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Richard Nixon

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Dirty Henry.

“Kissinger asked how long will it take you (the Argentines) to clean up the problem. Guzzetti replied that it would be done by the end of the year. Kissinger approved. In other words, Ambassador Hill explained, Kissinger gave the Argentines the green light.”

Another file for the war crimes prosecution: New evidence comes to light that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among his many other misdeeds, egged on Argentina’s Dirty War. “Kissinger watchers have known for years that he at least implicitly (though privately) endorsed the Argentine dirty war, but this new memo makes clear he was an enabler for an endeavor that entailed the torture, disappearance, and murder of tens of thousands of people.”

A Doctor in the (White) House.


Young lady, there are no monsters in the Oval Office.” Via AICN, Stephen Moffatt and Matt Smith’s incarnation of Doctor Who gets ready for its second season, i.e. the sixth since the Russell Davies reboot and 32nd since the very beginning. (See also Moffatt’s adaptation of the missing 18-minutes of the Nixon era.) The show premieres April 23rd stateside, and between this, HBO’s Game of Thrones (April 17), and AMC’s The Killing (this Sunday), I suddenly have a lot more TV to watch.

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.

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.

Stuck in the Middle with You.

“That large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

As I’m sure you know, President Obama delivered his health care reform address to Congress last night. [Transcript.] My thoughts on it are mixed.

On one hand, speaking in terms of rhetoric, style, and delivery, this was an amazing speech, his best since the campaign days. While it’s an open question how long its effects will linger, the address clearly and decisively helped move the reform ball forward. And the emotional closer, featuring Ted Kennedy’s heartfelt final words to the President, was incredibly moving. In sum, it’s the exemplary address we knew Obama had in him on this issue, and he brought it home perfectly.

But, all that being said, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that [a] the policy being outlined last night didn’t quite jibe with the wonderful speech, and, as all too common of late, [b] the president far too readily threw his left flank — the very people who sweat blood and tears to get him elected — under the bus.

To take the second part first, Obama early on indulged in an irritating and textbook case of Beltway false equivalence by setting himself up as the sensible middle between those cuh-rrrrazy single-payer types on the left and the free market fundies on the right. (“There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s…“) Uh, yes, and not so long ago, Mr. President, you were among them. I feel like I’ve said this several times recently, but painting the left as dingbats to shore up one’s centrist bona fides is a pretty tired parlor trick at this point, and it never gets any less insulting.

As an aside, on the way into work yesterday, I — and everyone else around the Metro — was accosted by guys in Grim Reaper costumes and bullhorns, telling us all, basically, that violence will erupt and we will all die if this health care bill passes. Y’know, there’s a term for telling people they’ll be killed if a political event happens — We call it terrorism. (As it turns out, there’s a term for wearing a hood while telling people they’ll be killed too.) Well, imagine my surprise to hear — from the president I’ve vocally supported for two years now — that me and my fellow clowns on the left are just as part of the health care problem as these jokers are on the right. I have to admit, it kinda tempers the enthusiasm.

And then there was the discussion of the public option. Yes, the President did make a case for the public option in last night’s remarks: “[A]n additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange…It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better.” In addition, the President correctly pointed out, “It’s worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I’ve proposed tonight.

But what the President giveth, the President also taketh away. The public option was clearly brought up in the speech after the non-negotiable section. (“While there remain some significant details to be ironed out, I believe a broad consensus exists for the aspects of the plan I just outlined.“)

Indeed, in case we missed the point, President Obama later made it clear: “To my progressive friends, I would remind you that…[t]he public option is only a means to [an] end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.

He then went on to float two “compromise” ideas that, for all intent and purposes, are public option killers: (1) a trigger and (2) co-ops. (“For example, some have suggested that that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies. Others propose a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan.“)

The trigger notion — the idea that if the insurance companies don’t fix the problem themselves, a public option would then be “triggered” into existence — is in effect, as one progressive well put it, a threat made with an unloaded gun. It’s kabuki theater, pure and simple, because everyone knows that Congress never pulls the trigger in question. (See also the cost of prescription drugs in Medicare Part D.) As Slate‘s Tim Noah recently ably pointed out, triggers are used all the time as “compromise” fodder, and what they really mean is we’re going to pretend to have addressed the problem and let things go on as they have. And, really, how much worse would insurance companies have to fail before this trigger kicked in? We’re talking about health care reform right now because the system is already broken.

