Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Side Of The Road," Lucinda Williams

Following that unbroken line. Austin City Limits, 1989

Iraq And A Hard Place

As U.S. troops come home from Iraq (thanks be to God), some domestic political realpolitik from Christopher Preble at "The National Interest," who says it's all the same for Barack Obama if the Iraqi government succeeds or fails:
The American people want this war to end, and he wins credit, fairly or not, for following through on his promise to end it. And if Iraq descends into chaos and civil war, or if Iran somehow manages to consolidate power over its restive neighbor, Obama can claim, justifiably, that these things wouldn’t have happened had people listened to him in 2002. But he doesn’t have to say it. Others will say it for him. Nearly every news story reporting on this week’s events have reminded viewers, listeners and readers that the president opposed this war. That one fact translates to a relatively favorable perception of the president’s handling of foreign policy, generally.
It's easy to worry about Iraq if you saw Ted Koppel's inaugural report for NBC's "Rock Center" last week. Some 16,000 Americans are staying behind in our fortress embassy and consulates, keeping an eye on both Iraq and Iran. The terrorist threat remains acute. Cleric Moktada al-Sadr, allied with his fellow Shi'ites in Iran, promises that his militiamen will be gunning for Americans. Koppel's report makes clear that you need an advance team and two motorcades to go out for a pack of cigarettes.

Will the Iraqis protect our personnel against the dozen or more insurgent groups that are intent on tearing down the country's fragile government? Can Iraq's Shi'ites, Sunni, and Kurds figure out how to coexist and collaborate? Most analysts sound pessimistic.

Analysts are, of course, changeable. Most sounded giddily optimistic during the Arab spring. We were assured that the region's secular-minded young people were using Facebook and Twitter to grasp for democracy, inspired neither by the U.S. project in Iraq nor the lure of Islamism. As the year ends, the picture isn't so clear. "The Economist" and New York Times counsel readers not to panic as the Muslim Brotherhood and more extremist Islamists win a majority of seats in Egypt's unfolding parliamentary elections.

Pro-democracy advocate Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, counsels patience:
Nothing is instantaneous in politics. To think of elections as a panacea, let alone a sure road to real democracy, is to evince a failure of historical imagination. The proper role of the free world is not to encourage or to stop elections. Its role should be to formulate, and to stick by, a policy of incremental change based on creating the institutions that will lead ineluctably to pressure for more and more representative forms of government. The free world should place its bet on freedom — the hope and demand of Tahrir Square — and work toward a civil society defined by that value.

That sounds more or less like what George W. Bush tried to achieve in Iraq. History's judgement about whether he was right to do so by force of arms, in a war that left 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis dead, still depends to a considerable extent on the condition in which history finds Iraq in a quarter-century. For now, maybe advocates of a form of Arab democracy in which sectarianism takes a back seat should take another look at what the U.S. and Iraqis have tried to accomplish. Obama didn't support the war, and Preble is probably right that his political fortunes wouldn't be harmed if Iraq foundered after a decent interval. How much better for everyone -- both U.S. presidents and especially Iraq -- if it didn't.

Arise, Shine, For Thy Light Has Come

St. John's on the eve of the fourth Sunday in Advent

Friday, December 16, 2011


Ron Paul's right about at least one thing: Iran.

Practical Theology

Wrestling With-- Whatever

Suck it up, Christopher, says Eric Reitan. Celestial bliss awaits whether you like it or not:
I cannot agree with a statement made earlier today by Douglas Wilson—Hitchens’ conservative Christian debating partner and friend—in his otherwise sympathetic reflection on Hitchens in Christianity Today. “We have no indication,” Wilson writes, “that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever.”

Against this invocation of conservative dogma I cannot help but juxtapose the words of an earlier iconoclastic writer, the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil: “…one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Those who, like Hitchens, are devoted to the true and the good are, by implication, oriented towards anything that could rightly be called God. And so, if there is a deity waiting on the other side of death, I cannot but believe that Hitchens is even now stumbling in surprised wonder into those arms.

BlackBerry Jam

Better get an iPhone.

