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  • Donald Trump’s nomination of William Barr to become attorney general has recast the spotlight on the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Barr served as attorney general in the Bush administration from late 1991 to early 1993. Most notably, Barr railed publicly against a long running independent counsel investigation of the Reagan-Bush administration and he fully supported President Bush’s last minute pardon of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s former defense secretary. Weinberger had been indicted on five felony charges, including accusations that he obstructed federal investigations and lied to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair.   

    In the wake of Bush’s recent death, innumerable editorials have heaped praise on the late president for his prudent and polite leadership. Far too little attention has been paid to his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

    No writer has been more generous to Bush than journalist Jon Meacham, the author of The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. In a New York Times editorial assessing Bush’s legacy, Meacham lauded the nation’s forty-third vice president and forty-first president for being especially principled and pragmatic; a leader whose “life offers an object lesson in the best that politics…can be.” Bush, Meacham noted admiringly, saw politics as a noble pursuit, a means to faithfully serve the public, “not a vehicle for self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment.”     

    But the history of Bush’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal is not one of nobility and virtue. The object lesson, in fact, is that even our most revered leaders are fallible human beings subject to making unethical decisions out of misdirected loyalties or self-preservation. 

    There is no doubt that Bush, as a loyal vice president, was aware of and endorsed the Reagan administration’s covert policies in the Middle East and Central America. Specifically, he knew of the illicit program of selling arms to Iran, a U.S. designated terrorist state, in hopes of recovering American hostages in Lebanon. And, he knew of the illegal program of suppling aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Years later when running for reelection as president, Bush admitted to his diary that, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details [of Iran-Contra]….It is not a subject we can talk about.”

    It is also clear that Reagan and his senior staff, Bush included, understood that the Iran and Contra programs were illegal. At one point, in regard to the arms-for-hostages initiative, Reagan informed his advisers that he would risk going to prison because the American people would want him to break the law if it meant saving the lives of hostages. “They can impeach me if they want,” Reagan said, and then he quipped “visiting days are Wednesday.”

    Shortly after the Iranian weapons deals became public, Bush tried to distance himself from the Iran-Contra scandal by telling reporters that it was “ridiculous to even consider selling arms to Iran.” Knowledge of Bush’s involvement could jeopardize his plans to succeed Reagan. Such deceptive maneuvering was galling to Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, who knew all too well that Bush had supported the Iran project. Shultz told a friend: “What concerns me is Bush on TV,” because he risks “getting drawn into a web of lies….He should be very careful how he plays the loyal lieutenant.”

    Bush did become president and his eventual pardon of Weinberger, just weeks before leaving office, was not an act of virtuous public service; even Reagan had refused to grant pardons to those involved with Iran-Contra. Bush’s decision was a self-serving one as a trial examining Weinberger’s role in Iran-Contra, including the administration’s orchestrated cover-up, risked exposing the outgoing president’s complicity.

    Hearing of Weinberger being pardoned, Judge Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating Iran-Contra, issued a statement of condemnation: “President Bush’s pardon…undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office—deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence.”

    Among the lessons of Iran-Contra is that a healthy democracy must have robust checks on executive authority in order to minimize abuses of power. A quarter century ago, the president’s attorney general, William Barr, staunchly opposed the independent counsel’s investigation of wrongdoing in the White House, and he also firmly supported Bush’s use of pardons as a means of self-protection. Are we to believe that Barr’s relationship with President Trump will be any different? 


    If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Dr. Matthews forthcoming book: 


  • It was a sight unlike any ever seen in the nation’s capital.


    More than four hundred rabbis, “most of them with shrub-shaped beards, many in silky cloaks with thick velvet collars” (as Time magazine put it) marched to the White House just before Yom Kippur in 1943. They wanted to present President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a petition asking him to establish a government agency to rescue Jews from the Nazis.


    FDR decided to snub the rabbis. He refused to meet with them or receive their petition for mercy. He even left the White House through a rear exit to avoid being seen by the rabbis. And he tried to block a subsequent Congressional resolution calling for creation of a rescue agency. 


