Friday, December 31, 2010

Palin: Victim Or Aggressor?

In an extensive analysis of Sarah Palin's 2012 nomination chances, Nate Silver concludes that she's lost ground in the last year. One reason is that she turns everything in a battle, even taking on a popular first lady's campaign against obesity:
A politician has only so many arrows in her quiver. If everything that she says or does seems to convey the sense of being locked into an existential battle against the rest of the world, the public may eventually become fatigued, less able to differentiate the important fights from the unimportant ones, and less likely to see the politician as a victim rather than an aggressor.

Will The U.S. Begin To Turn Away From Israel?

At the Nixon Center's "National Interest," Jacob Heilbrunn thinks it unlikely that the Obama administration will take the political risk of trying to impose a peace settlement on Israel and the Palestinians, as suggested by his blogging colleague Paul Pillar. Instead, Heilbrunn predicts that Obama will adopt the posture of all too many of his predecessors when it comes to the world's most intractable dispute -- benign neglect:

In the Middle East the Israeli government may think that it's holding the upper hand over Obama. Paradoxically, however, I think that Benjamin Netanyahu is miscalculating. The Obama administration will pull back from the conflict, in essence washing its hands of Israel. But this can't be good for Israel. 2011 may mark the year when he United States began to turn away from Israel, not in anger but simply resignation.

Sixth Night

Helping the Church of Christ keep the season of the Nativity alive for its constitutionally mandated 12 days are car companies (all those commercials, all those holiday events!) and the good people who live around East Lake in Yorba Linda, who are strenuously encouraged to put up lavish displays by the homeowners association. Several streets adopt themes, such as, for instance, animated mailboxes with Santa letters. Kathy and I didn't notice these until tonight. But how have they been getting their real mail?

"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"


Diana Krall

Dice Nick Kristof,

Learn Spanish.

Moments Of Grace

As she turns 65, Susan Jacoby reflects with some alarm on her sturdy genes (her mother's on the verge of 90 and her grandmother made it to 100) as well as the baby boomers' conceit that they can keep age at bay:

What I expect... — if I do live as long as the other women in my family — is nothing less than an unremitting struggle, ideally laced with moments of grace. On that day by the riverbank — the last time we saw each other — Gran cast a lingering glance over the water and said, “It’s good to know that the beauty of the world will go on without me.”

If I can say that, in full knowledge of my rapidly approaching extinction, I will consider my life a success — even though I will have failed, as everyone ultimately does, to defy old age.

Faith, Magical Thinking, And Picking Our Pockets

Paul Krugman calls Republicans hypocrites for acting like deficit hawks all year only to acquiesce in a $800 billion tax-cut extension without getting a dollar's worth of budget cuts in return.

That's not fair. It's ironic instead of hypocritical. Actually, it's not even ironic. It's revelatory of a mindset that Krugman doesn't quite understand, at least intestinally, as he shows when he writes:
Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona — who had denounced President Obama for running deficits — declared that “you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”

It’s an easy position to ridicule. After all, if you never have to offset the cost of tax cuts, why not just eliminate taxes altogether? But the joke’s on us because while this kind of magical thinking may not yet be the law of the land, it’s about to become part of the rules governing legislation in the House of Representatives.

That's historical memory, not magical thinking. The federal income tax has been legal, in the form of a constitutional amendment that was ratified in 1913, just seven years longer than women have had the right to vote. I wouldn't say the idea that government can naturally confiscate 25-35% or more of our income is necessarily part of our DNA quite yet.

We obviously can't afford to abolish it. Indeed rational deficit and debt reduction means cuts Democrats and Republicans don't like (Social Security and defense) and more revenue from someplace (us). As long as everyone suffers a little for the sake of all, I'm game.

But Kyl's proposal -- that giving people their money back is categorically different than building an aircraft carrier or launching a new program -- isn't magical or mysterious. It's gratifying evidence that part of our political mind still remembers that the federal behemoth that has sometimes seemed to billow and burgeon of its own accord is all contingent on the consent and confiscated wealth of the governed.

Krugman's right that Reagan-addled Republicans aren't facing up to the deficit's stunning dimensions -- but again, that's not hypocrisy; it's faith. Many honestly expect that tax cuts will trigger an 1980s-style recovery leading to 1990s-style surpluses. In the meantime, going back to Krugman's charge of hypocrisy against Republicans, I wish progressive-minded elected officials would own up more openly to their ideological predisposition toward ever-larger government and permanently higher tax rates. As long as they don't, who's really being disingenuous?

In British politics, at least, you know who's for big government and who isn't. In the U.S., everybody's for deficit reduction, which means either irresponsible tax rate reductions or confiscatory gouging, draconian social welfare cuts or trillions in stimulus spending, depending on who's speaking. It's not just our governments that are impoverished. It's also the language we use to talk about public policy.

