Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Have We Dodged A Bullet?

The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are full of post-election coverage trying to explain why Obama won. One of the more interesting pieces is one in the New York Review by Michael Massing, whom I have cited approvingly here on other topics, based upon a trip to Ohio. Massing stopped in three northwestern Ohio towns a few weeks before the election (unfortunately the account of one of the towns, Bowling Green, appears to have been cut out), and he did some important collateral research, listening to Rush Limbaugh and discovering that he has an audience estimated at between ten and fifteen million men. Meanwhile, I watched The Boogie Man, the documentary on Lee Atwater, one of the founders of modern Republicanism, which can now be seen on Frontline after a very brief theatrical release. All this set me thinking about what American politics has been through over the last forty years, and posed a troubling question: have we had a real brush with Fascism? That there are parallels to the events of the 1920s and 1930s (especially on the electoral plain) I am quite sure; but in the end, I think, the answer is no.
“Modern” Republicanism, of one wants to call it that, was an electoral strategy introduced disastrously by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and ridden into the White House by Richard Nixon, narrowly in 1968 and overwhelmingly in 1972. It began with the substantial segment of the Republican Party that had never reconciled itself to the New Deal or stopped calling for a return to small government and unregulated markets—those who read Human Events (Ronald Reagan’s favorite journal) and the National Review. But it proceeded to take advantage of a political sea change that had been brewing for twenty years and that had reached a climax with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: the defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party. Goldwater carried five deep South states in 1964, and between them, Wallace and Nixon carried the entire old Confederacy, less Texas, in 1968. For the next forty years, the only way the Democratic Party could carry any southern states was by running a southerner itself.
To the racial prejudice of centuries, the Republicans added the social reaction of older generations to the Awakening of the 1960s—the fear (progressively) of long hair, feminism, affirmative action, and gay rights, so common among older Americans and much of the white working class. Since those social issues were replacing economic ones as the main concerns of the Democratic Party, they made very easy and productive targets. To this Republicans added the idea that Democrats were soft on national security, although I suspect this was generally only a minor part of their appeal. Beginning with the passage of the Jarvis-Gann referendum in California in the late 1970s, an anti-tax revolt became another plank of the platform. The Atwater documentary made a profound impression upon me because it showed how Atwater and Karl Rove (who had known each other since the early 1970s) had turned these issues into the essence of Republican presidential campaigns beginning in 1980, when Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign at the Philadelphia, Mississippi county fair—just a few miles away from the murders of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman in 1964—with Strom Thurmond by his side. But it also showed, with the help of details from Atwater’s earliest campaigns in his native South Carolina, how another element had been added to the mix: the propagation of complete lies about one’s opponent. (Books about Karl Rove have gone into his use of this tactic in Texas, as well.) And during the last twenty years this contributed not only to the degradation of American politics, but to the collapse of American government.
The turning point, it seemed to me, came with the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988, Atwater’s greatest triumph. First of all, the candidate himself, George H. W. Bush—a traditional eastern moderate at heart—shamelessly accepted the strategies Atwater prescribed, declaring himself a born-again Christian, referring to Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” impugning his patriotism, and most of all, making Willie Horton the centerpiece of his campaign. A commentator in The Boogie Man noted Ronald Reagan had actually signed into law a prison furlough program similar to the Massachusetts one in California. Even The Boogie Man failed to mention that the Massachusetts program itself was the brainchild of Dukakis’s predecessor Francis Sargent, a patrician moderate Republican very similar in style and temperament to George H. W. Bush himself.
That, however, was only part of the story. The second critical shift in 1988—and in the long run, perhaps, the more important one—involved the choice of Bush’s Vice President, Dan Quayle, the first Boomer on a national ticket. That Quayle was manifestly intellectually unqualified to be President—and that his whole life was simply a tribute to the power of a wealthy bloodline—apparently made no difference to Atwater. In fact, looking at the whole history of the last twenty years, I am convinced that it was, to Atwater and other consultants like him, an advantage. Their appeal was, among other things, anti-intellectual, aimed at rousing hatred against Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, Ivy-League educated intellectuals. A candidate with obvious intellectual defects could only increase that appeal, all the more so when the eastern media began pointing them out. And such a candidate—and this was probably critical—would be much easier to keep on message, since he (or she) would not be unduly troubled by his own autonomous, spontaneous thoughts. Not only Republican consultants, but neoconservative intellectuals, have shown a preference for intellectually limited candidates ever since. The line that began with Dan Quayle runs directly to George W. Bush, and thence to Sarah Palin. George W. Bush has shown again and again that he lacks the capacity to think an issue through or even to react to new data. That must have been apparent to those who worked with him when he was still Governor of Texas, but it did not occur to anyone that it might disqualify him from even higher office. Going a step further, Sarah Palin actually anticipated major media attacks upon herself in her carefully drafted acceptance speech. Let us hope that she has provided its reductio ad absurdum