    But four months later, on January 22, 1944 —75 years ago today— President Roosevelt reversed himself and established the very rescue agency they were demanding, which he called the War Refugee Board. The remarkable story of FDR’s turnabout sheds light on America’s response to the most horrific humanitarian crisis of our time. 




    In December 1942, the Roosevelt administration and its allies publicly confirmed that the Germans were “carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe,” with “many hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women and children” already having perished in “the Nazi slaughterhouse.” 


    But FDR was not prepared to go beyond a verbal denunciation of the mass murder. Spokesmen for his administration insisted there was nothing the U.S. could do to help the Jews “short of military destruction of German armies and the liberation of all the oppressed peoples,” as one official put it. 


    In reality, there were many avenues for U.S. action that would not have interfered with the war effort. For example, refugees could have been transported to the United States on Liberty troop-supply ships that were returning empty from Europe. The escapees could have been granted temporary haven to in U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands.


    Alternatively, many refugees could have been admitted to the U.S. within the existing immigration laws. Some 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis- occupied countries sat unused during the Holocaust years, because the Roosevelt administration deliberately suppressed immigration below the levels permitted by law. The strategy for suppression was simple: “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas,” as Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long explained to his colleagues.


    In short, the problem was not that rescue was impossible. The real problem was the attitude that prevailed in FDR’s White House and State Department. If there had been a will to rescue, ways could have been found.


    Then fate intervened. In mid-1943, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered that the State Department had been suppressing Holocaust news and blocking rescue opportunities. The aides began pressing Morgenthau to intercede. 


    “The bull has to be taken by the horns in dealing with this Jewish issue, and get this thing out of the State Department into some agency’s hands that is willing to deal with it frontally,” Treasury official Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. told Morgenthau and other top aides. “You get a committee set up with their heart in it, I feel sure they can do something.” His colleague John Pehle agreed: “It seems to me the only way to get anything done is for the President to appoint a commission or committee consisting of sympathetic people of some importance.” 


    Jewish refugee advocates provided the vehicle for such action. A political action committee known as the Bergson Group began sponsoring newspaper ads and lobbying Congress to take the refugee issue away from the State Department. The Bergson activists came up with the idea of a rabbis’ march to Washington, and they made the demand for creation of a rescue agency the centerpiece of the rabbis’ petition.




    In November 1943, U.S. Senator Guy Gillette (D-Iowa) and Rep. Will Rogers, Jr. (D-California) introduced a resolution, drafted by the Bergson Group, calling on the president to create an agency to “save the surviving Jewish people of Europe from extinction at the hands of Nazi Germany.” The Roosevelt administration sent Assistant Secretary Long to Capitol Hill to block the measure. 


    Long testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the resolution was unnecessary because the U.S. was already “very actively engaged” in doing whatever was possible to rescue Europe’s Jews. Long’s claims were sufficient to persuade the committee to set the resolution aside without a vote. Had matters rested there, the Roosevelt administration might have succeeded in snuffing out any momentum towards rescue action.


    But when Long’s testimony was made public a few weeks later, it turned out he had wildly exaggerated the number of Jews who had been admitted. Long’s assertions were forcefully refuted in the press by Jewish organizations and other refugee advocates. As the controversy escalated in December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted the Gillette-Rogers resolution, and a full Senate vote was scheduled for late January 1944.


    Secretary Morgenthau’s aides, who were closely monitoring the fight over the Gillette-Rogers resolution, pleaded with the Treasury Secretary to strike while the iron was hot. It was time to go the president, they urged—to explain to FDR that “it will be a blow to the Administration” if the full Senate were to adopt a resolution that would in effect rebuke him, just ten months before Election Day.


    Morgenthau agreed that the congressional tumult gave him crucial ammunition. “I personally hate to say this thing, but our strongest out [with the President] is the imminence of Congress doing something,” the secretary remarked. “Really, when you get down to the point, this is a boiling pot on the Hill. You can’t hold it; it is going to pop, and you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.”


