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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...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Echoes from the fifties

The first volume of Robert Caro's massive biography of LBJ came out in the early 1980s, covering his career until the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite some irritating aspects--as I recall, it took the better part of 200 pages for LBJ to be born, and Caro as always tended to romanticize some of his characters--it was clearly an historical masterpiece, based mainly on remarkable interviews with men and women who had known LBJ at least since college. LBJ was one of those people, like his successor in the White House, who could not trust almost any other human being, and his associates repaid him after his death with an extraordinary willingness to reveal just about everything they knew about him. Caro's book was the closest thing I had read to a real-life version of All the King's Men, because it illustrated the extraordinary mixture of evil and good motives that go into even the best public policy. The conflict was reflected in the structure of the book. I remember a colleague at Carnegie Mellon remarking that he would have loved to have written a chapter like Caro's "The Sad Irons," which described the wretched lives of Texas farm wives before Johnson managed to help bring electricity to them as part of the New Deal. I replied that I would have gotten more of a kick out of writing another chapter, "The Dam," which told how Johnson, a newly minted Congressman, had arranged illegal federal financing for a dam on the lower Colorado River that had been begun by the firm of Brown and Root, run by two of his major patrons, George and Herman Brown. (Brown and Root, which later won a contract to dredge Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, is now part of Halliburton.) Caro's second volume appeared later in the 1980s and disappointed nearly everyone, including myself. It focused very heavily upon Johnson's theft of his election to the Senate in 1948 and unduly praised his opponent in that race. The third volume, Master of the Senate, took about fifteen years to appear, and took me about eight years to read, but it was worth it. I am not aware of any history of the twentieth century that has gone into a series of key legislative battles as closely as Caro handled those of the years 1949-57. This is the kind of book professional historians used to write, but I am not aware of a single such project being worked on in any university department today.

The main driving force in Johnson's life--as in his two most famous contemporaries', Kennedy and Nixon--was his ambition to become President. Kennedy got to the White House thanks mainly to his personal qualities, something that Johnson and Nixon could not do. They therefore had to focus singlemindedly on cultivating power, usually by winning the hearts and minds of older and more powerful men, but also by tacking with the times (and of the three, Johnson, the oldest, had by far the longest political career.) Caro's first volume showed how Johnson had risen during the New Deal era by cultivating FDR and Sam Rayburn, establishing himself as progressive southerner. But the narrative in this volume begins in 1949, when Roosevelt was four years dead and a conservative reaction was well underway. It also finds LBJ in the Senate, not the House, which was dominated by southern conservatives led by Richard Russell of Georgia. Johnson swung accordingly to the right. His maiden speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which the southerners intended to invoke to defeat the civil rights measures which Harry Truman had now endorsed. Shortly thereafter, Johnson ingratiated himself with his backers in the oil and gas industry by destroying the career of Leland Olds, a federal power commissioner who had become an advocate for public power and regulated energy rates in the 1930s. To do so Johnson and his allies used the crudest McCarthyism--a full year before McCarthy himself burst upon the national scene. The cultivation of Russell paid off in 1951 when, after the Democratic leader and whip had been defeated, Russell tapped Johnson for the number two spot. Two years later, in 1952, Johnson became the minority leader, and in 1954, when the Democrats regained control of Congress, he became, in Caro's words, the Master of the Senate.

Last week, looking at the darker possibilities that confront us, and speculating that the new Republican House of Representatives was going to plunge us into a deeper crisis, I suggested that Barack Obama was going to be the Herbert Hoover of our current crisis. This week I will focus on the alternative possibility: that we might in the next few years emerge from the crisis and that Obama might realize what appears to be his real dream, that of being Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The news of the day, reporting a serious Congressional effort to forge a budget deal and avoid a shutdown, points in that direction, although we a long way to go.) Caro's book reminded me of what that would mean. Then as now, the average Congressional Republican hated the New Deal and all its works--but also rejected America's new role in the world. Eisenhower, an establishment Republican, had to govern with the help of establishment Democrats like LBJ, and southerners, led by Russell, who were devoted to white supremacy at home but also believed in the essence of the Cold War abroad. And thus, Johnson and Eisenhower worked together to defeat the Bricker Amendment, which would have drastically curtailed the President's treaty-making power; to forestall a potentially divisive investigation of the Yalta agreements; to pass desperately needed housing legislation; and, in 1954, finally to destroy the career of Joe McCarthy, after he had turned his sights on his own Administration. Domestically that era, like this one, was an era of reaction, and the embattled liberals of the Senate, including Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Paul Douglas of Illinois, Herbert Lehman of New York, and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, initially earned nothing but Johnson's contempt. But because he knew he could not become President--still his dream--without some northern support, Johnson eventually began to cultivate Humphrey himself, and he moved further in their direction as the decade wore on and more GI liberals replaced Lost conservatives in the US Senate, most notably in 1958.

