Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Something Bigger Than The World We Live In"

Historian Tony Judt, who died on Aug. 6 of ALS, offered an atheist's conception of the afterlife to NRP's Terry Gross in a March interview (rebroadcast last week):
I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in a single or multiple godhead. I respect people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big but which enters in here.

I am much more conscious than I ever was, for obvious reasons, of what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything for me. But it will mean a lot to them. And it's important for them by which I mean my children or my wife or my close friends that some spirit of me is in a positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginings and so on.

So in one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife as a place where I still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life except that I can only exercise them before I get there. Once I get there, it'll be too late. So no god, no organized religion but a developing sense that there's something bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and that we have responsibilities in that world.... The risk with something like ALS, where you sit on the wheelchair all day where you're looked after by professional nurses, and it's way beyond anything your family could do, where you live in one space, (unintelligible), while other members of the family live their normal lives, and you encourage them to, the risk is not that you do mean or bad things. It's that they lose a sense of your presence, that you stop being omnipresent in their lives. And of course, to the extent that you are present, you are surrounded by nurses, equipment, a sort of smell of a hospital, so to speak.

So it seems to be my responsibility, particularly to my children, also to my wife and friends, is not to be Pollyanna and pretend everything's okay no one would take me seriously if I said that but it's to be as present in their lives now as I can be so that in years to come, they don't feel either guilty or bad at my having been left out of their lives, that they feel still a very strong not a memory of particular actions but a memory of a complete family rather than a broken one. That seems to be something I can do or try to do.

Or We Could Just Get Over Ourselves

Republican leaders think there shouldn't be a mosque near the World Trade Center because of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Civil rights leaders think Glenn Beck shouldn't have a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 because of what happened on Aug. 28, 1963.

Grasp The Nettle!

At the British "Spectator," another of Mary Killen's circuitous British solutions to vexing social problems:

Q. We have taken a house in Italy and are bringing out some good old friends to stay. Now we learn that some very friendly neighbours in England will be three miles away during the same week. We will certainly run into them while we are out there and they will definitely want to meet up. My husband will go mad if we see them even once but I do not want to offend them. What should I do?

Name and address withheld

A. Grasp the nettle. Ring the neighbour crooning that you have been maddened to hear that they will be there at the same time because you will not be able to see them. Say that it will not be a holiday for you as you have a VIP coming to stay and have to comply with all sorts of security regulations and anyone coming over will have to be vetted. Will they forgive you for not saying who the VIP is and for not asking them over? In the meantime, can you book them to come over to you for dinner when you are all back?

Hey Rahm, About Those Tax Cuts...

In a Washington Post comparison of the Carter-Reagan and Bush-Obama recessions, we learn why some experts think Obama's 2012 economy might not look as rosy as Reagan's in 1984:

[R]ecessions caused by financial crises linger longer because of the shattered confidence of both consumers and businesses. [The Congressional Budget Office] went on to state, "In addition, under current law, both the waning of fiscal stimulus and the scheduled increases in taxes will temporarily subtract from growth, especially in 2011."

Dancing On A Three-Legged Stool

Robert Malley, a Middle East watcher, gives three reasons for optimism as new talks get underway -- and they all have to do with the temperaments and political positioning of the key leaders:
[A] Palestinian leader who needs an achievement; a U.S. president who appears deeply invested, and a hard-line Israeli prime minister who, if he were to sign an agreement, would be better placed than most to sell it.

Simi, Hear Me

Exciting expansion plans at the Reagan library.

"Settle For Love," Joe Ely

Texas's great high-tech honky-tonker and poet rocks the house in Nashville. The song's from his 1993 album "Love And Danger," and the video's apparently the same vintage. Read about Joe here.

Take My Library. Please.

In an editorial this morning, which bodes extremely well for Nixon library director Tim Naftali, the New York Times takes a firm if unsurprising position in favor of the library's Watergate exhibit:
It is all a rich and [an] educational story. We can’t wait for the National Archives’ forthright telling of it, right down to Nixon’s instruction to his team: “Play it tough.”
About the opposition, the Times says:
Congress took away their control of the library in 2007, but they still serve as an advisory panel, and they are demanding to first vet the exhibit for their version of historical accuracy.
Not so rich and educational an editorial. The "advisory panel" is the presidential foundation that spent $40 million building and expanding the library and operated it privately for 17 years. As for saying that Congress took away the library in 2007, that's only because for ten years we'd left it in the garage with the door open and light on and a big red bow wrapped around it.

The library would've been federalized in 1996 as part of a lawsuit settlement I engineered as the president's co-executor, but Nixon family politics tanked the deal. Beginning in the early 2000s, we humble advisory panelists scraped together $1 million for some blue-chip Washington lobbyists. First, they got Congress to pass a law to permit Nixon's White House records to be moved to California. Then they obtained federal funding for a wing at the library in Yorba Linda to house them, which opened on July 1. A hostile takeover, it definitely wasn't.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pray For The President And Jerusalem Peace

It was surprising that as soon as he was sworn in in 2009, Barack Obama put the full authority of his office behind a Middle East peace initiative, which soon stalled because of Israel's stubbornness about building new West Bank settlements and Palestinian intransigence about coming back to the table. And it's astonishing that he's trying again in the teeth of a midterm election. To satisfy the Palestinian side, Secretary of State Clinton gave the talks a one-year limit, which means that Obama could have a massive embarrassment on his hands at the end of 2011, just as he tools up for a reelection bid.

