Following up on the recent revelations that, for decades, the nuclear launch code was actually 000000: In the New Yorker and fifty years after the film’s release, Eric Schlosser discovers that pretty much everything in Dr. Strangelove was correct, right down to the secret Doomsday device. “Fifty years later…’Strangelove’ seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.”
Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.”
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
“Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space…In 1957, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.“
By way of LinkMachineGo, NPR’s Robert Krulwich tells the tale of the sad and unnecessary death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. “As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, ‘cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.’“
On the release of his long-awaited The Publisher, an extensive biography of TIME/LIFE founder Henry Luce, Columbia historian (and my dissertation advisor) Alan Brinkley discusses how Luce may have coped with the Digital Age. “Luce — for all his flaws — was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence. Were he to live in our time, trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.“
And, in very related news, Boing Boing posts Chris Ware’s recently rejected throwback cover for Fortune‘s annual 500 issue. “It hearkens back to the golden age of Fortune as an exemplar of beautifully designed and illustrated magazines…’and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasury being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover, needless to say, was rejected.’”
“Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that.“
In less-sanguine history news, and by way of Past Punditry, a new blog by an old Columbia colleague of mine, it appears that the late Stephen Ambrose — already unmasked as a serial plagiarist — also conjured several purported interviews with President Eisenhower out of thin air. “Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled…These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.” Hmm…I could’ve saved a lot of time in gradual school if I could just make it up. (Sadly, there’s been a rash of fake presidential quotes going around lately.)
“‘I thought the name was a horror,’ he told The Press Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., in 2007. “Terrible.” (Before perfecting the Pluto Platter in 1955, Mr. Morrison had called earlier incarnations of his disc the Flyin’ Cake Pan, the Whirlo-Way and the Flyin-Saucer.)” And millions of dogs howled in lament: Walter Frederick Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, 1920-2010. (By way of FmH and The Late Adopter.)
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”
“In the summer of 1959, Allen Ginsberg, the generation’s visionary poet of exuberance and doom, wrote in the Village Voice: ‘No one in America can know what will happen. No one is in real control. America is having a nervous breakdown…Therefore there has been great exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, secrecy, and public gaiety among the poets of the city.’ He might as well have written that today.“
In Slate and per his recent book, Fred Kaplan makes the case for 1959 as a Very Important Year, and uses the groundbreaking flight of Luna 1 as that moment’s muse. “[I]t, and the race to space that it triggered, helped create the climate in which all those other breakthroughs were possible or, at least, appealing to a broad population. The breakdown of barriers in space, speed, and time made other barriers ripe for transgressing.” And folks argue space exploration isn’t important…
How low have we sunk under Dubya? Apparently, under this administration, we’ve actually been plagiarizing Maoist torture techniques for use in the Gitmo gulag. “‘What makes this document doubly stunning is that these were techniques to get false confessions,’ Levin said. ‘People say we need intelligence, and we do. But we don’t need false intelligence.’”
Another personal plug: As part of the online rollout for a new edition of Walter LaFeber’s The American Century, I recently composed four brief classroom essays on various 20th century events, as evaluated from a 21st century (re: ruthlessly presentist) perspective. In case anyone’s interested, they’ve now gone live: The Versailles Conference | The Military Industrial Complex Speech | The Tet Offensive | A Second American Century? Now, that’s edutainment.
“The biggest barrier to rolling up our sleeves and preparing for a better future is our own apathy, fear or immobility. We have been living in a zero-sum political environment where all heads have been lowered to avert being lopped off by angry, noisy extremists. I am convinced that Barack Obama is the one presidential candidate today who can encourage ordinary Americans to stand straight again; he is a man who can salve our national wounds and both inspire and pursue genuine bipartisan cooperation. Just as important, Obama can assure the world and Americans that this great nation’s impulses are still free, open, fair and broad-minded.“
In the WP, Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, endorses Obama for president. “My grandfather was pursued by both political parties and eventually became the Republican nominee…He went on to win the presidency — with the indispensable help of a ‘Democrats for Eisenhower’ movement. These crossover voters were attracted by his pledge to bring change to Washington and by the prospect that he would unify the nation. It is in this great tradition of crossover voters that I support Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. If the Democratic Party chooses Obama as its candidate, this lifelong Republican will work to get him elected and encourage him to seek strategic solutions to meet America’s greatest challenges.”
