Saturday, April 25, 2015

Jesus and the Martian

"A sad time for all people"
Imagine the world becoming obsessed with the survival of one person. Can you imagine anyone who would actually deserve it?

For Christians, the answer should be easy, especially in this season after Holy Week and Easter Sunday. During those precious few days, our ritual and liturgy focused like a laser on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We rejoiced while remembering his entry into Jerusalem and deplored his followers’ neglectfulness in the garden and his delivery into his tormentors’ hands. Especially if we re-watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” we winced as the whip tore the flesh from his back and the nails pierced his hands and feet. Finally, inevitably, all Christians shouted, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”

For us modern people, divided by language, creed, race, and station, by borders and ancient resentments and suspicions, it’s hard to imagine one person drawing the world together as Christ does his followers. Sometimes it does seem to happen, if only for a moment and almost always as the residue of tragedy. Those of a certain age remember the events of Nov. 22, 1963 as an outrage against all humanity. President Kennedy’s successor certainly did. During a recent visit to the LBJ Library in Austin, I saw the typescript of the brief remarks a staff member prepared for President Johnson to use when his plane arrived in Washington from Dallas with Kennedy’s body aboard. The aide wrote, “This is a sad time for every American.” Johnson crossed out the last two words so it would read, “[F]or all people.”

And so it was, although our species’ sadness didn’t ameliorate our Cold War rivalries. It makes me wonder what we could accomplish if the fragile bubble of unity never burst, if two billion Christians acted together in the spirit of our common alleluia, if people could just agree on how to achieve peace, justice, and freedom for all. After all, writes novelist Andy Weir, “[E]very human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true….This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”
Left behind

Actually, that’s not Andy talking but astronaut Mark Watney, a character in Weir’s book, The Martian. Mark is one of six NASA astronauts who land on Mars. When the mission is aborted because of a sandstorm, his colleagues leave without him because they mistakenly think he’s been killed. He has to survive using only the food, air, water, shelter, and transportation (two four wheel-drive rovers) left behind with him.

The novel, which features no extraterrestrials, is a space geek’s dream. At first, no one knows Mark’s alive. Then a NASA staffer studying satellite photos of the landing site notices that someone has moved one of the rovers. Within hours, everyone realizes that Mark is puttering around on Mars, and it turns out that almost all seven billion people on the novel’s fictional but highly realistic planet Earth want him to make it home. The U.S. invests hundreds of millions of dollars in desperate rescue missions. Even our geostrategic rivals the Chinese decide to help.

The Martian deftly invokes a unity of purpose that reminds me of Christians’ Easter acclamations, that laser-like fixation of ours on the miracle of Resurrection. We are prone to lose our unity all too soon, falling back on our enervating squabbles with one another at home, work, and church. By the same token, reading Andy Weir’s book, I had no trouble accepting that people would become fixated on an astronaut stranded 140 million miles away while overlooking the victims of injustice and circumstance on their own planet and even their own doorsteps. If God’s people ever gave full expression to the instinct to help each other out that Weir correctly identifies, then (pace Matt. 11:5) the blind would surely see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk, and good news would be continually proclaimed to the poor. Alleluia! 

This post first appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I [Expletive Deleted] Up The End Game

Rockwell's idealized Nixon
In his eulogy at Richard Nixon's Yorba Linda funeral in April 1994, Sen. Bob Dole (R-KA) called America's post-World War II epoch "the age of Nixon." Historian Richard Norton Smith, who wrote Dole's speech, had warrant for his ambitious claim. Nixon ran successfully for vice president twice and was elected president two out of three tries. He epitomized fierce anti-communism as well as constructive and world-changing engagement with the communist regimes in Moscow and Beijing. He ended the Vietnam war and made diplomatic inroads in the Middle East that set the stage for the Camp David Accords.

At home, in many respects Nixon governed to the left of Barack Obama. His domestic and monetary policies -- establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, enacting wage and price controls, desegregating public schools in the deep south, adopting an anti-drug policy that stressed treating addicts, and trying twice to enact national health insurance reform -- neither impressed his more progressive contemporaries nor endeared him to his fellow conservatives. Only later, during the Reagan years, did he begin to attract plaudits from scholars ranging from Joan Hoff to Noam Chomsky, who each called Nixon the last liberal president. When he resigned, his biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote in the 1980s, "we lost more than we gained."

Nixon's centrist policies, draped in the disgrace of Watergate, made him an outlier among today's more conservative Republicans, who routinely exclude him from the honor roll of GOP presidents at their nominating conventions. And yet pundits still repeat, and Republican candidates usually obey, his famous dictum about running to the right in the primaries and back to the center in the general election. Party elites and their dutiful cable TV and talk radio amanuenses make our country look more divided than it is. Polls still show that we are a pragmatic, center-leaning, essentially Nixonian people. One recent example is a New York Times article revealing that Republicans who have opposed gay marriage for decades are now relieved that the Supreme Court may save them from having to continue to do so so stridently, since up to 60% of the American people now favor it. (Nixon predicted it would be legal by 2000.)

If being outlived by the salience of his governing principles is a measure of a leader's greatness, then Nixon's smudged legacy could be in for a few coats of polish. It may yet be possible for a tough-minded foreign policy realist and domestic pragmatist to figure out how to be nominated and win -- someone in Nixon's mold such the late Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WA), Nixon's first presidential mentor, Dwight Eisenhower, or the subject of Richard Norton Smith's new book, the late Nelson Rockefeller, New York governor and then vice president under Nixon's equally pragmatic successor, Gerald Ford. Should that moment come, Nixon's political and policy playbooks will be waiting.

Three heavyweights, and I
During the 11 years I worked for Nixon directly and the 19 I spent running his presidential library and foundation, I came to the conclusion that his most under-appreciated virtues were the steely substantiveness at the core of his being and the continued vitality of his non-ideological pragmatism. Speaking of men of substance, Nixon dubbed leaders he respected the most (they were usually men) as heavyweights, which meant they shared his qualities, or had qualities he wished he did. Sometimes he would use the expression homme sérieux. In Nixon's book, Dole and Ronald Reagan (more for his style than his substance, which Nixon considered to be scarce, especially when it came to foreign relations), oui; Ford and George H.W. Bush, non. In fairness to the latter two, Nixon's attitudes were colored by complicated personal considerations.

For whatever reason he bestowed it, Nixon's heavyweight merit badge was a matter of its taking one to know one. I knew him only as a former president. I was a research assistant from 1979-84 and his chief of staff until 1990, when he sent me to the library. (His family was surprised and hurt to learn that he also made me one of two co-executors of his estate.) While the stakes and dimensions of his work were smaller in retirement, his horizons never narrowed. After leaving office, Nixon wrote nine books and hundreds of memoranda to his successors. Rather than giving 100 speeches a year for money and getting rich, he gave one or two for free, always before prestigious audiences, labored for weeks over the content, delivered them without notes, and had them transcribed and distributed to the media, policymakers, and friends. Whatever he did, his laser-beam of a brain was always fixed on influencing his successors' policies, especially relations with the Russians and Chinese.
Deng and Nixon, Beijing, 1989

Undertaking frequent trips to Beijing, Moscow, and dozens of other countries, he did his best to facilitate communications between their leaders and the incumbent president, usually briefing the White House privately instead of calling attention to himself with public pronouncements (which was not always easy, because Nixon loved being paid attention to, as long as he was being taken seriously). During his visit to Beijing in October 1989, a few months after the regime's Saddam Hussein-like slaughter of its own people in Tienanmen Square, I watched as Nixon put what remained of his reputation at risk to keep U.S.-China relations from going off the skids. In 1991, after we went to the Soviet Union, he goaded the George H. W. Bush administration into paying more attention to Boris Yeltsin as a potential successor to the last of the communist bosses, Mikhail Gorbachev.