The talk radio empire of which Limbaugh is only the most visible notable was another element of the new Republican machine. Like me, Michael Massing has taken the time to listen to Limbaugh lately, and he was shocked by the depths to which Rush sinks almost every day. I was even more shocked, however, to realize how closely his worst excesses reflected Republican campaign strategy over the last two decades. The Boogie Man included something I had completely forgotten, a statement by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama that he had heard (from a source he could not identify) that during the 1960s Kitty Dukakis had attended an antiwar demonstration at which the American flag had been burned. Just a few weeks earlier I had heard Rush tell his devoted audience about reports of a tape of Michelle Obama ranting about “whitey this and whitey that.” No such tape, needless to say, has ever surfaced. Every day Rush delivered a standard paragraph about Barack Obama, a “sixties radical” and an “angry black man” who was the stealth presidential candidate of Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, and Jeremiah Wright. From time to time Rush also favored the audio equivalent of blackface parodies of gangstas commenting on the campaign, an obvious attempt to rouse the most blatant racial prejudice. (Many of these also targeted Michelle Obama.) Reports have surfaced from time to time that talk show hosts get daily talking points from the Republican Party, and I believe it. This time, however, the tactics did not work well enough.
It is clear in retrospect that the appeal of such tactics peaked in 1988, at least on the national level. (They have grown more and more potent in the old South, however.) One commentator in The Boogie Man speculated that Bill Clinton would never have won in 1992 had Lee Atwater not died of cancer, but I am not so sure. Clinton did however trade potently on his own southern status. In 2000 the Republican recipe was only good enough to make the election close enough to steal. (By then, steps to disenfranchise black voters, one of the things that turned the tables in Florida and gave Bush the election, had been added to the mix.) In 2004, with the help of the aftermath of 9/11, it was enough to win the narrowest re-election victory of any President in history save Woodrow Wilson. (That victory was anomalous in several respects. George W. Bush was both the first man to serve two terms who had won his first term without winning the national popular vote (see John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison), and the first descendant of a President to be elected twice (see J Q Adams and Benjamin Harrison.) )
The other elements of the Republican coalition, in my opinion—those elements less important electorally, but critical from a policy standpoint—have actually brought it down. The combination of ever-lower taxes on the highest brackets, less regulation of the economy, and preventive war abroad have given us an economic and foreign policy nightmare, and educated Americans have noticed. That, however, also illustrates the enormous differences between the Republican Party of the last twenty years and the National Socialist movement in Germany . Both used racial and social resentment to rise to power, but they did so for completely different reasons. The Nazis actually wanted to overturn the economic and social order and eliminate their enemies from the body politic; the Republican leadership simply wanted to win elections to keep cutting taxes and (beginning in 2001) to begin slaying dragons abroad. The Bush Administration’s use of torture and indefinite detention was a frightening harbinger of possible things to come, but there in no evidence that it was designed to be extended to domestic opponents. And crucially, the shock troops of the Republican right did not put on uniforms, march in formation through the streets, or actively terrorize political opponents. Listening to Rush was enough. That’s progress.
Let us not forget, however, the other reason for Republican success (largely decisive in 2004) among poorer and less-educated whites. The current New York Review of Books also includes a long piece by Michael Tomaskly on this issue, arguing that it is poor education, rather than low economic status, which has made such whites vulnerable to Republican appeals. He adopts the line, too, that such people have been voting against their economic interests. But that, as I have argued before, is letting the Democrats off too easily. Only in the broadest possible sense have the laid-off auto workers of the Midwest been voting against their economic interests when they voted for George W. Bush. Yes, those votes meant more money for the wealthy, and they contributed to the catastrophe which all of us now face. But it has been a very long time since those people could actually promote their personal economic interests by voting Democratic. Their problems come from globalization, union-busting, and increasingly regressive taxes, and Democrats have either tolerated or collaborated in those changes. Substantial evidence is accumulating that the Democrats carried states like Ohio, Indiana, and perhaps even Virginia and North Carolina because many of those people stayed home while the Democratic turn-out increased. If Barack Obama wants to win those votes next time he will actually have to make positive changes in their lives possible.
Perhaps he can. The selection of his Cabinet, with an eye on building the broadest possible coalition, and his intense focus on the economic crisis have already proven that we now have a President-elect who cares about a lot more than staying on message and appealing to his base. The country, I think, is more than ready to respond to a President who grapples seriously, both in public and in private. With the complex problems we have to solve. And that, in turn, would prove that our nation was strong enough internally and institutionally to survive a rather frightening period in our history, one that seemed to repudiate many of our finest achievements. If you don’t believe me, go the Frontline website and watch The Booogie Man---but take comfort in the probability that we have hit bottom and that things are now getting better.

