Saturday, December 6, 2008

Perfect Songs: "I Say A Little Prayer" (1970)

Aretha Franklin

Rick Perlstein And The New Nixon Tapes

Nixonland author Rick Perlstein is doubly wrong in a Newsweek column:

For 364 days a year archivists toil anonymously, transcribing hundreds of hours of often banal, taped conversations. Then they pick out a few titillating excerpts to nab a headline in the next day’s newspapers.

How much time has the recently so widely celebrated scholar of the Nixon Presidency actually spent with Nixon White House records? There’s nary a National Archives transcript to be found. As archivist Maarja Krusten recently wrote in comments at “The New Nixon” and as most Nixon scholars know well, NARA decided a generation ago not to make transcripts, since it took 100 person hours to transcribe an hour of tape (300 hours before PCs were available). Instead, archivists supply finding aids in the form of outlines.

And is Perlstein so unfamiliar with NARA practice that he thinks government archivists actually “pick out…titillating excerpts” and feed them to the papers? Perlstein meets Nixonstein: That’s what 37 and his cronies were supposed to think. Hundreds of dedicated professionals are cringing at the accusation. Perlstein and “Newsweek” owe them an apology.

Elsewhere in his column, writing about Vietnam, Perlstein misuses the tapes as he did a secondary source in Nixonland when he tried (but failed) to show that President Nixon had foreknowledge of plans for a break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. As the Miller Center’s careful transcripts have shown, while Henry Kissinger was consistently pessimistic about whether South Vietnam would survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces, President Nixon was all over the map, sometimes saying that South Vietnam couldn’t survive, other times saying it must for the sake of U.S. credibility.

In his article, Perlstein tries to have it both ways:

In moments of candor both men admitted that Saigon would inevitably fall to the communists within a couple of years. Yet they were determined to stave off the collapse for a “decent interval”—the real purpose, as Nixon well knew, of the Christmas bombings. The two men told another story to the American people, our allies in the Saigon government and perhaps even themselves. In the new tapes, Nixon justifies his decision to use the most fearsome bomber in the fleet by saying that one final, swift, savage blow might force communist negotiators to give up their claim to non-communist South Vietnam. The only person he’s trying to convince is himself.

So if on one tape, Nixon says he doesn’t think Saigon will survive, he means it. If on another, the President says he thinks the bombing will blunt Hanoi’s ambitions, he doesn’t mean it.

How does Perlstein know? He doesn’t. He’s just pushing the “decent interval” theory, which is an ideological construct, the rearguard action of the antiwar movement.

The real history of the Vietnam war, and therefore the Nixon Administration and Watergate, has yet to be written. That work will take open-minded writers who among other things will take into account evidence, undercovered by scholars such as Stephen J. Morris, that the December bombings had precisely the chilling effect on the communists that the President had hoped. It was the distraction of Watergate that may well have doomed Saigon, not the Nixon policy.


In a response on the New Nixon version of this post, Rick Perlstein tells me that for this tapes release, the Nixon Library indeed highlighted tape segments that it thought was most interesting, unlike National Archives practice during prior openings.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Perfect Songs: "If I Could Start Today Again"

Paul Kelly (2001)

Maotaing One On

Distilled from fermented sorghum, maotai (or moutai) is a clear Chinese wine that is, hold onto your hat, up to 55% alcohol. After igniting a cupful at their banquet table, Premier Zhou Enlai served it to President Nixon for toasting purposes in the Great Hall of the People in 1972, which helped make the product of southwestern China internationally famous.

Zhou told the President that it helped sustain him and Chairman Mao during the difficult days of the Long March in the 1930s. News comes today that as economic difficulty spreads in the PRC as elsewhere, the Chinese plan to increase their production of the brew by 2,000 tons a year.

When I get to know you better, I'll tell you my own maotai stories. See, there was this one evening in Xiamen in 1985...

Women Still Deprived, So Gays Deprived?

When all are equal before, and behind, the altar

Covering the creation of something called the "Anglican Church in North America," the LA Times buried the lead today. Twenty-one paragraphs down and three from the bottom in in a front-page story, reporter Duke Helfand writes:
The differences go beyond the role of gays and lesbians in church life. San Joaquin, for instance, is one of just three of the church's 110 dioceses that do not ordain women.
While an afterthought in Helfand's article, the ambiguous role of women in the Church of Christ may be the biggest problem facing Episcopalians (not to mention its Roman Catholic and evangelical wings, where the conversations are nowhere near as advanced).

