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The Sixties

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45 and Counting.

“When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids…Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.”

On the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Phil Plait wonders what the hell happened to the Dream of Space in America. “Venturing into space is not just something we can do. It’s something we must do.”

An Editorial By Sam the Eagle.

“When you think about the Great Society and this dream for a better country, Sesame Street fits so neatly into that because it was created for children who weren’t getting read to at night, who didn’t have little record players at home and weren’t listening to music. It was created for those children who didn’t have the preparation at home that other children in other circumstances were getting,” said Michael Davis, the author of ‘Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.’”

Like Sesame Street? Thank LBJ. The WP’s Katie Zezima looks at the show’s debt to the Great Society. “Sesame Street…was looked at as an opportunity to bring together people who worked in fields including social science, children’s literature, psychology, art and other places to build a learning curriculum disguised as a television show.”

It’s Not Even Past.

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office…[B]lack history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it…Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge — that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”

Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.

Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.

This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

At Canaan’s Edge.

“‘Eric Overmyer and I have taken on a project that was already in HBO’s development stable,’ he wrote. ‘We have agreed to go into a room with Taylor Branch and others and see what can be done for a six-hour miniseries.’”

The Baltimore Sun reports that David Simon is working on a MLK mini-series for HBO, “based on the celebrated book trilogy by Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch…But as per Blown Deadline’s development projects, this is behind another miniseries project for HBO that is closer to production and that we hope to be announcing shortly.”

A Four-Year House?


“I will ask you to make it possible for members of the House of Representatives to work more effectively in the service of the nation through a constitutional amendment extending the term of a Congressman to four years, concurrent with that of the President.” An interesting recent find by Greg Giroux of Bloomberg News. In the 1966 State of the Union, Lyndon Johnson called for a constitutional amendment to change House terms to four years.

Hrm…there’s one you don’t hear much about these days. So every incoming President (presuming he or she has coattails) would likely have an operational majority in the House for a longer period of time — so long, disasters like 2010 — and House members would have less need for constant campaigning and fund-raising. At the same time, you’re further insulating the House from electoral upheaval (which is kind of the point), and thus aggravating the possibility that a room full of millionaires will be unaccountable to the public. I’ll have to think on it.

Hello?…Uh…Hello Dmitri?

“With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President…Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being ‘very fearful of having written papers on this matter.’”

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.”

Not Ruby, Not Oswald: Lehnsherr.


“Days before Kennedy arrived in Dallas for his Trade Mart visit, the Friends of Humanity had campaigned among locals for his impeachment. According to the group, the Missile Crisis was the least of Kennedy’s sins in a list of treasons including “mutant love” and “conspiracy to dilute the human race with ungodly blood.”

I missed this during JFK retrospective/Thanksgiving week until Ted of The Late Adopter passed it along: The Magic Bullet is finally explained. In short, there was no second shooter — just a bullet-bending mutant master of magnetism on the grassy knoll. Seems like a good reason to authorize the Sentinel program, and no mistake.

Update: Upon looking over recent entries, I notice I neglected to post the full X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer, so here it is: Some questionable editing choices here (that jump-cut after “Patience isn’t my strongest suit” is jarring every time), but hopefully this will avoid the overstuffed pitfalls of X3 and continue in the positive vein of First Class.

The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance? Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of a governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.”

Assessing the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, Mike Konczal makes the case for returning to the old ways. “[T]he Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society…creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves…My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)

That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.

Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.

Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.

One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.’”

In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.

Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”

The Guerrilla.

“I knew he was proud of his reputation as the ‘Red Napoleon,’ and I presumed he would welcome an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about his triumphs…But he answered most of my questions briefly, adding little to what I already knew, and then waved his hand to indicate disinterest. That is all in the past now, he said. You and I should discuss a future where our countries are not enemies but friends. And so we did.”

The man in the black pajamas, Dude: Upon the latter’s death at the age of 102, Senator John McCain remembers General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Dien Bien Phu and Tet. “Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn’t. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It’s hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can’t deny its success.