    The Treasury staff had been gathering evidence of the State Department’s obstruction of rescue, and now they handed Morgenthau his main weapon: a stinging 18-page report, authored by DuBois and edited by his colleagues, titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” It thoroughly documented the whole sordid story of rescue opportunities that were obstructed, quotas that were deliberately left unfilled, and Holocaust news that was suppressed.


    On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office and presented FDR with an abbreviated version of the “Acquiescence” report (with the toned-down title, “Report to the President”). He included a draft of an executive order establishing a “War Refugee Board.” 


    DuBois had suggested that Morgenthau tell the president that if Roosevelt did not act, he (DuBois) would “resign and release the report to the press.” But Morgenthau did not need to go that far. He told the president he was “deeply disturbed” to discover that State Department officials were “actually taking action to prevent the rescue of the Jews.” Citing his father’s World War One-era efforts on behalf of Armenian genocide victims, Morgenthau said he was “convinced that effective action could be taken”—thus contradicting the administration’s longstanding line that Jews could be saved only by winning the war.


    President Roosevelt recognized how embarrassing it would be to have the full Senate call attention to his administration’s stark humanitarian failure. The political cost of taking no action now outweighed his longstanding policy of not taking special steps to aid Europe’s Jews. Pre-empting congressional action by unilaterally establishing a rescue agency was the politically advantageous route. At the end of the twenty-minute discussion, the president said, “We will do it,” and six days later he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board. 




    Although understaffed and underfinanced, the War Refugee Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews in the final 15 months of the war. Among other actions, it provided funds to bribe Nazis and shelter Jews, and facilitated and financed the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. 


    But many more lives could have been saved if President Roosevelt had not been opposed to rescue before he was for it. For example, he could have established the War Refugee Board when refugee advocates first requested it, instead of fighting it tooth and nail for so many months. And he could have given the War Refugee Board proper funding, instead of providing only a token initial sum (90% of the Board’s budget had to be supplied by private Jewish organizations). 


    What a difference it would have made if FDR had extended some of his reputed humanitarianism to Europe’s Jews before most of them had been murdered by Hitler. Instead, as David S. Wyman wrote in his 1984 best-seller ‘The Abandonment of the Jews,’ “the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.”


    “Watergate is having a moment,” writes Washington Post columnist Philip Bump. Mentions on cable news and searches on the Internet are at the highest level in a decade. Slate’s Watergate podcast “Slow Burn” was a smash hit. Nixon’s former counsel John Dean has tripled his Twitter following. The Watergate boom dates from May 2017, Bump writes, when President Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey.

    It’s hard to believe now that the Watergate was once generally known as a luxurious, private address in the nation’s capital. 

    Designed by an Italian architect during the Kennedy administration, the Watergate is actually six buildings spread over ten acres, including three co-op apartment buildings, two office towers and a hotel. The Watergate shopping arcade included a number of businesses bearing the Watergate name, including the Watergate Bakery and the Watergate Beauty Salon. The Watergate had its own bank, a small post office, a Safeway supermarket, one dentist and three psychiatrists. “If only it had a tennis court and a movie theatre,” said one Watergate resident, “I don’t think I’d ever have occasion to leave the place.”

    A sophisticated security system recorded the comings and goings of members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, White House aides, journalists, judges and diplomats. Owners of Watergate apartments, from massive penthouses with Potomac River views to modest one-bedrooms overlooking the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, had something in common: a desire to be close to the center of power in the capital city of the most powerful nation on earth.


    On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon took the oath of office on the West front of the U.S. Capitol. A few blocks away, the Watergate West apartment building welcomed its first residents.

    “To go forward at all,” Nixon said in his Inaugural Address, “is to go forward together.” So many members of the incoming Republican administration were making the Watergate their home, the Washington Post quipped it appeared as if they were taking Nixon’s instructions literally.

    Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s “confidential secretary,” rented a two-bedroom duplex on the seventh floor of Watergate East, with a “verbal” option to buy. She selected the apartment because it was an eight-minute drive from the White House. “I bring a lot of paperwork home on weekends,” she told the Post. “If friends stop by, I can leave all that work out upstairs in the den, and the downstairs won’t be disturbed.” Another Nixon secretary, Shelley Ann Scarney, ran into Elisabeth Hanford at a party in New York soon after the election. Hanford, who was working in the White House Office of Consumer Affairs and had been asked to stay on by the incoming administration, lived in Watergate East and recommended the building to Scarney, who called the leasing office and rented a one-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor. Her boyfriend, the president’s young speechwriter Pat Buchanan, rented an apartment nearby.

    Maurice Stans, the incoming secretary of commerce, paid $130,000 (nearly $920,000 in today’s dollars) for a Watergate East apartment on the twelfth floor. His wife, Kathy, installed yellow-and-white wallpaper in the foyer and hung her husband’s collection of African ceremonial knives in the master bedroom – on his side of the bed. In the library, with its grass-cloth wall coverings, seven-foot-tall elephant tusks joined a coffee table with an elephant-leg base and a rug made from a Bengal tiger shot by Maurice on one of his many international hunting expeditions. A combination den/TV room/room was turned into a “patriotic suite,” with blue carpeting, three white walls and one wall covered in red felt. “Isn’t it mad?” Kathy Stans giggled.

    Martha and John Mitchell, Nixon’s incoming Attorney General, purchased a duplex on the seventh floor of Watergate East, which came with four parking spaces. Martha said her new apartment lacked “the woman’s touch” and immediately began personalizing it.  She replaced the parquet floor in the foyer with marble and brought in a “more traditional” stairway to replace the “contemporary one” that came with the apartment. Transportation Secretary John Wolpe and his wife, Jennie, brought a three-bedroom penthouse in Watergate East with two working fireplaces. Martin Anderson, and MIT-trained economist and special assistant to the president, and his wife, Annelise, who was finishing her Ph.D. at Columbia University, rented a one-bedroom apartment in Watergate West, with a view of the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge. Other Nixon appointees who moved into the Watergate included Postmaster General Winton M. Blount; the incoming U.S. chief of protocol Emil “Bus” Mosbacher, Jr.; Frank Shakespeare, chief of the U.S. Information Agency; H. Dale Grubb, a Nixon liaison to Congress; James Keogh, managing editor of presidential messages; Mary T. Brooks, director of the U.S. Mint. 

    LIFE magazine explained the Watergate’s appeal. “IT USED TO BE GEORGETOWN – NOW IT’S WATERGATE,” read the headline on a full-color, eight-page spread. “JUST EVERYBODY LIVES THERE.”

    The Watergate served as a freshman dorm for the incoming class of political stars: part fishbowl, part pressure-cooker. Residents, LIFE continued, became members of an exclusive club, open only to people with social and financial power. “Any American who comes under the heading of ‘forgotten’ may as well not apply.”

    A Watergate sales executive said all the residents in the complex were “delightful people,” but the Republicans were “the icing on the cake.”


     Sunday, June 18, 1972, began like any other Sunday at the Watergate, Maurice Stans later recalled. He slept in one additional hour, as he often did on weekends, and performed his morning exercise routine, which included about twenty minutes on his electric bicycle. He showered, put on a robe, and opened the front door of his apartment to pick up his copy of the Post. He went into the kitchen to fix breakfast. A headline on the front page caught his eye: FIVE HELD IN PLOT TO BUG DEMOCRATS’ OFFICE HERE.

    Who in the world could have been up to that? He asked himself. 

    As the scandal unfolded that summer and fall, Watergate residents turned on the evening news to see their home as the backdrop to a criminal investigation. Tourists gaped at the Watergate through glass-roofed buses and posed for pictures in front of the Watergate sign. Airline pilots approaching National Airport pointed out the Watergate to passengers, along with the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial. The New York Times published a map of “The Watergate Tour,” with stops at 2600 Virginia Avenue, home of the Democratic National Committee, and at Watergate Wine & Spirits for souvenir bottles of Watergate Scotch ($5.99 a bottle, or nearly $36 dollars today).