“In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus for apprehensions made pursuant to it.” Taking a page from his earlier mentor, A. Mitchell Palmer, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, recently declassified documents reveal, floated the idea of interning 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty in 1950, during the Korean War. [Hoover's letter.] “Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to ‘protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.’ The F.B.I would ‘apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous’ to national security, Hoover’s proposal said.” Thank goodness our intelligence community is past such retrograde thinking and kneejerk trampling on civil liberties today…uh, right?
Reagan aside, I do respectfully take issue with Greenberg’s prior Slate piece comparing Obama to a long list of well-meaning losers, including Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. Greenberg writes: “Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It’s a style — an ideology, really — that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest…What he doesn’t seem to understand — as Stevenson did not — is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.“
I would argue that these constant appeals to individual self-interest is exactly what’s what wrong with Democrats today. Put simply, our civic life has nearly wasted away, with devastating consequences for the Left in this country.The major operative question our politics seeks to answer today is not “How should we live?” or “What can we accomplish together?” but “Where’s my stuff?” And, due to this narrow, limiting absorption with individual self-interest, lefty candidates of late have mostly based their proactive appeals on small-minded ideas like bribing elderly voters with prescription drug benefits and everyone else with tax cuts. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?
As a result, more and more citizens are tuning out of the process completely. Without vision, the people perish. People find the grasping individualism at the center of politics today inherently unsatisfying, and they look for a deeper common purpose wherever they can find it. And, since Democrats too often can’t stop speaking in uninspiring technocratic policy-wonk, a consequence of their limited vision and ambitions, voters have been inclining in recent years toward the GOP, who at least offer a flawed but workable story, often rooted in gung-ho nationalism and unpacked ideas like “Freedom, Yeah!”, about who we are as a people. The story is everything (which is one main reason why I was drawn to American history in the first place.) To be successful, to be anything other than GOP-lite — a pathetic state we’ve been floundering in for decades — Democrats need to tell the nation a story about our shared history and our shared goals, and stop pandering to voters’ immediate self-interest all the live-long day.
Greenberg may argue that civic-mindedness in a political candidate is the province of losers, but I disagree — It’s all in the telling. After all, it was the extremely popular John F. Kennedy who reminded us to ask what you can do for your country, and his slain brother RFK obviously talked a great game in that respect too.
In this piece, Greenberg also discusses the retreat from the “the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach” under FDR. (This is also the ground my dissertation covers.) And, yes, the broker-state model of governance honed by the New Deal worked for a long time. More importantly, the idea of interest-group pluralism it cultivated has had many critically important successes to its name, not the least the civil rights revolutions of the past few decades (although those too have a strong civic component — MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it explicit: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” This is not the language of self-interest but an appeal to a shared narrative as Americans.)
But I would argue that the enthronement of individual self-interest above all else in politics has reached its logical endpoint, and as a result our system is on the verge of falling apart — half the country doesn’t vote, money constantly bends the rules and everyone knows it, people are losing the inclination (or even the capacity) to act as informed, independent citizens. Indeed, you could argue Hillary Clinton’s failure with health care reform in the nineties exemplified the problem with broker-state leadership: When setting out to confront the issue, the Clintons cut everyone in on the deal, from insurance companies to HMOS to the AMA, in true broker-state fashion. As a result, no reform at all was forthcoming.
This was mainly because, as I’ve said before, the individualistic/broker state model of liberalism has no theory for coping with corporate power — It serves the wants, needs, and interests of consumers, what’s wrong with that? But a civic-minded progressive would argue that there are more important goals than the sating of individual desire, that the government is an expression of our common aspirations and should be more than just a dispensing machine, and that undue corporate influence over — and outright corruption in — our political affairs in fact represents a dire threat to the republic and to our way of life.
The progressive idea of citizenship both offers and demands higher aspirations of people than the lowest common denominator of individual self-interest that both parties appeal to today. We’re fast becoming a society where freedom is measured at best by what choices we make, but more often by what we can own as consumers. Progressives envison a society where freedom is also measured by what we can accomplish as citizens. Ultimately, freedom isn’t a state of being — it’s a state of becoming, of improvement, of progress. A political candidate who could tap into this progressive vein, I think, could inspire people like they haven’t been inspired by politics in a good long while. So, this is my crux of disagreement with Greenberg here — I don’t subscribe to the notion that common-good, public-interest progressivism is inherently a losing proposition. Quite the contrary.