For years TEC has been convulsed by its struggles to determine what constitutes a full sacramental life for the two or three percent of the population who are gay or lesbian. Now, attempting to present themselves the true light of Anglicanism, the schismatics have made it clear that they believe that half the population are unworthy to be bishops and, in some cases, priests.

That's right: In the 21st century, in the nation that has done more than any other to make equal rights a winning proposition, some Christians are taking the view that both women and gays and lesbians are forever second-class citizens in the body of Christ. I say this with all due respect, but I'm amazed they let the blacks in.

The church must make a better effort to help the media understand that the root of the conflict over homosexuality is the stubborn insistence that the Bible, and therefore God, call for hierarchies among categories of human beings. It's possible that some in this splinter church who have big hearts, who'd prefer to be absolutely fair, can't get around their literal interpretations of first-century Bible rules. But others' exclusionary doctrines, no matter how magisterial-sounding their rhetoric, can't help but be rooted in existential fear of the other -- especially, I'm beginning to suspect, women.

It's fascinating that even among social progressives, just as in the LA Times article, women's issues remain secondary.

When the Episcopal Church permitted the ordination of women in 1970s, in a spirit of compassion (others might say prudence, for fear of more schisms), it tolerated dioceses and churches that opposed the move. Yet it probably would not have been as indulgent of priests' and bishops' defiance if the issue had been the ordination of African-Americans. Why have women had to wait for the rules to be enforced?

The dynamic is present in national as well as church politics. When Barack Obama was elected President, much was made of the progress that had been made by those who had been second-class citizens under the U.S. Constitution until 1863-65. How long will the successors of those who only received the right to vote in 1920 have to wait?

In retrospect, once TEC completed its agonizing debate over women's ordination, it erred in tolerating misogynist practice in parishes and dioceses. I suspect that if it had stuck to its principles 30 years ago, the newest schismatics would have been long gone already.

Besides, if we still can't get to the bottom of the complicated dynamics of gender relations, how can we be expected to have a fruitful conversation about society's ancient aversion to homosexuality? Those who say all homosexual activity is a sin like to say, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It's time to say, "Love the misogynist, hate misogyny." It may be that the best thing TEC can do for gays and lesbians right now is finally to fully live out its Spirit-driven faith that women are full members of him who lived, died, and rose again for everyone.

Which Denomination Will Obama Rescue?

Washington's churches are elbowing each other to have the Obamas as parishioners. The unchurched may assume this is because they are to be the President, First Lady, and their children. Pastors, especially those in the struggling mainline denominations, will tell you it's because they're breathing.

Historian Gary Scott Smith on the Presidency and the pews:

Roosevelt served as the senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York the entire time he was president and devoted a significant amount of time and energy to this position. Nevertheless, he only worshipped about once a month, usually at St. John's Episcopal Church, known as the "church of the presidents," because many of the early chief executives beginning with James Madison worshipped there. Roosevelt claimed it was difficult to worship God with so many people staring at him. "I can do almost everything in the 'Goldfish Bowl' of the president's life," he declared, "but I'll be hanged if I can say my prayers in it."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Fat Chance, Dan

Invoking "Frost/Nixon," NPR's Daniel Schorr thinks President Bush should announce he was wrong about the central event of his administration, in spite of the dramatically improved situation as the result of the surge:
As he prepares to leave office, Bush might want to look at the Nixon interview and consider doing a do-over — reconsidering the wisdom of invading Iraq.

I Am Not An American Anglican

Those who have been leaving the Episcopal Church lately often say it's not just about homosexuality. How true. It's also about misogyny. As a small group of dioceses and parishes form the "Anglican Church In North America," we read this of its attitude toward not only gay and lesbian people but women:
The new body comprises church members who believe it violates biblical teaching for a church leader to be a homosexual. Therefore, the group would bar gays from the priesthood. "We certainly identify homosexuality as something that is not appropriate for those in leadership in the church," Mr. Frank said. The group will permit women to serve as priests, but not as bishops, he said. The Episcopal church's decision to ordain women priests in the 1970s led to the earliest friction within the body and some dioceses never ordained women, even though the church's presiding bishop is female.
When someone would say to me, "Oh, you're an Anglican," I'd agree politely. No more. Some folks used to complain that the gays had ruined the word gay. Now the anti-gays are trying to ruin the word Anglican. I am not an Anglican. I am an Episcopalian.