    At the Watergate Hotel, guests were taking anything that had the Watergate name on it and wasn’t nailed down. A maid entered a room just as its occupant, a senior executive with a major American corporation, was packing his bags. The room had been stripped bare. Even the bedspread was missing. Embroidered towels were disappearing at a rate of $4,000 a month, according to hotel staff – equivalent to $24,000 today.  A hotel manager ordered a switch: “We had to go with anonymous towels.”


    Every four (or eight years), a new crop of presidential appointees arrives in Washington with high hopes. Like the new residents of the Watergate 50 years ago, they come to the nation’s capital hoping to “go forward together.” Many Trump appointees reportedly cluster near the city’s southern waterfront, in the Navy Yard and the Wharf, “a bubble within the Washington bubble,” far away from “official Washington” and the “buzzing” neighborhoods that aren’t “Trump-friendly.” They hang out in their friends’ apartments, at nearby restaurants or around rooftop pools. “It’s not, like, as ritzy as Georgetown,” one young Trump aide remarked.

    According to a 1971 report in the Washington Post, the Watergate was “a glittering Potomac Titanic,” as glamorous as the fabled ship, but “with no icebergs or steerage class.”

    There was, of course, an iceberg ahead – the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972, and the cover-up that took down the Nixon presidency and forever redefined the Watergate in popular culture.

    Perhaps the Watergate and the Titanic are about to merge – in the popular culture – once more. Presidential historian John Meacham recently compared the Trump White House to the doomed ocean liner: “[W]e’re like the Titanic steaming through the North Atlantic,” he wrote, “ and we know the iceberg is there…and [the closest ship] won’t answer our distress calls.”

  • When an anonymous right-wing twitter account released a video of incoming congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing in a joyful homage to The Breakfast Club, commentators on both sides of the aisle were quick to react. Pundits debated the optics of combining dance and politics, questioning whether Ocasio-Cortez’s gender has shaped our expectations of how she ought to behave. But while many in the media celebrated the sight of a youthful Ocasio-Cortez and her Boston University pals dancing together, missing from these conversations was an appreciation of the role that dancing bodies have long played in American political life. 


    Physical appearance and bodily movements have traditionally been tied to expressions of personal identity. Dressing in a certain way and following certain behavioral norms have historically marked people as belonging to specific social categories, categories determined by social constructions of race and gender. Because the act of dancing is fundamentally tied to behavior and appearance, debates about dance have inspired lengthy discussions regarding representations of race, gender, and even American national identity. From Victorian-era ideas about dance and demeanor, to folk dances meant to help assimilate newly-arrived U.S. immigrants, fears that public dance halls would lead to white slavery, and the uses of concert dance as cultural weapon in the Cold War, the act of dancing has helped to define American social and political issues for centuries. 


    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, dancing was an important part of a young person’s introduction to polite society. As one guidebook recounted, in the words of John Locke, children “should be taught to dance as soon as they are capable of learning it; for … it gives children manly thoughts and carriage more than anything.” Victorian sensibilities held that the body and its movements demonstrated cultural refinement and could even reveal someone’s moral fiber. However, although physical grace was important for both men and women, there were also key differences in the gendered implications of this attribute. 


    According to the wisdom of the day, young men who studied fencing or boxing in order to gain strength were advised to learn dancing so that they might also acquire physical grace and personal control. “It is a matter of the first importance to the young aspirant,” one manual observed, “that he attend to the training and deportment of his body, as well as that of his mind.” A stately bearing, the booklet went on, could offer young men the “command of address” that was the marker of a well-bred gentleman. Such was the reasoning behind the decision of the Annapolis Naval Academy to hire a dancing master in 1898, a move meant to instill America’s future naval officers with the refinement they needed to conduct themselves appropriately both onboard ships and inside drawing-rooms. 