p.s. To marcdcase, below--I would love to respond to you but as I have explained before, a commenter who needs a response needs to put in his/her email--it doesn't come up when I'm notified. Thanks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Writing about the Kennedy Assassination

Tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and my publisher the Harvard University Press has placed a series of online ads for my book about it, The Road to Dallas, linking their own web page and, in turn, this blog. That has already generated a few dozen new hits, and the occasion is propitious, in any case, for reflecting upon the experience of writing that book, its reception, and the status of the assassination as an historical question 45 years after the fact.
How I came to write the book is a long story indeed: it began with the event itself, still probably the most traumatic public occurrence I have ever experienced, and I took some interest in the emerging controversy from the beginning. In the 1970s I followed the proceedings of the Church Committee and the House Assassinations Committee with some interest, and I was very intrigued when the latter committee found that there had probably been a conspiracy involving organized crime. But my real introduction to the topic came in 1983, when I had the opportunity to write a piece about it for the Sunday Outlook Section of the Washington Post. That was a calm and balanced piece that attempted to give equal time to three theories: that Oswald was simply a lone assassin, that Castro was behind it, or that it was in fact a mob hit.
On one point I had no doubts, namely, that Oswald was the killer. The controversy about the case escalated through the 1960s and 1970s because the single-bullet theory, holding that one shot had gone through Kennedy and through the back of Governor Connally, seemed so unlikely. Neither Connally’s own testimony nor the Zapruder film could be reconciled with it. But the House Assassinations Committee had successfully resolved those issues to my satisfaction, although it had also—through acoustics evidence—introduced the still-debated possibility that there had been another shooter on the grassy knoll who had missed. Meanwhile, I was hard at work on Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which I had taken over from my friend William Young, an amateur researcher, after his death in 1980. That introduced me to the problems of finding and grappling with the evidence in such a case, and in particular with the need to reconcile conclusions about various different aspects of a case, and to see how findings could mutually reinforce one another. What was lacking to tackle the JFK assassination, however, was a body of new evidence.
The sequence of events that filled that gap in the 1990s was interesting as well. If there was one filmmaker who might have done justice to the assassination, I thought, it was Oliver Stone, but in making JFK he planted himself among the most extreme fringe, arguing that Oswald was innocent and that the killing was the work of an enormous conspiracy involving the highest levels of the government. The movie was gripping but irresponsible, and I still think that a much better one could be made. But it reawakened interest in the case, and led to the passage of a remarkable law, the JFK Assassination Records Act, mandating the release of all available records having anything to do with the assassination. The board that was set up took its mandate very seriously and several million pages were released. I was writing American Tragedy when all that was taking place, but I knew that I wanted a crack at those documents. Eventually, in the last few months of 2001, I got to work.
Over the last few decades extraordinary evidence had surfaced about CIA covert operations, mostly having to do with the assassination of Castro with the help of organized crime, and about the war between Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the one hand and organized crime on the other. The FBI and CIA documents also promised to reveal a great deal more about Cuban exile groups. It took years for me and various research assistants—undergraduates from GW (including my own son) and from the University of Maryland—to go through the most important files and to record them with the help of some innovative use of Microsoft Excel. When I wrote the book I tried to cover the issues of the CIA and Castro’s Cuba, and of the Justice Department and organized crime, as thoroughly as possible. But meanwhile, I had become convinced that organized crime was behind the assassination, and that it was possible to identify the links between organized crime on the one hand, and Oswald and Jack Ruby on the other. The major mobsters involved were Santo Trafficante of Tampa and Havana, whom it turned out Jack Ruby had visited in a detention center while visiting Cuba in 1959; Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, whose organization included a bookmaker named Dutz Muret, Lee Harvey Oswald’s uncle; and probably Sam Giancana of Chicago. This is not the place to try to summarize the findings of The Road to Dallas, but I was also able to identify two critical lower-level figures. One, an American mercenary named Loran Hall, definitely linked Oswald to right-wing and anti-Castro Cuban networks as of early October 1963. The other, a mobster named John Martino who had spent three years in Castro’s prisons before returning in 1959, had told two friends that he had been involved in the assassination before his death in 1975. To my amazement, while I was in the middle of the book, Martino’s son Edward, an almost exact contemporary of mine, came forward to say that his father had told the family that the assassination was going to happen. Contemporary documentation substantiated Martino’s role in the assassination conspiracy and closely related anti-Castro efforts, as well as a post-assassination disinformation campaign designed to link Oswald and Castro.
The book appeared nine months ago in March. Its reception has been both gratifying and, in several respects, educational.
What has been most gratifying has been the response of many intelligent people with no ax to grind who have read it and commented on it, including more than half a dozen reviewers scattered around the country whose opinions can be found at theroadtodallas.com, at amazon.com, or at http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KAIASS.html . The book is chock-full of information and includes a great many names, but that has not prevented many readers from appreciating the strength of the evidence and the scale of the effort involved. I always feel my work is written for the intelligent citizen who wants to understand the world in which he or she lives, and I know I have reached thousands of those with this one. I hope to reach many more.
Meanwhile, I discovered some things about the assassination community, the several dozen serious researchers—many, though not all, of whom, have published work on the case themselves—who know the most about the evidence and have spent the most time thinking about it. They and the amateurs who have also kept the controversy alive for four decades fall with very few exceptions into one of two camps—camps which can fairly be described as two religions. The first, the Church of the Lone Assassin (really the church of two lone assassins), argues that Oswald and Ruby were two pathetic loners who committed the murders that they did out of purely personal reasons. Having reached this conclusion years ago, they assume that any evidence of conspiracy must be false, and are quite satisfied to cite any piece of contrary evidence as sufficient to dismiss it. (Since there are always inconsistencies in a mass of complex evidence, some way of doing this is never lacking.) They also rely largely on a portrayal of Oswald that was not fully developed until more than a decade after his death, and which turns out to be not in the least supported by the original FBI interviews with Marina, which I was able to read. Their counterparts on the other side of the fence are the Church of the Grand Conspiracy, whose adherents hold that Oswald was (or at least very well might have been) innocent, that critical physical and/or medical evidence has been misinterpreted or faked, and that the conspiracy involved significant elements of the federal government. To them any inconsistency in the evidence is grounds for suspicion, if not proof, that the evidence has been tampered with. People on both sides of this divide, I should note, gave me a good deal of help during the writing of the book, mostly on an email list where everyone is always willing to discuss where documentation on this or that point might be found. Not surprisingly, however, many have not been pleased by the results—they can’t be. Their minds were made up long ago. Well, it’s a free country.