Begging To Be Newtered

I don't understand how anyone can listen to this Dec. 8 "Fresh Air" interview with Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, who's been covering Newt Gingrich for years, without concluding that his nomination would be the greatest gift to an opponent's ad writers in the history of politics. He tried to pocket a $4.5 million book advance while in office. He was fined $300,000 by the House for ethics violations. He took millions from Freddie Mac, whose executives were sued today by the SEC. He shut down the federal government while trying to cut Medicare and said it was because President Clinton didn't let him ride up front on Air Force One. Whether it's technically lobbying or not, he's cashed in on his access to fellow politicians. Former allies and intimates say he has political ADD, flitting from one half-baked idea and policy crusade to the next. His own people tried to oust him as Speaker. He resigned before being driven from office.

Gingrich and his team have explanations and excuses for every allegation. Tumulty says the IRS repudiated the House Ethics Committee finding that resulted in his fine, for instance. But attack ads don't have footnotes. Besides, there's just too much here. Incumbent presidents seeking reelection, Obama included, don't have half this much baggage. As they spent their advertising millions, the Obama team and its associated PACs might not even get around to his personal life or outrageous policy statements such as comparing Muslims to Nazis (which Gingrich's former House colleague Joe Scarbourgh called hate speech), flip-flopping on the Libya intervention, or saying Palestinians are a manufactured people.

Tumulty says, "Newt Gingrich views himself as a historic and even transformational figure." And that he was, an historical 17 years ago. She credits him with the destruction of the career of former Speaker Jim Wright (over his own book deal) and the astonishing GOP takeover of the House in 1994 and passage of the Contract with America, which died in the Senate. But since then he's been a gadfly, and so too for almost all of the run-up to the 2012 caucuses and primaries. His surge occurred after no one else -- neither Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Perry, nor Cain -- got up a head of foam as the tea party's desperately yearned-for un-Romney. Gingrich isn't transformational anymore. For those desperate to prevent a center-right realignment of the GOP, he's just the best of what's left.

Holy Families

At the St. John's School Early Childhood Center Christmas pageant, last week on Grandparents Day

At last night's elementary school pageant

St. Christopher's Mettle

David Frum on a great man of the middle:

If Christopher [Hitchens] quit the left...he never joined the right. Like his great hero George Orwell, he was a man whose most creative period of life was a period of constantly falling between two stools: his new hatred for George Galloway never dimmed his old animosity toward Henry Kissinger. He was for the Iraq war without ever much trusting or liking the leaders who led that war. The stock phrase of the 2000s on the right was "moral clarity." If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. But he was also a man of moral complexity, who would not submit to Lenin's demand that who says A must say B. Christopher was never more himself than when - after saying A - he adamantly refused to say B.

I wrote to Hitchens in June 2010, after I'd finished reading Hitch-22 and just before his cancer diagnosis. I never heard back. I'm not even sure I had the right address. Yesterday, before learning of his death, I'd been thinking of the e-mail as news came of the formal end of the U.S. war in Iraq:
Dear Mr. Hitchens:

Thank you for your wonderful memoir. I loved many things about it, but I'll confine my comments to some passages for which I was especially grateful.

As a seminarian, I preached a sermon about the Iraq war in the spring of 2003 (attached, not that you would possibly have time to read it) which, in our liberal Episcopal diocese, was viewed as bloodcurdlingly pro-war by virtue of not being antiwar. In the receiving line, a woman called me a liar for associating Saddam Hussein with Islamic totalitarianism. Since then, I've often wondered if I should've kept my intern's mouth shut, because of what our congregant said and also because of the way the war sometimes was going. Your summary of the evidence of Saddam's latter-day fundamentalism stanched one vein of second-guessing, and some patience about the ultimate outcome for the region and the people of Iraq should take care of the rest.

Thanks again.