We Need Balance, Not Space


From a "National Geographic" ad for its year-long series on world population (which will reach seven billion next year), we learn that, standing shoulder to shoulder, we could all fit in the city of Los Angeles.

Hat tip to the Daily Dish

Gen. Zia's Legacy Of Intolerance

Pakistanis take to the streets to defend the legal right to persecute Christians.

Good News: You're Not The Only One Who Tries To Remember Something by Googling Other Things That Remind You Of It

Writing in the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri expresses alarm that, for the first time, we're spending more time on Facebook than Google:
If you're Googling, you are at least theoretically expressing the kind of curiosity that is not synonymous with stalking. You are trying to prove a point to someone. You have just whipped out your iPhone. "Hold on!" you are saying, "I'm looking it up." He is looking it up simultaneously on his Blackberry, and it is taking him much longer. You are Googling yourself. You are trying to remember what the name of that thing is by searching for other things that remind you of the thing. You are typing in a legitimate question into Google to see if it will suggest that question back to you, thereby proving that you are not the sick, lonely weirdo you are beginning to worry you might be. You suddenly wake up wanting to know something oddly specific, like what, if anything, Paul McCartney thought about Yoko Ono. You feel that you must know this, and if you go any longer without this particular piece of knowledge, your life will not be what it might have been.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grievous

Why has Gram Parsons' makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree National Park been removed, and why don't park service personnel acknowledge that it's been done?

As a member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers and a solo artist, the Florida-born Parsons mixed rock and country music, setting the stage for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt in the '70s and the alt.-country movement in the '80 and '90s (Wilco, the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams, those guys). He distracted Keith Richards in France when the Rolling Stones were trying to finish "Exile On Main St." and helped launch the career of his talented backup singer, Emmylou Harris. His recording of one of his greatest songs, "Return of the Grievous Angel," is available here; hers is on a 1982 live album, "Last Date," that iTunes hasn't made available yet. You can hear and see her performing the song in July 2008 here.

After he died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26, an overzealous friend stole his body and set fire to it in Parsons' beloved Joshua Tree. Fans have been making the pilgrimage to Cap Rock every since, carving and painting crosses, poems, and other tributes. I visited in April and took the photos at right.

When I returned on Tuesday to what I was pretty sure was the spot, everything had been sandblasted away. While my photo below doesn't show it, the red cross and the legend "God Bless GP" are gone.

Thinking I just might have gone to the the wrong place, I dropped by park headquarters in Twentynine Palms to check. Two guys behind the counter, one a uniformed park ranger, insisted that the memorial was intact. The one in street clothes said he'd been there in the last two weeks and even drew me a map. Just to be sure, I returned this afternoon. I'd been right the first time. The crosses and inscriptions were gone.

The devotion of Parsons' fans notwithstanding, I can understand the feds being loath to appear to be celebrating drug overdoses and illegal cremations. Nor should people be permitted to deface publicly-owned natural wonders. As a nostalgic babyboomer, I could see making an exception in this case; I can also understand closing it down. What I can't understand is why my two friends at park HQ didn't just cop to it.

Would Middle East Peace Perturb Iran?

At the Nixon Center's "National Interest" blog, Paul Pillar joins those who urge President Obama to impose a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For one thing, there's Iran:
[T]he most important point to make about the peace process and Iran is that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, far from being a diversion from efforts to contain any dangers from Iran, would instead give a boost to those efforts. Given how much Iranian hardliners exploit politically and diplomatically the Israeli occupation and festering Palestinian problem, a peace settlement would take wind out of this Iranian sail and reduce Iranian appeal and influence in the region.

We Have The Technology

An easy thing to fix about e-books: Their page numbers don't correspond to the print editions.

He Cheers For Washington

Kathy's and my buddy Steve Clemons, the founding executive director of the Nixon Center (shown here with the ambassador of Singapore at the last Center dinner we attended, in early 2009), is one of Washington's most influential foreign policy bloggers and commentators. He's interviewed in the Dec. 30 Washington Blade, which asked him why he lives and works in Washington:

Because Washington is the sun around which politicos here and around the world orbit. D.C. is a free trade zone for pursuing any cause — and to get a better world, whether through ending LGBT discrimination or improving America’s foreign policy course, one has to compete effectively in the game here.

Christmas Sermons: Remembering Our "Wow"

When something great happens, we say, "Wow!" We certainly didn't expect it. We didn't necessarily deserve it. And before too long, we'll probably forget it. That's the only reason the church is here: As a temporary reminder of the world- and life-changing glory, grace, and mercy that even Christians are prone to forget. My Christmas sermon is here.

As for the wow of wows, the most important moment of revelation, the evangelists are all over the map, from the Resurrection to Bethlehem to the beginning of all things. When did you realize that the universe, despite all appearances to the contrary, was safe? When was your first Christmas? My sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas is here.