Meanwhile, the biggest media outlets seem to be assassinationed out. [ I did make a number of radio appearances when the book came out (links to which can also be found at theroadtodallas.com and the Harvard press site.) The Chronicle of Higher Education printed the introduction. I also got a nice review in Playboy, of all places, and, as mentioned, in a number of newspapers around the country. Most of the most visible media outlets, however, did not review it. In an exchange about JFK about fifteen years ago, I wrote that an unfortunate version of Gresham’s Law seemed to dominate the public discussion of the assassination: the bad conspiracy theories drove out the good. To use the language of communications theory, there is so much accumulated noise on the subject that it is hard for a true signal to get through. [It is now Saturday the 22nd, and the media's lack of interest is confirmed: according to google, only two newspapers in the country--one in Dallas--have run any kind of anniversary piece.]
My goal was to base my account to the maximum extent possible on contemporary documentation and to paint the most consistent picture of all the evidence. Others will make their own judgments but I was more than satisfied with the result. The book involved the accumulation, sorting, and distillation of an extraordinary amount of data, and I don’t think it would have been possible without Microsoft Excel and the presence of some documentation on line. I like to think that it, like my earlier books, are something of a vindication of the idea of history that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: a relatively (though never absolutely) scientific enterprise in a scrupulous practitioner could make the most likely truth emerge from the data. Their reception has been similar: while none has ever become anything like a best-seller, and all have earned some hostile comment, substantial numbers of people, and several reviewers, have always understood and appreciated what I was trying to do. Meanwhile, much of the first four years of History Unfolding will be available in book form in about two weeks; check back here for a further announcemnt. I have also gotten deeply involved in a new research project on a completely different topic—a healthy step for any professional writer after the completion of a big and controversial task.
The death of John Kennedy, I now see, had truly traumatic effects—including, as I argued in American Tragedy, the decision (which he had resisted) to fight in Vietnam—but they were short- and medium- , not long term. Had he served two terms the 1960s would have been less cataclysmic, I think, but after the passage of the Civil Rights Act he would have faced the same political and social problems as Johnson did. The South would have gone Republican, liberalism was rapidly exhausting himself, and it’s quite possible that Ronald Reagan would have been elected President in 1980 anyway. And had there been no war in Vietnam, some subsequent Administration would probably have involved itself in some other third world trouble spot, quite possibly with similar consequences. Kennedy’s calm, usually unhurried, and well-informed approach to government may indeed serve as the model for Barack Obama’s—although if indeed Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State, the Obama Administration may turn out to be a bit more freewheeling and multipolar, rather like the Roosevelt one. It will be interesting to find out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Best, and the Worst, of the 1950s