No matter what his critics said during those post-presidential years, he wasn't battling for his place in history, and he knew it. Nixon's historical legacy is inescapably subject to what scholars have found and will find in the vast record he left behind, including millions of pages of letters and memoranda and thousands of hours of tapes recorded in the White House between 1971-73. Because of the tapes, which if fully transcribed would fill hundreds of thousands of pages, he is probably the most copiously documented leader in human history. As almost everyone knows, he often sounds awful on the tapes. Sometimes his bigotry, anger, and desire for revenge are to blame, other times his painfully introverted temperament, still others his tendency to tease or provoke aides by suggesting outlandish schemes or maneuvers, some of which he wanted carried out, others not. He's frequently not at his best in his dictated memoranda, either.

And yet the sheer intensity of his focus on the substance of policy,  especially internationally, can't be denied, nor can his impact on politics, society, and culture. What other president has been the subject both of a Grateful Dead radio commercial and a grand opera performed at the Met? All in all, one can argue that he accomplished more under adverse political conditions (the Democrats held Congress for his entire five and a half years) than any other modern president.

So when the centennial of his birth rolled around beginning in January 2013, you would think that his presidential library and foundation would have used the opportunity for a comprehensive look at Nixon's consequential times and legacy -- conferences, publications, speakers series, you name it. Nixon's foundation is well funded, with an endowment that should still stand at around $40 million based on its value when I left as executive director in 2009. As it planned a fitting Nixon centennial, the foundation had the capacity to throw open its doors to his friends and critics, to his policy partners and political operatives, and to scholars and journalists for a thoroughgoing assessment of his presidency.
Christopher and Andrea, Beijing, 2013

The capacity, but as yet, not the will. Instead of any meaningful programming, the Nixon foundation held a cocktail reception and dinner for his colleagues and staffers at a Washington, D.C. hotel, sent Tricia and Ed Cox's son, Christopher, and his then-wife, Andrea Catsimatidis, to China with a retinue of ex-aides and library docents, and installed another museum exhibit about his life. For the single-minded, endlessly fascinating, paradigm-shifting architect of the age of Nixon, this was pretty much the extent of his centennial year.

These days, the sleepy Nixon library's caretakers are Nixon's private foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The foundation's top executive, named last year, is former CEO of an investment firm and of a wholesale wine distributor. The new federal director, Michael Ellzey, is a former executive director of the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority in San Francisco, where he oversaw the renovation of the park's arts and cultural district. Most recently, he ran the Great Park, a controversial municipal project in Orange County, California. According to recent reports, Great Park auditors give Ellzey credit for cleaning up some of the mess he inherited when he came on board in 2008. As the federal Nixon director, Ellzey is paid by taxpayers and reports to the archivist of the U.S., David Ferriero. But his appointment was blessed by Nixon's family and operatives.

Fred Malek
While they may be able managers, neither the foundation nor library chief has any archival, curatorial, or national public policy experience. Especially with a non-historian running the library, some worry that a White House aide's-eye view of Richard Nixon will continue to predominate. One example among many should suffice. In 2011, Nixon's foundation tried to stop NARA from exhibiting excerpts of oral history interviews with Nixon White House operatives. In one of these, Fred Malek talks about following Nixon's order to count the number of Jews who worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of the most notorious of the catalog of abuses of power known collectively as Watergate. (Reports of Malek's Jew-counting drove him from George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988.) Two years after it tried to keep Malek's reflections out of the Watergate exhibit, the foundation announced that it planned to raise $25 million to redo the library's museum exhibits. The lead fundraiser? None other than Fred Malek, now a rich businessman.

It's worrisome when a political operative with a personal stake in what the public sees is helping pay for the exhibit cases and the fees of the consultants and scribes who will compose the museum's new narrative. In his new book, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run For Posterity, And Enshrine Their Legacies, Anthony J. Clark explores how money influences content at all 13 presidential libraries. Soon after Ellzey's appointment, Clark told the Orange County Register:
To have appointed someone with no experience or training as an archivist or a historian creates serious questions as to how the Nixon library will fulfill its duties. To have chosen a director without such credentials but apparently with the strong support of the private Nixon Foundation is very troubling and raises additional concerns.
Ellzey's predecessor, Tim Naftali, whom I'd recommended to the archivist of the U.S. for appointment as the Nixon library's first federal director, had the opposite problem. A respected Cold War scholar and expert on secret presidential tapes, his academic credentials were impeccable. Nixon's Watergate-era factotums, who seized control of Nixon's foundation after I left in 2009, despised him -- proof, as far as I'm concerned, that he was the right choice.

I suggested that NARA name an independent-minded scholar and tapes aficionado because I had a conception of the Nixon library's potential as a focal point for reassessing Nixon's life and times that, as it turned out, only a few colleagues and friends ended up sharing. After 37 died in April 1994, and I had overseen his funeral, I had what amounted to an epiphany. It didn't matter what we, his advocates, believed and said about him. The massive record Nixon had left couldn't be denied. It would smother all sycophancy. Since we couldn't keep the records closed, we obviously had to get them open as quickly as possible so historians could see Nixon at his worst and best and finally go to work on a truly balanced and complete view of this more complex of presidents.

And yet from the perspective of the scholarly community, I probably appeared to be an unreliable advocate of an all-in view of Richard Nixon. As his aide and library director, I spent the better of two decades arguing with journalists and historians.

When author Raymond Bonner accused Nixon of giving President Ferdinand Marcos the green light to declare martial law in the Philippines in 1972, for instance, I demonstrated that there was no proof, compelling Bonner to print a grudging footnote in the paperback edition of his book.

Romanian uniforms
In 1984, two of Nixon's former colleagues, ex-attorney general and campaign chief John Mitchell and former military aide Jack Brennan, asked him to endorse a bizarre deal in which the regime of Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu (later executed for crimes against humanity) sold military uniforms to Iraq's Saddam Hussein (ditto). It would make a good plot for "The Interview II." When U.S. News found out, I persuaded them to print a letter stressing that Nixon had no financial stake in the deal and that he had just signed bread-and-butter letters for old friends. I continued to defend the boss when the New York Times covered the story again in 1990, after Brennan and Mitchell sued for $3 million each in lost commissions. Court records included Nixon's letters and revealed that his corrupt ex-vice president, Spiro Agnew, had also been involved.