Three High Desert Days

Phil Hendrie, the radio host, said that you could tell a neighborhood was coming back when they put in a Starbucks and a Jamba Juice. There's neither in Barstow, California, at least in the part of town I wanted to see yesterday.

For a few blocks you get a flavor of old Route 66, the fabled cross-country blacktop that was superseded by the interstates a half-century ago. While I saw two Route 66 Motels, I fear the trademark is losing value. I wonder if my daughters, both in their twenties, have heard of it. Even if they have, I'll bet they'd blank on Burma Shave.

During this holiday week, I felt a little lonely as a tourist. I'd hoped to visit the Route 66 Museum, but it's run by volunteers and only open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Not their fault. The information is probably available on-line. I'd driven in from Twentynine Palms, about 110 miles away, as an excuse to take a drive. After my visit, I wasn't surprised to learn that Barstow was recently ranked as one of California's ten poorest cities, with a third of its people on public assistance. There just aren't any jobs. Some economists will tell you that with the decline in manufacturing in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, intractable poverty such as Barstow's is what we get. It's a pretty spot, wedged between foothills and the desert. Its people deserve better.

I didn't mind driving back the same way, along state Route 247, for the same reason Monet didn't mind seeing the Rouen cathedral at different times of day. Driving through the desert, you find weather rather than the other way around, and I was in and out of sun and clouds the whole way. About three miles north of Lucerne Valley, the road became a causeway between lake beds that are usually dry and teeming with off-roaders. Either that, or they were alfalfa fields flooded with reclaimed wastewater. I'd have had to ask someone to know for sure. Maybe next time.

A few miles south, in Johnson Valley, I got plenty of information from the locals at a rock formation the kids are using for high desert IMs. When I drive back into Joshua Tree National Park later this morning, I'll check out some more rock graffiti at the unofficial Gram Parsons memorial. My three-day retreat comes to an end today, after a night when my most pleasant of hotels (free wireless and crispy bacon) was buffeted by the same cold system that's giving northern Arizona a white New Year's. I hope it was quieter in Yorba Linda. Kathy doesn't enjoy enjoy hearing the wind at night quite so much.

Joshua Tree National Park, near Ryan Mountain, Tuesday afternoon

This Salt Hasn't Lost His Savor

Atheist Richard Dawkins artfully acknowledges the influence of the King James Bible:
Not just literature in the high sense but everyday speech is laced, suffused—riddled, even—with biblical phrases the status of which ranges from telling quotation (“They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind”) to clich√© (“No peace for the wicked”) and all points between. A word in season and perhaps we can see eye to eye. Although I wouldn’t call the Bible my ewe lamb, and I would have to go the extra mile before I killed the fatted calf for it, you don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to see how biblical imagery dominates our English. If my words fall on stony ground—if you pass me by as a voice crying in the wilderness—be sure your sin will find you out. Between us there is a great gulf fixed and you are a thorn in my flesh. We have come to the parting of the ways. I fear it is a sign of the times.

"Any Tools At Their Disposal"

Maarja Krusten's latest post is a primer for archivists who must deal with former presidents and their associates while managing records and running presidential libraries:
Some may use punitive measures and threats against you. That just may be a part of their political acculturation, so ingrained it seems like the normal way of doing things.
And:
Consider how frightening scrutiny may appear to people accustomed to relying on spin control and message discipline. One minute they’re in office, wielding great power, The next minute, they’re out of office, supposedly ready for “history’s” judgment. Don’t assume they won’t fight back or use any tools at their disposal to protect themselves.
Helpful insights, perhaps, for Nixon library director Tim Naftali, facing opposition to a new Watergate exhibit from Richard Nixon's former White House staffers.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Richard Nixon, Matchmaker

On Facebook tonight, I jokingly told historian and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein that I wished he'd used a weather-lengthened Newark layover to visit Richard Nixon's old northern New Jersey neighborhood. He replied that he'd done so many times, including when attending mass with his in-laws at Christmas.

Ain't no flies on me. To Google! Perlstein and his wife, Kathy Geier, made news in May 2001, in the New York Times "Vows" column, where we learn that, in his ineffable way, 37 helped make two, one (as with my Kathy and me as well):

Their first date was at the Living Room Cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where, it turned out, they were neighbors. Ms. Geier discovered that she had read and admired his pieces in Lingua Franca magazine, while Mr. Perlstein learned that she shared his passion for "the lunacy of Richard Nixon."

Ms. Geier, who handed out Nixon fliers as a child during the 1972 election, said she got her devotion to politics from her staunch Republican parents, Patricia and Henry Geier. Her father, an investment banker, was once mayor of Westwood, N.J.