Whether one is playing football, campaigning for President, fighting a battle or commenting on the week’s events, the best ideas tend to be the ones that occur to one on the spur of the moment. My subjects today—which marks the beginning of a new era on History Unfolding, since last week’s post will be the last in a book that will be available within one or two weeks—come from today’s New York Times, where articles in the Week in Review on the one hand and the Book Review on the other provide a fascinating perspective on the last fifty years or so. We are now entering the fourth great crisis of American national life, parallel to those of 1774-1794, 1857-68, and 1929-45, and I suspect that analogies to those periods will become more frequent here in the weeks and years to come, but as we await the advent of the new Administration I shall take a moment to look once again at a different range of issues.
The period 1946-64, in which the 1950s fall squarely in the middle, represented the outcome, the achievement, of the last crisis: two decades of national consensus, steady economic growth, and social conservatism. Economic and social policy focused on the common man, whose taxes and mortgage rates were relatively low and who established new suburban communities all over the country. The Great Depression, even more than the Second World War, was the critical event in the lives of everyone over 35, and public policy put a premium on preventing another one. Fiscal and monetary policy and programs like unemployment insurance and help for depressed areas were designed to keep unemployment relatively low, and government took various steps when (as in 1957-8) a recession took place. Those institutions survived the High and lasted through the Awakening (1965-84), even as the attention of younger Americans turned in new directions. They helped get through a fairly severe recession in the mid-1970s and a very bad one in the early 1980s. But as today’s Week in Review points out, beginning with the Reagan Administration, federal protection against hardship began to erode. Unemployment insurance is much less generous than it used to be, and Bill Clinton drastically cut back welfare. Thanks to our extraordinarily profligate tax and foreign policy over the last eight years, we now face skyrocketing unemployment without much of a safety net, and with an existing deficit that is likely to get close to $1 trillion annually over the next few years—a challenge that is absolutely unprecedented. And the large new Millennial generation, like their GI grandparents, has the worst job prospects since the 1930s. I recently learned that of this year’s Harvard graduates who pursued careers in investment banking, consulting, and related fields, only about 20% got any job interviews. Not jobs—interviews. Things will get worse before they get better because no one under 70 has any real memories of a time when things were this bad.
That was one of the strengths of the 1950s—the thrift, caution, and provision for the common man and the common future that had grown out of the trauma of the Depression. The provision for the common man was being extended to black Americans as the civil rights movement increased in strength, and the climax of that process—the passage of the great laws of 1964-5—marked the end of the High. It did not however extend (except indirectly) to the common woman, who did not begin to assert herself until the Awakening, much less to those with different sexual proclivities. Meanwhile, however, the age suffered from another huge problem—a certain emotional and intellectual sterility, reflected, as the other item in today’s Times suggests, in the 1950s concept of what constituted an educated person.
That item is a review of a new book by Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, about one of the great publishing products of the 1950s, the Great Books of the Western World, jointly sponsored by Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, and the Philosopher Mortimer Adler. Comprising 54 volumes of hundreds to thousands of pages, it purported to put together the best that had been thought and said since ancient Greece. Mass-produced and standardized, printed in double columns, it looks today a bit like a fleet of 1957 Plymouths, more impressive in monstrosity than seductive in beauty—and the double columns and small type made reading any of it a far too intimidating process. My own father knew Adler well, having been a participant in Aspen institute seminars in 1953 and 1954, experiences which gave me my first exposure to the American West. We acquired a set almost at once and I recall my father promising me a new car if I could read it all by the end of high school (I was the bookworm in the family.) I didn’t ever contemplate taking him up on the offer, but I did dip in and out of some of the books for a while. I probably spent more time with the Euclid volume than any of the others and was impressed by its inexorable logic, but I also remember dipping into the Marx and the Freud. Looking back at the list of 51 volumes today, however, I can see why I was not inspired. (The actual collection included 54 volumes but three of those were commentary and index.)
The idea of a canon of great books still appeals to me, and I have discussed many of my own candidates here from time to time, but such a list, to have real impact, must be living, not dead. Adler and Hutchins seem to have regarded our intellectual heritage rather like the Louvre; their selection was extraordinarily biased towards the distant past. They arranged the 51 volumes chronologically, and the first 17 came from the ancient world and from the middle ages. The next 29 came from the Renaissance the Early Modern period, with only 12 coming from the period after the French Revolution, and only two—William James and Freud—touching directly on their own twentieth century. This was surely a collection devoted to the foundations of western civilization, but without much regard for those who had elaborated upon those foundations.
The selection of subject matter was also interesting. Fiction, drama, and poetry accounted for 17 of the volumes, beginning with Homer and concluding with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Second in popularity was philosophy, with 13, followed by science with 7, history with 6, political theory with 4, and economics and psychology 2 each (Adam Smith and Marx/Engels for the former, Williams James and Freud for the latter.) Cultural bias was apparent in a number of ways. The overwhelming majority of the book included were originally written in either Greek, Latin, or English—and yes, there was not a single woman or nonwhite in the list.
The men who put this collection together had gone to college early in the twentieth century, and their teachers had done so late in the nineteenth. That accounts, undoubtedly, for the almost unbelievable prejudice they showed against the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the aspect of their selection which makes it seem, frankly, so extraordinarily dead. The youngest writers of English fiction that they chose to include were Henry Fielding and Herman Melville—no Dickens, no Jane Austen or George Eliot, no Shaw or Wordsworth or Keats or Lawrence or Yeats. Their neglect of modern French was even more amazing, since they omitted Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola and Proust. Educated, folk, evidently, had no need to be acquainted with the modern realist tradition in literature. My own field of history was represented by Herodutus and Thucydides, Plutarch and Tacitus, and Gibbon; even Ranke, Burckhardt, Mommsen, Parkman, Macaulay, Henry Adams and Michelet , among many others, were too young to include. The most astonishing omissions of all, to me, are those two contemporaries from the first half of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville and Clausewitz, whose analyses of the key problems of our age—democracy and war—have never been surpassed.
I can see now that I entered college in 1965 at a particularly promising moment, because American undergraduate education was beginning to fill some of these gaps. I was thoroughly introduced to Tocqueville and to modern French literature during my college years, as well as to twentieth-century poetry, and had some exposure to Clausewitz as a graduate student. Unfortunately, at that very moment, the Vietnam War and the feminist revolution turned the academics of the Silent and Boom generations against the whole enterprise of western civilization and a different kind of decline of the humanities began. One example is Frederick Jameson, from whom I took an extraordinary course on French writers of the left and right between the wars in the spring of 1967. Jameson at that time was expanding the western tradition of eclectic scholarship, drawing on insights from films, for instance, as well as from the French classics, to illuminate people like Céline, Nizan, and Louis Aragon. After being let go by Harvard (as I later was myself) he has achieved greater eminence at Duke, but has lapsed into an essentially sterile combination of Marxism and postmodernism. That in a nutshell is the story of American academia over the last 40 years.
During the last twenty years the Library of America has done an extraordinary job of publishing the great works, fictional and non-fictional, of American civilization. An intrepid reader of that entire collection would, I think, be far better prepared to understand the challenges of the modern world than anyone who took up my father’s challenge, or, for that matter, than a graduate of St. John’s College, which still bases its curriculum on the traditional great books. A college whose humanities departments focused on the truly great achievements of the last three centuries of western civilization would, I think, become the most popular in the United States within five years. (The historian /Alan Kors, who was educated about five years before I was, recently made a similar point.) Alas, the will—and now, the money—for such a project are lacking. I shall be too old to participate when its time comes, but those who undertake it will be fortunate indeed.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Change of Seasons

