Thursday, July 30, 2015

Paranoia and The Presidency: A Story of Richard Nixon

Never have so many owed so much to one president, and you can add University of Virginia researcher Ken Hughes to that list of writers with his book, Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate.

The book, published last year, is based mostly on released tapes from Nixon’s Oval Office days and also covers the ’68 election, when he was interfering with President Johnson’s Vietnam policies and, it’s alleged, breaking a number of laws, including ones covering treason.

One of my favorite parts of this book is United Press International.  My old stomping ground is mentioned often and Rox (slang for The Associated Press, as in “dumb as a box of rocks”) doesn’t see the light of day.  Even UPI’s Washington bureau staffer Norman Kempster has a story that’s excerpted in the book – with his by-line.

The book came to my attention recently when it was mentioned by a Rutgers University professor in The New York Times Book Review as one of the best at capturing Nixon’s personality and detailing events leading to Watergate.

Nixon continues to provoke many emotions but Hughes does an outstanding job of keeping his in check, letting Nixon speak for himself, showing how his actions and personality led to his 1974 downfall.

This is one of the gems of Hughes’s book.  You gain insight on Nixon’s personality and thinking – with his own words.

To be certain, Chasing Shadows is far from a complete look at the Nixon presidency.  It focuses on Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal and its ensuing cover up.

At this point, it’s difficult to read an honest assessment of Nixon that neither leans left (he’s the Devil himself) nor right (he just got caught) but this book might be it. 

A question – one that will likely never be answered by historians but is touched on by the author – is, given the other candidates or possible ones in 1968, could the United States have found someone else with the same chops as Nixon for the job?  

Furthermore, did Nixon’s sense of paranoia ultimately take him down?  The author believes so; if that’s the case, should we do a better job of assessing the characters of the people who seek the presidency? 

Nixon’s critics can pan him for Watergate and extending the Vietnam War past the ’72 election, as well as invading Cambodia.

But Nixon is also something that few want to admit – one of our most successful presidents.

He ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam; opened diplomatic relations with China; successfully negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union; started the Environmental Protection Agency; removed the country’s currency from the gold standard; and desegregated the schools more than previous presidents, to name a few of his accomplishments.[i]

This doesn’t mean he’s a saint.  Far from it!  It means he knew how act like a chief executive officer and get things done.

None of this, of course, excuses Nixon’s very serious and profound breaches of power with the Watergate cover up – and the possibility that he knew and/or ordered the break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters – and the possibility that his actions were treasonous when he interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War.

Those events, combined with his accomplishments, make Nixon what he will likely always be – a very disturbing figure in American history.

Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair, and The Origins of Watergate, by Ken Hughes, (Charlottesville, Virginia:  University of Virginia Press, 2014)


Friday, July 24, 2015

The Prisoner and Atticus Finch

If you believe conventional wisdom, Atticus Finch is right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and maybe even Jesus Christ himself.

He’s the great savior, hero and progressive – at least as portrayed in Harper Lee’s first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird – even though he fails to acquit his African-American client of raping a white woman.

So if you read her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years after the first book, you’re taken aback to learn that this great Southern litigator is a segregationist at best, a racist at worst.

It’s as difficult to accept as it would be to learn that Jesus was a thief and a womanizer.

Say it ain’t so!

Historians and political scientists are constantly writing about what influenced the country’s leaders. 

The changes in their thinking, maturing if you will, came slowly, often with great struggle, because they were debating society as they saw it, the teachings they were handed, formally or informally, against new ideas, for which there was little support.

Writing his will, George Washington decided to free slaves he owned upon his death and while it’s often passed over, by doing so, writes Henry Wiencek, it represented “a repudiation of a lifetime of mastery.

“… he (Washington) had been conditioned to be indifferent to the aspirations and humanity of African-Americans.  Something happened to change him and to set him radically apart from his peers (Southern plantation owners) and his family.”[i]

While it might be easy to dismiss this act, it’s important to know that Washington’s native state, Virginia, according to the country’s first census, taken in 1790, when he was president, held nearly half of the country’s slaves – 292,627 out of a total enslaved population of 694,280, as it was originally reported.[ii]

Washington’s experience as battlefield commander, where free blacks were often armed in the fight against the British, changed his views on slavery and, in time, helped him accept the humanity of African-Americans, Wiencek shows.

Washington even met an enslaved woman in Cambridge, Mass., at his headquarters during the Revolution, who was one of the most successfully published poets in her day, Phillis Wheatley – nothing short of incredible given the times.[iii]

Imagine if today’s media were covering the event.  The cameras would close in on this humble African-American woman as the man nearly greater than life itself greets her at the door.

It can be argued that Washington didn’t do enough to correct a serious and profound wrong, especially for a country that claimed to be founded in liberty. 

But it’s equally important to understand that Washington was an 18th century man, a member of the landed gentry, and, as Wiencek reminds us, someone who wasn’t about to tamper with someone else’s property by issuing an executive order to free the slaves.