As for co-ops, there’s a good reason they are the compromise that the insurance industry tends to favor. Most likely, they’ll be too small, weak, and scattered to bring real competition to the market.

So, granted, we don’t have a final bill yet, and there are many strong advocates of a public option in the House who will continue to fight for it. But, if the public option is as expendable to the administration as it seemed last night, then we may have some problems.

To wit, if a health care reform bill passes that has an individual mandate (i.e. everyone has to buy insurance), limited subsidies (to keep costs down), and no public option, than what’s basically happening is this: People are being forced to buy insurance they likely still can’t afford from the very private companies that are making vast amounts of coin from the current, broken system. If this sounds like a huge boon for private insurance companies, it is. (One might even start to think they had a hand in writing the legislation.) Yes, a larger risk pool should make health insurance cheaper — but without a public option keeping rates honest, what guarantee do we have that these savings would be passed on to the consumer?

Along those lines, President Obama also made the case last night for a tax on premium plans to help pay for reform. (“This reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money – an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts.“) But, again, without a robust public option holding the private industry’s feet to the fire, what will stop said insurance companies from just passing these costs down the line, in the form of higher premiums across the board?

(I’ll confess to being confused about this element of the plan anyway. The article I just linked on this premium plan tax says: “The hope is that employers would buy cheaper, less generous coverage for employees, thereby reducing the overuse of medical services.” Uh…cheaper, less generous coverage for employees? That’s a good thing? And I’m by no means an expert on these matters — far from it — but is “the overuse of medical services” really the main problem afflicting our health care system? It sounds a bit to me like “too many notes.”)

All of which is to say that I really hope the substance of the final plan matches the beauty of last night’s rhetoric. Now, I understand the counter-arguments: As Paul Begala recently reminded us, the Social Security Act of 1935 had serious problems too, and look how that turned out. The great is the enemy of the good. Politics is the art of the possible, etc. etc.

I don’t disagree with any of that. But I also believe that leadership is the art of expanding the horizons of the possible. (Cue RFK: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.“) We always knew that the President is a master of oratory, and that he would move us all with his eloquence when the time came. But, in setting their sights so low on this bill, the administration, in my view, have come close to squandering both the historical moment and the president’s once-in-a-generation gift.

A historical puzzle lingers over the entire health care reform enterprise at the moment: How is it, with a Democratic House, a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president, that the proposal for health care reform on the table basically remains to the right of Richard Nixon? (See also: The Family Assistance Plan.)

Well, the short answer, imho, is lack of meaningful campaign finance and lobbying restrictions. (A key problem that’s about to get a whole lot worse.) But I would also argue in favor of another cause. For decades now, Democrats have tried to find that safe happy moderate middle, while Republicans — flaks, representatives and presidents alike — have willfully and consistently pushed that center to the right. The president’s address, however magnificent and even moving at times, felt like another step in the same old vicious cycle. And at this crucial historical moment, I strongly believe it would be a better demonstration of “our American character” if we Dems — and this administration — showed the courage of our convictions in words and deed.

Frosty Nixon.

“‘There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,’ he told an aide, before adding, ‘Or a rape.’Another round of newly-released Nixon tapes sheds more light on the dark and troubling imaginings of the 37th president. “‘What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up,’ Nixon said…’It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.’” Class act, this guy.

The Ghosts of Ford and Bourne.