The LA Times And The New Nixon Records

From the LA Times’s Christopher Goffard, more misleading reporting about the Nixon Library:

The library opened in 1990 as a privately run facility in the hands of Nixon loyalists, containing only his pre- and post-presidential papers and featuring a Watergate exhibit, widely ridiculed by scholars, that portrayed the scandal as a “coup” hatched by Nixon’s enemies. The exhibit has since been dismantled.

The library entered the National Archives system last year, with its first federal director, Timothy Naftali, promising historical accuracy and openness. Although the library released a batch of Nixon’s personal and presidential documents last year, Monday marked the library’s largest release of materials so far.

“The strength of our democracy is that these kinds of documents get preserved, and they are released, whether or not they shed good light on the government,” Naftali said. “In many countries in the world, these documents would have been destroyed. We’re pleased we can make these documents available and others can judge.”

So the opening of the federal library in Yorba Linda, with its new spirit of openness, means more records are coming out, right? Isn’t that the message these paragraphs seem designed to convey?

If so, Goffard’s intimation is false. Access to Nixon White House records has never had anything to do with whether the Nixon Library was federally run. The opening of thousands of hours of tapes began in the mid-1990s under a settlement negotiated by the feds, University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Kutler (who had sued to have more records opened before President Nixon’s death in 1994), and the Nixon estate. There hasn’t been a tapes opening for several years — not because of who’s running the library but because of myriad challenges facing government archivists who are in charge of preparing the records for public listening.

As for the Nixon family, foundation, and estate, they have taken many steps over the years to clear the way for the opening of records. Even when the government wants to open non-governmental records still belonging to the Nixon Foundation, such as RN's so-called wilderness years records from 1962-68 or Mrs. Nixon's files, we have readily agreed.

Why did we decide to push for the library's absorption into the federal system in the first place? So that all the records would be in one place (in an archives addition now under construction in Yorba Linda) and so President Nixon’s library would be run in the same way as the libraries of his modern predecessors and successors.

We hard bitten, secretive Nixon loyalists have been Goffard’s targets before, such as when Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein visited Yorba Linda in October 2007 as a guest of the federal library and the private Nixon Foundation. As I wrote earlier this year,

Goffard…[reported in 2007] that Bernstein had long been an “arch-villain” who “elicited special loathing” at the private Nixon Library.

The evidence for Goffard’s attacks? You guessed it: Our old Watergate exhibit, which, Goffard wrote, “falsely accused” Woodward and Bernstein of wrongdoing. It’s certainly true that the exhibit (written by a diligent and highly ethical political insider, Bob Bostock) contained a quotation about “Woodward and Bernstein’s failure to address any of the ethical deficiencies of their investigative reporting, including offering of bribes, illegally gaining access to telephone numbers, and talking to members of the grand jury.” But was this the work of a snarling Nixon partisan? Not hardly. The quote came from The Wars of Watergate by historian Stanley Kutler. A reliable critic of the late President, Kutler was praised for his book’s meticulousness by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh. Just to be perfectly clear, this means Christopher Goffard has called Stanley Kutler a liar.

Reviewing Goffard’s novel Snitch Jacket, “Publisher’s Weekly” said he “has a keen ear for telling detail.” In my experience, his reporting has been a bit too novelistic.

When he called me for a quote back in March 2007, when we authorized the government to remove the old Watergate gallery, I could tell he wanted me to wax miserable about the lost exhibit. He kept asking me how I felt as it was being destroyed. It was an excruciating conversation, because he already had my line of dialog written. He just had to figure out how to coax it out of me.

Snitch Jacket is advertised as a romp through the seamy side of Orange County. For the author, that obviously includes me and my colleagues. I’ve ordered a copy in the hope of figuring out why he seems so obsessed with turning a small band of admirers of President Nixon and his transformative work as a statesman into cardboard characters in one of his yarns.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Perfect Songs: "Sultans Of Swing" (1978)

Dire Straits

Bush vs. Nixon: Chris Wallace's Argument

Chris Wallace's now-celebrated defense of George W. Bush at the expense of Richard Nixon is disappointing. During a Washington panel discussion, he said:
It trivializes Nixon's crimes and completely misrepresents what George W. Bush did...I think to compare what Nixon did, and the abuses of power for pure political self-preservation, to George W. Bush trying to protect this country—even if you disagree with rendition or waterboarding—it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history both then and now.
To paraphrase Wallace, even if you disagree with something that the Nixon Administration did, it is beyond question that President Nixon and his aides had come to the conclusion that their policies in Vietnam and in dealing with the Cold War were vital to the future of the country. Reducing Mr. Nixon's motives to "pure political self-preservation" fails to take into account a seriousness of purpose about foreign affairs for which even most of his critics give him credit.