    But while dancing and deportment showed off masculine accomplishments, a woman’s demeanor could purportedly reveal the truth about her inner self. As one Rev. Charles Kingsley explained, “if manners make the man, manners are the woman herself … they flow instinctively, whether good or bad, from the instincts of her inner nature.” Dancing, according to the writer Florence Hartley, was an essential womanly skill. “No woman,” she advised, “is fitted for society until she dances well; for home, unless she is perfect mistress of needlework; for her own enjoyment, unless she has at least one accomplishment to occupy thoughts and fingers in her hours of leisure.” A young lady, Hartley continued, ought to inhabit a graceful demeanor whenever she found herself in the public eye. One should, for example, strive avoid such unladylike performances as “sucking the head of your parasol” in the street. 


    Beginning in the early twentieth century, dance in the United States began to serve another purpose as well, one that was key in shaping ideas about the American national character. As a wave of immigrants arrived in the United States, social reformers worried that newcomers would not be properly assimilated into the fabric of American life. Dance, which psychologist G. Stanley Hall referred to as “the most educative of all because it places the control of the muscles under the will,” worked to impart middle-class American values to the children of these new residents.


    Taking up the mantle of what was called the “Americanization” movement, orchestra conductor Meyer Davis invented an “Americanization dance” in which various styles combined to form “an American dance to be danced to American music in America by Americans.” But social workers also emphasized the values of the American “melting pot.” They argued that immigrants brought their own “gifts” which, if preserved, might contribute to the advancement of the nation as a whole. As reporter Helen Bullitt Lowry explained, “the Pole who remembers his mazurka is a better American citizen than the Pole who has traded his mazurka for the American ‘toddle.’” Schools, settlement houses, and women’s clubs across the nation held festivals in which young people performed their national folk dances and took part in patriotic pantomimes, celebrating American unity through cultural and ethnic diversity. 


    But if proper forms of dancing could teach good citizenship, then improper forms could pose a serious threat to the racial hierarchies embedded in American life. Following the “White Slavery” Mann Act of 1910, a law which forbid the interstate transport of women “for any immoral purpose,” critics warned young women to beware of the dangers posed by mixed-race dance halls. In Chicago, investigative journalist Genevieve Forbes observed the activities in one such “black and tan.” Recalling a “little white girl” who was dancing in the arms of “a large colored man,” Forbes wrote that the young woman “nestles her blonde curls against his coat. Arms interlocked, bodies pressed close together, she gets some of the ‘loving’ she desired.” In the eyes of contemporary observers, such scenes jeopardized the forward progress of American civilization. Endangering white feminine purity and masculine authority, the crude “barbarisms” of jazz music threatened to ensnare American youth deep inside its web.  


    Later, after World War II, dance was once again called upon to help secure and grow the American way of life. As I explain in my dissertation “Hot Bodies, Cold War: Dancing America in Person and Performance,” the State Department enlisted American dance companies to help establish U.S. supremacy against the rising power of the Soviet Union. Performing in a Russian-dominated art form that was older than the independent United States itself, ballet companies worked to prove that the U.S. system could offer cultural accomplishments as well as capitalist dollars. The innovative movements of modern dance companies showed that the United States could produce new art forms as well score in their performances of the old. And folk dance troupes worked to represent cultural authenticity, showing the world the varied ethnicities that contributed to a thriving American way of life.   


    However, although U.S. commentators called dance an “international language” whose value and meaning transcended politics, these tours were part of a concentrated effort to counter perceptions of U.S. racism and portray the country as a land of progressively equal opportunities. In 1954, the same year that the program “Operation Wetback” relied on racial stereotypes to justify the mass deportation of Mexican workers, Mexican-American modern dancer José Limón emphasized the cultural bonds uniting the United States with South America. In 1960, while the U.S. government sought to eradicate Native American tribal authority at home, the famous “American Indian” ballerina Maria Tallchief performed a balletic version of integrative U.S. expansionism matched with an appealing, all-American exoticism. Two years later, while touring in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, African American dancer Arthur Mitchell performed an intimate pas de deux, or dance for two, with the white ballerina Allegra Kent. Although U.S. television producers refused to broadcast Mitchell dancing with a white partner at home, the State Department framed this performance as an authentic representation of American democracy abroad. 