Worrying With The Best Of Them

In "It Sounds Like You're Feeling," from Suzanne Rivecca's Death Is Not An Option: Stories, when the going gets tough, the tough catastrophize. Her character is a social worker who's been sent to a visually impaired therapist, Colin, to brush up on her empathy:
You are seized by a clinging, insistent hunch that your sudden teariness is entirely due to the fact that you're in a room with a dog and a blind person. Because it's unexpected, you tell yourself: the double vulnerability of them, their twinned soft mildness, how you can't stop wondering what they'd do if the dog got cataracts: would another, smaller creature be assigned to it, something with excellent eyesight, a trained raptor maybe, that would lead the way with the dog behind it and Colin behind the dog, the caravan growing and growing as they all aged and deteriorated, on and on like a series of Russian nesting dolls?
Photo by James Gavin

UC Is Hearing The Brown Sound Again

My guarded optimism that California's new governor, Jerry Brown, would be a Nixon-breaks-the-china fiscal hawk was based on having covered him in the 1970s, when he saddled the elites at the University of California with a series of austerity budgets. Sure enough, as the LA Times reports:
Details of which programs Brown will propose to cut remain unclear. But in private discussions, he has mentioned paring back the state's welfare program, reducing what doctors and healthcare providers are paid to care for the poor, and trimming funding for the University of California and California State University systems.

"Happy," The Rolling Stones


From "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones." It's Keith's song, but the camera can't keep its eye off Mick Jagger.

Subsidizing The End Of Zionism

While Israel's defenders like to say, because it's true, that it's the only democracy in the Middle East, that doesn't mean it looks like any other. For instance, In Israel, separation of church and state, not so much. As the New York Times reports, the government pays millions a year to male haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews, to study and pray instead of working. This category of Torah believers makes up nearly 10% of Israel's 7.5 million people. Some 60% of male haredim don't work at all.

For any number of reasons, the practice is being criticized by Israeli secularists and even a few haredim leaders themselves. But if you think one of the problems is that Israel is undermining the peace process by subsidizing religious extremists, think again. Most of of the haredim aren't Zionists. They don't believe Israel can truly be reconstituted as a nation until the Messiah comes. And guess what parts of Israel's population are growing fastest?:
If current trends continue, [an Israeli research institute] said, 78 percent of primary school children in Israel by 2040 will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
When they reach voting age, what then?

My Kind Of Nixon Tape


For nearly three weeks, the only Nixon news has been more fallout from his controversial White House tapes -- with the exception of the ongoing work of the Nixon Center, which favorably associates 37's name with current international events, just as he hoped it would when he launched it a few months before his death in 1994. Here Center president Dimitri Simes, appearing Monday on PBS, discusses the conviction of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling it "not just selective justice, but no justice at all."

Who Cares What The Neighbors Say?

We are being urged to wave at the International Space Station.

Time To Impose Middle East Peace?

Noting that President Obama's persistence against formidable odds won him health care reform and ratification of the START treaty, the "Economist" urges him to "persist in Palestine":
Instead of giving up, Mr Obama needs to change his angle of attack. America has clung too long to the dogma that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are the way forward. James Baker, a former secretary of state, once said that America could not want peace more than the local parties did. This is no longer true. The recent history proves that the extremists on each side are too strong for timid local leaders to make the necessary compromises alone. It is time for the world to agree on a settlement and impose it on the feuding parties.

Almost Enough Rope

Chaplain Francis Stephen on Christmas in a London prison. Someone swiped an Advent candle but gave it back, plus memories of two unexpected gifts:
After the Christmas Day service a couple of years ago, a prisoner who spoke no English pressed something into my hand as he left. At first, I thought it was a piece of rubbish he was giving me to dispose of. Only after he had gone did I realise that I was holding not a ball of fluff, but a length of thread that had been plaited into a tiny cross and chain. The cross was less than an inch long, its arms the thickness of a pencil lead, but it had been so finely and tightly knotted that it was inflexible. It was beautiful. Heaven knows how many hours he spent making it. When I was next in the prison, I went looking for him to say thank you, but he had just been released. It’s one of the nicest presents I have ever received. The other time I found myself holding a piece of prison ropework, was rather less pleasant. I had been called to the wing to visit a prisoner who was lying with his face turned to the wall. The landing officer said he had been like that for days. I sat with the young man for the best part of an hour. Just as I got up to leave, he stopped me. ‘You’d better take this, guv,’ he said, as he reached under his bed to hand me a homemade rope formed into a noose.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stones 2.0

So you're the greatest rock and roll band in the world, you've been making hit records for nine years, and you're planning a set list for a 48-show U.S. tour to promote your new album. An even mix of old and new, right?

Not if you're the Rolling Stones. In 1972, they didn't play anything more than three years old except Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny" and, on a few occasions, an encore medley with opening act Stevie Wonder that included "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Besides that, every song was from "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers," and "Exile on Main St.," the epochal new record.