As most everyone keeping up on current events these days knows, the people around the president, as well as the president himself, spend a good bit of time emphasizing the pragmatic nature of this administration. One senior administration official recently deemed the president a “devout nonideologue”, and Obama himself has argued several times that he aims to tackle the myriad problems before us with a “ruthless pragmatism.” Now, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Obama’s pragmatic nature is an act. If anything, from installing Sen. Clinton as his Secretary of State to keeping Sec. Gates at Defense, it’s clear that pragmatism, accommodation, and inclusiveness are his temperamental instincts as a politician. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, and the “bold, persistent experimentation” Roosevelt promised in 1932 — and subsequently followed through on over the course of the decade — aren’t entirely undesired by the White House.

Well, I’ve been traveling over the past few days, and thus haven’t been following the news as closely as usual. Still, even given President Obama’s health care announcement on Monday (highly reminiscent of the NRA in that it purports to let the big players in the health care industry help write the codes, so to speak) and the welcome declaration on Wednesday that the administration would soon seek a new regulatory apparatus for derivatives markets, Franklin Roosevelt was not the first president that came to mind as a point of reference for Obama this week.

No, that would be Gerald Ford, who, most historians agree, was an honorable man thrust into a thorny dilemma by the crimes of his predecessor, and who grievously hamstrung his own brief administration by deciding to pardon Richard Nixon. And now, it seems, history gets dangerously close to repeating itself. For, it’s moved beyond obvious that the Dubya administration not only willfully engaged in torture — clearly, bad enough — but did so to compel false confessions of an Iraq-9/11 connection that they knew never existed. And yet, we’ve already witnessed the ungainly sight of President Obama equivocating on the question of prosecutions in the name of some dubious “time for reflection, not retribution.” (Never mind that, as President Obama reminds us on other matters, wounds, like corruption, fester in the dark.)

This week, President Obama has compounded his recent error — twice. In the first of two eleventh-hour reversals, Obama — who has promised us “an unprecedented level of openness in government” many times over — instead chose to side with the publicists of the Pentagon and block the court-ordered release of new photographs detailing detainee abuse: “‘The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,’ Obama said yesterday. ‘In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.‘” (How bad are they? If Sy Hersh is correct, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, they could be very, very bad.)

Then, today, the Obama administration announced they will continue using extra-legal military tribunals, not federal courts or military courts martial, for Gitmo suspects. “‘Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States,’ said Obama in a statement. ‘They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.’” (The key line of the WP story: “In recent weeks, however, the administration appears to have bowed to fears articulated by the Pentagon that bringing some detainees before regular courts presented enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.)”

Obama’s statements aside, the arguments — re: excuses — in favor of blocking the release of these no-doubt-horrifying photos and maintaining extralegal tribunals — now with 33% less illegality! — are the thin gruel you might expect. The WP’s Dan Froomkin already eviscerated the former quite devastatingly, while Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, laudable as usual, has taken point on the idiocy of the latter: “[W]e’ll give due process as long as we’re sure we can win, and if we can’t, we’ll give you something less.” In both cases, the principle animating the advice given to President Obama seems mainly to be the usual self-serving, CYA behavior of Dubya holdovers at the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t absolve President Obama of his failures here. For whatever reason — perhaps he’s trying to smooth things over in these areas so he can focus on the considerable domestic problems on his plate — Obama is increasingly making the exact same mistake as Gerald Ford. As other commentators have pointed out, by shoving the rampant illegalities of the GWoT under the rug — or worse, perpetuating them — Obama is dangerously close to making his administration retroactively complicit in the crimes of the previous administration.

Now, I’d like to move on to fixing the economy and universal health care — not to mention voting, lobbying, and campaign finance reform — as much as the next guy., But sidestepping the tough choices on torture and the imperial presidency, as Paul Krugman (whom I’ve had issues with but am in complete lockstep with here) noted a few weeks ago, is simply not an option, if we are to maintain anything resembling our national soul after this egregious wallowing in torture and illegality.