The Dream Persists.


“We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28th, 1963.

“It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create.” As The Nation‘s Gary Younge reminds us, today should not be about resting on laurels by any means: There is work to do.

Rider on the Storm.


“We knew what the people wanted: the same thing the Doors wanted. Freedom.” The not-so-secret weapon of The Doors and one of rock and roll’s great psychedelic keyboardists, Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013.

You May Say They Were Dreamers…

“Like many of his peers, Havens was a songwriter…But Havens also knew a great contemporary song when he heard it, and made his name covering and rearranging songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. ‘Music is the major form of communication,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “It’s the commonest vibration, the people’s news broadcast, especially for kids.’ Richie Havens, folk singer, troubadour, and opener of Woodstock, 1941-2013.

“Bob radiated a passion for justice, and with joyful fervor he inspired everyone around him to share his belief in, and commitment to working for, a more democratic and just society. Through a long and varied career, Bob took on many roles and causes – but all of the chapters in his remarkable life were connected by his essential decency, kindness and compassion.” Bob Edgar, former Congressman, campaign finance activist, and president of Common Cause, 1943-2013.

The Eagle has Landed.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

Commander Neil Armstrong, the pioneer who took the first step on extra-terrestrial soil and towards our ultimate destiny, 1930-2012. “The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet…our opportunities are unlimited.

The High-Water Mark.


And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Devil in a Blue Dress.


(Ok, admittedly, that’s still unsubstantiated. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In any event, a sturdy and plodding workhorse of a biopic, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar attempts to humanize the man who fanned forty years of fears about Communism to become architect of the F.B.I. and one of the most powerful figures in Washington. It’s…not bad, and I would say I was engaged for most of the movie’s run. But, even despite all the Brokeback Mountain-style kabuki restraint that Eastwood must’ve felt he had to employ to do justice to the are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship of Hoover and longtime partner Clyde Tolson, a film about a figure as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover should take stronger stands about its subject. Despite some very good (and, in di Caprio’s case, very bizarre) performances, this is mostly biopic mush.

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.

Another Night of Poetry and Poses.


At the Lincoln Center talk, the Coens compared their movie to “Margot at the Wedding” (Noah Baumbach was on stage with them) suggesting that, like that film, their new work will offer natural dialogue and a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a world. They also said they expected the film to contain musical performances.

As breaking over the weekend, the Coens’ next project may well be a look at the sixties folk scene in Greenwich Village, based on the life of Dave Von Ronk — above, with Dylan and Suze Rotolo — and his memoirs, The Mayor of McDougal Street. He shouldn’t overpower the story, but I do hope Jack Rollins get his due.

She once was a true love of mine.


[S]he read modern poetry, studied art and drawing, and immersed herself in Bertolt Brecht and other avant-garde playwrights. When they became a couple, Rotolo introduced Dylan to these worlds. Close friends noticed the change: ‘You could see the influence she had on him,’ said Sylvia Tyson of Ian & Sylvia. ‘This is a girl who was marching to integrate local schools when she was 15.‘”

Suze Rotolo, author, activist, and Dylan muse, 1943-2011. “‘A Freewheelin’ Time’ is one of the first histories of the folk music years written from a woman’s perspective…it goes beyond gossip to ask a pointed question: How did it feel? Rotolo writes the era mattered because ‘we all had something to say, not something to sell.’

Susannah and Sargent.


‘I always felt that I was a character actor,’ York told the Scotsman newspaper in 2008. ‘It bothered me that people would think of me as blonde and blue-eyed and that was it.’” Actress (and mother of Superman) Susannah York, 1939-2011.

Nearly everybody in their life needs someone to help them. I don’t care whether you’re the greatest self-made man; the fact is, someone has helped you along the way.” Politician and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011.

Song of the South.

Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy.