Barack Obama won the Presidency on Tuesday with plenty to spare. Surpassing my own cautious hopes, he won 364 electoral votes, including every state in which the final polls showed him ahead, and came within an ace of overcoming John McCain in Missouri as well. His 53% majority was the highest for any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. While the Democrats have won only 57 Senate seats rather than the 60 they had hoped for, the Republican minority still includes at least four moderates—Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, Arlen Spector, and Richard Lugar—who would not join a filibuster against a pro-choice nominee, clearing the way for the replacement of John Paul Stevens, who will surely resign at the end of the current term at the latest. (A Minnesota recount may still give that seat to Al Franken and the Alaska count is not yet finished, but the Republicans seem likely to win both.) The Obama campaign out-financed, out-manned and out-organized its Republican rivals. Meanwhile, amidst a collapsing economy and an extraordinarily fluid world situation, Obama takes office at a moment of greater opportunities than those offered to any President since Roosevelt in 1933, or perhaps Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As I pointed out last week, he appears to welcome this opportunity, and he, like FDR (who was 50 when he took office) has the relative youth, energy, and curiosity to take full advantage of it. He will need them all. He faces a moment of death and rebirth both at home and abroad—and he appears to know it.
At home the United States is experiencing once again the consequences of an almost unbridled laissez-faire, market-dominated economy. The financial sector, the main source of our economic growth over the last 30 years, has now collapsed, and the unemployment figures show that it is dragging the retail and manufacturing sectors down with it. This leaves us with a truly staggering challenge. Roosevelt in 1933 had to revive an existing agricultural and industrial economy, something he did with only intermittent success until the coming of the Second World War. Now we apparently need a largely new economy. Obama has such an economy in mind, featuring public works and the development of alternative energy sources, but it has been decades since the United States embarked upon a comparable project. We also are moving towards government-financed re-tooling of the auto industry, and, perhaps, government-run health care. Obama should heed the words of Lyndon Johnson, given to his special counsel Harry McPherson during 1965: with the Congress, one year is all you get. The economic collapse is an unparalleled opportunity, and he has the chance, like Johnson in 1965 or Roosevelt in 1933, to push through three or four pieces of major legislation. All signs suggest that he wants to do just that. If he can transform the lives of a few million Americans during the next four years he, like FDR, will be overwhelmingly re-elected.
The opportunities abroad are potentially even greater, because the world has greeted Obama’s election with such an outpouring of amazement, relief, and hope. People on every continent are convinced that the United States will no longer try to dominate key regions of the world by force, and I believe that they are right. I had been disappointed during the campaign by Obama’s embrace of a number of mainstream foreign policy positions on the Middle East and Georgia, but my ears perked up on election night when he sketched out his plans.
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.[emphasis added.]