Speaking of which, a quick comment on the emerging question of what and when Speaker Pelosi knew about torture (which the Republicans have shamelessly latched onto like a life raft — see in particular Karl Rove frantically pointing at her to save his own skin the other day. You can almost smell the desperate flop sweat exuding from his every pore.) Well, let’s look into it. Commissions, investigations, prosecutions — let’s quit screwing around and start getting to the bottom of this fiasco. I can’t believe I have to keep writing this like it’s even a bone of contention, but look: If we can’t get it together enough to collectively agree that torture is both immoral and illegal, and that those who designed and orchestrated these war crimes during the Dubya administration be subject to investigation, prosecution, and punishment, then we might as well call this whole “rule of law” thing off. As ethicist David Luban noted yesterday in congressional testimony, the relevant case law here is not oblique. Either the laws apply to those at the very top, or they don’t — in which case, it’s hard to see why anyone else should feel bound to respect them either.

Which brings me back to pragmatism. Hey, in general, I’m all for it, particularly when you consider all the many imbecilities thrust upon the world by the blind ideological purity of the neocons of late. But, let’s remember, the limits of pragmatism as a guiding national philosophy were exposed before all the world before Obama, or even FDR, ever took office. When, after several years of trying to stay well out of the whole mess, Woodrow Wilson entered America into World War I in 1917, the very fathers of Pragmatism, most notably philosopher of education John Dewey, convinced themselves war was now the correct call and exhorted their fellow progressives, usually in the pages of The New Republic, to get behind it. (Many did, but others — such as Jane Addams and Nation editor Oswald Villard — did not.) War went from being a moral abomination to a great and necessary opportunity for national renewal. Given it was a done deal, the pragmatic thing to do now was to go with the flow.

Aghast at this 180-degree shift in the thinking of people he greatly admired, a young writer named Randolph Bourne called shenanigans on this “pragmatic” turnaround, and excoriated his former mentors for their lapse into war fervor. “It must never be forgotten that in every community it was the least liberal and least democratic elements among whom the preparedness and later the war sentiment was found,” Bourne wrote. “The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy had been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy.

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for the progressives than I. But the fact remains that Bourne, who perished soon thereafter in the 1918 influenza epidemic, was prescient in a way that many of the leading progressive thinkers were not. The emotions unleashed by the Great War and its aftermath (as well as the sight of the accompanying Russian Revolution) soon fractured completely the progressive movement in America, and proved exceedingly fertile soil for the reascendancy of the most reactionary elements around. (Back then “Bolshevik” and “anarchist” were preferred as the favorite epithets of the “One Hundred Percent American” right-wing, although “socialist,” then as now, was also in vogue. At least then they had real socialists around, tho’.) And the pragmatic writers and thinkers of TNR, who thought they could ride the mad tiger through a “war to end all wars,” instead found their hopes and dreams chewed up and mangled beyond recognition. They wanted a “world made safe for democracy” and they ended up with the Red Scare, Warren Harding, and an interstitial peace at Versailles that lasted less than a generation.

The point being: however laudable a virtue in most circumstances, pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake can lead one into serious trouble. And, as a guiding light of national moral principle, it occasionally reeks. As Dewey and his TNR compatriots discovered to their everlasting chagrin, you can talk yourself into pretty much anything and deem it “pragmatic,” when it’s in fact just the path of least resistance. And, when your guiding philosophy of leadership is to always view intense opposing sides as Scylla and Charybdis, and then to steer through them by finding the calm, healthy middle, you can bet dollars-to-donuts that the conservative freaks of the industry will always be pushing that “center” as far right as possible, regardless of the issues involved. And, eventually, without a guiding moral imperative at work — like, I dunno, torture is illegal, immoral, and criminal, or the rule of law applies to everyone — you may discover that that middle channel is no longer in the middle at all, but has diverted strongly to the right. In which case, welcome to Gerald Ford territory.

Nobody wants that, of course. We — on the left, at least — all want to remember the Obama administration not as a well-meaning dupe notable mainly for its unfortunate rubberstamping of Dubya-era atrocities, but as a transformational presidency akin to those of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. To accomplish this goal, it would behoove the White House to remember that Lincoln, pragmatic that he was, came to abolition gradually, but come to abolition he did. Or consider that Franklin Roosevelt, pragmatic that he was, eventually chose his side as well. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match,” FDR said in his renomination speech of 1936. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

I should like to have it said of President Obama’s administration as well. The alternative — Obama’s sad, “pragmatic” capitulation to Dubya-era criminals — is too depressing to contemplate. But the picture below (found here) gives you a pretty good sense of what it’ll mean for America if we don’t get to the bottom of this, and soon.