Yours ever,

John Taylor

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Among The Saints

As the sad news comes of the death of the world's most famous atheist, I recall what Christopher Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, about the pious but pliable pastor he encountered after his mother and her lover committed suicide in Greece in 1973:
I was myself rather astounded, when dealing with the Anglican chaplain at the Protestant cemetery in Athens (which was the only resting place consistent with her wishes), to find that... [t]he sheep-faced Reverend didn't really want to perform his office at all. He muttered a bit about the difficulty of suicides being interred in consecrated ground, and he may have had something to say about my mother having been taken in adultery... At any rate I shoved some money in his direction and he became sulkily compliant, as the priesthood generally does. It was fortunate for him, though, that I couldn't feel any more dislike and contempt for him and his sickly religion that I already did.
Hitchens assured friends and critics that if he was reported to have experienced a deathbed conversion, it would be a consequence not of grace but cancer altering his brain. In the days before his death in Houston, nothing along those lines occurred. God was waiting for a more opportune time.

Copting Out Of Pluralism

Arab tyrants were often the guarantors of religious tolerance. Carl Moeller, who runs an Orange County nonprofit that advocates for Christians, worries that as the Arab spring wanes, a winter of medievalism is at hand. OC Weekly reports:
In a statement Open Doors USA sent out yesterday, Moeller noted that Westerners believe "the notion of democracy is majority and minority groups working together, each having a voice at the table." But what is unfolding in the lands of the Arab Spring, he said, "is far from Jeffersonian."

"A possible result is the law of mob rule, where Islamists are likely to control governments, exclude minority faiths even from police protection, and Christians live in constant terror from the clear message: There is no place here for Christians," Moeller warns.

Red Noses And Angel Voices

The St. John's Middle School choir was due at a local retirement community for their annual Christmas concert. The young people, hoofing it from our campus a half-mile away, got a late start because of the chilly, changeable weather.

I arrived early and sat in the lobby as concertgoers gathered. "It was supposed to start at 9:30," one resident said. Her friend replied knowingly, "It was moved to 10." Looking at her watch, someone else said, "It's 10 now." One of the first two wondered whether the performance would interfere with lunch. Older people often get up and eat and go to bed earlier, but I still thought it would be okay.

The double doors burst open, and the red-cheeked Cardinals soared in. The choir was introduced by Mrs. Bonhall and conducted by Mrs. Speciale, who sounding each song's starting pitch in her pellucid soprano. They sang ten numbers, including "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Deck The Halls," and "Jingle Bell Rock." Residents smiled, sang, and clapped. As would have happened if Pavarotti or any temperamental genius had been a half-hour late for a recital, memories of the brief delay were borne away on angel voices.

During "Rudolph," as I took pictures, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. One chorister had donned a red nose that was blinking in time with the music. I thanked the woman with a smile. She winked. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two By Two In Noah's Limo

That's entrepreneur and marketing genius Noah McMahon (also a St. John's School trustee and a parent, with the gracious Debbie) with the last limo Richard Nixon ever used, an early 1990s Chrysler. Noah acquired it several years ago and has had it beautifully restored. He'll be making it available for the sake of good causes everywhere. The license plate Noah has on order? POTUS37. Wish I'd thought of it. I'm not seven feet tall, by the way. Noah was stooping so people would seek the historic wheels.

English Efficiency

Makes no sense when you first hear it. Andrew Sullivan has endorsed the un-nominatable, unelectable Ron Paul for the GOP nomination. In the general election, he's still for Obama. And then it makes sense.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Dean Haters Society Thanks The Senator

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean's 1973 testimony before the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Watergate, distressing though it was for President Nixon and his family and aides, was a signal event in the nation's and Senate's life. Times have evidently changed in the upper body. In 2009 Sen. Lamar Alexander (below), a former Nixon aide, secretly used the Senate's rules as part of an apparent effort to punish the director of the Nixon library, Tim Naftali, for inviting Dean for a speech in Yorba Linda that June on the 37th anniversary of politics' most fateful break-in.