No President, in all likelihood, will ever go as far as I did in the draft Presidential speech that I posted on April 14, 2007, but those words had some of the same spirit, and I look forward to finding out how the new President plans to put them into practice. He could potentially take one dramatic step in Europe by backing way from our misguided (and militarily useless) plans for missile defense installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Lost in the excitement of the election was the Russian announcement of Russia’s intention to station missiles of its own in the enclave of Kaliningrad, the formerly German city of Kőnigsberg, now stuck forlornly between Lithuania and Poland. This, like Putin’s earlier denunciation of the conventional forces treaty, is a step towards a return to a cold war in Europe. A new mutual agreement not to station missiles in Europe would be a welcome shift. Meanwhile, in Iraq Obama’s election is already giving a boost to political forces favoring a relatively quick end to the American occupation. That could lead to new talks inside Iraq to formalize some kind of partition of the country, which remains the only possible solution. We are also in a crossroads in Afghanistan, faced with the need to re-examine our attempt to create a strong central government and national army—an attempt that has so far been a failure. Based upon previous statements, Obama can also be expected to propose a new nuclear non-proliferation initiative.
We now obviously have a President who wants to go beyond sound bites, who understands the complexity of issues, and who shows promise of enjoying both the solution and the explanation of our problems. Meanwhile, we also have a new United States.
Barack Obama owes his victory almost entirely to Americans under 45. Those between 30 and 45 (the bulk of Generation X, who are now between 27 and 47) gave him an exit poll margin of 52-46, almost exactly his overall total. Those 18-29 (Millennials are now approximately 6-26) voted for him by a margin of more than two to one, 66 to 32 per cent. Those 45-64—essentially Boomers (who are 48-65)—characteristically split right down the middle, with Obama winning 50-49. Silents and GIs 65 and over gave McCain a 54-45 edge. Those figures should send chills down the spine of every Republican consultant. For the GOP, to paraphrase Mort Sahl, the future, for the moment, lies behind. The Millennials are the new Hero generation, and their support for Obama exactly parallels the behavior of the GI generation in 1932, when they included voters of roughly 21 to 28. (In 1936 an even larger GI generation gave Roosevelt 80% of its vote.) The Millennials, coming of age in a time of economic crisis and possessing, like the GIs, a healthy sense of entitlement, were voting for a better future. If Obama and the Democrats can provide it, a new Democratic era is at hand.
And last but not least, there is the question of race.
The joy of black Americans was everywhere on view on Tuesday night, and most understandably so. After centuries of slavery and discrimination, followed by four decades of long-suppressed bitterness, they had beaten the odds and were now full Americans at last. But I hope no one will be offended it I add that the joy of many white Americans like myself was just as deep. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s believing that equality was the essence of American life, who saw the early civil rights marches and remembered Kennedy’s and Johnson’s civil rights speeches and attended the March on Washington (as I did) and recall the deaths of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, had also carried a heavy burden for the last forty years: our inability to prove that American ideals were not simple hypocrisy and that our parents and we had meant what we said. It was not impossible to argue with black contemporaries who claimed that American would never be anything but racist, but it was not easy. Now that argument has been won by all the black and white Americans who seized the chance to vote for that uniquely American figure, Barack Obama—whose life, like that of so many white Americans like myself, would be both impossible and unimaginable anywhere else on earth. As usual, Obama himself hit the nail on the head at the beginning of his speech Tuesday night.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.
It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.
It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Now, as in 1933 and 1941, we also need to prove that we can cement that new feeling of hope, solidarity and equality through real achievement.
The extraordinary suddenness of this transformation is reflected in the pressimistic tone of many of the posts I made here during 2004-6. As late as 2005 we seemed on the verge of a long-term Republican ascendancy—just as Southern Democrats seemed on the verge of achieving the domination of the Union in 1857, and the Republican Party had won its most staggering victory ever in 1928. Strauss and Howe always stressed that their 80-year cycle was above all a natural process, governed by the rhythm of life and death. A half-century ago, Boris Pasternak made a similar point at the climax of his classic Dr. Zhivago, when his hero, his own life in tatters, reflected in the wake of the Russian Revolution on the nature of historical change.

"He reflected again that he conceived of history, of what is called the course of history, ot in the accepted way but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man’s wart. But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed, it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in its leafy maze. This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants. The forest does not change it sp place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change. Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless. And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselessly changing history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations."

The calendar tells us we are in autumn, but already we can see the leaves coming out again, with greater profusion and promise than they have shown for many decades.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Last try before they call it

McCain now leads in NC; I don't know what remains to be counted there. I am sure, however, that Obama has won Virginia and Florida (incredible) and just as sure that Colorado is in the bag. I'm only slightly less sure about Missouri, where the exit polls show both women and men narrowly for Obama. (Missouri men for Obama! Who would have believed that?) Indiana looks lost, by somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 votes. But it's an historic landslide, with at least two states of the old confederacy for Obama.

Just heard Pat Buchanan say that Obama carried white college graduates because they are the ones with money who feel threatened by economic collapse. Sorry, Pat. Those are the ones with brains.