U.S. History for Dummies.

As many readers here well know, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade studying US history. (In fact, over the past few years, I’ve occasionally helped my advisor keep a textbook up to date that recently drew the ire of right-wing blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Apparently, those damn pesky facts were somehow mitigating O’Reilly’s ability to spew forth the usual idiotic blather.)

Anyway, over that period of time, I believe I have in fact learned me a few things. So, as a public service of sorts, and because, after this morning’s revelations, I’ve reached the limit of craven and/or patently stupid falsehoods that I can feasibly ingest over so short a time, some “U.S. History for Dummies.” I expect most everyone who comes by this site with any frequency knows all this, but ya never know. Apologies for the didacticism in advance — if this were this a Coors Light commercial, this would be where i vent. (And thanks to Lia for the timely visual tax lesson, above.)

  • The Tea Party: As you no doubt know, the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was recently appropriated by FOX News and the conservative group Freedomworks to simulate a widespread popular uprising against high taxes. (In other words, it was an “astroturf,” rather than a grass-roots, movement.) And, yes, the inconvenient fact that President Obama and the Democratic Congress actually lowered income taxes for 95% of Americans earlier this year didn’t seem to dissuade them from trying to jury-rig some rather dubious anti-tax ramparts and gin up enough disgruntled FOX-watchers to man them.

    At any rate, as most people remember from high school, the original 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes or high prices at all. (In fact, legally imported tea — i.e. that of the East India Company, which was both suffering serious setbacks over in India and losing market share to smuggled Dutch tea at the time — was actually cheaper in the colonies after the Tea Act, since it was now exempt from the usual obligations.)

    In small part a reaction of the East India’s commercial rivals to this sweetheart deal, the Boston Tea Party was mainly held to uphold the principle of No taxation without representation. Which I don’t think I need to explain. So, with the minor exception of DC-area conservatives who attended the tea gathering in Washington (without crossing over from Virginia or Maryland), the, uh, “teabaggers” don’t really have a leg to stand on here. This is particularly true after you consider that both ruthless gerrymandering and the vagaries of the Electoral College (I’m looking at you, Wyoming) actually tend to lead to over-representation of conservative Republicans in our halls of governance, even despite heavy losses for the “Grand Old Party” in 2006 and 2008.

  • The “Right” of Secession: Apparently, Rick Perry, the right-wing governor of Texas, really wants to keep his job. As such, he’s scared stiff of the forthcoming primary challenge by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who happens to be much more popular than he is among Texas Republicans. So, to sow up his “activist” (re: freak show) bona fides, this desperate fellow has been doing anything and everything he possibly can to prostrate himself before the paranoid ultra-right, including appearing before the current poobahs of the GOP’s lunatic fringe, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. As you no doubt know, this recently culminated in Gov. Perry’s upholding Texas’ right to secede before a crowd of rabid teabaggers. Said the Governor: ““We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that…

    Well, in fact, no state in the Union has any legal right to secede. (Not even Texas.) The existence of such a right was posited and debated quite often in the early years of the republic: by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, by the members of the Hartford Convention, by South Carolina’s philosopher-politician John C. Calhoun, and countless others.

    But the illegality of secession was eventually confirmed — in blood — when eleven states attempted to pull out of the Union in 1861, due mainly to differing opinions on the institution of slavery and its expansion into the western territories. As a result of this insurrection by the southern states, a violent conflict broke out, which we call the Civil War. It lasted four years, and it was kind of a big deal.

    Prior to the war, the states of the Confederacy believed secession to be their natural right, while those remaining in the Union believed it to be tantamount to an act of treason. With the Union victory in that conflict, and the subsequent readmittance of southern states in such a manner that reaffirmed that no right of secession exists, the question was settled. So it remains to this day.

