Friday, October 2, 2015

Dwight And Josh

Josh and Dwight
Have you ever been at a party, enjoying a conversation with a friend while discovering that you are almost overwhelmingly curious about what two people are talking about just out of your hearing?

 It happened to me one recent Saturday morning at Isaiah House, Catholic Worker’s shelter for homeless women in Santa Ana. For over two years, Josh Bradshaw, one of our high school students, has organized our Isaiah House breakfast and fellowship ministry. It’s now scheduled almost every month on the second Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

I was talking to one of the residents about her plans to move back east to rejoin her family. Over my right shoulder, I could hear Josh having an intense conversation with Dwight Smith, who has operated the ministry for nearly 20 years with his wife, Leia. I was dying to listen in.

As the other members of our St. John’s contingent were leaving, I gave Dwight a blessing (he’s having back surgery in early October) and then sat at his knee for half an hour. Dwight’s an authentic prophet, living out Catholic Worker’s mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Reporters call him to find out what’s really going on around town. City hall officials see him coming and hide. One leaves a conversation with him feeling indicted, reconstructed, and energized.

I also hoped he would give me a flavor of his conversation with Josh, and he did. I’ll leave it to them to tell you in more detail. But it’s no secret that Dwight thinks that people such as Josh who choose to serve the poor face to face occupy a privileged position in the heart and mind of God.

Dwight and Leia work each day in the spirit of pacifist Roman Catholic laywoman Dorothy Day, who
Dorothy Day
cofounded Catholic Worker in New York during the Great Depression. Isaiah House is one of over 200 such communities, mostly in the U.S., that practice hospitality for its own sake. In Orange County, if you’re a woman on the street, and Isaiah House has an opening, you can receive food and shelter indefinitely as long as you follow house rules.

 St. John’s has many historic links to Isaiah House. Our youth leader, Patti Peebles, takes our middle and high school kids regularly. When he was working as an attorney, Andy Guilford provided pro bono legal services. He still volunteers each month. We also make periodic financial contributions. Isaiah House depends on the kindness of its volunteers and donors as well as the faith, energy, and self-sacrifice of its proprietors.

The Smiths (who promised in 1997 that they would give it five years) live upstairs. Leia is a cancer survivor, and Dwight had lost significant mobility because of back problems. Serving the poor every day of their lives, they have foregone most of the luxuries we take for granted. And yet they don’t sentimentalize the poor. Working with people on the street, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, is exhausting and sometimes dangerous. But their hearts compel them to remain in relationship with marginal people from whom most of us are tempted to avert our eyes.

As it turns out, the purpose of Josh’s ministry isn’t to feed the women. If it were, we could take up a collection each month and have someone drop off 35 Big Breakfasts. Instead, Josh takes us there to meet fellow voyagers, sit across the table from them, shake their hands, learn their names, say ours, and ask the questions that always work. Where are you from? What were your parents like? Do you have any brothers and sisters? What do you love the most?

These questions also work at the monthly Rancho Santa Margarita food pantry and anywhere else St. John’s people make personal (the Christian word is incarnational) contact with the poor. (The questions are just as helpful with newcomers at coffee hour.) An exciting new example of such a ministry is Laundry Love, coming together under Mo. Martha’s stewardship. You may have the mistaken impression (I certainly did at first) that the purpose of Laundry Love is to do poor people’s laundry. Its true, divine purpose is to enable new relationships among God’s people. It is from these gracious little miracles, one built on the other, that all good things come.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

Proximate Causes

Mike, a longtime friend of Kathy and me, is a respected general contractor. Not long ago, he was finishing up a job for an Orange County family. Walking through their kitchen, he happened to notice one of their kids standing at the sink, rinsing backyard dirt and sand off a bucketful of LEGOs.

The next morning, Mike got a call from the homeowner, who asked, “What did you do to our garbage disposal?”

“It happens all the time,” Mike told me. “I add a spare room or a dig a hole for a Jacuzzi, something breaks anywhere in the house two hours, weeks, or months later, and they blame me.” In this case, the chagrined client called back and said he’d found a LEGO block right where Mike promised he would: Trapped in the frozen jaws of their garbage disposal.