The question now is whether Barack Obama can in fact emulate Eisenhower from the other side of the aisle. In one respect he already has. Having passed the Health Care bill, his one major reform--which may or may not survive a Supreme Court challenge--he has now given up on any serious expansion of federal power, just as Eisenhower quickly accepted the changes wrought by the New Deal. Obama does indeed seem to be acting more and more like Eisenhower--his almost complete silence over the last few weeks, in the midst of a series of international and domestic crises, is quite striking, and indeed the conservative accusations that he is weak an indecisive--are quite similar to the charges against Ike that I heard in my childhood. But are there Republicans in Congress of the Johnson-Russell type who are willing to put partisanship aside to allow the government to function and preserve some civility in our politics? That question remains open. Similar questions hang over our second revolutionary front, in Wisconsin, where the motives of Governor Walker, as Paul Krugman pointed out brilliantly yesterday, are becoming more and more suspect. Several other Republican governors are backing away from extreme anti-union positions, and it is possible that the Tea Party movement will in fact have run its course by 2012--though hardly certain.

The long-term prospects for any new leftward shift, however, seem to me just about non-existent, partly for demographic reasons. The New Deal represented a coalition between left-wing members of the Missionary Prophet generation, led by FDR himself, and young GI voters; the Nomad Lost generation generally opposed it. Obama, a Nomad himself, won in 2008 by mobilizing Millennials on his side, but he could not do the same in 2010. Meanwhile, the Congressional elections marked a profound generational shift in the House of Representatives, where Silent and Boomer Democrats gave way, in dozens of districts, to very conservative Gen X Republicans. President Obama is virtually the only elected Generation X Democrat of any significance to emerge to date (although Andrew Cuomo could become another.) We remain very finely balanced at a critical point in American history. If Obama, like Ike, cobbles together some sort of governing coalition, we may move into a High by the end of his term. If exogenous events or Republican policies plunge us deeper into crisis, then anything could happen.

I cannot resist one more story from Caro's book. In early 1956, Johnson was pushing hard for a bill to deregulate the price of natural gas--a bill worth tens of millions of dollars to George and Herman Brown and other Texas oil men. Liberals, including the columnist Drew Pearson, were fighting the bill hard. In the midst of the controversy, a Senator from North Dakota revealed that a lobbyist had handed him an envelope containing $5000 in cash in exchange for his vote. (That was, of course, a lot more money then than it is now, although it's probably fair to say that votes were much cheaper, even adjusting for inflation, then than now.) That incident, Caro shows, was merely the tip of a huge iceberg, and a scandal erupted. Johnson managed, in typical fashion, to appoint a reliable trio of Senators to an ad hoc committee to investigate, and bury, the investigation, and in due time, the bill passed. But in an extraordinary moment in postwar history, Eisenhower--who had staunchly supported the legislation on free market grounds--vetoed it, explaining that he had to avoid giving the impression that powerful interests could buy legislation. I wonder if President Obama could think of a comparable gesture he might make down the road. It could do the country significant good.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Revolutionary Road