  • Waterboarding, Torture, and “Just Following Orders”: In the wake of recent revelations, there’s been a renewed push among certain conservatives to laugh off waterboarding as not being constitutive of torture. (See also Rush Limbaugh’s fratboy defense of Abu Ghraib a few years ago.) But (as even John McCain concedes), in the years after World War II, there was no question among Americans that waterboarding is torture. In fact, Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted of war crimes for waterboarding American GIs and Filipino prisoners. When you think about it, it’s not really a tough call.

    Another argument we’ve heard lately — today Sen. McCain made it with his usual comrades-in-arms, Sens. Lieberman and Graham, while trying to protect Dubya’s lawyers — is that the CIA officials who actually conducted these recent acts of torture should be exempt from prosecution, because they were following the legal dictates of those higher-up in the administration. (To follow the reasoning around the circle, the torturers should be exempt because they were listening to the lawyers, and the lawyers should be exempt because they didn’t do the actual torturing. Cute.)

    Anyway, whatever you think of the merits of this argument, this is usually referred to as the Nuremberg defense, and it is in fact no defense at all. Argues Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, devised by the Allies after WWII to determine what constituted a war crime: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Insert “CIA interrogator” for person in that last sentence and you can pretty much see the problem.

  • Is America a Christian Nation?: At the end of his recent European tour, President Obama told an audience in Turkey the following: “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” This statement — well the “not a Christian nation” part of it, at least — prompted no small amount of consternation from the porcine-moralist wing of the GOP — James Dobson, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and sundry other freaks of the industry — all of whom fell over themselves to proclaim to the Heavens and preach to the FOX News choir that, yes, Virginia, America is a glorious Christian nation.

    America is not a Christian nation. This will be patently obvious to anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” Unlike, say, England, America does not have and has never had an official, established church. This is very much by design. For proof of this not-very-radical claim, see the very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    If that doesn’t do it for you, see George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish residents of Newport, Rhode Island. “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

    Or consider that Thomas Jefferson skipped his presidency on his tombstone to make room for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (We could also make mention of the Jefferson Bible, but let’s start slow.)

    Is the reasoning here too circuitous for Rove, Gingrich, et al to follow? Ok, then, here’s the cheat sheet: the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, passed by a Congress of our Founders without declaim and signed into law by President John Adams. It begins: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Did y’all catch it this time? Good, let’s move on.

  • A Smile for Chavez: Our new president also attended the Summit of the Americas recently, at which he was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, a particular bete noire of the right who has said all manner of unpleasant things about America over the past few years.

    After the picture was taken, conservatives went predictably livid, with Matt Drudge headlining the offending photograph with the usual red text, Dick Cheney deeming Obama “a weak president” on FOX News, and Gingrich arguing that it made Obama look “weak like Carter.” “We didn’t rush over, smile and greet Russian dictators,” said Newt, and he wasn’t the only potential 2012’er aghast at Obama’s behavior. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada called the president “irresponsible” and the consistently shameless Mitt Romney painted Obama a “timid advocate for freedom”.

    Um, ok. Well, let’s see here…


    I could go on. With regards to that last one — Reagan yukking it up with Mikhail Gorbachev, then of “the evil Empire” — it didn’t take long before (surprise) Newt was caught in a contradiction. Apparently, Gingrich had previously argued on his website that Ronald Reagan’s good humor with Gorby was a sign of strength, not weakness.

    Speaking of which, as Lawrence O’Donnell noted on MSNBC the other day, saintly old Ronald Reagan didn’t just smile and shake hands with America’s enemies. His administration sold them weapons under the table. So, please, assorted puddin’-heads of the GOP talkocracy, spare me your warmed-over tripe about poor diplomacy and weak leadership. As with everything else above, I’ve swallowed enough of your swill over the past few weeks to last me a lifetime.

  • Mano-a-Mano.