I also got letters defending Nixon into the Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, and other publications. Writing unctuously to anchorman Brian Williams, I persuaded NBC News to retract an erroneous Vietnam story. I protested ABC's 1989 film adaption of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days and Oliver Stone's 1995 movie "Nixon." I chided scholar Stanley Kutler (who died this month) for publishing an unreliable Watergate tape transcript, Rick Perlstein for slipshod use of a secondary source, Don Fulsom for claiming that Nixon had beaten his wife and conducted an affair with his best friend, Bebe Rebozo, and Robert Dallek for accusing Nixon's men of being behind a 1960 break-in at John F. Kennedy's doctor's office. Operative Jeb Magruder's claims notwithstanding, I argued that Nixon hadn't known about the Watergate break-in in advance. I tried to argue away Nixon's antisemitic comments and defended him and Henry Kissinger when a newly-released White House tape made it appear that they would have tolerated the Soviet Union massacring all its Jews.

Because of all that, and more, I earned the reputation of being blind to Nixon's faults. In November 1999, OC Weekly published an article containing the tortured explanations it imagined "chief Nixon apologist John Taylor" would manufacture if asked about Nixon's most outrageous taped comments. One example from the Weekly's full-page article, now framed on the wall of my study: "Nixon says: 'You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags.' What John Taylor should say: 'The president was a learned man, and like all learned men, he knew that the first definition of "fag" in the dictionary is someone who works himself to exhaustion. The president had great admiration for hard workers.'" A considerable and unexpected blessing is that OC Weekly and I are experiencing what one of its veteran investigative reporters, R. Scott Moxley, called a detente.

While I usually based my arguments on the facts as I knew them, I regret the times I questioned people's motives without evidence, especially the archival professionals working faithfully with Nixon's records at NARA. On occasion, my assertions were rendered inoperative, as Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler might've said. In an article in the American Spectator, I insisted that Nixon had never used an obscenity also known as the first word of the title of an unreleased Rolling Stones documentary. It was true he'd never said it in thousands of hours of conversation with me. But when newly released White House tape showed that he had used the word in the White House, I made sure to include it in a subsequent piece, requiring the Spectator's copy editors to expend what probably amounted to a month's supply of expletive-obscuring hyphens.

I also made a point to come clean, so to speak, in my 2014 novel, Jackson Place, in which a fictional 37 refuses to resign. When an aide (a fictional Ron Ziegler, as a matter of fact) suggests that "Nixon" solve a delicate PR problem by going to church, "Nixon" says, "So that I can sit there while some sanctimonious c--------- preaches at me about reconciliation and peace and justice and all that crap?"

What might have been
As I said, it's a novel. He never said that, but he sometimes talked that way. Thousands of hours of tapes prove it. His former associates can pretend the record doesn't exist. But before long, we'll be silent and gone, while Nixon, on tape and paper, will be talking forever.

So while I kept tilting at Nixon's critics, I became an equally persistent advocate of opening records. Under my watch at the private Nixon library, we launched an archive of pre-presidential materials that won some praise from scholars. In negotiations that began soon after Nixon died, I participated, as co-executor of his estate, in an agreement with NARA and the late Stanley Kutler, who had sued the agency, that was designed to enable the opening of all of Nixon's non-classified tapes by 2000. (It took NARA until 2013.) While some who were understandably cynical about Nixon and Nixonites were accusing us of covering up, we were actually preserving and protecting. The Supreme Court had ordered NARA to return to Nixon, and later his estate, all papers and hundreds of hours of tapes related to his political, as opposed to policy-making, work as president. The court said such records were his private property thanks to his constitutional right to private political associations. When we had the right to seal them forever and even destroy them, in the late 1990s I vowed that we would preserve them. When we handed the library over to the government in 2007, we deeded the whole collection to NARA.

As library director Tim Naftali was starting work on his new Watergate exhibit, I gave him access to the briefing books Nixon had used to prepare for his 1977 TV interviews with British personality David Frost, which gave Tim insights into how 37 had prepared to talk about the scandal for the first time as well as structure the massive Watergate sections of his 1978 memoir. In a January 2015 Facebook exchange with historian David Greenberg, Tim wrote, "Although complicated at the time, and a friendship now, my relationship with John from the start in 2006 produced agreements that led to more archival releases."

As I've already written, after we handed library operations over to NARA and Tim in 2007, our relationship suffered as a consequence of him taking such decisive steps to show that there was a new sheriff in town and of me having trouble letting go after running the library for 17 years. During the two years I continued as foundation chief, we had a series of wearying procedural skirmishes over consultation on programming, space, and budgets. Our disagreements never became public, and as Tim made clear in his comment to Greenberg, they didn't keep us from cooperating.

Tim Naftali and Kathy O'Connor
In February 2009, I left the Nixon foundation to work full time as priest in charge of a church and school in south Orange County, where I'd been serving on an ostensibly part-time basis since 2004. My successor, Kathy O'Connor, was one of Nixon's most loyal and competent aides. She was his confidential secretary for ten years before becoming his last chief of staff in 1990. She had been my friend since 1980 and my wife since 2002. No one outside his family knew or had served Nixon better. She saw him at his noblest and pettiest. She traveled around the world with him, assisted with seven books, stood up to him when necessary, and held his hand as he died. As a Nixon foundation executive since 1995, she had spearheaded a $14 million expansion and helped maneuver the library into federal hands.

In Kathy's first weeks heading the foundation, while she lost no ground in negotiations with the federal library, she developed a friendlier relationship with Tim than I had managed and began to solve the relatively trivial first world problems that had plagued us. On her watch, prospects began to improve for making the library the focal point for lively debate and inquiry about Nixon's life and times that Kathy and I had worked toward for years and that, we believe, Nixon himself would have wanted.

But that Nixon library wasn't to be. The late Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-TX) is famous for helping arm the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After Moscow withdrew, Congress ignored his pleas to rebuild the shattered country, which soon became al-Qaeda's home base. "These things happened," Wilson said about defeating the Soviets. "They were glorious, and they changed the world. And then we f----- up the end game." And so it was with Kathy and me.

Remember that we only knew Nixon as a former president, Kathy beginning in 1980, I a year before. It's true we hadn't been with the old man in the White House when it really counted, as some of his family members and White House aides would grumble. By the same token, we hadn't organized any dirty tricks, ordered any burglaries, participated in any coverups, counted the number of men and women with Jewish surnames in any federal agencies, tried to have the taxes of any political enemies audited, had any anti-Nixon demonstrators roughed up, or sicced the FBI on any journalists.

Members of Nixon's White House cohort sometimes seemed more focused on their prerogatives than his reputation. Some were hungry to be in charge, settle scores, or receive the payoff they felt they'd been denied because of Watergate. A few of Nixon's lower-level associates had been maneuvering for years to get close to the library safe. One asked in on our security business. Another wanted to be hired to invest our endowment. Still another, with the support of some in Nixon's family, pressured us to contribute to a secret fund to help pay the personal expenses of a pro-Nixon scholar.

As a post-presidential johnny-come-lately, which is what Nixon son-in-law Ed Cox dubbed me in an angry e-mail to Tricia's uncle Ed Nixon, I was naturally less concerned with the agendas of resentful former operatives than with the old man's peacemaking legacy and ongoing elder statesmanship. When running the Nixon foundation and after helping found the Nixon Center, Kathy and I and our colleagues cultivated excellent institutional relationships with such high-level Nixon policy partners as Henry Kissinger, Jim Schlesinger, George Shultz, and Brent Scowcroft. Seeing Nixon and them at work, and coming to appreciate the liveliness of his pragmatic policy and political principles, made it easy for us to think that his reputation would withstand Watergate. We even permitted ourselves to believe that Nixon's historical standing would rebound as historians weighed the good against the bad and the ugly in the massive record we had helped open and bring to his library in Yorba Linda. If it took 50 years, or even more, that was okay. It wasn't so much about us, we had realized. It was about Nixon and what history would decide.