Which is why it's important to understand that we're seeing Obama at his substantive best here, betting on nebulous hopes for peace instead of acting through the understandable fear of failure by which the last two presidents chose to leave the Middle East until the ends of their terms, when they had virtually nothing to lose (and correspondingly less leverage).

Obama has played his cards skillfully. After the U.S. was humiliated in March when the Israeli government announced new housing in East Jerusalem as VP Biden was visiting, Obama turned up the heat on Prime Minister Netanyahu, making him earn his way back into the our graces. Worried friends of Israel said they feared he was turning out to be the most anti-Israel president in recent memory. In certain quarters, speculation no doubt abounded that that he was under secret Muslim discipline, taking late-night calls from a cabal of imams. But he let Bibi come in from the wilderness soon enough. Now, as "Politico" notes:
[T]he United States will enter the new talks with new assets: a stronger public relationship with Israel's hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, confidence in Palestinian efforts on the ground and an appreciation for the tedious, incremental path forward.
This seemingly impossible challenge is ideally suited to Obama's ability to listen to all sides and inspire them to move forward together. If he succeeds and gets a final-status deal, he'll have earned his Nobel Peace Prize and perhaps more.

Alger Hiss Is Daniel Galt

The best Nixon-themed "West Wing" episode ever is the Alger Hiss story line in episode 2:16, oddly titled "Somebody's Going To Emergency, Somebody's Going To Jail," a line from the Don Henley song "New York Minute," with which the episode begins and ends. I don't remember an earlier episode using a rock and roll song, and while later choices by series creator Aaron Sorkin and his crew are sublime, this one I don't get. In view of the episode's dominant father theme, "The End Of The Innocence," one of the great paternal betrayal songs of all time and the title cut from the album on which "New York Minute" appears, would've been more apt, but maybe it was thought to be too obvious.

The episode aired in February 2001, a month after George W. Bush (speaking of father issues) took office. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) has just learned that his dad had been conducting a long-term affair. Then Stephanie Galt worms her way into his office to enlist support for a presidential pardon for her grandfather, Daniel Galt, the Hiss of the piece. He'd died in prison in the early 1950s, six months after a perjury conviction in connection with his alleged spying for the Soviets. (Read about the details here.) Stephanie's father -- "a sweet man in a bow tie," she says -- is dying, and she's driven to try to clear his father's name.

Having argued Galt's innocence in his senior thesis at Princeton, Sam swings into action with prophetic vigor, only to learn from the national security adviser that Galt had been guilty as charged. At first shocked he'd been so wrong, his rage at his own father nearly gets the better of him. He stops just short of denouncing Galt to his granddaughter and finally sends her away with just enough hope to comfort her father through his last three months. Then Sam gets a hug from Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) and calls his dad.

When the episode first aired, I wrote a mash letter to Sorkin, who wrote the script, praising his courage. The only discordant note (and it's hardly the show's fault) are the decrypted cables that the NSC adviser shows Sam. They're the fictional equivalent of the VENONA papers, Soviet cable traffic that the U.S. and British intercepted and decoded during and after World War II. The VENONA intercepts clearly implicated Alger Hiss.

In "The West Wing," Sam learns that the intercepted cables weren't made available to those prosecuting Galt because their codes hadn't been broken until the 1970s. The reality is far more dramatic. When Richard Nixon and the House Committee on Un-American Activities were investigating Hiss in 1948, the government had the intercepts but, to keep the Soviets in the dark, didn't reveal them to Congress. Federal prosecutors didn't have them for Hiss's perjury trial. During all the years Hiss and his family proclaimed his innocence, nobody knew about VENONA. As two generations of American liberals castigated Nixon for having unfairly persecuted Hiss, the feds kept their own counsel.

As far as I know, Nixon was never told the cables implicating Hiss existed, not even when he was president. It's an irony at best and an injustice at worst that VENONA was only made public in 1995, decisively vindicating his actions in the first of his many political crises. Too bad it was the year after he died.

Naftali As "Scapegoat"?

Plenty of insights and speculation about the Nixon library Watergate exhibit at this on-line listening post for the Society of American Archivists. For instance, Maarja Krusten, an historian who used to work with the Nixon records in Alexandria, Virginia, heard the archivist of the U.S., David Ferriero, give a speech recently in which, she felt, he'd voiced less than staunch support for Nixon library director Tim Naftali, whom the Nixon foundation has been battling over the library's Watergate exhibit. She adds:
Naftali has argued that NARA's mission is to focus on "the full truth" about Watergate because that is what the law requires....Facing hard facts rarely is rewarded. Naftali, should he be made the scapegoat, will join others...who learned that.

Call House. He Might Actually Be Into This.

Via the AP, news from our staunch ally in the Middle East:
A Saudi Arabian judge has asked several hospitals in the country whether they could damage a man’s spinal cord as punishment for his attacking another man with a cleaver and paralyzing him, the brother of the victim said Thursday.
Clash of civilizations? Depends on what you mean by civilization.

We're All Keynesians? Naw.

When Great Britain and Germany opted for fiscal austerity instead of more deficit-ballooning stimulus measures, Paul Krugman warned of a global double-dip recession. He's been doubly refuted, since both countries are beginning to boom.