The result of this audaciousness was one of the most legendary tours in rock and roll history (I'm talking about the music, not the activities chronicled in the never-officially-released documentary with the name unfit for a family blog) and the greatest concert movie I've ever seen, "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones." It was released in a few theaters in 1974, when I saw it twice, being a fanatic. Now, alleluia, it's finally out on DVD, so everyone can see Mick Jagger whipping the stage during "Midnight Rambler" the same year Richard Nixon was whipping George McGovern.

These were the dangerous guys Elvis warned Nixon about during their famous Oval Office meeting, no question. They were also my coming-of-age Stones. My friend Andy relates more to the 1960s iteration. It's more or less all about the the second-chair guitarist to Keith Richards' concertmaster: Band co-founder Brian Jones in the early and mid-1960s, Mick Taylor (shown here) from 1969-74, and Ron Wood ever since.

Wood's always played a lot like Richards. In a song called "Had Me A Real Good Time," which came out in 1971 when he was playing with Rod Stewart and the Faces, he even quotes Richards' riff from "Honky Tonk Women." It's a separated-at-birth kind of thing. In the latter-day Stones movie "Shine A Light," they grin at each other through their cigarette smoke like goofy teenagers. Their collaboration makes the band sound looser and more homogeneous.

The mid-career, Mick Taylor Stones, the ones on the new DVD from the 1972 tour, were astonishingly tight. Taylor, then 23, added a touch of uptown gloss, playing smooth, lyrical solos against Richards' rhythm pistons. The live album "Get Yer Ya-Yas Out" from the 1969 U.S. tour, the year Taylor joined the band, has the same sophisticated, propulsive energy.

But while blues professor Taylor stared down at the fretboard of his Les Paul, Jagger and Richards never looked at him. I'm not sure what that means. It's thought that when he quit two years later, it was because he didn't get along with Richards, who recently said that he's sorry Taylor left. Maybe Keith had just watched this movie again. Every number's sizzling hot, from "Brown Sugar" to "Street Fighting Man." But the Stones have always had a quiet side, too. Jagger-Richards were alt.-country pioneers with "Dead Flowers" and "Sweet Virginia," and in these performances their harmonies are dead-on.

Jagger (wearing three different spangled jumpsuits, since the movie was filmed during three Texas shows) really catches fire about halfway through on "All Down The Line" as the Stones go full bore with their two-piece horn section, Taylor's slide guitar, Richards' Kenworth-gear chord changes, and the Watts-Wyman battery. Not surprisingly, Jagger seemed to take his work a little more seriously back then, his apogee as a composer and performer. The Stones are always good, but in 1972, they were immense.

Jewish State or Democratic State?

Jeffrey Goldberg, visiting Israel, is wondering how much its leaders really value democracy:
[T]here's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.

Wide-Open Field? You Mean Like My Head?

If men started getting pregnant, it's often said, there'd be a male birth control pill in two years. Is there a research area where the gender dynamics cut the other way? Well, here's what happened when the Columbia University Medical Center's Angela Christiano noticed she was going bald at the age of 30:
I began reading all the papers on alopecia. In my training, nobody had talked much about hair. I thought maybe the reason was because it had all been figured out. When I started digging, I saw the opposite was true. I thought, “Maybe this is the hand of fate directing me to a topic? This is a wide-open field.” If I could identify the genes involved in alopecia, then maybe we could figure out what they did, and that might be the way to a treatment.

Beam Us Up, Ranger!

Hikers making their way up Ryan Mountain in the Joshua Tree National Park

Commander-In-Relief

I've been blogging more than usual about Mr. Nixon, I realize, what with the newly opened tapes and his White House aides' efforts to block the federal Nixon library's new Watergate exhibit. Even as I hiked through the Joshua Tree National Park this afternoon, there he was. I ran into Dr. Kissinger out here last year.

We Have Ways To Make You Flexible

Why did the weekend's blizzards on the East coast tie up air travel more than they would have back in the day? Why, it's the airlines' "inflexibility," according to the New York Times. Reporter Joe Sharkey runs through the particulars. Profitable airlines don't provide enough personnel to help stranded passengers book new flights. When travelers do get through to a human being, it's hard to get seats, because airlines have figured out how to run fewer flights so that most planes fly full. Pesky profit motive again!

Of course there's one more little thing making airlines inflexible. Sharkey interviews a pilot who says that in the old days, airlines at least tried to get flights off the ground during snowstorms. No more. In April, a federal law went into effect permitting the government to fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for every person who's stuck in a plane on the tarmac for three hours or more. "Now they’re often not even trying to take off," the pilot said. "They’re just going straight to wholesale cancellations."

And whose fault is that? And yet you can bet the cash-strapped feds are wondering if they can pass laws telling airlines how many operators to hire and airplanes to fly, or else. Our government's motto: Fined if you do, fined if you don't.