In his LA Times article, published on-line Tuesday afternoon and on the front page of Wednesday's print edition, reporter Chris Goffard gets Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, to admit that, at the request of operative Ron Walker, he held up President Obama's nomination of David Ferriero to be archivist of the U.S. Here's why, the senator said:
What I said [to Ferrerio] was, "Obviously, Watergate's an important part of President Nixon's presidency, just like Monica Lewinsky is part of Bill Clinton's presidency, but the whole Clinton library isn't about Monica Lewinsky."
But in the fall of 2009, nobody was accusing Naftali of devoting too much space to Watergate. On the contrary: The Nixon foundation had been complaining for months that the library's new Watergate gallery was overdue. Walker's beef was his and Alexander's White House colleague John Dean. Outraged by Naftali's Dean invitation -- Dean is considered a whistler-blower by most observers, a rat fink by the Haldeman faithful -- operatives began to organize in the spring and summer of 2009. Obama sent Ferriero's name to the Senate on July 28. In September, a jumbo-salary Nixon foundation "president" job was awarded to former advance man Walker after a search by Korn/Ferry, where Walker used to work. Ferriero was confirmed by the Senate on Nov. 6. It couldn't have been too long after he got his job that Walker asked Alexander to confront Ferriero.

Walker claims that he didn't want to fire Naftali. "It was to send a signal to the archives if Tim's not gonna straighten up and fly right," Walker told Goffard. Alexander said this: "I know many of [Alexander's fellow Nixon White House staffers] were unhappy with [Naftali's] attitude. And they talked to me about it. Ron asked me to express that to the new director of the archives." No matter how many Haldeman operatives called, troubling a presidential library director for hosting the man who helped send your colleagues to jail for their Watergate crimes isn't a proper use of senatorial power and privilege, especially when Congress is held in such low esteem by the public.

It's ironic that several months later, Walker gave an interview to reporter Scott Martel, comparing his tenure as foundation "president" to mine as executive director:
Walker says he and Naftali get along better than Naftali and Taylor. “It got to be a war between them,” Walker says.
That depends on what you mean by war. Martel obviously didn't know, because Walker hadn't told him, that while Tim and I had a wearying series of procedural skirmishes, Walker and a U.S. senator went thermonuclear on him. In the same article, Walker accused Naftali of unspecified "coded actions" to signal that he was gay. That's nuts. Tim is openly gay. Walker must be frustrated that, despite his secret senatorial signal, Naftali never did straighten up.

How Haldeman's Tribe Got Tennessee Cred

Chris Goffard at the LA Times has revealed that the secret campaign against Nixon library director Tim Naftali (left) waged by Bob Haldeman's out-of-office good old boys included an incumbent, Sen. Lamar Alexander (below), a former Nixon aide who served the people of Tennessee by placing a stop-Naftali hold on President Obama's 2009 nomination of David Ferriero as archivist of the United States. Alexander told Goffard that the Haldeman foundation didn't like Naftali's "attitude." In the summer of 2010, as the anti-Naftali campaign continued, the same operative who sicced the U.S. Senate on Tim complained about the Nixon library director and distinguished Cold War scholar's alleged and unspecified "coded actions" signaling that he was gay.

In getting a senator to tie up a presidential nomination, Haldeman's men insist that they weren't trying to get Naftali fired. It was just to give Alexander the opportunity to tell Ferriero, previously the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries, that Nixon went to China and established the EPA. Whatever its goal, the Alexander gambit failed to block Naftali and the Watergate exhibit, as did the foundation's next moves -- the creation of a Watergate truth squad including perjurer Dwight Chapin and the apparent conversion of archives official Sharon Fawcett. Goffard writes:
There is no sign that the [Alexander-Ferrerio] meeting influenced Naftali's approach, and Naftali said the Watergate exhibit opened as he envisioned it, despite the foundation's panel-by-panel critique and a nine-month delay.
And this:
After former Nixon aide John Taylor left as head of the Nixon foundation in 2009 to serve as a full-time Episcopal priest, the foundation fell into the hands of "Haldeman's inner circle of political operatives," Naftali said.

"Sadly, they were using the same tactics, from the same playbook," Naftali said of the foundation's campaign against him. "It's a very special tribe that has never accepted the nation's verdict on Watergate."