A Hard Message At The End Of August

Friday Afternoon Massacre?

Bruce P. Montgomery, a professor and archivist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, just put out this alert to colleagues around the country:
Word is that U.S. Archivist [David] Ferrerio is throwing Tim Naftili (sic), director of the Nixon Presidential Library, under the bus on the Watergate exhibit. Ferrerio has criticized Naftili for the "rocky relationship" with the Nixon Foundation.

In other words, Naftili has refused to whitewash Nixon's criminal activities in putting together the interactive exhibition or otherwise bow to the Nixon loyalists on their particular spin on history. Evidently, Naftili is to blame for his own integrity.

The new boss, same as the old boss.

Shalom Salaam Peace

Good news: President Obama plans to host Abbas and Netanyahu in September. The talks should be well underway when our St. John's pilgrims arrive in East Jerusalem in January 2011. At the pilgrim guest house at St. George's Cathedral, where Palestinian activist Edward Said went to church, and around the corner in the garden lounge of the famed American Colony, where diplomats and journalists huddle and you half expect to see Graham Greene walk in, and down the street at the Christmas Hotel, where mentioning the name of my spiritual director, Joyce Cottage, will get you a free drink, we'll have plenty of opportunities to to get a variety of Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the talks and issues even as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and his family and followers. And we'll pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

What's Next?

I can understand the frustration of the president's friends and colleagues:

The White House says Mr. Obama prays daily, sometimes in person or over the telephone with a small circle of Christian pastors. One of them, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was also a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, telephoned a reporter on Wednesday, at the White House’s behest. He said he was surprised that the number of Americans who say Mr. Obama is Muslim is growing.

“I must say,” Mr. Caldwell said, “never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.”

Reflecting on Obamanxiety about a year ago, I speculated that it was the result of people's economic worries, concern about the administration's overreaching, and Obama still seeming a bit remote and unfamiliar. Since then, the first two factors haven't changed much. Oddly, neither has the third.

In the interim I read David Renmick's Obama bio The Bridge, which portrays the president as serious and principled, ambitious and opportunistic, introverted and a bit austere -- and incredibly restless in his peripatetic life since high school. Critics and even some friends put his quick moves down to his uncanny luck and sharp eye for the next rung of the ladder. But maybe there's another reason as well. During the 2008 campaign, a journalist at "Slate" compared his and Hillary Clinton's Myers Briggs personality types. Obama's an ENFP, aka "the Champion" -- idealistic, rousing, able to live with differences and compromise in pursuit of a common purpose. Good stuff for a president, you'd think. but one expert, Otto Kroeger, added this warning:

As a task or responsibility drags on and its mantle becomes increasingly routine, the ENFP can become more pensive, moody, and even rigid.

Somebody give Dr. Otto a cigar, because that sounds a lot like the president I've been watching the last few months.

So Obama's aides can blame the Birther fringe and his angry left flank as much as they want for his problems. They can blame the press for not covering his events properly. All that goes with the territory. Part of being a good president is figuring out how not to be held hostage by the ideological and cultural dynamics of the times.

Another part? Loving the work. If there's evidence that Obama's growing into or especially relishing the job or making it his own, I haven't seen it. If he's forming the intimate bond with the American people that great presidents do in crisis time, I'm not feeling it. If there's anything worse than people thinking he's a Muslim, it's their deciding he doesn't really care for the job.


By 2002, opponents of an international airport in Orange County, to be built on the abandoned Marine base at El Toro, had already tried and failed to get voters to kill it. So they put a new measure on that year's ballot, called measure W, that basically read:

Wouldn't it be cool to have a park right here in Orange County just like Central Park, with lakes and merry-go-rounds, and, like, about a million soccer fields, and places to go hiking, and everything? There'll be hot dogs and cotton candy, and you can ride your skateboard and take your kids there, and no one will ever be sad ever again, instead of an icky old airport?

They even printed posters showing happy people walking through the woods in, evidently, the Sierra Nevada. The measure passed with 54% of the vote. I would've voted for it, but the then-chairman of the Nixon foundation, George Argyros, the airport's biggest booster, was standing in the voting booth behind me.

The problem was that there was no evidence that a "Great Park" was warranted or achievable. No feasibility studies, no nothing. It was a deft if cynical campaign slogan (aren't they all?), and it worked. Now OC Weekly is complaining that there's no Great Park and that politicians and their cronies are getting rich off the fantasy. "I'm shocked," Capt. Renault said. "Shocked!"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pressing A Constitutional Point Too Far

Cartoon by Michael Ramirez. Hat tip to Tom Tierney

Chapin Says Nixon Knew About Dirty Tricks

In 2007, Nixon biographer Conrad Black wrote, "There was no evidence [presented to the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings in 1974] connecting Nixon to campaign 'dirty tricks'..."

That was then. In an oral history interview with Nixon library director Tim Naftali, White House aide Dwight Chapin, who hired and directed dirty tricks operative Don Segretti and was later jailed for perjury, says that chief of staff H. R. Haldeman gave the order to launch the effort in the president's office as Nixon sat listening. If Chapin's contention is true, then the order was given before February 1971. After that, it almost certainly would've been caught by the White House taping system.

Listen to the news-making Chapin interview, slated for the new Nixon library Watergate exhibit, here.