U.S. Vs. Russia And Nixon Vs. Reagan

Sparked by newly opened Nixon White House tapes, the duke-out continues on the Washington Post op-ed page over who gets credit for enabling more Jews to leave the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have always argued that their private negotiations with Soviet leaders resulted in an increase in Jewish emigration. Gal Beckerman says that what really worked was public pressure, including the U.S. Congress's Jackson-Vanik amendment, in Nixon's era but especially Ronald Reagan's:
When [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s and tried to save the Soviet Union from economic ruin, he understood that he would also need to reform his society, including opening the gates. "We have to resolve the Jewish question, the most burning among human rights problems," Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev's closest foreign affairs adviser, wrote in his diary in 1986. After two decades of pressure, the price the Soviets would have to pay was clear. With Gorbachev eager for U.S. economic assistance, the exodus began. He let out 71,196 in 1989, 181,802 in 1990 and 178,566 in 1991 - all before the Soviet Union's demise.
This essay at the Jewish Virtual Library provides useful background, without picking a favorite presidential policy. Its writer says that Soviet Jews' interest in leaving for Israel spiked after the Six-Day War in 1967. Whether Nixonian or Reaganite tactics worked better in helping them achieve their dreams is closely related to recent arguments in foreign policy circles about whether realism or U.S. ideals evangelism is preferable.

The Nixon approach was born of necessity and Nixon and Kissinger's temperaments. Governing in the midst of toxic politics and an unpopular war, they made a fetish of secrecy. They also abhorred linkage, whereby the Soviets would obtain advantages from the U.S. in exchange for treating their people better. First, Nixon always believed that the Soviet leaders had a massive inferiority complex and would react better to behind-the-scenes pressure than public tongue-lashings. Second, it was often Congress that did the linking, as with Jackson-Vanik in 1974, which predicated U.S.-Soviet trade relations on the Jewish emigration issue. Nixon and Kissinger felt they could handle foreign policy by themselves, thank you very much. (If after reading this, you decide you like linkage, try it this way: "Dear China: Unless you start permitting free elections and freedom of expression, we won't let you buy any more of our Treasury bonds so we can run the federal government for the next three months.")

Beckerman probably discounts Nixon's "backroom diplomatic dealings" too much, whereas control-conscious realpolitikians probably underestimated the effectiveness of factors they couldn't control such as massive international pressure on the dying, desperate Soviet system.

What sent Nixon around the bend (when I was his chief of staff during the 1980s, I heard this in person, many times) was the idea that Ronald Reagan was ending the Cold War with his oratory and threats to build a missile defense system. Nixon might have been more open to the idea that Reagan was playing his appropriate role as goad in the Soviets' last days if Reagan hadn't based his whole approach, beginning in the 1976 presidential election, on the contention that the Nixon-Kissinger policy had been a failure or worse.

In fact, they regularized the U.S.-Soviet relationship and decreased the chances of a catastrophic conflict while giving no ground to Soviet adventurism. For the first time, they gave our most dangerous adversary a stake in peace. They may even have given us a road map to solving the Iranian problem short of an Israeli or, or if the Saudis get their way, U.S. war that could be disastrous for us and the world. Instead of devoting so much attention to what Nixon and Kissinger said, we might look again at what they did.

No-Spin War Zone

As we prepare for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, E. J. Dionne cautions readers not to fall for the canard, successfully promoted by the Confederacy's president and vice president, that the cataclysm was about state's rights instead of southerns' desire to preserve slavery at all costs:

After the war, in one of the great efforts of spin control in our history, both [Jefferson] Davis and [Alexander] Stephens, despite their own words, insisted that the war was not about slavery after all but about state sovereignty. By then, of course, slavery was "a dead and discredited institution," [historian James] McPherson wrote, and to "concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep 4 million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause."

Monday, December 27, 2010

San Andreas Fault Sky

Sunset over snow-capped mountains, viewed from California route 62, which runs along the San Andreas Fault, from Palm Springs to Twentynine Palms

Oh, Henry!

Having failed to get Henry Kissinger arrested, tried, convicted, and keelhauled for what he did, Christopher Hitchens tries finally to close the deal with an explosion of outrage about what he said.

Landing On Schorr

Nearly 40 years after Nixon aide Larry Higby called J. Edgar Hoover to order an investigation of CBS reporter Daniel Schorr and five months after Schorr's death, the agency has released his file.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"A Splendid Tale Of Victory"

With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War looming (the Battle of Fort Sumter was April 12-13), Glenn W. LaFantasie of Western Kentucky University says the late Bruce Catton's A Stillness At Appomattox is the best Civil War book ever written:
This book leaves sharp images lingering in the reader's mind, largely because Catton expertly sets scenes, describes people in human terms, and refuses to disguise the ugly, malevolent and heartless aspects of war. Yet, in the end, the book is surprisingly uplifting, a splendid tale of victory, no doubt because Catton so adeptly uses irony and compassion to tell the Army of the Potomac's story.