One More Landslide, Just For Drill

Struck by President Obama's strength in South Carolina and Florida polls, Michael Tomasky speculates about a Democratic landslide in 2o12 but advises Republicans to keep doing what they're doing:
I am not here to say the GOP had better grow up fast. Quite the contrary. If this tantrum lasts through the election, and if 2012 is for the Republicans what 1984 was for the Democrats, then finally our polity stands a chance of functioning again. The Tea Party will be dead and buried. Grover Norquist’s vise lock on the GOP will loosen. Someone will start a centrist Republican Leadership Council, just as people started the centrist DLC back in 1985. A certain number of elected Republicans will understand that being the Party of No didn’t get them much of anywhere. So this poll should not be a wake-up call for Republican voters. Hit the snooze button, folks, and keep fuming away.

Turning On The Fawcetts

This morning historian and blogger Maarja Krusten writes:
John Fawcett retired in 1994 and became an archival consultant. NARA staff told me in the 1990s that he was advising the Nixon Foundation at one point but I only have anecdotal evidence of that. (I know John Taylor worked with Fawcett. I’ll have to ask John if this occurred in the form of a consultancy in addition to Fawcett having worked at NARA.) I thought of that, when I read [journalist Andrew] Gumbel state that the Nixon Foundation offered Sharon Fawcett a consultancy after she retired from NARA late this spring. Interesting echo, perhaps. Given the wording in Gumbel’s article, I don’t know if Sharon actually accepted the offer.
John and Sharon used to be married. John finished his long National Archives career at the beginning of the Clinton administration. His last post was assistant archivist for presidential libraries. Sharon served in the same capacity for many years and retired earlier this year. Both ended up being offered consultancies by the private Nixon foundation. Krusten is struck by the symmetry. I don't blame her.

Despite their considerable influence across many years over how White House records are handled, they've managed to stay more or less below the radar. Though she's shown here with Bill Clinton, most of Sharon's Internet hits are consequences of the Nixon wars. A cursory Google search reveals no photos of John.

To answer Krusten's question, in the early 2000s, when I was Nixon foundation chief, I hired John (by then retired from NARA, where he helped engineer a curious, brief tilt to Nixon) as we prepared for the handover of the private Nixon library to the National Archives. Since 1991, our private reading room and archives had been operated by Susan Naulty. She was doggedly opposed to making the Nixon library part of NARA and later became a critic of director Tim Naftali, associating him with the left for inviting former White House counsel John Dean to Yorba Linda. Years before, during the battle between the Nixon foundation and Tricia Cox over the $19 million bequest of Nixon buddy Bebe Rebozo, Naulty developed a unwonted media profile by discussing the size of her staff with the Los Angeles Times. Her comments dovetailed with attacks by Cox ally Irv Gellman, who claimed that the library was poorly managed because we didn't give Naulty more resources. Gellman, Naulty, and her assistant had worked together closely when he was researching his book The Contender.

When we'd settled our lawsuit against Cox and Rebozo's money was safely ensconced in our endowment, we began to focus on facilitating a government handover. The headline on an earlier post reflects our midset: "Take My Library. Please." I became more curious about the differences between Naulty and NARA practice. Would we be able to stretch our resources further if she stopped refusing to use computers and processing records document by document, typing up one or more index cards for each letter, telegram, or memo (yes, Virginia, we had a card catalog)? The government processed folder by folder. So I invited John Fawcett, then working as an archival consultant, to take a look. He concluded that it would take Naulty hundreds of years to finish preparing our small cache of Nixon's pre-presidential records for scholars. When I hired a former Reagan library archivist to oversee a transition toward NARA practice, Naulty quit.

We don't know anything about the consultancy those now controlling Nixon's foundation have reportedly offered Sharon Fawcett. She and I agreed in 2006 that Naftali should redo the library's Watergate exhibit. I'm curious (and no doubt Krusten is as well) about why in 2010 she, as a top National Archives official, seems to have sided against Naftali in favor of the Nixon-turned-Haldeman foundation and a Watergate truth panel that included perjurer Dwight Chapin. As for John Fawcett, ironically enough, back in the day he helped the Nixon foundation nudge a little closer to National Archives practice and procedure.