Patron saint of Haldeman foundation
But Nixon and ex-chief of staff Bob Haldeman's non-policy campaign and political aides, some of them associated with Watergate or Watergate-related abuses, took a different view. These revanchists finally had a chance to mass in Yorba Linda in mid-2009 after Naftali invited former White House counsel and famed Watergate plea-copper and whistle-blower John Dean to give a speech on the 37th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. While Dean is a significant historical figure, the Haldeman tribe hated him for helping send their friends to jail for their Watergate crimes. "Don’t rub it in my face by inviting John Dean on the anniversary of Watergate," complained one, as though public history were a matter of not hurting his feelings. They would no doubt have preferred keynote remarks by one of their own -- perhaps Dwight Chapin, organizer of Nixon's 1972 campaign dirty tricks -- or no speech at all. That summer and fall, in the wake of the Dean invitation, they seized control of Nixon's foundation and launched a full-scale war against Naftali, questioning his professionalism and ethics, using a Nixon-staffer-turned-U.S. senator, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), to try to get him fired, and making disparaging remarks about his sexual orientation.

Here's where the Charlie Wilson analogy comes into play. Haldeman's loyalists wouldn't have been squatting so securely on their nine acres of Nixon purity in Yorba Linda without insider help. Their apparently unwitting accomplice, Orange County printer Kris Elftmann, was an institutional creature of Kathy's and my own making. On the advice of the late Mary Muth, a longtime supporter of Richard Nixon and the Nixon foundation, we had cultivated Elftmann for membership on the foundation board and soon elevated him to chairman.

In early 2009, after I said I was quitting after 19 years as executive director, the foundation's executive committee offered Kathy two years as my replacement. Though she was reluctant, two longtime board members persuaded her to accept the offer. But Elftmann had another plan. When the full board met, he proposed making Kathy a one-year caretaker and called for a national search for the best-possible candidate. He and the foundation hired headhunters at Korn/Ferry to perform the search. Korn/Ferry is popular in Nixon circles because former Nixon advance man and National Park Service director Ron Walker is one of its former executives. (Walker will also be remembered for telling muckraking Nixon biographer Anthony Summers that he had enlisted off-duty police officers and firefighters to rough up anti-Nixon demonstrators and for bragging about having protest signs ripped from free citizens' hands.) In a conversation during the summer of 2009 at La Casa Pacifica, the Nixons' old home in San Clemente, Walker told me he was keeping close tabs on the search and promised to pass on any concerns I had. (Kathy had already opted out.) When Korn/Ferry presented their candidates that fall, Elftmann proposed giving the job to Walker. The Nixon board agreed.

To attract the quality candidates that Elftmann had said he was looking for, he and the board had changed the job title from executive director to president and increased the salary. An additional possible motive for these enhancements emerged in the fall of 2010. First Walker stepped up to foundation chairman. Then according to a board member who was present, Elftmann, the volunteer chairman, had his own name put forward for president. It had all the hallmarks of a Putin-Medvedev job swap. Unfortunately for Elftmann, it didn't go down that way. He had helped all the president's men to seize power in Yorba Linda. Now that they were in charge, they essentially showed him the door.
With Kathy in Hangzhou, 1993

The year before, Elftmann had leveraged a small group of foundation trustees associated with the Washington-based Nixon Center against Kathy. During that abysmal spring and summer, she was repaid for 30 years of confidential service to Nixon and his family with acts of savagery and sadism. Worst of all was when her antagonists pressured her to sign a multimillion-dollar lease for new Nixon Center offices in Washington and embroiled her in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bogus job reviews when she refused to do so without consulting the foundation board.

You read that right. Kathy's unyielding insistence on taking the Nixon Center's proposed lease contract to the Nixon foundation board, which was legally responsible for Nixon Center finances, was actually construed as evidence of poor performance. Imagine the irony of someone affiliated with a Nixon operation being punished for insisting on fiduciary probity. During those hellish months, our erstwhile friends on the board fretted and stewed but did nothing to stop the abuse. Finally Kathy and I acted to extract her.

Elftmann must have assumed that the Beltway insiders at the Nixon Center, including former NATO Ambassador Bob Ellsworth, who had helped Elftmann batter Kathy over the Center's lease, had enough clout in Yorba Linda to make him foundation president. But they'd never had much influence on the board, and now they had none. Walker and the board spurned Elftmann and gave the job to one of their own. After he lost, a board member told me, Elftmann quit and stormed out, later muttering darkly, and ironically, to a reporter about the foundation's questionable management practices. Within a year, the Haldeman tribe had cut the Nixon Center loose, too. News reports suggest that it got millions from the foundation endowment for agreeing to stop using Nixon's name. Now called the Center for the National Interest, it will be lucky to outlive its current management and contributors.

The Nixon foundation was now in a position to turn its full fire on Tim Naftali, the federal library director. Their goal was no less than the final coverup: Blocking the warts-and-all Watergate exhibit that the archivist of the U.S. had assigned him to install and that the Nixon foundation, when Kathy and I were running it, had agreed was the price of admission to the federal library system. This time, all their spirit-of-Watergate moves were impotent. Withstanding one of the most systematic assaults ever mounted against a public historian, Naftali thwarted them at every turn, successfully installing the exhibit in March 2011.

Haldeman's loyalists will tell you their enemy was Naftali. But they also shrink from the uncompromising judgement of history -- about Nixon, but also about themselves. Otherwise they wouldn't have tried to keep Naftali from using their own oral history interviews, called on him and NARA to be kinder to Bob Haldeman, and tried to narrow the definition of Watergate in the new museum exhibit so that the principal villains would have appeared to be their bete noire Dean, political counselor Chuck Colson (never a Haldeman insider), and, of course and always, Nixon himself. Otherwise a heavyweight's centennial wouldn't have been lighter than air. Otherwise they wouldn't have held out for a successor to Naftali whose resume is empty of curatorial, archival, or public policy substance. Otherwise, to paraphrase Nixon's so-called last press conference in 1962, they'd invite one lonely professor onto the campus from time to time, just to report what people were thinking, feeling, and saying about Richard Nixon in arenas other than panel discussions and cocktail parties for former aides.

Not in Yorba Linda
It was over three years between Tim Naftali's resignation and the appointment late last year of the Great Park's Michael Ellzey. The feds had trouble finding someone who matched the Nixon foundation's particular standards. It had effectively vetoed NARA's preferred candidate, University of Texas scholar Mark Atwood Lawrence. Lawrence's 2010 book, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, is a balanced if blunt study by a younger scholar who seems unburdened by the intestinal biases of those who lived through the Vietnam years. Lawrence is reasonably fair to Nixon's policies in Indochina, though he doesn't shrink from highlighting 37's temperamental shortcomings. How could he? Remember those tapes, playing forever, never to be silenced. Lawrence earned the operatives' particular ire for this passage, describing Nixon's attitude toward the antiwar movement: "Exhausted and often alcohol-fogged, Nixon lashed back furiously at his critics." It isn't what I would've written. But by and large Lawrence accepts the proposition that it was American politics -- Watergate plus massive congressional cutbacks in U.S. aid to its ally in Saigon -- that doomed South Vietnam, not the superior ability or moral standing of communist North Vietnam. As a matter of fact, that was Nixon's view as well.