Still, Greenberg’s article does a solid job of delineating the origins of Obama’s progressive appeal, and, at the very least, we agree that Obama is considerably more progressive than Clinton.
“But political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance. Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the ‘public relations’ experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what ‘kind of person’ to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.”
By way of Ted at The Late Adopter, Senator John F. Kennedy ruminates on how television has changed politics in 1959, and much of it reads as presciently as Eisenhower’s farewell address fourteen months later. “The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost. It is no small item…If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.” Yeah, I’d like to say we were working on that.
Fifty years ago, high above Earth, Sputnik signalled a new era for mankind. But on the ground in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine black students were jeered mercilessly, the prospects for Humanity didn’t seem as sanguine. By way of Do You Feel Loved and to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Litle Rock Central High, Vanity Fair‘s David Margolick tells the sad but illuminating story of Elizabeth Eckford (of the Little Rock 9) and Hazel Bryan (her tormentor in the pic at right.) “[T]he picture belongs to Elizabeth and Hazel, and for them it set off a drama that has never really ended. Bound together in fame and misfortune, they have tried, separately and together, to escape the frame. After a brief and well-photographed pseudo-reconciliation 10 years ago, the two are once more incommunicado, living only a few miles, and a cultural chasm, apart.“
“Bush has long taken solace in the example of Harry S. Truman, whose foreign policy was deeply unpopular in his time but is now recalled as far-sighted and sage. Now Bush is stretching the comparison still further beyond the historical pale.” After (Dem strategist?) Dubya hints that a forthcoming Clinton presidency will play Ike to his Truman, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan cries foul. If the next prez channels Eisenhower, Kaplan contends, “it would be not as a continuation of Bush’s Truman but rather as a reversal of Bush’s Dulles.“
“It was the sound of wonder and foreboding. Nothing would ever be quite the same again — in geopolitics, in science and technology, in everyday life and the capacity of the human species.” On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary (Oct. 4), the NYT remembers the Sputnik launch. “It was an unprepossessing agent of alarm. A simple sphere weighing just 184 pounds and not quite two feet wide, it had a highly polished surface of aluminum, the better to reflect sunlight and be visible from Earth…The Russians clearly intended Sputnik as a ringing statement of their technological prowess and its military implications. But even they, it seems, had not foreseen the frenzied response their success provoked.”
In a document dump of both exhilarating and terrifying proportions, the CIA announced it will release its “family jewels” next week: close to 700 pages of documents chronicling secret Agency activity from the fifties to the seventies. (A preview of what’s to come includes reports of detentions, wiretapping, surveillance, and other sordid current administration favorites.) “CIA Director Michael Hayden on Thursday called the documents being released next week unflattering, but he added that ‘it is CIA’s history.’ ‘The documents provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency,’ Hayden told a conference of historians.” Hmm, we’ll see.
The wheels may have come off the Bush bandwagon several months ago, but that’s not stopping Karl Rove from trying to finesse Dubya’s place in the history books. And, like his boss, Karl seems to be attempting the Truman route: “In the West Wing interview, Rove adopted a longer view, citing the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, adopted by Truman in the 1940s and then embraced by a succession of presidents despite initial misgivings, as reason to believe history may offer a kinder assessment of the durability of Bush policies and institutional changes.” Hmm. When it comes to the war on terror, somehow I doubt dropping the ball in Afghanistan to prosecute a badly-bungled war of choice in Iraq is going to look any better to future generations. Just a hunch.
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
– Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
The buck stops here? Not hardly. Grasping for historical validation wherever he can find it, Dubya has apparently begun to fancy himself a modern-day Truman. “James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman’s roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. ‘Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years’.”
“As [Harry] Truman said, ‘We must, once and for all, prove by our acts conclusively that right has might.’ That’s why this country has historically been in the vanguard of the global human rights movement. But that lead can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism. When it appears to abandon its own ideas and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.” As Kofi Annan bids farewell to his post at the UN, he offers some words of wisdom to America — and to Dubya — on our nation’s role in the world.