At one time or another, each of us has indulged the temptation to assume that because A happened, then B did. The rational mind is on the lookout for what prosecutors and defense attorneys call the proximate cause – according to one online definition, “an act from which an injury results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred.”

While identifying the proximate cause can help measure accountability and assess penalties, the work can be tricky, especially when both sides are pointing the finger. If my car is struck at an intersection by a truck whose driver was exceeding the speed limit, I may try to convince the traffic judge that I wasn’t at fault just because I happened to turn left into its path. If I get caught smacking my little brother, I’ll probably try to get out of trouble by saying that he hit me first, when mom wasn’t looking. In each case, while I may have a legitimate grievance, I’m still going to lose the argument, since my own action, not someone else’s, directly caused my predicament.

 In the public sphere, when politicians and media figures identify what they believe is the proximate cause of an event, it usually means they want to either mold public opinion or leverage or prevent some policy outcome. White supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans during a church Bible study in Charleston on June 17 was an especially striking example. Was his racism the proximate cause of the murders? Some said it was America’s institutional racism, including some people’s sentimental allegiance to the Old Confederacy. Others insisted that we have to consider Roof’s easy access to a handgun or the possibility of his being mentally ill. One presidential candidate said Roof was attacking religious liberty. Others made even more outlandish assertions.

Some talking heads accused others of politicizing the Emanuel AME Church massacre by stressing the wrong causes. In our polarized political and media worlds, these debates take on a wearyingly circular character. If I’m sure that I’m right, that I’m the one taking the morally superior stance, then I won’t necessarily be conscious of having political or tactical motives. When you disagree with my moral stance, I might be tempted to say that you’re the one who’s playing politics.

It would help if those raising their voices in such certitude would be more mindful of their prejudices and open about admitting them. This is not to argue that there’s never a correct answer in the search for proximate causes. It’s just that human affairs tend to be complicated, and those who have something to prove, or political capital or power to protect, are bound to be the enemies of nuance.

In Christian terms, of course, we might say that there is no nuance, only dark and light, death and life, evil and good. This frame of reference can lead to greater polarization when we insist that we are the ones on the side of the good. If we instead proceed out of humility, the Christian view promotes clarity and empowerment. June 17 was a day of ultimate darkness, an affront to the mind, heart, and spirit of God. Whatever we believe about its proximate causes, we can agree that it should never happen again. If we really want to do whatever it takes to prevent such horror, we should be willing to consider and work on multiple potential causes, even those that don’t match our predispositions. By definition, God’s love is wider than any horizon we may be able to glimpse. To see more of what God sees and desires, we may have to set out from the territory where we feel most at home.

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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Jesus and the Martian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I [Expletive Deleted] Up The End Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elftmann must have assumed that the Beltway insiders at the Nixon Center, including former NATO Ambassador Bob Ellsworth, who had helped Elftmann batter Kathy over the Center's lease, had enough clout in Yorba Linda to make him foundation president. But they'd never had much influence on the board, and now they had none. Walker and the board spurned Elftmann and gave the job to one of their own. After he lost, a board member told me, Elftmann quit and stormed out, later muttering darkly, and ironically, to a reporter about the foundation's questionable management practices.

Within a year, the Haldeman tribe had cut the Nixon Center loose, too. News reports suggest that it got millions from the foundation endowment for agreeing to stop using Nixon's name. Now called the Center for the National Interest, it will be lucky to outlive its current management and contributors. I suspect Nixon would have been gravely disappointed. He had said explicitly that he wanted his foundation to operate a nonpartisan center in Washington that would address ongoing foreign policy challenges. He understood that any president or his heirs and aides could get rich friends to pay for a high-tech museum celebrating themselves and their achievements for the sake of a few thousand weekly tourist visits. Nixon always thought bigger than that. As a disgraced former president, he never stopped wanting to have what he called "an impact on the course of events." He hoped for no less when it came to the foundation bearing his name.

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Honeymoon's Over

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

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

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Their Lady, And Ours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Voice From The Past," Erased And Restored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any regrets in recommending him? 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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