I'm doubting Thomas will return
Vietnam, Watergate, and Nixon's complex temperament also received the attention they deserved late last year at an excellent Nixon library program on Nixon's 1974 resignation featuring journalist and historian Evan Thomas, who is at work on a Nixon biography. Invited by federal library executive Greg Cumming, whom I lured to Yorba Linda from the Reagan library many years ago, the panelists were respectful to Nixon without being uncritical. I left thinking that Thomas would write a fair and important book about Nixon. It's just the kind of program the library should offer all the time. But the Nixon-Haldeman foundation publicly ignored it. What remains to be seen is whether, under the library and foundation's new management, Greg's event ends up being the high water mark of true inquiry in the public programs of the Nixon library, which has become a thoroughly uninteresting place dedicated in the name of one of the most interesting people ever.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Honeymoon's Over

He can't fire Bibi
My comment on Thomas Friedman's column about the Israeli election yesterday was one of 21 designated as "NYT Picks":
Bibi can afford to be honest thanks to the sea change in U.S. attitudes. Israel's historic left-leaning U.S. supporters cared more about democracy for democracy's sake than do her new friends on the right, who don't seem to worry much about disenfranchised Palestinians on the West Bank. With a GOP Congress and a better than even chance for a GOP president, Bibi's sitting pretty for the time being as far as keeping the U.S. is concerned.

At home, if he's being honest about abandoning two states, he probably envisions a plan along the lines of Naftali Bennett's -- annexation of the West Bank with a glacial phasing-in of Palestinians' rights. Meanwhile the Palestinians will continue to lobby in international forums for de facto statehood. These visions will inevitably and perhaps violently clash. Maybe that's just what Bibi's evangelical end-time friends in the U.S. want.

Israelis can run their country however they want. But I'm feeling more and more like Israel is morally equivalent with China, Germany, and Japan as far as U.S. policy is concerned. Relations among countries need to be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Since 1948, our main interest in Israel has been that we loved her for the sake of who she was and what she stood for. I still respect that, but the honeymoon's over. I don't have to love Israel's democracy if Israel doesn't. And I am not going to favor a Mideast policy driven primarily by end-timers. I don't like their influence in Iran, and I don't like it here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Their Lady, And Ours

Harvesting holy water
As our flight from Mexico City to LAX was about to take off, two women sitting next to me crossed themselves. Visiting Cuernavaca’s Roman Catholic cathedral a few days before, I had seen a mother and two children filling containers from the baptismal font and putting them in a shopping bag. I don’t know if they planned to sell it or put it to some sacramental use. Either way, tap water wouldn’t do. They wanted the holy article and plenty of it.

During our two-week pilgrimage, we Diocese of Los Angeles laypeople and clergy, led by Bishop Mary Douglas Glasspool, observed many more overt expressions of piety than we’re used to seeing in the U.S. Nearly 100 million Mexicans, 83% of the population, are Roman Catholic. Curious about how many were practicing as opposed to nominal Catholics, we asked one of our Spanish language teachers to tell us who actually goes to church on Ash Wednesday. “Todos,” she said with a smile. “And even more go on Pascua (Easter Sunday).”

Some of us attended a Saturday morning mass with at least 3,000 souls in Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the world’s third most visited sacred site. I found myself in a clutch of communicants near the altar. I passed la paz del Señor with a dozen men, women, and children. After the consecration, as a parade of priests and deacons plunged into the crowd, I hesitated, unsure of the protocol. I felt hands against my back, turning me and gently pushing me toward a priest standing nearby.

As far as I could see, everyone was served. Later, I lit candles for my ailing mother and for Kathy, who cared for her while I was away. I have never been more moved in church. Surely God’s spirit was there, if anywhere.

And yet 20 minutes before, our guide for the morning, Francisco Guerrero, one of the founders of the newspaper La Jornada and a nephew of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Octavio Paz, had said that just being there made him feel depressed. Francisco is an expert on the indigenous people of Mesoamerica -- Aztecs, Mayans, and myriad others who thrived before Spain’s conquest in 1521. After briefing us as we stood on the plaza outside the basilica, he sent us to explore by ourselves. He refused to set foot inside. He said he could never forgive the church for exploiting the Mexican people, from the 16th century until now, when, he told us, the basilica alone takes in $1 million each day.

Our Lady at home
At the heart of such passions and debates about the church’s role in Mexican society is the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Official doctrine holds that a maiden appeared to peasant Juan Diego in 1531, a decade after the Spanish conquest. Speaking in the Aztec tongue of Nahuatl, she sent him to pick flowers on a hilltop where a temple to the goddess Tonantzin had stood until the Spanish destroyed it. There he found not indigenous Mexican flowers but Castilian roses. He arranged these in his coat, or tilma. Appearing before the Catholic archbishop, Juan found that the image of a woman with brown skin had been burned into his tilma’s fabric – a Virgin Mary custom-made for the new world. Our Lady’s basilica stands near the hilltop where Juan is said to have found the Spanish roses. His tilma is displayed in a climate-controlled enclosure high above the altar where the mass we attended was celebrated.

Did it really happen? Or did the Spaniards concoct the story to legitimize its conquest and sweep away the vestiges of indigenous religion? We heard these points of view and others from scholars such as Francisco as well as clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Cuernavaca, our host. Whatever the story’s origins, when Mexicans threw off Spanish rule in the 19th century, Our Lady inspired them. Today she is a symbol of national identity for the faithful and nonbelievers alike in a country whose public institutions are often obdurately corrupt. Francisco’s uncle, Octavio Paz, famously said, “[T]he Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.“

Yet many Mexican Protestants believe they should offer worshipers an alternative to myths and magical thinking, especially when they have been used exploitatively. Some Anglican priests won’t display Our Lady in their churches even when their congregants want them to. A few we met during our visit were surprised to learn that some U.S. Episcopal churches with Anglo-Catholic leanings and Spanish-speaking congregations make a point to honor her. In the U.S., such gestures are the essence of our inclusive Anglican identity. Our Mexican colleagues tend to stress the exclusivity of Anglican identity. Such differences in perspective are in themselves emblematic of the richness of the tradition that those north and south of the border love in equal measure.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Voice From The Past," Erased And Restored

From p. 1 of this morning's "Register"
Quoted in a Jan. 4 article in the Orange County Register, a Richard Nixon-Bob Haldeman operative claimed that the Nixon foundation, which I ran for 19 years beginning in 1990, had no role in naming Tim Naftali as the first federal Nixon library in 2006. Actually, Naftali's was the only name we submitted to the National Archives. NARA loved the idea -- he was a foreign policy scholar and an expert in secret presidential tapes -- and hired him within days of my phone call.