Time To Get Watergate On The Way

After the Nixon foundation's war over Watergate became public on Aug. 6, National Archives officials said final decisions about the Nixon library's new exhibit, due to have opened on July 1, would be made in a few weeks. But thanks to Wikipedia, one learns that the background for the new exhibit already appears on on the Nixon library website, complete with photos, White House tape snippets, and even a memo disclosing that Nixon's aides had conducted an investigation into whether one of their own, Fred Malek, was Jewish (see "Higby to Haldeman, July 8, 1971"). President Nixon had wanted his staff to find out how many Jews were working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where he believed liberal opponents were skewing data. White House personnel chief Malek was in line for the assignment, hence the theological exploration by chief of staff H.R. Haldeman's aide, Larry Higby. Malek gives more details in an oral history interview with library director Tim Naftali.

Rooting around, you can get a pretty good idea of the contours of the exhibit. Included, for instance, are details on the White House's attempts to intimidate the late Daniel Schorr, then a CBS correspondent. According to NPR's 1994 interview with Schorr, in 1971 Higby called J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, looking for dirt. Instead, Hoover launched a full-field investigation. When Schorr naturally found out about it, the White House pretended that it planned to offer him a job, which Haldeman and Nixon discuss in this tape segment (which also reveals that they'd sicced the IRS on him). Finally, in December 1971, Hoover, laying one more lie on the pile, wrote a letter to the White House saying the investigation had been completed:
Mr. Schorr indicated surprise at being considered for a Federal position but, nevertheless, furnished the necessary background data.
It ain't pretty. It wasn't going to be. As a foreign affairs visionary, Richard Nixon made the world safer for billions of people in his own time and in generations to come. His positive legacy will ultimately withstand Watergate. But that doesn't mean the story doesn't need to be told. At Fox News, Sean Hannity loves to say about any scandal involving liberals, "If we were caught doing something like this..." Imagine if Obama's aides were caught engaging in shenanigans such as these. If prior administrations did things that were just as dark, as some argue, then let Watergate be fully illuminated in the hope that powerful men and women will at least hesitate to do it again.

To those who still insist that it's unfair to Nixon that presidents get kid glove treatment at some other taxpayer-operated museums, they've got a point, of course. It's an inevitable consequence of a president resigning, not that I ever want to see that proposition tested again. Maybe the lesson is that, after a decent interval, which is to say the first generation after a library opens, all the gloves should come off. Maybe striking a blow for curatorial objectivity at presidential libraries will be Nixon's last historic first.

Hijablessest Place On Earth

Is Muslim garb on "cast members" unwelcome? What is this, France?

Here's Hoping For Dr. Laura

From Andrew Sullivan's blog, a balanced assessment of Laura Schlessinger's career and sudden retirement from radio, and then this benediction:

Here's hoping that her hate mail stops, that her post-talk radio career is an improved one, and that the number of people she helps -- even her critics can acknowledge there have been many over the years -- only increases.


No, Of Course Not

From the mainline schism desk, another group of Christians forming an ity bitty denomination who insist that it's not about the gay thing:
Lutherans throughout the United States have been reacting to actions by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reversing ELCA policy to allow pastors to be in same-sex relationships and to officiate at same-sex union ceremonies.

Lutheran CORE leaders note that the problems in the ELCA are really not about sexual behavior but rather about an ongoing movement away from the authority and teaching of the Bible throughout the ELCA.
My brothers and sisters, let us at least be direct with one another. It's definitely about "sexual behavior." It's not so much about the authority of scripture as about how discerning, faithful people read and, yes, are instructed and commanded by the Bible. Perhaps most of all, deep down, it's about gender. How about we honor the body of Christ by staying together and talking, reasoning, praying, and conquering our divisions for the sake of the glory of God?

Soul Sources

Todd Purdum (left) is a respected former New York Times correspondent who now writes for "Vanity Fair." Discussing his recent article about Washington's prevailing dysfunction with Fresh Air's Dave Davies on NPR, he talked about the always fraught issue of anonymous sources -- especially as it pertained to a controversial mid-2008 article (with the subhead "Bubba Trouble") in which he quoted a raft of unnamed FOB who were worried about how some of Bill Clinton's business and personal hi jinks might reflect on Hillary:
One of my friends, a former Clinton administration official, told me when the story came out that this friend had asked a colleague, do you think the story is unfair? And the answer was, well, it would be if it weren't true and well-sourced. So I guess what I have to count on and in some ways the publication of the story showed me that it isn't enough, is I have to count on my own and reputation and I have to count on the fact that my colleagues in Washington who know me, my colleagues in journalism who know me, my sources over the years, you know, in politics, know me to be reliable. So in some sense, I'm putting my credibility on the line by granting these people anonymity, I'll give you that.

And, you know, I wouldn't have done it if I didn't trust them and if I didn't think they were telling me the truth and I wouldn't have presumed on the reader's good faith if I didn't have faith in my own reporting. But I'll grant you that in this day and age that's probably a slender reed to hang on and people are welcomed to draw their own conclusions.

In my days with Richard Nixon I inveighed plenty against anonymous sources. The most famous one ever, Mark Felt (right), who helped the Washington Post with Watergate and later because known as Deep Throat, was mad Nixon hadn't made him FBI director. Felt was later convicted of abuses of power himself. Though Nixon and others suspected that he was the culprit, it was confirmed just a few years ago, not long before he died. While Watergate went down in the 1970s, readers didn't know anything about his motives or character. He wasn't the spurned, angry operative who'd ordered illegal black bag jobs. He was Hal Holbrook in the parking garage, an unnamed mythic hero who was risking his job and maybe his life to save the republic from Dwight Chapin and Donald Segretti's dirty tricks.