Final prediction: Obama with 329.

Nobody's perfect

It looks like McCain will win Indiana by about 2000 votes. The exit polls, however, show Obama as a clear winner in Colorado, and a very probable winner in Missouri, where they allowed me to call the Senate for the Democrats before the networks did two years ago. Florida looks pretty good for Obama; North Carolina is a virtual tie now; and Virginia, I am sure, will go for Obama--most of Fairfax County is not in. All this as of 10:08 EDT.


Based on the CNN exit polls, Ohio and Indiana and North Carolina are sure for Obama, with Florida only slightly less so. It's a landslide.

Sorry I didn't warn you, but. .

. . .I'm going to blog tonight on the results as they come in.

The first 2500 votes are in from Kentucky. Mitch McConnell appears to be in trouble--he is running 8 points behind McCain, and if that holds up, based upon the last Presidential poll, he will probably lose.

Stay tuned (6:21 PM).

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Last Campaign Thoughts

I talked a few weeks ago about one of Barack Obama’s few missteps during the campaign—his reference to poorer white voters in places like semi-rural Pennsylvania and Ohio who cling to religion and guns out of bitterness. I said then, and I still believe, that Obama has shown that he understands that that is only half the the problem, the other half being that Democrats have failed to do anything meaningful to make their lives better for so long. His remarkable infomercial made that point beautifully by looking at the real lives of four such American families (even though one family was black, their story was representative of a whole economic group.) Sarah Palin and John McCain have done their best to make what capital they could out of that quote, but they have not been very successful. Indeed, their campaign has made clear to a shocking extent that the Republicans have nothing to offer such people but bitterness and empty dreams.
Essentially the Republican campaign has been telling poorer whites during the entire campaign that whatever their economic condition, they, not the Democrats, have the right values, and they are the true Americans who live in the American parts of America. That is the essential Republican appeal to what the Party calls its “base,” and many of its strategies have forgotten that it is impossible to win on one’s base alone. (In recent days commentators like William Bennett talk as if Tuesday’s election were a Republican primary: as long as McCain/Palin have the base behind them, they have nothing to worry about. Democrats and independents will however also be voting on Monday.) Meanwhile, the Republicans want to flatter the dreams of Thomas Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, that with proper tax policies they can become rich. This aspect of their message was even more obvious in a speech I saw Arnold Schwarznegger give for McCain in Ohio two nights ago. Arnold explained that he had left Europe because of the regulations that stifled opportunity there and had come to the United States to make his fortune. Europe, he said, was now “wising up” and beginning to free its economies, but Obama wanted to go backwards, in the wrong direction. (That of course is silly: in practice every major right-wing party in Europe, like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany, is well to the left of our Democrats.) Vote Republican, he seemed to say, and your children can be like me—not, it seems to me, a very comforting notion based upon the laws of probability. With their constant attacks on the notions of “spreading the wealth around,” the Republicans seem to be embracing the notion of a society divided into an enormously wealth few and a declining mass, flatterring their supporters that with the right values, they can ascend to the top. This appeals to the traditional Calvinism of America, which saw material success as proof of the Lord’s blessing. Indeed, all we need to do to accept the idea of some mild redistribution of the wealth—which in the long run will help our economy more anyway—is to accept that chance plays at least as big a role as grace or ability in determining the extent of our economic success, and that there is no reason not to structure our tax system to acknowledge the role of chance and even it out a bit. In any event, economic justice means justice for the many, or it means nothing at all.
Having taken a last look at electoral-vote.com, I shall hazard my own prediction for Tuesday’s results. On November 1, 2004—the day before the last election—that site showed John Kerry winning with 298 electoral votes, thanks to averaged-out leads of two points in Ohio and one point in Florida. Today Obama has leads of at least ten points in state with 264 electoral votes, 6 shy of a majority, and of six or seven points in four more states: Virginia (14), Ohio (20), Colorado (9), and Nevada (4). He has leads of two or three points in Florida (27) and North Carolina (15). He will win, in my opinion, with between 291 and 353 electoral votes. That looks if anything like a conservative prediction, but the exact result still depends on too many unknowables for me to hazard any further guesses.
The other night, in a remarkable interview, Rachel Maddow asked Obama if he had any second thoughts about becoming President at this moment in history, with so much going wrong, and he turned the question on its head. No, he replied, this was the kind of moment of which people in public service should dream: the kind of era in which they could make a real contribution. Asked at one point to describe the difference between Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both of whom he had known, the British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin said that FDR radiated more than anything else a great joy in his life and work, and JFK, a sense that every morning offered a chance to do great things. Obama, it seems to me, is closer to JFK in that regard, but he has something of the FDR touch as well. He has established his lead with a mixture of inspiration, organization, and steadiness of nerves. I feel rather astonished that the United States has managed not only to produce such a man at this moment in history, but to bring him to the threshold of the White House.