It wasn't the first time someone had written me out of the history of the Nixon wars. In their recently published book of White House tapes, Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter tried to erase one of mine by writing that Naftali's Yorba Linda appointment was "serendipitous," as if it had been a rare and wonderful example of immaculate bureaucratic conception.

This week, a more knowledgeable scholar, Anthony J. Clark, author of a forthcoming book about presidential libraries, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine Their Legacies, brought the Nixon operative's whopper to the attention of Register political reporter Martin Wisckol, who'd written the Jan. 4 article. Wisckol graciously modified the on-line text and e-mailed me questions for a follow-up column, which appeared today. Here's our complete exchange:

Can you tell me how you became aware of Naftali? I'm told the foundation brought him in to speak in May 2005. Were you involved in that decision or was that your first exposure to him? Also, [operative Ron] Walker told me this morning, "The (Nixon) girls were upset that they were never involved in the selection. I heard it from them." Care to respond to that?

If by "the girls," Walker means Mr. Nixon's daughters, I can't recall precisely whom I talked to among my Nixon foundation colleagues about Tim, but I consulted pretty widely, and people seemed to agree that he was a good fit because of his unique standing as a non-ideological Cold War scholar and an expert on presidential tapes. If Tim and President Nixon had ever had a chance to sit down and talk, I don't think they would have disagreed about very much. He might even have understood why, if his library was to be part of the federal system, it would probably be necessary to have speakers such as John Dean and a more thorough Watergate gallery.

I first met Tim when he and his boss at UVA's Miller Center, Philip Zelikow, later executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, reached out to me in the hope that Mr. Nixon's estate (of which I was co-executor) would enable them to have access to White House tapes that hadn't yet been opened to the public. I visited them in Charlottesville. That would've been in the early 2000s.  

Overall and when all was said and done, was Naftali an asset to the library?

Naftali meets the press
He proved to be indispensable. Tim showed that the library could welcome Nixon critics such as Bob Woodward and John Dean without the world coming to end. He also took on the harrowing assignment of installing the comprehensive Watergate exhibit that was a condition of the agreement whereby the government took over the library. Given the intense pressure placed on him by those now running Nixon's foundation who were outraged by the Dean invitation and wanted to stop the exhibit, I don't know if very many others in his position could have stayed the course and succeeded as he did. President Nixon prized toughness. Tim was tough indeed. Their campaign against a federal director -- ranging from disparaging him personally to enlisting Sen. [Lamar] Alexander to pressure Tim and filing FOIA requests so they could read his e-mails -- may be unprecedented in the history of presidential libraries.

Any regrets in recommending him? 

No.  

Was the Watergate exhibited far and unbiased? Were Naftali's efforts to present Nixon overall fair and unbiased?

The exhibit is an unblinking and comprehensive look at a dark chapter in American history and President Nixon's legacy. If the Nixon foundation had worked collegially with him, the exhibit might have ended up with softer corners. Instead, his critics guaranteed that the experts and media would be looking carefully to make sure the exhibit included warts and all, which it does.  

What do you think of Ron Walker and the Nixon daughters who felt that Naftali was unduly harsh and too focused on Nixon's shortcomings?

It was Tim's job to be focused on Nixon's shortcomings, because the archivist of the U.S. and the Nixon foundation agreed that he would have to create a Watergate exhibit. The then-archivist, Allen Weinstein, told Tim he wanted a thorough exhibit, and the government was paying for it.

Some people do continue to insist that Watergate was overblown, even that President Nixon did virtually no wrong. But every fifth grader knows (and I've asked a lot of them!) that Richard Nixon was the only president to resign and that he did so because of Watergate. When students visit the Nixon library, they see the great achievements as well -- China, detente, reorienting the Vietnam War, and President Nixon's pragmatic politics and domestic policies. What message would we send schoolchildren, not to mention the museum's other visitors, by minimizing what they already know is one of the most important events in modern political history?

No, thanks, Mark
The wiser course is to stipulate the tragedy of Watergate while focusing attention on Mr. Nixon's globe-transforming achievements and enduring principles. That's one reason President Nixon and we launched The Nixon Center in 1994. (Sadly, it is no longer allowed to use his name.)

As for the apparent continued attacks against Tim that you mention, it's obviously not just about him. The Nixon foundation successfully scuttled [University of Texas Vietnam scholar Mark Atwood] Lawrence's appointment because it wouldn't brook his criticism of President Nixon, either.

So now both the foundation and federal library are in the hands of chiefs, handpicked or anointed by Mr. Nixon's White House associates, with little apparent background in museum or archival work, academia, or national public policy. The question remains whether Yorba Linda will be a place where President Nixon and his tumultuous times can be explored and understood in all their dimensions or a hermetically-sealed bubble for loyalists. When those of us who knew and served him pass from the scene, the tapes and other records stored at the Nixon library will speak more loudly than our advocacy or self-defensiveness. The reason we brought the library into the federal system to begin with was so we could be part of that conversation, not muffle our ears.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Room

During Advent, we await Christ by preparing our busy hearts to accommodate the incalculable abundance of God’s love for the world and all of us, God’s beloved.

The image that keeps occurring to me is a tiny, cluttered apartment suddenly having to accommodate a building-sized, heart-shaped pillow. The pillow’s so big that its unyielding, irresistible cuddliness flattens the furniture against the walls and then, like rising Tollhouse cookie dough, oozes through every door, window, and crevice.

There’s so much pillow that there’s no room for anything else.

Such is the gift of Christmas, if fully accepted – ours heart so full of joy, forgiveness, and a yearning to love God and others that there’s no room for the familiar old furniture.

We will always resist being rearranged to that extent. And why shouldn’t we? What’s at risk of being moved out of the way usually isn’t anything so bad as the opposite of the godly virtues, which is to say despair, vengefulness, and all consuming regard for ourselves. We’re entitled to like our furniture. We inherited some of it. As for the claw and ball table leg where we keep stubbing our toe in the dark -- well, we do manage to avoid it most of the time. Moving things around just creates new ways to risk getting hurt.

Bishop Bruce with food bankers
We might be so content with the status quo that we’ll figure out how to confine the giant heart pillow to the spare bedroom. Instead of letting Christ consume us, we’ll coexist. We’ll spare our Lord a ventricle and a few subsidiary veins and arteries, just occasionally letting him flow into the whole expanse, such when we’re holding a baby, listening to Handel, or seeing a sunset -- or on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when we’re in church.

If our hearts are prone to constrain Christ’s abundance, so are the churches we build in his name. We set them up just the way we like them, fill them with nice people such as ourselves, and then do things the same way over and over again.

Make no mistake: If you’re like me, church’s congeniality and predictability help make the experience holy. Just to expose the limits of my metaphor, I don’t propose moving any of our beautiful furniture. But how could we throw our doors open wider and let more of the giant pillow out? Could we do even more to turn our community’s face to the world?

Bishop Bruce and Roger Bradshaw
Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce posed this question to your parish leaders during her visit in October, when she invited us on a neighborhood walkabout followed by a conversation about what we had observed. Our group included Mother Martha, People’s Warden Gregg Stempson, Bishop’s Committee members Phil Bowman, DJ Gomer, Dave Nichols, Paula Neal Reza, and Erin Schwarz, and me.

We explored neighborhoods within walking distance of our church and talked about how their residents would love St. John’s if they gave it a try. But standing on the sidewalk looking across at our beautiful campus, we wondered how we appeared to them. It’s the church with the expensive private school, someone said. “What does ‘Episcopal’ even mean?” someone else said jokingly. “Is it hard to get in? What are the requirements?”

Bishop Bruce was delighted to see St. John’s outreach in action. She consecrated our School’s new “Seeds of Hope” garden, where we’ll grow produce for those in need, and dropped by the Rancho Santa Margarita food bank, where Roger Bradshaw and his St. John’s crew comprise the core volunteer group every third Thursday.

These new outreach and community ministries (others are Happy Hour, St. John’s Moms Club, and Caregiving Mosaics) naturally suggest others. Demographic data that Bishop Bruce provided revealed that 15% of our city’s population is Hispanic. Our walkabout group wondered how welcome those neighbors feel at St. John’s. What if we provided a translation of our services into American Sign Language? An obvious reply is that no one in our congregation is a member of the Deaf community. But that might change if we provided the service.

Your parish leaders were amply inspired by Bishop Bruce’s visit. Still, we all have more than enough to-do lists this time of year. Advent is less about doing than being – being ready, open, and vulnerable. Advent people and churches will inevitably be changed by Christ’s love. I can’t wait to find out what St. John’s becomes in the new year. I can’t wait to see who we really are.

This post was originally published in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fatal Overreach

Writing and talking about Michael Brown, whom police officer Darren Wilson killed on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, people have a tendency to leave out one of two details: Either that he had just committed a robbery or that he was unarmed. Wilson's critics describe Michael as an unarmed teenager. Wilson's advocates say robbery suspect. It's harder to argue that Michael is an innocent victim if you mention that he was the criminal suspect about whom Darren had just heard from his dispatcher. Saying Darren's innocent is a harder sell if you acknowledge that Michael wasn't carrying a deadly weapon.

Put the two together, and you get "unarmed robbery suspect." Google it and see how few hits you get. There's too much ambiguity in the phrase given the emotional freight that's being conveyed by the preponderance of the commentary about the case. We're naturally tempted to overlook gray areas while using a narrative to prove a larger point. It's especially in the nature of politicians, pundits, and interest groups to turn those caught in tragedies such as Michael's and his grieving family's into object lessons. But Darren Wilson didn't deserve to be indicted because of the existence of institutional racism. By the same token, he doesn't deserve to be absolved just because most police officers do the best they can under difficult conditions while running the risk of being turned into scapegoats for broad inequities and injustices for which virtually none of them is individually responsible.

At the core of our common life is the principle that a person suspected of committing a crime is judged strictly by the facts. In this case, after an a violent struggle over Wilson's weapon in his car, Michael fled and then turned and lunged toward Wilson. Was the officer expected or entitled to shoot him? That would seem to be a question that any number of police academy instructors should be able to answer.  If I were writing the rule book, I'd be inclined to say, "Do whatever you can to avoid discharging your weapon until you see that the suspect is armed." Of course I've never been in such a situation myself. The experts, many of whom have been, disagree with me. Wilson probably shouldn't have confronted Michael while he was still seated in his cruiser. He should've made sure he had access to mace or a Taser before trying to detain Michael.

But once the confrontation reached the street, even the New York Times called Wilson's use of deadly force "standard police procedure." If that's really the case, it's hard to second-guess the Ferguson grand jury. If Wilson had been tried, he probably would've been acquitted. Michael's advocates might have been less outraged by an unfavorable jury verdict than they were by the grand jury's decision. But again, the facts of the case, not the motive of managing public moods and opinions, are supposed to govern whether someone is charged or convicted.

Still, I'm troubled by something that Wilson claimed in his interview with ABC News: That he saw Michael reach inside his waistband. The youngster had no weapon. Pretending to go for one while moving toward an armed officer whom you've already assaulted would be tantamount to committing suicide.

So we should consider another possibility. In the ABC interview, Wilson said he wouldn't have done anything different. It would be reckless to say otherwise with a federal civil rights lawsuit pending. But a normal person would be prone to anguished second thoughts, wondering if his ten shots were justifiable. The St. Louis County DA claims that those who testified that Michael raised his hands over his head in a gesture of surrender were misremembering, their imaginations stimulated by their anguish at the tragedy of his death. It seems more likely that Darren similarly imagined Michael's threatening gesture than that the college-bound young man committed suicide by cop.

By speculating as I have, I'm not accusing Wilson of lying. Just of having a heart in pain.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brittany, Deb, And Cindy's Story

Brittany
Cindy Campbell and Deb Ziegler of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita once compared notes as neighbors, parents, and teachers. Soon they may have something else in common: the incalculable pain of losing a child.

Ziegler's daughter is Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Southern Californian and St. John's School alumna who moved to Oregon this year to take advantage of its right-to-die law. Diagnosed on Jan. 1 with terminal brain cancer, not long after her marriage to Dan Diaz, Maynard announced that she would end her life once her symptoms, including seizures and searing headaches, become unbearable. While she has chosen Saturday, Nov. 1, she reserved the right to delay her death depending on her illness's severity.

By going public with her decision and associating her name and story with Compassion & Choices, a right-to-die advocacy group, Maynard has sparked a heart-wrenching debate in churches, workplaces, homes, and the media about doctor-assisted suicide as a last-ditch expedient for those who are hopelessly ill. It is legal in four states besides Oregon: Vermont, Washington, Montana, and New Mexico.

At St. John's, we're praying for Brittany, giving thanks for her courage, and faithfully joining in the national conversation she has inspired. (As one of my colleagues pointed out, no less an authority than Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes” erred in his pronunciation of our famous alumna's name. For the record, she is Brittany me-NARD.)

Cindy Campbell, our middle school principal, is preparing for the far more difficult work of consoling a grieving mother, should Brittany die as she has planned. Cindy has known Deb and Brittany since 1987, when they and the Campbells became neighbors in a development near St. John's called Robinson Ranch.

Ziegler soon distinguished herself at St. John's as a superstar middle school science teacher. Colleagues say she was ahead of her time. Under the leadership of head of school Michael Pratt, in 2014 St. John's adopted the innovative, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum, combining science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. “In a way, Deb was doing STEAM before STEAM,” said Sheryll Grogan, a St. John's faculty member who worked closely with Ziegler.

Among her innovations was the Invention Convention. Campbell said that Brittany invented a device users could wear while applying hair spray so it wouldn't get in their eyes. “If she'd patented it, it may well have found a market,” Cindy says.

A straight-A student at St. John's, Brittany graduated from Santa Margarita Catholic High School and from UC Berkeley. After Deb Ziegler left the St. John's faculty in the early 1990s, she and Cindy Campbell remained friends. In 2009, she consoled Cindy over the death of her and Gregg's eldest son, Joey. Cindy never wanted or expected to have the opportunity to repay Deb's kindness. Now both mother and daughter have asked her to do just that.

“She has reached out to me as a mother who has lost a child and asked that I help her with this,” Cindy said last week. “Brittany has also asked me to be there to help her mother with the reality that Deb will be living without her.”

