouts like ourselves had been trying to keep it alive. But moreover, I said, during the last ten or twenty years we had seen similar developments in business and in politics, leaving the world we had inherited in ruins all around us. I concluded that that was both a burden and a great opportunity to the younger generations who would have to rebuild things. She responded most enthusiastically, agreeing that it was time for Boomers to step aside, and adding that that was why she, too, was all for Barack Obama. Afterwards our mutual friend briefly introduced us.
Sexual personae does represent, in a way, the real contribution of our generation, because Paglia argued that Judeo-Christian civilization--and especially its bourgeois expression, with which she still feels out of sympathy--has always been at war with much more primal, violent impulses, especially sex, which cannot be denied. (That is why she, like me, thinks both pornography and prostitution should be legal.) While my own writing hasn't dealt with those issues, it has suggested that rational explanations for institutional behavior--especially the behavior of governments--are often deceptive as well. And I must say that The Road to Dallas turned, eventually, into an almost Shakespearean drama involving quite a rich mix of characters--but that is another story.
I don't know how Camille feels about her career path. Intuitively I feel that she, like me, must know how much she could have contributed at a leading institution and must regret not having more of a chance. But both of us obviously feel part of a much, much broader enterprise than contemporary academia--one that in her case stretches back several millennia and in mine, at least until the mid-19th century. And thus, whatever else may have happened, we both shall always have the satisfaction of having contributed to the western intellectual tradition that seduced us when very young, and in which we have never lost faith.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
Britain, the United States, and the Middle East
During the six years a film and a book have become more or less required viewing and reading in the
One by one, the British discovered their hopes falsified by reality. Their principal Arab allies were Hussein Sharif of Mecca and his sons, Faisal and Abdullah. The initially attempted to install Faisal as the leader of Syria—a vaguely defined territory that also included Lebanon—but eventually had to yield that region to the French and transplant Faisal to newly created Iraq, where he became King, instead. After the British split
Fromkin does not explain exactly how the Ottomans had managed to govern these farflung regions relatively effectively, but he makes clear that the collapse of Ottoman authority, like the collapse of Ba’athist authority in
It seems further confirmation of Strauss and Howe that, eighty years later, the Brits’ American legatees as the world’s leading power also decided that the
The map of the
The peoples of this region, moreover, have become richer by far thanks to oil (even if the mass of the people have relatively little access to wealth), and their political consciousness is more highly developed. The
The British, as I mentioned, became involved in the Middle East in an effort to secure gains from the First World War, never sold their public on the wisdom of this step, and found it relatively easy to disengage, first in the early 1920s and then, more thoroughly, from 1945-56 (with the single disastrous exception of Suez.) Our government on the other hand took advantage of one spectacular terrorist act perpetrated by about 20 people to convince the American people that almost any effort in the region was justified and necessary. So frightened is the Democratic Party that its apparently impending triumph could be threatened by the perception that it is soft on national security that we, in total contrast to the British, have had no real debate over the wisdom of what we are trying to do. (The argument over