Hiss Or History? Part II

Richard Nixon's defenders (0f which I've been one lo! these many years) are wont to say that his tape-recorded comments shouldn't always be taken as official policy, or even a perfectly accurate expression of his real views, since he was prone to let off steam in conversations with trusted aides. The theory is that just because he said, in the heat of his rage over the leak of the Pentagon Papers, that he wanted his men to burglarize the Brookings Institution didn't mean they really should. Just because he kibbutzes with Kissinger about hypothetical Soviet pogroms doesn't mean he'd stand by and let another holocaust occur.

Such defenses of Nixon's blaring taped outbursts often -- usually -- fall on deaf ears. Some are understandably reluctant to accept that the most powerful man in the world didn't usually mean what he said.

But now the family of a disgraced Vietnam-era officer, Maj. Gen. John D. Lavelle, is marshaling evidence from the tapes, namely yet more Nixonian outbursts, to show that the general was carrying out his commander-in-chief's orders. Charles A. Stevenson, a Johns Hopkins University lecturer who used to be a U.S. Senate staffer, opposes the restoration of Lavelle's honor -- and sure enough, he too has discovered that, with 37, presidential commentary doesn't always add up to presidential action or culpability:

Stevenson...noted that Nixon blew a lot of hot air in his Oval Office meetings, rants that shouldn't be mistaken as official policy.

"Nixon said an awful lot of things to his staff, that his staff wisely did not implement," Stevenson said. "Nixon had a practice of saying outrageous things as if they were orders."

Hat tip Maarja Krusten

We Red, Whitened, And Blue Sepulchers!

Shankar Vadantam writes:
Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

These Two Stories Are Not In Concorde

Trying to find something to illustrate my post below about Maarja's Washington Home story, I ran across this photo of President Nixon with the Concorde. According to alternatehistory.com, it shows Nixon arriving in England in August 1970 after a brief hop from Paris.

That didn't seem right, since 1) I don't think the Secret Service would've let him ride on the Concorde in 1970 (though I accompanied him on it once many years later), 2) the guy meeting Nixon doesn't look like Prime Minister Edward Health, and 3) U.S. presidents and British prime ministers usually don't need translators (more about him in a moment).

It didn't take long to learn the real story at UPI.com, which displays the same photo with this caption:
President Nixon leaves after taking a five-minute tour on Dec. 14, 1971, of the Concorde, the British-French supersonic jet, and said: "I wish we had built it." Nixon looked through the sleek SST (background) at Lajes Field, the U.S. operated air base outside the capital of the Azores. Walking with Nixon (at right) is Portuguese Prime Minister Marcello Geatana. Man in center is unidentified. The Concorde brought French President George Pompidou to the Azores for the meeting with pres. Nixon. (UPI Photo/John Full/Files)
The man at center is the late diplomat and CIA official Gen. Vernon Walters, Nixon's friend, legendary language savant, and one of God's great gentlemen. You can also see Henry Kissinger at Nixon's left.

Troubles, And Troubles

In a fascinating analysis of a 1992 Seymour Hersh article about the struggle between Richard Nixon and the National Archives over his White House records, Maarja Krusten tells the kind of Nixon story we don't often read:
Since ‘tis the season, I’ll mention an example from Christmas time. Hersh’s portrait of Nixon does not take into account stories such as the one in Haldeman’s diary (which we at NARA processed during the early 1980s) about Nixon’s quiet Christmas Eve visit to the Washington Home for the Incurables. The president told Haldeman, “Boy, we think we’ve got troubles.” The chief of staff noted in his diary, “It’s just amazing to watch him in this kind of situation because he handled it so well.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Snowe Job

Tongue in cheek, a little, Matthew Yglesias disputes those who say the wildly successful lame duck session was a win for President Obama:
You could just as easily describe [it] as a huge win for Olympia Snowe. After all, unlike Obama she got her way on START and DADT but also got her way on DREAM and one way to describe the tax cut compromise is really that she got Obama to shift to her position on taxes and got Mitch McConnell to give her cover on her right flank on unemployment insurance and ARRA extensions. But nobody is talking about how Olympia Snowe is the “comeback Senator” who, after 12 months of ineffectual moderation, succeeded in making the world turn on her pivotal status.