I thought of asking Cindy what she thought about Brittany's decision to end her life. I didn't, and I won't. It would be logical enough journalistically, but it seemed inappropriate pastorally, like an invasion of a friendship's privacy and a distraction from the ministry of love and support Cindy will undertake regardless of her feelings about Brittany's choice.

We have been talking openly about it at St. John's Church, however, both informally in the hallways and in two ministry settings: our monthly support group for caregivers, and our periodic “Sunday News” current events discussion.

Our members' reactions tend to match the national mood. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring of 2013, 49% of U.S. adults disapprove of physician-assisted suicide and 47% approve. In contrast to other social and cultural issues, such as same-gender marriage, the numbers are relatively unaffected by age. Fifty-four percent of those ages 18 - 29 and 56% of those over 65 disapprove. The most amendable cohort is people ages 50 - 64, of whom 44% disapprove and 51% approve.

Brittany and Dan at their wedding last October
Brittany Maynard recoils from the word suicide, which normally denotes a dark and sometimes inexplicable act. She says she loves life and doesn't have a suicidal bone in her body. Advocates prefer the phrase “death with dignity,” which is, after all, their mission. Virtually no one who advocates for the right to die has motives other than compassion for those who suffer. Such compassion is a core ethic of our faith and practice. It's also hard to imagine looking someone in the face who is experiencing hopeless, unbearable pain and urging her to endure even more for the sake of a principle.

Still, the issue entails considerable tension and even paradox, and we've touched on these in our parish conversations. What if doctors can reliably promise patients that palliative care will protect them from the worst ravages of disease while giving them even a little more time to enjoy sunsets, Mozart, the Rolling Stones, and fellowship with loved ones and friends? Should those suffering hopelessly from the agony of schizophrenia or depression be empowered to end their lives? Are physicians being asked to compromise their often praiseworthy and even vital impulses to extend life?

On the other side of the debate, some ethicists argue that human freedom includes the right to decide whether to live or die. Besides, surely no one of right mind wants to die when the possibility and anticipation exist of some decent quality of life. Right-to-die states take special care to ensure that doctors not collaborate with patients who aren't thinking clearly or rationally.

Our church is debating these questions nationally as well as locally. In a 1994 resolution in Indianapolis, General Convention said that while euthanasia was “morally wrong and unacceptable,” doctors should be allowed to administer extra painkillers, even if it hastens death, as long as they intend to relieve pain rather than end life.

Addressing the related issue of physician-assisted suicide, our church's End-of-Life Task Force, reporting to 2000's General Convention in Denver, recommended that the church oppose the practice because it “sets ourselves up as gods in the place of God,” marginalizes the role of caregivers at the end of life, erodes our faith in physicians, and risks tempting sufferers to think they should die to avoid burdening others. Reflecting on the task force's work and acknowledging her own ambivalence and discernment, Bishop Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool of the Diocese of Los Angeles wrote last week to colleagues and friends that Brittany Maynard's experience gives communities of faith an opportunity to discern God's will - “not just an opportunity, but an obligation.”

At St. John's, we agree. As a first step, we are renewing our efforts to make sure our members have looked ahead to their own and their loved ones' last months, days, and hours. For instance, everyone should study and fill out "Five Wishes," an easy-to-use anthology of end-of-life instruction forms first published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and now available in 26 languages, thanks to a grant from the United Health Foundation. Each of us should also fill out a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form; California's is available here.

We'll do this good, necessary, difficult work in thanksgiving for own Brittany Maynard, who, with her devoted mother, excelled at science and now calls society to be relentlessly discerning about its end-of-life ethics even as it continues to advance in life-saving medical technology.

This article was originally published by The Episcopal News at the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It Takes A Parish

Max and Elizabeth
I’ve never been prouder of a thumb’s up.

Early this year, I asked our Max Mizejewski, who died Sept. 19 when his Cessna 162 crashed near Borrego Springs, to read the manuscript of my political novel Jackson Place. Max was a war hero who barely survived the 1967 crash of the Huey he was piloting.

Much of the book concerns the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t serve, I feared writing inaccurately or blithely. Two weeks later, Max handed it back with a smile, a few words of encouragement, and a thumb’s up. That was all I hoped for. Max used language carefully. He didn’t gild the lily or stop to smell the roses unless there was time on the schedule and the olfactory episode had been thoroughly mapped out.

Sometimes he didn’t have to speak at all. St. John’s friends sitting in pews behind him say they’ll never forget the Sunday we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” He stood ramrod straight for all three verses, facing the front of the church and saluting. Then he hugged Rebeca and their daughter, Elizabeth.

It was five days before his death. May they always remember the deathless energy of his embrace. May we all remember the energy with which he lived and his example of uncompromising devotion to those he loved.

Max wasn’t the only St. John’s resource I tapped. I invited Trinh Hinson, who was born in Vietnam, and her family to point out any egregiousness in my descriptions of Vietnamese society and places in and around the city that was once called Saigon. Gerry Larson, internationally noted scholar and Presbyterian pastor, asked incisive questions. Our meticulous head of school, Michael Pratt, who has a PhD from Harvard, said he was pleased to have caught relatively few punctuation errors and then wrote a generous review on Amazon. Fellow Detroiter and thriller aficionado Tom Tierney thought I got both the politics and the Motown scenes right.

Cover painting by Robin Rogers Cloud
Andy Guilford was patient indeed, permitting me to feed him chunks of text as they came off the printer and making more great suggestions than I can count. I wrote three drafts of one section before getting a favorable ruling from the bench. He did question why I missed no opportunity to portray Richard Nixon sitting in an easy chair, his feet on an ottoman, while he twirled and chewed on his reading glasses. Had I forgotten writing about the eyeglasses just five pages before? If I may, Your Honor, we call that a leitmotif, I said carefully.

All their good advice notwithstanding, considerably better than the text is the cover, which is based on the work of Robin Rogers Cloud, acclaimed plein air painter, associate professor of art at Saddleback College, and member in good standing of the St. John’s Altar Guild. If you’re Robin’s friend on Facebook, you’re enjoying her exquisite paintings, including those she made during her summer in Montana with the St. John’s Swansons.

After finding the courage to ask an artist of Robin’s stature to help, I suggested a pretty painting of the leafy row of townhouses in Lafayette Square opposite the White House, where much of my story’s action occurs. Robin asked what the book was about. I told her Nixon doesn’t resign in August 1974 and moves into 716 Jackson Place so Acting President Ford can use the White House. In that case, Robin said, it should be scary: “Think Edward Gorey.” Of course, it’s perfect.

The contributions of LEM coordinator and former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O’Connor are also too numerous to mention. I borrowed a description of a child's first glimpse of a baseball diamond from one of my own Vaya columns last year (thanks, editor Linda). I fretted over a paragraph in which Mitch realizes that Emily loves him. Finally, I tried the passage out on participants in one of our Tuesday evening Bible Fellowship meetings.

My fellow pilgrim Gene Giordano gave me permission to use his last name for Nixon aide Ron Ziegler’s bartender at the Carlton in Washington. Gene will forgive me for saying that Mizejewski would also have suited my tough, fiercely loyal character.

I also consulted authorities in the outside world, including famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward. But I couldn’t have done it without St. John’s. One is blessed to have such collaborators, in ministry and in life. Someone said it take a village to raise a child. It took a parish to write a book.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.