The single best thing Washington could do was set an example to his peers and countrymen by freeing his slaves at his death.  He was the only Founding Father to do so.

Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln defied his beginnings – which should have made him white trash – to become the great emancipator.[iv]

There’s nothing to suggest he’ll become the president of the United States and, more importantly, hold views on African-Americans that are contrary to what many people likely held during his earliest days.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Lincoln saw African-Americans as his equal, Anderson University History Professor Brian Dirck writes. 

Was it during his days of working for his father, Thomas; when he worked on flatboats traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; when he saw New Orleans’s free blacks; or when he observed how a group of slaves on a Mississippi River boat named the Lebanon?

We’ll likely never know.

What we do know is that through much of his reading and interpreting of the U. S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence as well as other documents and books, perhaps even his faith, he came to reject popular views of African-Americans. 

And this is the problem with both of Harper Lee’s novels, although somewhat less so in her second one.

In Mockingbird, the first time we see Atticus Finch, he’s a 50-year-old father correcting his daughter’s language, forbidding her to use “nigger” because it’s a word of the uneducated.

Readers are also supposed to accept that Finch is the great progressive because he’s defended African-Americans and holds off a lynch mob at the local jail where his client is held.

What we don’t see is how Finch came to those views.  Was he born with them or, through years of studying legal and historical writings, plus his own interactions with African-Americans, did he come to see them just as human and endowed with the right to life, liberty and justice as any white person?

The latter is likely the answer but it remains a question that’s never resolved.

Lee does a better job of explaining Finch’s racial views in her second book.  He’s worried about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's interference in local events and government overreach. 

In some ways, the racist and segregationist version of Finch is easier to accept.  His entire life is spent in the South – as we know it – so why wouldn’t he hold views that are not all that kind to African-Americans?

It’s a shame Lee doesn’t do a better job of explaining Finch, showing how he grew one way or the other.

But maybe Lee did something no reader or critic expected:  Maybe she shed light on our mental shortcomings, showing, very indirectly, that we’re not as free to change our minds and reject our experiences in defining our views as we prefer to think.

Are we, as Noble laureate Doris Lessing suggested, living in mental prisons, where we’re comforted because our views are unchallenged?[v]

How are you going to know?

[i] Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God:  George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), page 7.

[iii] Wiencek, ibid., pages 205 – 214.

[iv] Brian R. Dirck, Abraham Lincoln and White America, (Lawrence, Kansas:  University of Kansas Press, 2012), page 30.

[v] Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, (New York:  Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1987).

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Court ruling only The Wall Street Journal could love

Note:  The following was sent to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor.  Needless to say, it was a little to "out there" for The Journal's tastes.

A ruling only The Wall Street Journal could love

My, my, my, the view from your perch on the Avenue of the Americas must be horrifying:  Soon Heather’s two mommies and Larry’s two daddies will be infiltrating the local school board, whether it’s on the Main Line or Westport, Wellesley, Grosse Point, Shaker Heights, Lake Forest, Highland Park or South Pasadena, Newport Beach and Mercer Island.

Next thing you know the gays and lesbians will be preaching family values, saying it’s imperative that children be nurtured by, horrors of all horrors, two parents who are actually married – to each other no less!  Only now the gender of those parents is a non-issue.

Seriously, what are we, the heterosexual, middle class community, to do?  Head to the hills, run for lives?

I can appreciate the legal qualms the distinguished editors of The Journal’s editorial page have with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-gender marriage.  It’s another incident of judicial activism and, in some cases, runs rough shod over states’ rights, especially those states that have deemed marriage only legal when it’s between a man and a woman.

But as my late, great mother suggested, let’s take 10 deep breaths and consider the issue.

The ruling’s upside is something one might think The Journal’s editorial page could celebrate:  It significantly reduces the role of the government, whether it’s federal, state, county or municipal.  

In other words, what the Supreme Court did is deregulate the marriage market.  Isn’t that what you want, less government, or did I miss something?

Here’s what The Journal’s editorial page might enjoy:  The Court put marriage in a place that many a liberal likely never considered.  They made it perfectly competitive, allowing anyone to marry anyone, regardless of their gender. 

How long before the Democrats start screaming for regulation?  Five years?  Ten?  Want to put a wager on it?

Now imagine the competition.  You’re single and you’re really serious about someone who doesn’t share your gender.  You’ll need to work that much harder – the details of which, for the sake of decorum, we can keep to ourselves – to gain their affection; otherwise, they just might turn to someone whose gender they share.  After all, now they have a choice.

The same is true if it’s a guy trying to get the guy or the gal trying to get the gal.  And let’s not forget the transgendered.  They’re in this market, too, winning and losing, like everyone else.

Who knew marriage was a market?  But soon, very soon, the liberals will know it is.  And then The Journal’s opinion editors will have the last laugh.  But will they call for regulation?  Doubtful!

Douglas R. Page is the co-author, with the late Philip L. Kilbride, a former Bryn Mawr College anthropologist, of Plural Marriage for Our Time:  A Reinvented Option? Second Edition, published by Praeger, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2012.