This is not to suggest that President Bush is as craven as Wallace accuses President Nixon of having been. But it does raise the question (which Wallace himself invites) of whether the activities of the Plumbers in trying to get to the bottom of national security leaks during wartime are really worse than rendition and waterboarding while fighting the war on terrorism.

President Nixon's Call To Joe Biden

Getting relatively little attention as new White House tapes are opened is a call President Nixon placed to Senator-elect Biden in November 1972 after the death of his wife and two of his children in an auto accident (I'll repunctuate and also remove the "uhs"):
BIDEN: Hello, Mr. President. How are you?

NIXON: Senator, I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House are thinking of you and praying for you and also for your two children. I understand that you were on the Hill at the time and your wife was just driving by herself.

BIDEN: Yes, that’s correct.

NIXON: So, I mean looking at it as you must in terms of a future, because you, you have the great fortune of being young...I remember I was two years older than you when I went to the House. But the main point is, you can remember that she was there when you won a great victory, and you enjoyed it together. And now I’m sure that she’ll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.

BIDEN: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you for your call. I appreciate it.

Frank Langella vs. Frank Nixon

Actor Frank Langella buys into a psycho-biographical portrait of Richard Nixon as an abused child for which there is no evidence:
Langella said some of his most important research was visiting Nixon's birthplace at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., and sitting for an hour in the closet-sized room the boy once shared with three brothers. He says a part of Nixon probably never left that space...."

What you walk around with are the first two to five years of your life," he says. "What Nixon had was a horrible kind of existence and a lack of belief in himself, with a father who whacked him on the back of the head all the time and told him he wasn't as good-looking as his brother, wouldn't get girls and would never amount to anything."
Wouldn't get girls? May we have a footnote on that? Great actor, but not much of an historian.

Real Nixon Meets "Frost/Nixon"

The LA Times notes the correlation between the opening in select theaters of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” on Friday and the opening in select archives of new White House tapes and documents today:
We’re not sure what this double whammy is going to do to the image of Richard Nixon. Just as the movie “Nixon/Frost” comes out, the public will also get to hear a whole new crop of those infamous Nixon White House tapes. In fact, some come online at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda today.
Warning to researchers: Please, no popcorn in the reading room!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Prophet Of The Center

"I think Hillary Clinton could be a very good Secretary of State," political commentator Dick Morris told a crowd of 800 gathered in the White House East Room of the Nixon Library Monday evening. "In fact she'll be a great co-President." The strategist behind the march to the political center that resulted in Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection triumph, Morris (now a Republican) makes no secret of his disdain for the Clintons during frequent appearances on Fox News. Yet he described President-elect Obama's preference for hiring experienced Clinton-era figures -- and indeed hiring Clintons themselves -- as an expression of the young leader's insecurity. Since he's not entirely sure what he should do, Morris said, Obama "is appointing people to tell him what to do." His biggest laugh came when he said that a majority of Obama's Cabinet probably voted against him.

Morris doesn't share the prevailing optimism about Obama's moderate leanings. "It no longer matters whether he will govern from the center or the left, because the left has become the center," he said. He predicted that the various Bush-Obama stimulus schemes will fail and that the GOP will come roaring back in the 2010 midterm elections.

As for foreign policy, he said that Secretary of State Clinton will be tough and shrewd, understanding that permitting crises to develop would interfere with her ambition to achieve the Presidency. Her main job: Keeping more or less out of the news. "Foreign policy only matters when it goes wrong," he said. "When it goes right, no one pays any attention." He called on the audience to think about the Presidential candidate who had almost singlehandedly engineered and promoted a policy for turning the Iraq war from a winning into a losing proposition. That's right: John McCain.

Perfect Songs: "Not Alone Anymore" (1988)

The Traveling Wilburys

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Great Endeavour

A space shuttle landing? Still nothing like it.


David Frost complains to Reuters about made-up bits in "Frost/Nixon." Does he mean the fictionalized drunken phone call to Frost that RN never would've made in a million years? Nope. The infraction is that director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan made Frost look like more of a lightweight than he was:
"To build up the ending so he left out all the things I'd done by the time of the Nixon interviews -- three prime ministers, three ex-presidents, all sorts of stuff," he said.