It was a little over a year ago, on January 15, 2010, that I first introduced the analogy between the last two years of the Obama Administration and the Weimar Republic here. While I must again routinely disclaim any opinion to the effect that the United States is headed for Nazism, I regret to say that the analogy is looking better and better all the time. The United States remains in crisis, but the anger generated by the crisis is now focused on the destruction of state, local and federal governments. In the first instance this is almost certain to lead, within a couple of weeks, to a shutdown of the federal government. During the next two years it will cripple the economy and perhaps plunge us into yet another recession. No one can possibly predict what the outcome of all this will be in the presidential election to come, but anything is possible.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, comparisons between him and Franklin Roosevelt were all the rage, and Time put a picture of Obama as FDR on the cover, riding a 1930s limousine and sporting (appropriately enough) a cigarette holder. Our financial system was once again teetering on the edge of collapse, and millions of Americans were being thrown out of work. Obama took important actions during his first year, including the stimulus, which did save several million jobs, but he was trapped both by circumstances beyond his control and by his own personality. To begin with, since George Bush had already created a permanent $400 billion deficit in peacetime, Obama did not think he could afford a stimulus big enough actually to reverse the unemployment decline and put people back to work. Secondly, having risen through the ranks of the establishment and studied at our most prominent institutions, he had developed a most unfortunate respect for the consensus opinion of experts like Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers. Roosevelt's economic advisers gave him the same kind of advice they gave Obama, but he disregarded it because he knew Americans simply had to get back to work in the maximum numbers possible. As a result, he won a remarkable victory in the 1934 elections. Obama suffered a calamitous defeat.

And now, it seems increasingly likely that Obama will be the Hoover, not the FDR, of this crisis. Hoover, like Obama, initially responded to the first year of the Depression with some modest stimulus, a stimulus that even less effective than Obama's. He too was rewarded with a smashing defeat in the 1930 Congressional elections, although the Republicans initially retained a bare majority in the Congress. Then, in his second two years, he did what Obama is doing: he turned to budget-cutting. This made things worse again. By late 1932 about 25% of the country was unemployed and FDR and the Democrats swept into power with huge majorities. Roosevelt used those majorities to reshape the United States.

There is, however, a new and frightening element in our situation today. No consensus about what to do existed when FDR came into office. That is why he had the freedom, particularly in his first year, to try almost anything. The Democrats elected in 1930--once again, the election most parallel to the one we have just been through--had no particular program. The Republicans who have just come to Washington do. They intend to destroy as much as possible of the whole apparatus of domestic government that has built up not just since Roosevelt--Theodore Roosevelt, not Franklin. They and their constituency have imbibed the false lessons of thirty years of free-market propaganda and talk radio. They apparently honestly believe, wrongly, that cutting and eliminating agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Environmental Protection Agency will unleash a wave of entrepreneurship. They also, of course, want to destroy the health care law, and are passing clearly unconstitutional provisions of appropriations bills to do so. Many of them belong to Generation X and thus have never seen the federal government do anything particularly impressive for the American people. They have no respect for the governing traditions that have evolved over the last eighty years. They are not yet the whole Republican Party, but they are its driving force, and the remaining establishment Republicans are deathly afraid of them.

And, of course, their work will not be confined to Washington. The budget-cutting mantra is all the rage in all the states where Republicans won governorships and legislatures last fall, led, of course, by Wisconsin. The Republicans in those states state their agenda bluntly: state employees should no longer enjoy benefits which private employees (whose unions have already been crippled or destroyed) no longer have. I actually have some sympathy for this idea. Certain benefits--especially pensions for police and firefighters which many people start collecting in their forties--are too generous, and do have to be cut back. (Most civilian federal employees, as I know very well, lost those kinds of pensions in the 1980s.) But I lost any sympathy for Wisconsin's Governor Walker when I learned that his new proposals to take away most of the bargaining rights of state workers do not extend to police and firefighters. He is punishing the stereotyped bureaucrat whom Republicans have been blaming for our ills since before I was born. He also has the legislature behind him. This is a truly democratic revolution, alas.

The mainstream media have been in denial about the meaning of all this for months and still are. Every story I have seen about the spending cuts the Tea Partiers forced through the House over the weekend notes reassuringly that the Senate and the White House will never agree to them. That misses the point. Appropriations for, say, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or aid to Planned Parenthood require an affirmative vote of both Houses. The mainstream view of all this assumes that Boehner, Ross and company will compromise. I do not believe that they will. I cannot imagine where all this will come out, but I think there will almost surely be a government shutdown, and that many of their cuts will in the end go through. President Obama's dream of establishing a new 1950s-style consensus is dead on arrival. The Republicans reject the status quo.