Knowing Felt's identity at the time would certainly have helped readers understand more about the strange institutional dynamics that occurred as official Washington tried to get the measure of an anticommunist president who was keen to visit Moscow and Beijing. But the hard truth is that while many people and factors contributed to Nixon's downfall -- from his own actions and those of zealous, self-serving aides to the anger and ambitions of his political and institutional adversaries -- Mark Felt, while a favorite target of Nixon boosters, was probably just a little more than a bit player.

These days, most news organizations have better rules about how secret sources are used and described. A Times reporter, for instance, will write that someone is "an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to discuss the negotiations." Even that gives the reader pause to wonder what's afoot. You can figure out for yourself what Felt's descriptor would've been if the Post had been playing by the same rules 38 years ago.

Besides, as I listened to his NPR interview, I realized that I do trust Purdum. Why shouldn't I? He wouldn't have lasted this long in the business by making up or misusing quotes. Besides, as newspapers radically reconfigure themselves, our democracy will continue to depend on good information that trained reporters get by digging and by talking to people, whether on the record or not. Otherwise all we'll have is government propaganda and opinions recycled by denizens of the hackosphere hunched over laptops in Starbucks.

Still, the canny reader should always wonder what's up when a source has been given the gift of anonymity. Here's a tip: Sometimes a person can be a named and an anonymous source in the same story. (I know, because I've done it.) What's the reporter's motive? What's the source's? You may hope the reporter knows, but sometimes she may not. One more quote from Purdum's interview about his 2008 Clinton story:

[I]n a strange way that I only came to see later, [Clinton's anonymous aides and friends] were conducting through me a kind of effort to influence him, I think, by saying, you know, some of them had tried to raise these issues with him and were rebuffed. And it was a kind of a strange bank shot of an intervention or something in which that they were doing it indirectly through me.

There's a better word for that: Triangulation. It happens when family systems resist change, as they almost always do. When the 42nd president was asked about the "Vanity Fair" story when it was published, he called Purdum a "scumbag." According to systems theory, the insult was actually a predictable outburst at his cronies for calling him out. Purdum, who had positioned himself directly in the line of fire, says he and Clinton made up later -- and according to most reports, Clinton's been the soul of discretion ever since. Purdum's probably owed a commendation by the Secretary of State for an act of self-sacrificial public service.

That's Gotta Hurt

Maureen Dowd calls on W. to school O. in anti-Islamophobia.

They Built This Country On Rock And Roll

In the summer of 1990 in Czechoslovakia, eight months after the death of communism, the Rolling Stones prance on its grave, and a 16-year-old and his father exult:

The Stones stormed the stage playing “Start Me Up.” Mick Jagger’s lips were all over the screens. The faceless crowd of passive souls disappeared. People went wild, out of control. They were jumping, clapping, shouting, dancing and singing along, surprising themselves. I had never before seen such a display of genuine emotion from my countrymen.

Two and a half hours later, when the concert was over, people were crying and hugging one another. My father cried and hugged me. From that point on, no one would tell him how he should think, how he should feel. He had seen the Rolling Stones with his own eyes. And it felt so good.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Cluelessness Of The People

Nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009, according to a poll released Thursday. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent.

The Subtle Mind Of The People

By the same margin, New Yorkers oppose the Manhattan mosque and defend its planners constitutional right to build it.

Time's Up

"A president gets to govern for 18 months."
--Josiah Bartlett/Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing" 2:14

Good Times!

I'd almost forgotten about this gracious LA Times profile from February 1996, about my work with Richard Nixon as his post-presidential aide and library director. The original headline said, "Nixon's Taylor," and there was a giant closeup photo (not this one!) that frightened my children. The story wasn't my idea. The reporter called after the I'd organized a Nixon library PR jihad against Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which didn't contain a single completely honest moment. "Nixon" died at the box office not so much because of what we did but because it was just bloody awful.

I winced when I saw that the reporter had me down as my elder daughter's basketball coach (I was just the assistant). That's Valerie in the photo. But my blood ran cold when I saw this well-meaning quote from my buddy Hugh Hewitt:
I think probably with the exception of President Nixon's family, there is no individual walking around on Earth who knew Richard Nixon better than John Taylor. That's because he spent 10 years with him at the end of his life in close and constant companionship.
Typical Hugh. But I knew I'd come to regret it. And it happened soon enough.


Photo by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Tell Laura I'll Miss Her

Laura Schlessinger, who's giving up her radio show after going on a tirade featuring the N-word last week, helped me be a better divorced dad and second husband. She's relentless about personal responsibility, especially when it comes to the conceiving and care of children, who are and ever will be victims of certain parents' selfish frivolity. If you don't think we need such teachers, please just look around.

Her unyielding testimony always reminded me of Hebrew Testament prophecy. In recent years the church has tended to define prophecy as broad statements about social justice delivered to friendly audiences. But back in the day, nobody liked prophets. They said radical things that put them in personal danger. Reading them for guidance today, we pick and choose. We prick up our ears when the prophets tell us to let justice roll down like a mighty stream but cover them quickly when we're commanded to slaughter the priests of Baal on the high places.