A Jerusalem Christmas

Jeffrey Goldberg (who's Jewish) describes Christmas Eve in multicultural Jerusalem. With Israeli friends, he went to services at the Church of the Redeemer (Lutheran) in the Old City and heard a German pastor read Luke's gospel in Hebrew. But that's not the half of it. Earlier in the day, he took one of his kids to see a doctor:
The clinic, called Terem, is well-known in Jerusalem in part because it was started by a physician named David Applebaum, who was killed in the September 9, 2003 terrorist bombing of a cafe in the Germany Colony neighborhood, along with his daughter Naava, who was scheduled to get married the next day. The physician who saw my son at Terem, like many of the clinic's physicians, is an Arab from East Jerusalem. In Terem, and at Hadassah Hospital, and the other hospitals in town, Jews treat Arabs, Arabs treat Jews, and no one thinks twice about it. No one who lives here, I mean. For visitors (even one, like myself, who once lived in Jerusalem), these sorts of commonplace facts of life -- Germans praying in Hebrew, Arab physicians treating Jews in a clinic founded by a terror victim, and on, and on -- can be astonishing.
It's hard to see clearly, but this photo, which I took in the Old City during a 2007 pilgrimage, shows a minaret on the left, a cross on the right (station #3 on the Via Dolorosa, "Jesus falls for the first time"), and (in the middle of the image, in the distance) a menorah.

Bashing Nixon To Build Up Reagan

On Tuesday, Michael Gerson used the distasteful Nixon-Kissinger conversation about a hypothetical Soviet holocaust against Jews to promote the ideology that Ronald Reagan brought about the fall of the Soviet Union. He goes so far as to imply, outrageously, that Nixon really would've let Soviet Jews be gassed:
[F]rom this historical episode, it is clear that repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience. In President Nixon's office, a lack of human sentiment was viewed as proof of mental toughness - an atmosphere that diminished the office itself. Realists are often dismissive of Manichean distinctions between good and evil, light and darkness. But in the world beyond good and evil, some may be lightly consigned to the gas chambers.
Gerson's comment is especially appalling in view of an historical reality which he neglects to mention, namely that Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union reached its Cold War apogee as the direct result of Nixon's policies. That means Russia's Jews were safer because of Nixon, and yet Gerson claims to have gotten a whiff of gas. While the taped Nix-Kiss exchange is impossible to defend on its merits, it's nothing but hot air.

Since the tape was opened earlier this month, Kissinger's friends have defended him strenuously. No word yet from Nixon's men -- except, now, Kissinger himself. Knowing him, I'd say his response became inevitable after Gerson used the opportunity of the tapes opening to suggest that the Jackson-Vanik amendment (which tied U.S.-Soviet trade relations to rates of emigration and ended up making it far harder for Jews to get out than it had been under Nixon) somehow helped end the Cold War. In response, Kissinger took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Christmas Eve. He began by apologizing for his loose talk in the White House and then took aim at his Reagan-boosting critic:

Gerson ascribes the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The amendment played no significant role in what resulted from imperial overstretch, incompetent economic management and the determined resistance of a succession of presidents from both parties, culminating in the Reagan period.

Gerson sneers at detente as if it were a kind of moral abdication. Memories are short. The conversation under discussion occurred on March 1, 1973. The Vietnam War had just ended; prisoners had not yet returned.

An effective global strategy was in place with the opening to China, a broad dialogue with the Soviet Union, and major progress in Egypt and on emigration. It was to preserve that policy that the conversation in the Oval Office took place, and it is in that context that it must be viewed.

Too Good For Washington?

From reporting by Sheryl Gay Stolberg about President Obama's vacation habits, more evidence that Barack Obama isn't yet completely comfortable in the presidency:
Mr. Obama is not a politician who uses circumstances and relationships to cajole. He is not one to say, “Let’s have a couple of drinks and hash this out.” He does not confuse his work friends with his real friends. He jealously guards his time with his wife and daughters and the tight circle of intimates like Eric Whitaker and Martin Nesbitt from Chicago, who are with him [on vacation in Hawaii]. And he is perfectly content to leave his public persona at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and slip, however briefly, into private life.
Two issues here, it seems to me. Protecting time with his family and being intentional about vacations make obvious sense. But it's naive and even reckless to act as though political friendships aren't "real" or that policy and political solutions aren't sometimes, indeed often, encountered in the crucible of relationships. There seems to be some evidence here for his critics' contention that Obama still thinks he can persuade people to his point of view by sheer logic, by his impossible-to-resist rightness -- just like the last president who was too good for Washington, the one-term Jimmy Carter.

Jesus Weeps

Terrorists murder 38 during Christmas worship in the Philippines and Nigeria.

Those Who Claim To Know God

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge delicately asks the ghost of Christmas present why, purportedly by his command, the authorities had ordered restaurants and public houses closed on Sundays, denying their comforts to working people on their one day off. Taking umbrage, the ghost seems to speak for the whole household of heaven, where, I suspect, there's still considerable impatience and anger about much of what we do in God's name:
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent, Pal

AP photographer Alexander F. Yuan caught this image on Christmas Eve in Beijing's South Cathedral (formerly known as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), one of China's official Roman Catholic parishes. China doesn't permit its Catholic churches to recognize the external authority of the Vatican. At least the little guy at right knows who's boss.