    Ron Howard’s version of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, the first of many 2008 prestige films I caught over this past weekend, is a solid two hours of decently diverting edutainment. It’s not an earth-shattering, must-see film or anything, and Morgan (and Michael Sheen)’s last recent “mini-history,” The Queen, is ultimately a more memorable moviegoing experience. Still, Ron Howard’s film has its merits. It’s much better about opening the space and feeling less play-like than John Patrick Shanley’s recent reimagining of Doubt. And it has considerably less of the dry, “Will this be on the test?” feel of much of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, which sometimes seemed designed as a go-to staple for high school history teachers feeling under the weather. Throw in two highly watchable performances by the main sparrers in this tale, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen as Nixon and Frost respectively, and some scene-stealing buffoonery by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell in the margins (Think Rosencrantz/Guildenstern), and you’ve got a keeper here with Frost/Nixon. And, fwiw, it’s probably Howard’s best film since Apollo 13, perhaps ever.

    As you might expect, the movie begins with a brief recap of the Watergate crisis, culminating in the memorable departure of Richard Nixon (Langella, beady-eyed and furtive) from the White House grounds on August 9, 1974. And, while the mid-Seventies unwind, Nixon licks his wounds, and Rocky Balboa trains on the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for his one shot at Apollo Creed, another challenger — this time from across the pond — begins his own preparations for taking on the champ. In this case, the challenger is David Frost (Sheen), a talk show host and television personality whose American show failed in syndication and who has since been relegated to covering stupid-human-tricks Down Under. Hungry to get back into the Stateside game, Frost sees immediate opportunity in a series of interviews with Nixon, and, by dint of sheer ambition, manages to rope in his BBC producer friend (Matthew MacFadyen of Pride and Prejudice), two down-and-out researchers (Platt and Rockwell), and a leggy brunette he meets on the plane (Rebecca Hall of The Prestige and Vicky Christina Barcelona) into his audacious proposal.

    At first, it seems, Frost is in luck. When not dying a slow death on the lecture circuit, the former president has been languishing in San Clemente, and he and his handlers (most notably Kevin Bacon) have been looking for a way to get back in the game themselves. So after Nixon’s agent (Toby Jones) extracts from Frost a price the television “performer” can’t really afford, and it is deemed by all involved that Frost is a certifiable lightweight, who can be molded as needed to fit the president’s new media strategy, the interviews are agreed upon. In the early rounds — and rounds they are, with points scored, corner men, sweat towels (no 1960 redux for Nixon this time) and the like — everything proceeds according to plan, with Nixon pontificating presidentially and Frost (and his increasingly exasperated researchers) completely hemmed in. Will this spirited but out-of-his-depth newsman manage to break out of the corner and land a few punishing blows himself? I dunno, but we’ll definitely need a montage

    To be honest, I don’t think Frost/Nixon ever really succeeds in selling us on the purported importance of the Frost interviews. Granted, I’m too young to remember how they played at the time — I was sorta more focused on Electric Company and Star Wars right around then. But for all the talk of much-needed national catharsis throughout the film, the world-historical stakes here seem rather small. Coming after all the investigations into the break-in and subsequent cover-up, the congressional hearings on Watergate, the ultimate resignation of the president, and the pardon by Ford, it’s hard to see these 1977 talks as much more than a coda to the main event. And, while Langella is exemplary as the 37th president and definitely deserves his recent Oscar nod, I actually think Oliver Stone’s Nixon did a better job of humanizing Tricky Dick and animating his demons. (In fact, there’s a midnight drunk-dialing episode here in Frost/Nixon (an obviously fabricated event) which wouldn’t seem out of place in Stone’s film.)

    Still, once you move past its historical pretensions and realize that, for all intent and purposes, Frost/Nixon is basically just the political debater’s version of a boxing movie, there’s still some good fun to be had here. And, hey, he may now seem like a piker when compared to the intelligence-falsifying, torture-happy shenanigans of 43 — can we expect Lauer/Dubya just around the corner? — but at least we’ll always have Nixon to kick around some more.

    Update: David Frost, Michael Sheen, and others talk about the film here.

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