So it was with Schlessinger. When I listened, sometimes I winced because of what I was doing, other times because of what she was saying. She expected more from women than men in the emotional nurturing of relationships, for instance. If you were a single mother of small children, she said you could date again more or less when they were old enough to be sworn into the United States Senate. She was rightly criticized for stridency about gay and lesbian people, which, I'm told, she had abandoned. When revealing photos from her own reckless youth were circulated, critics said her sneering at callers' foibles was hypocritical, while she admitted her mistakes and said she felt called to share the lessons she'd learned from them.

At times, her righteous anger seemed to get the better of her. In 1998, she went tubular on a Coast Mesa surf shop for stocking a racy magazine. On bad days, when she seemed to find it unendurable to listen to yet another person who desired affirmation for poor choices, her icy contempt was hard to hear. Sometimes her frustration bubbled over, as when she tried to make a complicated semiotic argument about the most dangerous word in American discourse by repeating it 11 times on the air.

While it may be time for Dr. Laura to take a break, I'll miss her, as will all those who called with a real problem and constructive attitude and encountered a stranger with an amazing capacity for making a connection and dispensing useful advice within a few precious minutes. Her gift of instant empathy is an underrated but vital one in our self-fixated times. I always felt she cared about her listeners, especially those who evinced deep emotional pain or seemed to be in danger from themselves or others. Her focus and attentiveness at these moments was stunning, her compassion profoundly moving. Yes, she's said a lot of outrageous things and hurt many people's feelings over the years (though often, when their own actions were under discussion, they've deserved it). She's also helped millions in ways we'll never know. She'll be welcome back prophesying in my Saturn anytime.

So Who's Running This War?

Afghanistan war critic Andrew J. Bacevich:
The leaking of the McChrystal [war] Plan [in September 2009] constituted a direct assault on civilian control [of the military].
Strong words. And that leak, presumably from a high-ranking Pentagon source, was to-- Anyone? Anyone? --him of the peerless Pentagon sources, Nixon hunter Bob Woodward, who figures in theories that Watergate was actually a proto-neocon coup against a Soviet-appeasing, Chicom-loving, Vietnam peace-seeking president.

I misread it at the time, thinking the leak was engineered by a White House that wanted to use McChrystal's seeming pessimism as an excuse to leave Afghanistan. In retrospect, Bacevich is obviously right. The brass were goading, and dissing, President Obama. (They did Richard Nixon even worse: They spied on him.)

So who's running this war, anyway?

They Mean The Movie

I did a double take when I read this in "Huffington Post" about Julia Roberts:
Roberts, who was raised a Catholic but is a practicing Hindu, said ["Eat Pray Love"] offered her a chance to draw from her own experiences, but said she had been interested in Hinduism before she came across the book and that she did not convert because of the shooting.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It Depends On What The Meaning Of "Faith" Is

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist -- quoted by my former Nixon Center colleague Steve Clemons -- on why conservatives are making a mistake on the mosque:
Norquist argues that Republicans fought hard to win enhanced legal rights for faith-based organizations when engaged in disputes with local and regional government authorities. And now, he argues, they are undermining one of their most notable accomplishments.

It Depends On What The Meaning Of "War" Is

"Los Angeles" magazine, July 2010: "[Nixon foundation president Ron] Walker says he and [library director Tim] Naftali get along better than Naftali and [former foundation executive director John] Taylor. 'It got to be a war between them,' Walker says." headline, August 2010: "Nixon Library Battling Over Watergate Exhibit"

Nixon Was Mean To Big o-i-l Oil!

Or so says the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, which may be difficult to please if you're to the left of Attila the Hun.

Please Note: Headline Below Is By "OC Weekly"

"Richard Nixon Library is g-a-y Gay!"

"Angel Dance," Robert Plant

The ageless Zep frontman covers a timeless classic by Los Lobos. Appearing in the video are LL bandmates David Hidalgo and my Yorba Linda neighbor Louie Perez (not that I've ever run into him at Trader Joe's or anything).

Hat tip to Paste Magazine

Pilgrims' Process

My elder daughter, 2009 Holy Land pilgrim Valerie Taylor, snapped this photo of once and future pilgrims from St. John's Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita with our guest preacher and celebrant last Sunday, Fr. Fuad Dagher from the Galilean town of Shefa'-Amr. Left to right: Yvonne, David, Bob, Fr. John, Mary, Cheryl, Nancy, Christopher, Fr. Fuad, Shirlee, Melinda, Jan, Ron, Deb, Phyllis, Dale, Leslie, Sandy, Pat, Gary, Tom, Joe, Debbie, Sandy, Andrea, and Sue. Pilgrim Kathy was getting ready for her first attempt to teach the story of Queen Esther to kindergartners (where's Madonna when you need her?).

Sept. XX

Peep shows near Ground Zero fail to get a peep out of mosque critic Newt Gingrich.

A Via Media Muslim

Insights from William Dalrymple about the lower Manhattan imam:

Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.

For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam. In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do. Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and nonbelievers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West.

But Does Either Stock Anything By Adam Smith?

In Westhampton Beach, New York, the land-use battle isn't over a mosque but an independent bookstore that's moved in near an existing one. The complexities of the First Amendment and religion are child's play compared to locals' efforts to get their minds around the moral challenges of the free market. One thinks out loud to a reporter:
“There’s no legal or ethical principle that says you don’t open a second store of some kind because someone else has the first one,” said James Kramon, a longtime summer resident here.
You're definitely onto something there, Jimbo!

My my my my Shariah

As a young Afghan couple is stoned to death for eloping in Afghanistan, are we witnessing additional evidence of a clash of civilizations between conservative Islamic values and, well, you know, civilized values, or just a crabby week on the Ulema Council? You decide:

“We’ve seen a big increase in intimidation of women and more strict rules on women,” [a human rights commissioner] said.

Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz Province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case. An Ulema Council is a body of Islamic clerics with religious authority in a region.

And less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council brought together 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who issued a joint statement on Aug. 10 calling for more punishment under Shariah law, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.

Failure to carry out such “Islamic provisions,” the council statement said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.

That's a use of the word "mainstream" that only The Onion could fully appreciate. I sympathize with reporters who have to pretend to write this kind of story with a straight face. "Encouraging crime"? The criminals are the ignorant, woman-hating men who murder and maim in the name of a primitive code designed to bolster their power and egos. Maybe it can't be helped. Maybe we've done the best we can. But leaving Afghanistan, when its women and girls are at the mercy of these savages, would amount to a failure of Vietnam-like proportions.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Indonesia's Constitution Protects Religious Freedom, Too...

...but enforcing it appears to have become inconvenient to the government:

Tired of government inaction, Christians and other religious minorities in Indonesia are pushing back against rising violence by Islamic hard-liners.

For months, Christians in the industrial city of Bekasi have been warned against worshipping on a field that houses their shuttered church. They've arrived to find human feces dumped on the land and sermons have been interrupted by demonstrators chanting "Infidels!" and "Leave now!"

But last week, tensions finally exploded.

Twenty worshippers were met by 300 Islamic hard-liners, many of whom hurled shoes and water bottles before pushing past a row of riot police. The mob chased down and punched several members of the group.

"The constitution guarantees our right to practice our religion!" Yudi Pasaribu of the Batak Christian Protestant Church said, vowing to return every Sunday until their request for a place of worship, made more than two years ago, is approved.

"And we want to do that on our own property, in our own church."

Imagine that.

Keith Olbermann, Muslim Reformer

Summarizing Olbermann's deft argument that the lower Manhattan mosque isn't at Ground Zero (it's two blocks away), the "Huffington Post" reveals that the MSNBC muckraker and other unnamed bigmouths have an ambitious liturgical and theological agenda:
[The controversy has] inspired people like Olbermann and others who hope to encourage religious worship that doesn't resemble the extremism behind al Qaeda.

Missile Seance

More "West Wing" Nixonalia: In season two, episode 12, White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer) is indulging his quixotic passion for expensive missile defense systems that don't work. When he attempts to enlist his nemesis Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), the incoming British ambassador, to the cause, Marbury argues that the proposed system violates the ABM treaty -- which was signed by Richard Nixon in 1972 as relations with the Soviets thawed.

Five And A Half Feet Over

"The Big C," in which Laura Linney shined brilliantly tonight, is Showtime's madcap take on soberer insights, such those in Atul Gawande's arresting "New Yorker" article, about the choices terminally ill people have between savoring the time they have left or submitting to debilitating, ultimately hopeless treatment regimes. "I'm here all year, appearing at stage four," Linney's character, Cathy Jamison, says defiantly at the end of tonight's first episode. Then the camera rises straight up, showing her on a couch she's dragged into the backyard and dropped into the hole she's just ordered dug for the swimming pool she always wanted. It's one ominously shaped rectangle. But this great new show is all about this side of six feet under.

Baiting The Barista

A Columbia University English professor with a venti ego gives in to epic tall-mindedness.

Still Standing

Looks like Prop. 8's going to SCOTUS after all.

The Reformation Will Not Be Televised

You know what's harder to believe that not giving a mosque a building permit because you don't want Muslims worshiping near Ground Zero? Firing Roman Catholics and Episcopalians at an evangelical school because they're not the right kind of Christians.

Holy Family First

Writing last month at the "Huffington Post," Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, praised LA's Episcopal bishop (and our St. John's rector), Jon Bruno, for having the moxie to form a partnership with Holy Family Services, a venerable local adoption agency, after it refused to buckle to the demands of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles that it not place children with same-gender couples.

St. John's is proud to be a Holy Family "parish partner." In June, we celebrated Holy Family Sunday, welcoming Mary Bruno (left), who has devoted countless volunteer hours to the agency as a board member and advisor, and its executive director, Debra Richardson. With Mary is my wife, Kathy O'Connor, recently named to the agency's board. Thanks to the leadership of a dedicated, media-savvy layperson, Dot Leach, we're studying all the ways we can support and supplement the agency's mission of encouraging adoption and protecting children and mothers at risk.

Sing Freedom, Cook Pork

Writing at the conservative NRO blog, Reihan Salam nails it:

What I find bizarre about some of the conservative response to Cordoba House is not just the objection to the construction of the mosque, but the conviction that it should be stopped by any means necessary—even if that means violating conservative principles about property rights, rule of law, and federalism.

Part of supporting limited government is understanding that sometimes, things you don’t like will happen, and the government (especially the federal government) won’t do anything about it. Getting to do what you want comes at the price of other people getting to do what they want—including build mosques where you’d prefer they didn’t.