In the wake of Haley Barbour’s highly dubious misremembering of civil-rights era Mississippi, historian Rick Perlstein skewers the GOP poobah and presidential hopeful to the wall. “At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists…He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically ‘forget.‘”

Dark Side of the Moon.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

In a fascinating remnant of alternate history, Letters of Note unearths Nixon’s Safire-penned speech on the (possible) failure of Apollo 11. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

A Mole in the Movement.


Responding to the newspaper’s requests, the government instead released 369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers — by then a state employee who was taking payoffs — carefully redacting references to informants — with one notable exception. Censors overlooked a single reference to Withers’ informant number.

Thanks to one small clerical error, the Memphis Commerical Appeal uncovers the hidden life of famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who apparently doubled as an FBI informant. [Reaction.] “‘He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,’ said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.” Shady.

Letters from a Birmingham Trek Convention.

[W]hen I told Dr. King I was leaving the show, I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t.’ He explained to me just what I’ve just said. ‘Here you are on the command crew in the 23rd century, fourth in command, while we’re marching in the streets for equality.’” Nichelle Nichols, a.k.a. Lt. Uhura, relates the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Trekkie.

The Guru, the Visionary, and the Matriarch.

“Leaving school to pursue a rap career flummoxed his family, said Guru’s brother, Harry Jr. ‘I was on my way to becoming a professor, and my brother is dropping out of grad school, and I’m saying, ‘What are you doing?’ But he believed in it and followed it through.” Activist and hip-hop pioneer Guru of Gangstarr, 1962-2010. (Now who’s gonna take the weight?)

“The opening of ‘Dog Day’ is about what Sonny lost, and the rest of the film is about how he lost it. This sequence is about the necessity of recognizing and appreciating the beauty of life itself. A better tribute to Dede Allen’s artistry is hard to imagine.” Groundbreaking film editor Dede Allen, 1923-2010.

“‘If the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times,’ she liked to say. It was important, she said, to dress well. ‘I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.’” Matriarch of the civil rights movement Dorothy Height, 1912-2010.

The Patriot.

As gripping in its own way as a cloak-and-dagger thriller or John Grisham procedural, Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America, by co-directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith and about the famous Rand analyst turned Pentagon Papers whistleblower, is a smart, tautly-made conjuring of recent American history that’s well worth the trip. And, fortunately for me, it’s also a perfect movie to contemplate and write about this President’s Day.

On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)

Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.

But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.

The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)

And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.

I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.

Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)

But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.

Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.

MLK 2010.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
* * * * * *

Backing into a Quagmire.

“I will tell you the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea [...] I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.” Also via Greenwald today and in light of Obama’s upcoming decision on Afghanistan, former LBJ aide Bill Moyers painstakingly pieces together how his old boss made the decision to escalate in Vietnam. “We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.

Before Birthers, Birchers.

“So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers — these are ‘either’ the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube?…They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

In the WP, historian Rick Perlstein puts the latest incarnation of the stark raving right-wing in historical perspective. The difference this time? The media is completely failing at its job. “The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the ‘death panel’ canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of ‘complaints over the provision.’ Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.

One Small Step.

“I always knew I’d live to see the first man walk on the Moon. I never dreamed I’d see the last.” — Jerry Pournelle. Forty years after Apollo 11, it’s time to reach for the stars once more.

Efficiency and Honesty.




“We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What “the fog of war” means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.” — Robert McNamara, 1916-2009

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick. We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.” — Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009.

Forty Years and Counting.

“The cultural climate is far different today, besides. Now, roughly 75 percent of Americans support an end to Don’t Ask, and gay issues are no longer a third rail in American politics. Gay civil rights history is moving faster in the country, including on the once-theoretical front of same-sex marriage, than it is in Washington. If the country needs any Defense of Marriage Act at this point, it would be to defend heterosexual marriage from the right-wing ‘family values’ trinity of Sanford, Ensign and Vitter.”

The NYT’s Frank Rich reflects on the gay rights movement on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. “No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama’s inaction on gay civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic inarticulateness…It’s a press cliche that ‘gay supporters’ are disappointed with Obama, but we should all be.

Omsbudsdog Emeritus

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