There are short-term and long-term political aspects to this crisis. The Obama Administration is dominated by former Clintonistas who fondly remember the impact of the 1995 shutdown and apparently expect a repeat--but we live in an entirely different world now. In addition, this time the Republicans have kept their hands off Medicare, which left them open to damaging attacks 16 years ago. The President may not be strengthened by the crisis at all. The long run implications are much more frightening. Laying off tens or hundreds of thousands of government employees will deal another body blow to the economy and may well trigger a second recession. This was exactly the scenario that played out in both Germany and the United States in 1929-33. Who it might bring into power in 2012, I have no idea.

If Barack Obama is going to make a comeback and save us from a real catastrophe, he must take the rhetorical offensive at once. He must try to explain to his contemporaries that yes, we need a government and that we need to keep people employed. And somehow, he must try to find a critical mass of Republicans who will cooperate to prevent things from getting worse. We face not only increasing economic hardship, but also a complete loss of confidence in our institutions, something no advanced society can afford. The Boom generation started this, as I discussed at length from 2004 to 2008. Now Generation X is following the same false idols. The Republican revolution is real, and it needs to be stopped. But how?

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Social Security disaster

The other day I saw a rather shocking story, claiming that the Social Security Administration will not take in enough money this year to pay the benefits that are owed. I was initially shocked because I didn't expect that milestone to be passed for some years at least. Then I realized there was a reason: the disastrous 2% payroll tax cut that President Obama included as part of the deal with the Republicans in December. A few quick numbers will explain what has happened.

A 2% cut doesn't sound like much, because we instinctively think of it like a 2% cut in our income taxes. The problem, of course, is that many of us pay a marginal income tax rate of 30% or more, while the payroll tax brings in 12.4% of the first $106,000 everyone earns. The cut was a 30% cut in payroll taxes for each individual, and a 16% cut in the government's income from payroll taxes. And in 2009, the government's revenue from Social Security--$889 billion--was almost identical, incredibly, to its revenue from personal income taxes, $915 billion. Corporate income taxes brought in just $938 billion. The 16% decline in social security revenues will add up to $142 billion dollars of additional deficit for each of the next two years. Meanwhile the Republicans are threatening to gut the discretionary spending of the federal government to save $100 billion a year. And the nightmare with which the conservatives have been threatening us--the deficit in the Social Security system itself--is here, years ahead of schedule, because of this disastrous measure.

Senate Democrats are promising to pay the benefits owed, but that means more borrowing when we cannot afford it. Meanwhile restoring the income tax to a more reasonable share of our revenue has been delayed again. I have no idea--and would appreciate any data any one can give me--where this idea came from and what on earth moved the Obama White House to go along with it. It's true that Social Security is our most regressive tax, and this was the only way to cut taxes on genuinely poor Americans who still hold jobs. But it was a devastating blow to our most reliable social program, and I am afraid the consequences may be severe.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Echoes of the distant past

On Sunday night, my wife and I went to a special event at our local art house, the Jane Pickens theater in Newport, Rhode Island. A large building with a balcony, it is chronically short of heat, and the owners decided to raise money with a screening of Dr. Zhivago, complete with white Russian cocktails donated by local businesses. I wanted not only to contribute to the cause, but to get another look at the movie, which I do not believe I had seen in full for about 40 years. I am much more familiar with the book, which I taught annually for some time in the 1980s and early 1990s, and which has a lot of emotional significance for me as well.

The film, to begin with, was a fascinating commentary on film-making at the end of the last High (it came out in 1965.) I believe it was shot in Spain, whose huge, empty landscapes provided a reasonable facsimile of the Russian steppe (although the mountains in the background were far, far larger than the Urals they were supposed to represent.) The production was quite extraordinary and could not be duplicated today anywhere in the world. No expense had been spared to recreate the look of late imperial and revolutionary Russia, and huge crowd scenes, with and without uniforms, abounded. The trains looked amazingly realistic as well. And many scenes, of course, were shot in deep snow that did not appear to be simulated. Interestingly, the director, David Lean, who had previously made The Bridge on the River Kwai (including William Holden) and Lawrence of Arabia with Anthony Quinn, managed this time to convince the producers that he could do without a single American star. The only exception was Rod Steiger, whose reputation was nowhere near what it was going to become.

Yet at the intellectual and emotional level the movie was an almost complete failure. Yes, the book is a historical drama and an adventure story, but it is also an extended meditation on politics, life, art, history, and religion, carried on in one brief, highly intelligent conversation among members of the Russian intelligentsia, one of the more reflective classes in human history. And the characters are not merely victims or observers: they are deeply involved, personally and emotionally, in the events around them, and proud of it. One of the biggest problems, I realized, was generational. The lead characters are Heroes, the young adults of the Russian revolution, but the lead actors--Omar Sharif as Yuri, Julie Christie as Lara, Tom Courtney as Pasha, her husband, and Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri's wife Tonia--were all from the Silent generation, and they usually react to the events around them as Artist generations do in a crisis--like children who don't understand why the adults have gone crazy. (The contrast with The Bridge on the River Kwai, another Crisis movie in which the leads Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins had all lived through the Second World War as young adults, is quite striking in this respect.) Worst of all is the portrait of the female characters. Lara is not merely beautiful and sexual, she is brilliant and a history teacher in the book, but such women apparently were not expected to appeal to 1965's audience, and the script lobotomizes her. Because the movie has been drained of its intellectual content it also moves very slowly, and we decided to leave at the intermission. By that time the Bolsheviks were in power (although Yuri's initial enthusiasm for their seizure had also been cut out of the book), and the images on the screen had conveyed the nightmare of a society in chaos.

And thus, I have not been able to stop thinking about the film during the last two days, because of the parallel which I see between the events it depicted and what is happening now in Egypt. Like the French Revolution in 1789, the Russian Revolution began with the collapse of a venerable but corrupt old order, one in which the educated classes no longer believed. France's attempts to establish a stable democracy were interrupted by the treason of the King and the coming of war in 1791-2. Russia was already at war when the Tsar fell in 1917 and had almost no time to attempt anything similar. And thus, in both cases, the moderate new regimes failed to establish effective authority, and the most ruthless and well-organized minority--Robespierre's Jacobins in France, and Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia--seized power and won civil wars of varying scope and duration. France, one could argue, eventually emerged a stronger nation on the road to modernity after its revolution, but the process was a very painful one. Russia never did and still bears the scars of 1917. The Iranian revolution of 1979 provides another parallel.

I do not know what will happen in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak seems destined to step down and the crowds in the street want a new order, but most of them don't seem to have much idea of what it would look like. The Muslim Brotherhood shows some parallels to the Russian Bolsheviks and Social Revolutionaries--it is a conspiratorial organization that has also tried to function as a political party despite being outlawed and persecuted by the government for decades--but it can also probably count on a lot more international assistance than they could. I am not aware of any other similarly organized opposition group in Egypt, and Mohammed El Baradei, despite his well-earned international credentials, does not seem to have any actual political base in the country. The possibility of an Islamist regime is very real. Where this could lead, in turn, was described by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in a famous interview in 2004, one which I have discussed here before.

Q. "And today? Do you advocate a transfer [of Arabs and Palestinians out of Israel] today?"

A. (Morris) "If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."

Q. "Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?"

"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

The distinguished columnists who grace our op-ed pages such as David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof still see this movement as part of the triumphant march forward of democracy. They refuse to recognize that democracy in Russia has given way to a corporate oligarchy enforced by a police state, that the famous Orange Revolution in Ukraine merely replaced one set of crooks with another, and that democracy in Palestine and Lebanon brought Hamas and now Hezbollah into power. Democracy in the west was a vibrant, revolutionary movement when it was contending with aristocracy or with Fascism and Communism in the last century. Now we take it so completely for granted that we refuse to see that even our own democracy cannot look very inspiring to many of those abroad. Western civilization in the eighteenth, nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries enjoyed unquestioned prestige around the world because of its extraordinary achievements, and also because of the power of its armies and navies. Now it faces very serious threats, at home as well as abroad. No automatic mechanism is destined to spread the bourgeois revolution around the world. We have much to do to keep it alive here at home.

Many American commentators do seem to be awakening to one critical fact: the United States has almost no control over the events taking place in Egypt. The Egyptian people will sort their problems out for themselves, one way or another, and there is little we can about it. Yet I suspect our political, diplomatic and media elites are not yet ready to face a world beyond America's control. Still, one can see emerging from the mists of the future the shape of a new order in which the United States might at last take a step back from the global responsibilities that have proven such a burden over the last few decades.