Given the number of people who are personally grieved (as opposed to politically motivated) by the idea of a mosque and cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero, it would obviously be better if it were built elsewhere. After all, why would faithful people, worshiping a merciful and loving God, want to give offense or injure feelings? When I was discussing the matter last week with a wise, constitutionally-minded friend, he said that using government power to stop the project would constrain the possibility of grace on the part of the project planners and others.

In this case, grace would be a gracious retreat to different space. But calling for the use of raw state power, wrapped in the velvet glove of historical preservation or concern for public safety, in order to interfere with the practice of a certain kind of religious observance is just about the least conservative thing I can think of. I'll hasten to add that most of us think that way most of the time. We desire a benefit or a policy outcome -- preservation of the death penalty, abortion rights, gay rights, national security, whatever -- and so we use lobbyists and lawyers to get it for us. The framers knew that people were constitutionally utilitarian, which is why they wrote a constitution that put process and certain immutable principles first.

Some people like to say that the terrorists hate what we take to be immutable western and American values. These are summed up nowhere better than in the First Amendment. Ground Zero was consecrated nine years ago as another of its living temples. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people say or imply that putting process principles ahead of outcomes is for sissies. But not where the hallowed ground itself cries freedom.

We can dislike the idea of the Cordoba House and yet defend to the death its right to exist. Here's what my wise friend said (his tongue deep in cheek, wishing to illustrate colorfully that freedom comes in many forms): "My solution: Let 'em build it, and next door build a gay bar aimed at Muslim men, and upwind build a very smokey pork ribs joint. Now where's the grace in that?"

I'd Say That's The End Of That

Hamas has thrown its support behind the mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Counting Living Stones

Fuad Dagher was born in Nazareth, making him "the man from Galilee," he said gamely to the people of St. John's Episcopal Church this morning. He's now rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Shefa-'Amr, about 20 minutes by car from from his birthplace and Jesus's home town.

So he's lived his whole life in the middle of what we usually call the Holy Land but which Fr. Fuad takes care to call "the land of the Holy One." The Holy Land, he said, has become a bloody land of war, as Jews and Arabs battle over mere territory. Better to remember, he says, the true source of holiness, a reality that can't be constrained by politics or borders.

He had another piece of advice for 30 St. John's pilgrims he met with today between services, some who visited Israel and Palestine last summer and others who will make the trip in January 2011. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he said. Run your hands along the damp rock in the Bethlehem cave where the church teaches that the holy child was born, and touch the hill of Golgotha at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. "But also remember the living stones," he said -- the Christians who have faithfully kept watch over the land of the Holy One for 2,000 years. "Sometimes when people meet me, and they see that I'm an Arab, they say, 'God is good! When did you convert?'", he said with a smile. But he was never a Muslim. His family have always been Christians.

Shefa-'Amr's population of 40,000 is composed of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, a showplace of interfaith comity of which the nation of Israel is considerably proud. If peace can make it in Shefa-'Amr, it should be able to make it anywhere. But Fuad has relatively little faith in the putative peacemakers in the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority -- not that he makes any bones about what he calls the original sin of Middle East strife, namely Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a result of its victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. That proposition is open to debate, as is almost every proposition made in almost every argument about the Middle East (although the key elements of the two-state solution, which theoretically is now embraced by both sides and the U.S., amount to a return to the status quo before 1967).

Not open to debate is the alarming decline in the number of living stones, namely Arab Christians, who remain in the Holy Land. They now comprise less than 2% of the population. Christians are a vital buffer between Muslims and Jews. As they leave, prospects for peace decline further.

But meanwhile, for us St. John's Epiphany 2011 pilgrims, it's on to Jerusalem and Shef-'Amr.

Lone Gone Lonesome Blues

When a novelist (sober for nearly 20 years) and her husband went looking for the West Virginia gas station where Hank Williams was found dead in the backseat of his car in 1953, they collected some souvenirs but left with an empty feeling:
To me, there is no romance in such a death; and not much in the life that leads to it. I get to say this because I, too, once flirted seriously with self-destruction and know that when you’re an addict, the rest of your life is a shadow no matter how many songs you write or places­ you go or people you please. Or how many good times you have, for that matter. There’s no bargaining with alcohol and drugs once you have to have them. You either stop drinking and using or you die.

Definitely Gathering Moss

Sitting in an airport a couple of months ago, great American folksinger and songwriter Tom Russell, stuck with an old copy of "Rolling Stone," experienced discouragement:
Over 90% of their 500 best songs ever written [as identified by RS] were written before 1970. The summation is there ain’t been much to be excited about in the last forty years - with all our bleating, digital gadgetry, conferences, alliances, SXSW, “how to write songs” cartoon books, posturing circus rap, and lack of human artistic character. The chaos has led us, with our little IPOD head phones on, into the death throes of popular song.
Or maybe, Tom, it's just the people who drew up the list. For instance, you wrote this one, "Isaac Lewis," just a few years ago. Sure beats "Stairway to Heaven."

And Obama Now Agrees

Of three GOP candidates seeking the Sept. 14 nomination to vie for Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop's Long Island seat, Nixon grandson Christopher Cox is the least militant on the mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan:
Mr. Cox said voters are rightly concerned and questioning why the mosque can't just be built somewhere else.