    Maria Tallchief

    In more recent days, President Trump’s awkward participation in a traditional all-male Saudi sword dance drew attention on social media, while CNN’s Jake Tapper criticized former President Barrack Obama for his carefree dancing at a Beyoncé concert. In both cases, commentators drew on standard racial stereotypes of dancing men. The powerful white man’s uncompromising self-control translated to hip immobility, while the unrestrained black man’s free movements revealed his lack of personal restraint. Critics of Ocasio-Cortez have also relied on stereotypical gender norms, evoking beliefs that a woman’s bodily movements reveal her true character. Conservative fixation with exposing Ocasio-Cortez as a fraud have also extended to mocking her clothes, calling her a “little girl,” and implying that a high school nickname proves that she is not the person she claims to be, and most recently, a nude phtoto hoax. Because Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas represent a threat to the traditional standards of wealth, race, gender, and social power, her critics argue that her unrestrained body reveals the truth about her self—that she is not the capable young politician she appears to be but is instead an unintelligent and frivolous woman woefully ill-equipped for power.

  • On May 8, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. was interviewed by NBC correspondent Sander Vancor. King told Vanocur that he had been “soul searching” since his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King felt his “old optimism” for the civil rights movement was “a little superficial” and he had replaced it with a “solid realism.” King foresaw difficult days ahead and said the dream he had once imagined had “turned into a nightmare.” 


    This past Wednesday, historian Ibram X. Kendi spoke about Dr. King’s nightmare and legacy at the George Washington University. Dr. Kendi is the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. His book Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. How To Be An Antiracist, his next book, will be released this August. 



    Most frequently, Kendi argues, Americans use this holiday to remember and celebrate Dr. King’s famous speech. We remember his dream that his four kids “would not be judged by color of their skin but by the content of their character.” By focusing on this particular speech, Americans are celebrating what Kendi calls “the march of America’s progress.” We discuss how far we have come and assess how far we still have to go to reach King’s dream. The United States, many conclude, has been on a steady march towards racial progress. 


    In writing Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi pondered if the analogy of the “march towards justice” was historically accurate. Eventually, he concluded the narrative is widely ahistorical. In actuality, there has been a dual march—one of antiracist progress and one of racist progress.  If King’s dream symbolizes the glories of racial progress, then King’s nightmare symbolizes the inglorious march of racist progress as people build and rebuild more sophisticated barriers to exclude and exploit people. While Americans hail King’s dream and our march towards justice, we have largely ignored and denied the simultaneous nightmare of racist advancement. 


    We as citizens and scholars must reclaim this nightmare, Kendi urges. We must recognize both King’s dream and his nightmare as part of his legacy. We must consider King’s nightmare as a symbol of racist progress that conservatives too often dismiss and liberals too often downplay. With this “solid realist” notion of American history, a clearer path towards antiracist activism and policies can emerge. 


    Recent efforts to “Reclaim King” have encouraged historians and the public to recognize King’s radicalism in the last years of his life. Scholars and activists have countered popular narratives that use King’s legacy to encourage racial colorblindness and “American moderation.” Dr. Kendi encourages Americans to study King after the March on Washington and after Selma. King’s activism, he remindes us, included his criticism of the Vietnam War, his housing desegregation work in Chicago, the Poor People’s Campaign, and calls for a human rights revolution. To Kendi, the fact that King was very different in 1963 and 1968 is what is most inspiring about King. King was able to self-reflect, self-critique, and grow as an activist and thinker.


    By 1968, Dr. King had transcended the category of liberal or conservative. Today, Kendi argues that our choices as a people are much more eternal and fundamental than liberal or conservative. There are lies and truth—and we must be truth. There is war and peace—and we must be peace. There is hierarchy and equality—and we must be equality. There is exploitation and love—and we must be love. There is racist and antiracist—and we must be antiracist. 


    Kendi believes that over last year, we’ve witnessed King’s nightmare in its totality. Nevertheless, we must learn from history and not necessarily despair. Even in the nightmare, King did not lose hope. Cynicism is the kryptonite of change, Kendi urges, and the nation is not lost as long as we continue to believe change is possible and keep the “long, bitter but beautiful” anti-racist struggle alive. 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket