Freedom Writing

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Is the Outrage?

I support Americans' right to assemble peacefully, to protest peacefully when they believe an injustice has occurred. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

I wish my government did, too.

For more than a week now, Americans have witnessed scenes in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., where a black teenager was shot and killed. They haven't always been peaceful — or anything resembling it. What are they protesting? A young man died. That is a sad thing. Some would call it an injustice.

I wouldn't.

Before you make any assumptions about me that are not true, hear me out. My definition of injustice is when justice has been denied. Has justice been denied in this case? No. The system has not had time to do what it was designed to do.

Many of the people I have seen involved in the protests in Missouri say they want justice — but they don't. They want revenge. Those are two different things. Justice requires facts, evidence. Revenge does not.

If anyone — in Ferguson or anywhere else — tells you he/she knows the police officer was guilty of murder, he/she is lying — because no one knows all the facts. That is — supposedly — why we have trials. To see the evidence, hear the testimony, then sift through it all and decide what the truth is.

Murder, by the way, is a legal term that is reserved for a case in which a jury has ruled that someone's death was caused deliberately by someone else. Until a jury has made that determination, legally (based on the laws of the state where the death occurred), no murder has happened.


And I can tell you — as one who covered my share of trials in my reporting days — that almost no one knows the whole story until that trial has been held.

We don't really know what happened in Ferguson two weeks ago. We should reserve judgment because we do know that our system requires that we presume the innocence of the accused until he has been proven guilty in an open court. If I am ever accused of anything and find myself in court, I want that presumption of innocence. For it to remain strong, it cannot be denied to anyone. Nor can due process.

That is so important because often there is no unambiguous evidence of someone's guilt, and all the available evidence must be studied before a conclusion can be reached. Criminal charges of any kind are far too serious to be left to emotion.

We do know what happened in Iraq, though. It is not ambiguous. We don't know precisely when it happened, only when the video of the execution of photojournalist James Foley by an ISIS terrorist surfaced. Foley's beheading wasn't accidental. It was intentional. It was carried out by an apparent Briton — but nearly all of him — including his face — was hidden by black clothing.

He wasn't necessarily British. I have taught many foreign students; some spoke with distinctly British accents, but they weren't from the U.K. They came from other countries. Without exception, they were schooled in British schools by British teachers, and if you spoke to any of them on the phone, you would assume they were British. But they weren't.

The English–speaking jihadists were recruited deliberately. It's obvious. With their British accents, they can blend into places like America without arousing any suspicion while waiting for their assignments. Such accents are regarded as non–threatening by most Americans. And, even if they don't necessarily look British, with our borders as wide open as they are, who's going to notice another undocumented foreigner?

I am outraged on several levels by this act of blatant barbarism.

While I have done other things in my life, I will always consider myself a journalist. I never faced the danger that Foley clearly did, but I have known those who did. And when something like this happens, it is like a death in the family. I never met James Foley, but, as I say, I have known many like him.

The president, who never hesitates to stick his nose where it doesn't belong domestically, especially when it involves white on black crime (of which there is remarkably little), took some time from his vacation to acknowledge the murder — and took the unprecedented step of revealing details about a U.S. mission that failed to rescue Foley earlier this summer — then rushed back to the golf course in Martha's Vineyard, which is where he was when Foley's family held their emotional press conference.

He didn't have a photo op with Foley's family the way he did with Bergdahl's — even though he could have negotiated for Foley's freedom when he went against American policy to negotiate for Bergdahl's release.

What reason was there for disclosing details about the mission that failed? Politics. It was the president's way of getting credit for being tough — yes, he did try to do something, but, oops, it just didn't work. And, for all you bad guys, here's what we tried to do with material that we have at such–and–such location. Do you think that put any Americans in jeopardy? I do.

The president, along with his media enablers, is loath to use the word "evil," even when really no other word is sufficient. This is one of those times.

In just an hour or so on the internet last night, I found two references — in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report — to ISIS' brownshirts as "militant."

My father is OK with the use of the word "militant," but I'm not. It strikes me as flippant. When I hear the word "militant," I think of the protests of the '60s — when campus militants, as they were called, threw Molotov cocktails at buildings — and people. Mostly, those "militants" were protesting for something (i.e., civil rights) or against something (the war in Vietnam). Sometimes, people got hurt. Occasionally (but, really, not that often) people were killed.

But it was never as blatant, as cold–bloodedly deliberate as the slaying of James Foley.

We need a word for these ISIS people. Judging by their behavior, people is far too generous, but there are those who would object if they were called animals, which is much closer to the truth. Do we need a new word? I'm not so sure. I think it would be appropriate to call them 21st–century Nazis. In the '40s, if someone said the word Nazi, you knew precisely what it meant.

Like the 20th–century Nazis, these people cannot be appeased. They are intent upon killing Americans. They said they would execute more Americans — and all they're looking for is an excuse. They asked for $132 million for Foley, then, when they were told that time would be needed to raise the money, they stopped communicating altogether.

They weren't interested in the money. They already control the oilfields in Iraq and Syria as well as all the sources of revenue in the larger cities. All the request for time to raise such a huge sum did was take away an excuse to kill an American, but they had another one ready. They blamed the pin–prick airstrikes and warned that, if they continue, more Americans will die. Obama said they would continue.

Do you doubt that they will make good their threat? I don't. Not for a second. They clearly want to kill Americans — and they want Americans to see them killing Americans.

It was naive for anyone to believe that the war on terror was over. Now, I fear, it will be deadly.

Do you believe that, somehow, ISIS will fail because evil always fails? The Nazis didn't fail. They were beaten by the Allies. It is the only way to deal with this kind of people. I regret having to say that because it contradicts the way I was brought up. But as long as these people exist, they are a deadly threat to us and our modern allies. Our friends in Europe should be especially concerned, being as close to ISIS as they are, geographically.

A few months ago, we observed the 70th anniversary of D–Day, the event that marked the turning point of World War II. A sustained effort is needed now if we are to rid the world of the menace that threatens us today.

We cannot delude ourselves into thinking it is over until it really is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Son Who Was Meant to be King

Seventy years ago today, Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed in action in World War II.

He was the oldest of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy — and he was the son Joe Sr. always expected to be president. Joe Jr. had three brothers, and each sought the Democratic Party's presidential nomination — and one was nominated and elected — but Joe Jr. died before he could attempt to fulfill his father's dream for him.

In fact, he died before his political career ever began although he clearly had political ambitions for his post–war life. He dropped out of Harvard's law school to enlist in the Navy, where he became a bomber pilot, but he and his father had begun making preparations for his political career. The plan was that he would seek the U.S. representative seat from Massachusetts' 11th district in 1946.

But he didn't live to do that.

Seventy years ago today, Joe Kennedy Jr. was part of a two–man mission to fly a plane over targets in northern France, activate a remote control system that would arm the detonators of the explosives on board and bail out of the plane before it crashed into its target. The plan was that they would parachute into the English Channel, where they would be picked up by an Allied boat.

Things didn't go according to plan. The explosives went off prematurely, and Kennedy and his co–pilot were killed.

Consequently, it was the second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who ran for and won the congressional seat from Massachusetts' 11th district in 1946. He held it for six years — until he sought a U.S. Senate seat in 1952. He won, was re–elected in 1958 and went on to be elected president in 1960.

It might have been Joe Jr.

John served in World War II like his brother did, but he survived and Joe didn't.

Historians have spoken in glowing terms of JFK's talents, but, from all the accounts I have read, Joe Jr. had even better people skills than JFK.

From the perspective of an historian, even an amateur one such as myself, it is natural to wonder if Joe Jr. might have beaten Nixon handily enough to prevent his ever seeking the presidency again — thus sparing the country the anguish of Watergate.

But Joe Jr. died almost 30 years to the day before Nixon's resignation, the 40th anniversary of which was only a few days ago.

His brother's win over Nixon was, of course, razor thin. Rumors persist to this day that the Democrats stole the election, thanks to falsified vote returns in places like Illinois, where Mayor Daley and his cronies were well known for fraud of all kinds, especially in elections.

So add one more to history's intriguing "what–if" list.

What if Joseph Kennedy Jr. had survived World War II and started his political career as expected?

The world might never have heard of John F. Kennedy — or he might have been known as an adviser to his brother, as Bobby was known to be for him.

Intriguing, isn't it?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nixon Leaves Washington

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Richard Nixon
Aug. 9, 1974

Five years ago today, on the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, my focus was on Gerald Ford, the man who succeeded him.

And that was as it should be, I guess. My memory is that the general attitude among Americans was a desire to look to the future after years of being deceived, first by the Johnson administration on the war in Vietnam, then by the Nixon administration on Watergate.

That has always been one of the remarkable things about Americans in general. No matter how tragic the circumstances, nearly all Americans are determined to persevere and to look ahead, not back.

But before Ford took the oath of office and power passed quietly from Nixon to his vice president, Nixon gave one final address to the members of the White House staff, and it was carried live on all three networks. That was to be expected, I suppose. Nixon's actions on that day were historic. He was the first president to resign.

Like the Lincoln funeral after the first presidential assassination, it may serve as the role model for future presidential resignations.

Ford, of course, already had his place in the history books as the first unelected vice president, appointed to replace Spiro Agnew in the first implementation of the 25th Amendment. After Nixon's resignation, Ford — now the first unelected president — was responsible for the second implementation of the amendment when he nominated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president.

If someday in the future another American president decides to resign, the protocols for his/her departure may be guided to a great extent by the record of what Nixon and Ford did 40 years ago today.

On the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, it is appropriate, it seems to me, to recall what Nixon did in his final moments as president.

Nixon gave his speech to the staff, then the Fords escorted the Nixons to the helicopter on the White House grounds that would take them to Air Force One, which would take them to California. During that cross–country flight, Ford took the oath of office; somewhere over the midwestern United States, Richard Nixon ceased to be president and the jet from the presidential fleet that was carrying him to California stopped being designated as Air Force One — until the next time it was assigned to carry a president somewhere.

The speech reportedly was made without notes, but it was not entirely spontaneous. It was, to an extent, choreographed. Viewers didn't realize it, but, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "The family placed themselves on the small platform behind the president. Small pieces of tape designated where each was to stand. Mrs. Nixon was on the president's left, slightly closer to him than Julie, who was on his right. David and Ed stood by their wives. Ed was carrying a book. The applause did not stop for four minutes."

At times during Nixon's speech, the cameras scanned the East Room of the White House, and viewers could catch fleeting glimpses of some familiar faces. By and large, though, the faces were unfamiliar; many were staffers who had served several administrations, not just Nixon's, but there were those there who had been exclusively part of Nixon's staff. Many probably did not predate the Watergate break–in. Few, if any, of the people in that room probably testified before Senate and/or House committees.

In such a group of people, most had only a professional relationship with the president, not a personal one. Yet many of the people in the room were crying.

Nixon started his speech relatively composed, but, near the end, he seemed to be losing his grip. At least, it appeared that way to me. He began rambling, speaking of his father and his mother, their sacrifices and setbacks.

"[Nixon attorney Leonard] Garment thought, Oh, my God, he's beginning to break down," Woodward and Bernstein wrote. "A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television."

That didn't happen, of course. Nixon got a grip on himself and concluded his remarks with advice that seemed, to me, to be very insightful. I always wondered if Nixon, in his off–the–cuff speech, understood at last in its final minutes what had been the undoing of his presidency.
"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Helter Skelter

When I was in high school, I remember reading a dog–eared paperback of Vincent Bugliosi's book about the Manson family murders in the summer of '69, "Helter Skelter."

No telling how many people read that copy before I did, but it was in great shape, no matter how many people had read it. No one had marked on any of the pages, and none of the pages was torn. Only the cover was tattered — "dog–eared," as I said before.

The first page of the book had one sentence in the middle of an otherwise blank page on which people could have written or drawn things — but didn't. Perhaps it was an indication of how respectful people were of the story the book told: "The book you are about to read will scare the hell out of you."

And it did.

I slept with a baseball bat under my bed for weeks. I was convinced that, at some point, someone would come into my room when I was sleeping, and that person would probably have a perfectly legitimate reason for being there, but I would be roused from my slumber by an unfamiliar and unexpected noise and reach under my bed for the bat — and use it without asking any questions.

Fortunately, that didn't happen.

America has had a lot of exposure to cults in the years since the Manson murders terrorized southern California — and, really, the rest of the nation — so the story of that deadly weekend may seem tame to modern readers.

But it was still comparatively rare in 1969 — and it was frightening for average Americans.

And I'll bet Bugliosi's book still packs a powerful punch for unprepared readers. (Here's a tip: Don't watch the TV movie that was based on Bugliosi's book. The book kept me up at night. The movie almost put me to sleep. It's a strong story. It deserves better.)

Charles Manson's group consisted of a bunch of displaced young people. He had been predicting a race war between whites and blacks in America for a long time, but the Beatles' "White Album" provided justification for his predictions — according to his interpretations of songs from the album.

The song "Helter Skelter" was a direct reference to such a war, Manson told his followers. He saw all sorts of symbolism in certain songs — "Blackbird," "Revolution," "Piggies" as well as "Helter Skelter" — but he saw modest messages in all the other songs on the album, too. He had spoken of hidden meanings in individual Beatles songs in the past, but this was the first time that every song on an entire album — and a double album, at that — was cited.

"Every single song on the White Album," former follower Catherine Share said in a 2009 documentary, "[Manson] felt that they were singing about us."

Manson drew parallels between the songs and verses from the Book of Revelation. He always cast himself as the prime beneficiary, the one to whom both races would turn for guidance following "Helter Skelter" — the apocalyptic race war of which he warned his followers.

Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, explained it all in chilling detail in his book on the case. I know I was an impressionable teenager at the time I read it, but I'm pretty sure it was vivid enough to horrify the most hardened reader.

If there had been a checklist of the things that really scared people in the late '60s and early '70s, it would have included all the things that people saw in the Manson family — young, unkempt people living in a rural commune (hippies in the language of the times) under the direction of an older, manipulative, self–appointed messiah.

In the years to come, Americans became familiar with the tactics used by cult leaders to manipulate their followers. Jim Jones' followers committed suicide for him in 1978. So, too, did the members of Marshall Applewhite's religious cult, Heaven's Gate, in 1997. David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers in the Branch Davidians cult died fiery deaths in the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

But in August 1969, people weren't prepared for what they about to witness.

Forty years ago today, Manson sent out four members of his family with the instruction to "totally destroy everyone" in the house he knew as the home of record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son), but Melcher was no longer the tenant. Neither Manson nor his followers knew the current tenants, director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Polanski was out of the country 40 years ago tonight, but Tate, who was pregnant, was there, along with three friends.

All four, along with an 18–year–old man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were killed. Well, truthfully, they were slaughtered. Manson encouraged them to be "as gruesome as you can be," and they were. Most of the victims were carved up, and code words from Beatles lyrics that were intended to incite Manson's race war were written in blood.

The same thing was done the next night when Manson sent half a dozen of his followers into the night. This time he went along "to show them how to do it." The chaos of the previous evening had disappointed him.

They went to the home of a supermarket executive and his wife, where much the same sort of scene unfolded as happened the previous night. Things were done in a more orderly fashion, though — no one had to be chased down and stabbed to death on the lawn this time.

More words were written in blood.

Needless to say, Manson's race war never happened. But Manson and the six who did his bidding were imprisoned and sentenced to death — sentences that were commuted to life when the death penalty was suspended by the Supreme Court in 1972. The death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but the sentences were not changed.

One of Manson's followers, Susan Atkins, who participated in both killing sprees, died in prison nearly five years ago. The rest are still there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Resigned to His Fate

Forty years ago tonight, Richard Nixon announced to America and the world that he had decided to resign the presidency the next day.

There is often something kind of touching about watching someone who has fallen from grace in a very public way. Ordinarily, that person has been humbled by the experience and is conciliatory in his choice of words.

Nixon was one of the exceptions to that rule — although I must say that I thought he did an admirable job of maintaining his composure through the speech. (He really did seem to be on the brink of a breakdown the next day, though, when he said goodbye to the White House staff.)

"His eyes were pouched," wrote historian Theodore White, "the lines of his cheeks sharper than ever, his jowls puffy," but "[h]is voice was firm, the underquaver rarely surfacing."

His appearance belied a basic fact about how he perceived the world and the president's role in it. His Watergate experience seemed to contradict long–held convictions Nixon had about the presidency.

It is clear to me that, 24 hours earlier, Richard Nixon was a man suffering from severe inner turmoil. In their book "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that, the night before his speech, Nixon summoned his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to the White House. After their conversation, Nixon asked Kissinger to get on his knees and pray with him. At some point, Nixon began to sob, and he implored the heavens, "What have I done?"

Nixon was a "broken man," Kissinger said, and he tried to console him but eventually left. Later that evening, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon called Kissinger and asked him never to tell anyone "that I cried and that I was not strong."

He rallied himself, though, and gave a respectable speech 40 years ago tonight.

American Rhetoric ranked his resignation speech #39 among the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. But I wonder whether that was based on the structure of the speech — or its historical significance. Personally, I would be inclined to choose the latter.

It seems to me the speech announcing the first–ever (and, so far, only) presidential resignation would be historically significant no matter what was said — or how it was said — as long as at least one sentence had "I" as its subject and "resign" as its verb. That's really all that the hundreds of millions of people around the world who were watching and listening wanted to hear.

Besides, even with the luxury of time to prepare one's words for an important (and inevitable) moment, things don't always come out the way the speaker might have liked.

(Earlier in 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run and moved past Babe Ruth into the all–time top spot in baseball's record book. In anticipation of that moment, I have heard that the radio announcer for Aaron's team, the Atlanta Braves, spent a lot of time going over what he would say on the air, figuring that his words would be remembered and quoted. Apparently, he had several things in mind from which to choose, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the mighty blow. When the big moment came, though, he was so carried away that all he could say was "There's a new home run king." Kind of obvious, wouldn't you say?)

I didn't think the speech was especially eloquent. Nor did it strike me as being particularly generous. It certainly wasn't apologetic. Nixon started the speech — as he usually seemed to do — in a self–serving way.

"In all the decisions I have made in my public life," Nixon said, "I have always tried to do what was best for the nation." Right off the bat, he was justifying the motivation for all his actions as being what was "best for the nation."

One of those things that was in the best interest of the nation — in Nixon's mind, anyway — was his beliefthat he should "persevere" and "make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me."

He made it sound as if he owed it to the people who had voted for him overwhelmingly two years earlier — even though fewer than one–fourth of the respondents in the latest Gallup poll approved of the job he had been doing.

But, following the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court forcing him to surrender the subpoenaed tapes and the Judiciary Committee's approval of Articles of Impeachment, "it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort."

That was an understatement. After the discovery of the so–called "smoking gun" — the tape of the June 23, 1972 conversation that clearly implicated Nixon — it was reported that he could count on the support of only 10 senators when the trial was held in the Senate. He did not need a majority vote in the Senate to avoid conviction, but he did need many more votes than 10.

Beyond that, though, my impression was that people simply wanted Nixon to acknowledge what he had done. He had put the nation through two years of agony; people wanted him to take responsibility for his actions. He did no such thing. He made it clear he believed it was because of Congress' actions (or likely actions) that he was being forced from office, not because of anything he had done.

Nixon saw himself as blameless, a victim. If anyone needed any further proof of that, it came along a few years later when David Frost conducted his famous post–presidency interviews with Nixon. "If the president does it," Nixon told Frost, "that means it is not illegal."

"It," of course, was a generalization referring to anything a president did in office. It might be against the law for anyone else to do it, but the president would be doing it for the nation's good. That is entirely different from doing it for personal gain.

In Nixon's mind, the president was different from other citizens (even though, since the presidency is not passed from one generation to the next like a crown, the president always starts out as an ordinary citizen) because, by definition, the president was decent and good, and his only motivation was the welfare of the country. I suppose such a simplistic view must have its roots in childhood; unfortunately, I fear such altruistic individuals are rarely found in real life.

"I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved," Nixon said, "and my family unanimously urged me to do so."

(Well, there was considerable doubt about that at the time.)

"But the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations."

That was a theme to which he returned again and again. Perhaps he believed it allowed him to save a little face, this pretense that somehow he was making a sacrifice for his country.

"To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body," Nixon said, "but as president, I must put the interest of America first."

Probably the closest that Nixon came to apologizing was when he said, "[I]f some of my judgments were wrong — and some were wrong — they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation."

John Herbers of the New York Times felt that Nixon "may well have delivered his most effective speech" since the dawning of the Watergate scandal.

I'll go along with that — since none of his previous Watergate speeches managed to keep him from his appointment with destiny.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cracks in Nixon's Stonewall

"I want you all to stonewall it. Let them plead the Fifth Amendment, coverup or anything else if it'll save it, save this plan."

Richard Nixon
To his closest associates
March 22, 1973

I suppose it's true what they say. Hindsight really is 20/20.

I say that because, in my experience as a writer/journalist, I have found that people almost never know the impact an event will have on their lives or the lives of others when it happens. Sure, sometimes you do. For example, I think most people understood on Sept. 11, 2001, that their lives had been forever changed by what happened that morning.

Still, most things only become clear with the passage of time — and that may never have been more accurate than when it was applied to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

From the perspective of 2014, it is easy to see that, by Aug. 5, 1974, Nixon was being nudged toward resignation by forces that were beyond his control, but the final decision was still his, and it was anyone's guess at that point what his decision would be. All would know by the end of that week.

What was known was that the last couple of weeks had been frightfully bad ones for Richard Nixon. In a Gallup poll that was completed 40 years ago today, only 24% of respondents approved of the job Nixon was doing as president. Sixty–six percent disapproved. It was almost exactly the reverse of a Gallup poll taken the week after Nixon was re–elected in a 49–state landslide less than two years earlier.

First, there had been the Supreme Court ruling on July 24 that he had to turn over all records (tapes as well as notes) of White House conversations that were regarded as evidence in a criminal trial. His gambit to cloak them all in executive privilege had failed.

Then, within a week, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment that the House would consider and almost certainly approve. That would send the matter to the Senate, where Nixon and some of his diehard defenders believed they had the votes to survive the trial — if there was a trial, and many of the diehards didn't think there would be.

But most of the folks in Nixon's corner, including Nixon's own lawyers and Al Haig, his chief of staff, did not agree. They held a strategy session on Sunday, Aug. 4, 1974, and their preference was to be spared the task of defending an indefensible client on an extremely public stage. Increasingly, they came to the conclusion that it would be best for all concerned if Nixon resigned — especially for Nixon himself.

Apparently, he still had not made decision 40 years ago today. On Aug. 5, 1974, everything seemed as uncertain as it ever had during the Watergate investigation.

Hindsight, of course, is assisted considerably when there is new evidence or knowledge, and information about Watergate always came to light slowly, sometimes agonizingly so. Most of the time, it was by design, all part of the Watergate coverup, but sometimes it was simply the result of the wheels of justice grinding slowly.

Haig and the lawyers had new evidence in their possession on Sunday, Aug. 4 — the transcript of Nixon's June 23, 1972 conversation with H.R. Haldeman. It came to be known as the "smoking gun" of Watergate, and it was the last straw for many congressional Republicans.

"Read the conversations however one would," historian Theodore White wrote, "there was no doubt that on June 23rd, six days after the Watergate burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters, the president had been told that his former attorney general and dear friend John Mitchell was involved in that burglary. And worse ... Nixon had used the federal machinery — namely, the CIA — to obstruct and halt the FBI investigation of that burglary.

"Nixon had been lying, therefore, for more than two years, lying to the public, lying to Congress, lying to his own staff, at times probably lying to himself."

Nixon was an enigma. In the words of the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette's David Shribman, Nixon was "[a]wkward in manner — but shrewd in judgment. Flawed in character — but peerless in vision. Much misunderstood — but possessed of a peerless understanding of human nature. Tarred with mendacity — but a political magus nonetheless."

Bob Woodward, who was responsible, along with colleague Carl Bernstein, for the early investigative reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post, recently reviewed John Dean's book, "The Nixon Defense," for the Post.

"The title is misleading," Woodward wrote, "because it suggests there is a case for Nixon's innocence. Dean quickly clears that up when he writes in the preface, 'Fortunately for everyone, his defense failed.'"

On this day 40 years ago, it was dawning on his loyalists — and possibly on Nixon himself — that his defense had failed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Half a Century Since an 'Historic Mistake'

Fifty years ago, in August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked the American destroyer Maddox and, possibly, the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin.

See, there were (reportedly) two separate incidents. The first occurred on Aug. 2, 1964, and it seems pretty certain that one did happen. The Maddox was attacked, and a sea battle followed in which the Maddox fired nearly 300 rounds at the torpedo boats.

Two days later, the Turner Joy was reportedly fired on after it had moved into position to provide support for the Maddox. The evidence of that incident was shakier. It was initially reported as a sea battle, implying that both sides had been firing weapons, but it later emerged that the firing of Turner Joy's weapons may have been triggered (so to speak) by "Tonkin ghosts" — false radar images.

(An internal National Security Agency report, which was declassified in 2005, found that "[i]t is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.")

Real or false, President Lyndon Johnson used the attacks as justification for escalating American involvement in Vietnam — and winning political support from some conservatives.

What most Americans did not know was that the Maddox had been sent to the Gulf of Tonkin on a special mission — to provoke the North Vietnamese into using their radar. The Americans would then track the radar — "the naval equivalent of spotting enemy artillery positions so that they can be destroyed by counterbattery fire," historian William Manchester wrote.

But the Americans apparently hadn't expected their presence to draw enemy fire.

The outcome was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a joint resolution approved by both chambers of Congress a week later. It gave Johnson the authority — without Congress' formal declaration of war — to use "conventional" military force.

The House approved the resolution 416–0. In the Senate, only two senators — Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska — voted against it.

"I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake," Morse told his colleagues. "I believe that, within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."

It didn't even take that long.

By 1967, opposition to the war was growing and the rationale for American involvement was under close scrutiny by the public. A movement to repeal the resolution began to gather steam. The repeal was achieved as an attachment to the Foreign Military Sales Act of 1971, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon.

To further limit a president's war powers, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over Nixon's veto.

But there weren't many critical comments in August 1964.

It was perceived as the logical progression of the anti–appeasement policy that had been in style since World War II.

"President Johnson has earned the gratitude of the free world," wrote the Washington Post.

Fifty years later, The Hill calls it a "tragedy." To me, that seems more accurate than "historic mistake," although I guess both are correct.

And Johnson's response to the perceived aggression of the North Vietnamese apparently shored up his support on the right. In July, Gallup reported that 58% of respondents had been critical of his handling of the military effort in Vietnam, but in August, nearly three–fourths of respondents approved. That was an impressive shift. And, in November, Johnson won a full four–year term as president by the widest margin in history.

Whether legitimately or not, it is clear that Johnson reaped considerable immediate political benefits from what historian Theodore White called a "deft response" to a threat.

"For all I know," Johnson told a group of visitors in 1965, "our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Do Obama's Approval Numbers Matter?

As of today, we are less than 100 days away from Election Day. A little more than five years ago, Democrats were fawning over the first 100 days of the Obama presidency. Today, they are considerably less enthusiastic about the next 100 days.

Nothing is cast in stone yet, but the sands are running rapidly through the hourglass for the Democrats.

Over and over, I have been asked the same question: Why do Barack Obama's approval numbers matter in the 2014 midterms?

Usually, I am asked this question by folks who still haven't gotten over that "Yes, we can" mindset from 2008 — some things matter because we say they matter, and other things don't matter because we say they don't matter — and they can't comprehend what has changed.

Well, there's this matter of delivering on one's promises — and presidents always seem to get the short end of the stick on that one. Either they haven't delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that — or they have delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that.

A voter's preference is a moving target. It all really depends on whose ox is being gored.

Some people don't understand that a single election never settles things, once and for all — and that no president can count on the same kind of support for his subordinates that he received two years earlier. Those subordinates are charged with implementing the president's policies via the legislative branch. When the policies ain't working, all involved are held accountable.

If the president isn't on the ballot, disgruntled voters will do as George Wallace used to encourage them to do — Send 'em a message. By proxy if necessary.

I'm sorry if this refresher civics course seems elementary. I mention it only to remind folks that this is a democracy, and people make no lifetime commitments to candidates, causes or parties. Well, some do, but many do not, and that really is perplexing for some.

They find the independence of the American voter bewildering.

Obama isn't on the ballot, they point out. He is barred by law from seeking a third term. The election isn't about him. It's about keeping the Senate and winning the House. (OK, even the diehards aren't mentioning that last one anymore. It's become one of those "in a perfect world" kind of things for modern Democrats. Holding on to the Senate is enough of a challenge.)

Well, technically, I suppose, that is true. We aren't electing a president in 2014. We are electing one–third of the Senate and all of the House, just as we do every two years. Every four years, we throw a presidential election into the mix — but not this time.

We're midway through the current four–year presidential term — hence, these are the midterm elections.

Historically, midterms have served as electoral adjustors. They almost always go against the party that occupies the White House, and that tendency is even more pronounced in a president's second midterm. In recent years, it has been referred to as a fatigue factor. There was talk of "Bush fatigue" in 2006 and "Clinton fatigue" in 1998. I can even remember talk of "Reagan fatigue" in 1986.

(If Watergate had not ended his presidency early, Nixon might well have encountered "Nixon fatigue" in November 1974. In hindsight, that might have been better for the Republicans. As it was, they lost five Senate seats and four dozen House seats in the Watergate backlash.)

I'm not really sure why it is that presidential fatigue seems to settle in at this point in a two–term presidency. I just know that it is so. Except for extremely rare circumstances, a president's party is radioactive two years after his re–election.

George W. Bush was extremely unpopular just before the 2006 midterms. Polls consistently showed his approval in the mid– to upper 30s prior to the election, and his Republicans lost six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was very popular. About a week before the election, his approval rating was 63%, according to Gallup. His popularity took a major hit after the election — when the Iran–Contra scandal was in the news — but Reagan's party still lost control of the Senate for the first time in six years (as well as five seats in the House).

Bill Clinton's second midterm in 1998 probably should have been a disaster for the Democrats — after all, in Clinton's first midterm, his party lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years — but 1998 was one of those extreme circumstances of which I spoke earlier. Republicans were perceived as having overreached in their attempt to impeach Clinton, and voters gave Democrats a four–seat gain in the House.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans are more engaged than Democrats, but they aren't as enthusiastic as they were in 2010 — or as Democrats were in 2006.

There may be good news and bad news in that for both parties. If Republicans are not as enthused as they were four years ago, they might not be as inclined to show up at the polls. Good news for Democrats.

Pew also finds that, currently, there is virtually no difference in party preference. Forty–five percent of voters prefer Republicans, 47% prefer Democrats. More good news for Democrats.

The enthusiasm gap for the out–of–power party is not as great this year, Pew reports, as it was in 2010 or 2006.

But that is how it stands in July. Unfortunately for Democrats, the election isn't being held in July. Numerous surveys over the years suggest that most Americans don't start paying attention to political campaigns until around October.

More than three–fourths of Republican–leaning voters say they definitely will vote this year whereas about two–thirds of Democrat–leaning voters say they definitely will vote — but those numbers are slightly lower for Republicans and a little higher for Democrats than they were four years ago. Again, more good news for Democrats.

However, about half of those Republican voters say they will vote against any and all supporters of Obama's policies, which is not much different from this point in the election cycle four years ago.

People still point to polls showing record–high dissatisfaction with Congress, and that can't be denied, but it can be misinterpreted. Yes, the American people aren't happy with Congress. But they never are. Dissatisfaction was pretty high in 2006 and 2010, too, but most incumbents who sought re–election were re–elected.

Typically, when people say they are not satisfied with Congress, they mean other people's senators and representatives, not their own. Anti–incumbency is said to be running high today, but it hasn't shown itself much in this year's party primaries.

And conventional wisdom holds that undecided voters are more inclined to break for the challenger in the closing days and weeks of a campaign. Thus, the likelihood that the voters will throw the bums out in November is very low.

What can Obama do? Well, in some cases, the best thing he can do is stay away entirely. He will continue to be a factor in the midterms — presidents just are, that's all there is to it — so he needs to respect the wishes of Democrats who are trying (in some instances, desperately) to hold on to their seats in red states like Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Observers are already referring to races in red states like Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democrats are retiring, as sure things for the GOP — which would put Republicans halfway to their goal of six seats to seize control of the Senate. Defeating Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina would give them the majority — assuming Democrats don't win one of a couple of Republican–held seats in which they are perceived as competitive.

That kind of thing — where the party that is fighting the electoral tide succeeds — doesn't usually happen in midterm elections, but, as Larry Sabato reminds us, "every election is different."

Earlier, Sabato was inclined to think that 2014 would be another "wave election," like the midterms of 2006 and 2010, but so far, he writes, "this election hasn't gelled quite the way it earlier appeared on paper."

Republicans are also fantasizing about picking up Democratic seats in Iowa, maybe Michigan and Oregon, too. These were seats that, not so long ago, were regarded as safe for the Democrats.

The fact that they are no longer seen as safe should send a chill down every Democrat's spine.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking a Step Closer to Impeachment

For a student of history and politics, even one as young as I was then, the Watergate period was a fascinating time in America.

In hindsight, it seems so different than it did when it happened. It turned out to be a textbook example of how the system should work — a confirmation, really, of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

But at the time, no one really knew how it would play out. Right up until Richard Nixon decided to resign — a conclusion that, I believe, became inevitable when he lost U.S. v. Nixon — no one really knew what he was going to do. I don't think even he knew what he would do. Certainly, if his original plan had gone as he expected, the whole matter would have been a distant memory by this time in 1974. But my sense was that, after the existence of the White House taping system was revealed to the public, he was winging it.

Maybe that was appropriate. Nixon was such a loner, anyway. He never really seemed to take anyone into his confidence, and I have always believed that he came to the conclusion that he had to resign on his own, using whatever logic and reasoning had guided his steps as an adult.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress were put in an uncomfortable position — having to defend a president who was liked by few and increasingly appeared to be guilty. The anguish of Republicans was evident in the words of Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, the only Republican on the committee to support all three of the articles of impeachment that were approved.

"The thing that's so appalling to me," Hogan told his colleagues, "is that the president, when this whole idea was suggested to him, didn't, in righteous indignation, rise up and say, 'Get out of here, you're in the office of the president of the United States. How can you talk about blackmail and bribery and keeping witnesses silent? This is the presidency of the United States.' But my president didn't do that. He sat there, and he worked and worked to try to cover this thing up so it wouldn't come to light."

Hogan may have felt freer to vote his conscience than his other Republican colleagues. Although his district had given Nixon 57% of its vote when he sought re–election in 1972, it was and is a heavily Democratic district (Steny Hoyer has represented the district for more than 30 years and was the majority leader under Nancy Pelosi), and it seemed likely to vote Hogan out in what was shaping up to be a Democratic year.

Anyway, Hogan was leaving the House to run for governor; he was unsuccessful.

In the summer of 1974, he was the only Republican to vote for all three articles of impeachment that were adopted by the Judiciary Committee.

Forty years ago today, as the nation watched, the House Judiciary Committee approved an article of impeachment against the president of the United States. It would approve three articles altogether. On Saturday, July 27, 1974, the Judiciary Committee voted, 27–11, in favor of the first article of impeachment, charging Nixon with obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate coverup.

"It was almost 7 in the evening when [chairman Peter] Rodino called for the vote on Article One," wrote Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. "As the camera moved from one member to the next, down the order from senior to junior, each face was an emotionless mask."

On Monday, July 29, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 28–10, for an article of impeachment charging Nixon with abuse of power for his misuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service and the Department of Justice.

On Tuesday, July 30, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 21–17, for a third article of impeachment charging Nixon with contempt of Congress.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Making a Name For Himself

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America."

Barack Obama
July 27, 2004

Sometimes destiny is hard to recognize, even when it slaps you silly.

Until 10 years ago tomorrow night, no one knew who Barack Obama was. Well, some people knew who he was — but it is fair to say that most Americans, probably even most of those who did know who he was, did not know, when they saw Obama on their television screens, that they were getting a preview of coming attractions.

The keynote address he delivered 10 years ago before the delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston has been credited by many with making him president. I disagree. It certainly contributed to his political rise, it gave him national exposure, but I think it is an exaggeration to credit the speech with making him president. He was just a state senator from Illinois trying to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Three years later, he hadn't distinguished himself in the Senate, and he was not the front–runner in the polls when Democrats began holding presidential primaries; Hillary Clinton was.

People often forget that she, too, spoke to the delegates in Boston, who had gathered to nominate John Kerry for president.

But her speech seemed to stir little in the way of enthusiasm. The audience cheered her politely — probably more in gratitude for her husband's presidency than for her contribution, at the time, as a U.S. senator. In a way, perhaps, it foretold what would happen in the Democratic Party when it chose its next nominee.

It is true, as David Bernstein wrote in Chicago Magazine in 2007, that the address "changed Obama's profile overnight and made him a household name," but it is also true that it was not a history–changing speech.

And I would also dispute that it made Obama a "household name" in 2004. That came later.

"It was good, but it was nothing awe inspiring," his press aide, Robert Gibbs, said of Obama's speech. It wasn't until Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 that opinion polling started to show movement in his direction — until then, Hillary Clinton was still the front–runner.

Obama's speech 10 years ago was greeted with enthusiasm, but I honestly don't recall the extent of the positive response that Bernstein did. I suppose there may be something to it; Bernstein's article, after all, was published several months before the Iowa caucus — long before the idea of an Obama nomination qualified as more than wishful thinking.

But I'm inclined to think Bernstein was looking at it from the perspective of sustained candidacy, not necessarily nomination.

"Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority," Bernstein wrote. "After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy."

Now, whether it is true or not, I do fancy myself to be current on politics and what journalists write about things like primaries and conventions and keynote addresses. In the summer of 2004, I did a lot of reading, and I remember reading many accounts of the speeches at both of the major parties' conventions.

And I simply don't remember the kind of reaction that Bernstein did. I mean, come on. King? Kennedy? Really?

Other black politicians have given speeches to national conventions — Barbara Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell — and they didn't make that kind of impression.

Well, except for one.

Jordan was the first black woman to give a keynote address. American Rhetoric ranked her 1976 speech fifth in its list of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century, behind only King, Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (twice).

And, although the convention was already set to nominate Jimmy Carter that summer, Jordan did receive the support of one delegate in the nominating ballot. However, I don't recall reading any articles promoting her as a future nominee — in fact, she retired from politics a couple of years later.

Jackson's 1984 address was ranked 12th, and his 1988 address was ranked 49th. I do remember reading some articles promoting Jackson as a future contender for a presidential nomination, but I'm sure I read just as many articles arguing that he should not seek the presidency — not because he was black but because of concerns about having a religious leader in the Oval Office.

Jackson, of course, was not a keynote speaker.

Pundits often refer to keynote speakers as if they are future presidential nominees. In my experience, few have come close to that — so, while there probably were those who, swept up in the excitement of the moment, spoke of Obama as a future nominee 10 years ago, it is likely that most of the people who heard them did not really think it was possible.