• On Weather and History

     

    Fox’s Jesse Waters dismissedclimate change in a not-so-nuanced manner: “It gets hot. It gets cold.”

     

    Yet weather matters, and it matters even to historians. I offer an illustration.

     

    I have for many years been perplexed by the somberness of Jefferson’s thinking beginning with the spring of 1816 and continuing throughout the winter of the following year. Consider what I write in Thomas Jefferson: Uncovering His Unique Philosophical Vision:

     

    In a letter to Abigail Adams dated January 11, 1817, Jefferson is uncharacteristically chapfallen. “Nothing proves more than this that the being who resides over the world is essentially benevolent, stealing from us, one by one, the faculties of enjoyment, searing our sensibilities, leading us, like the horse in his mill, round and round the same beaten path.” With each turn, the senses become satiated and fatigued by “leaden iteration” and the wish to live wanes. With the turn of a new year, Jefferson, it seems, has begun his crepuscular years. He waxes Stoical: “Perhaps however one of the elements of future felicity is to be a constant and unimpassioned view of what is passing here. … Mercier has given us a vision of the year 2440, but prophecy is one thing, history another. On the whole however, perhaps it is wise and well to be contented with the good things which the master of the feast places before us, and to be thankful for what we have, rather than thoughtful about what we have not.” Resignation seems an irregular, uncustomary sentiment for Jefferson—at least in his letters. Nine months earlier, he had told John Adams a story singularly different and seemingly anti-stoical. “My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. … The perfection of the moral character is, not in a Stoical apathy, so hypocritically vaunted, and so untruly too, because impossible, but in a just equilibrium of all the passions.”

     

    Why is there such a quick antipodal shift in perspective? The reason, I suspect—and here I am being slightly tongue-in-cheek—is because of a philosophical hangover of sorts.

     

    Doubtless prompted by global and local events—America survived a Federalist threat of secession in 1814, and the War of 1812 for all intents and purposes ended with a remarkable victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815—the year 1816 was an especially philosophical year for Jefferson. His letters reflect a large amount of somber contemplation on contentious issues—foremost among them is the issue of republican government. In no other year does he reflect on the nature of republican government with such optimism and verve in letters. He is essaying to decipher the nature of true republicanism.

     

    The problem was this: Jefferson, a relatively serious person, was especially serious in 1816—so much so that I groped for an explanation. I solaced myself with the notion of a “philosophical hangover”—a strange choice of metaphor given that Jefferson was not much of a tippler—and that was tantamount to saying that I had no answer. Jefferson’s serious turn and his concentrated effort on finding a perfect definition of republicanism in 1816 has always been a bugbear.

     

    I found a possible answer while reading on the history of Lynchburg, Virginia. One of the earliest “biographers,” W. Asbury Christian, wrote of a gross weatheranomaly in the summer of 1816.

     

    The … year, 1816, was a year of great dearth. The beginning was promising, but the ending was gloomy. It was known by many as the “year without a summer.” April was a month of storms, and in May vegetation that had budded was frozen. There was frost and snow in June; in July and August ice formed in exposed places, and September and October seemed to have taken the place of December. In consequence of this the crops all failed, and hard times followed.

     

    The anomalous weather was not just endemic to Lynchburg. It was a global phenomenon. The Northern hemisphere suffered in numerous places snow in June and frost in July and August. The weather was cold and rainy, and there was to be an ever-present thick, dusty fog. The coldness and lack of sunshine caused massive crop failures over the globe. Food, thus, became scarce, and those who did successful grow food had to worry about theft. Even travel by horse became more expensive, as oats, the primary food for horses, too climbed in price.

     

    There was across the globe a general panic. Many thought it was Armageddon, but the summer-less year was the result of a volcanic eruption. On April 5, 1815, Mount Tambora began to rumble and erupted over a four-month period. The ash and aerosols from the eruption blotted out the sun the following year. The average global temperature dropped three degrees Celsius. During that bleak summer, Mary Shelly wrote Frankensteinand Lord Byron wrote Darkness.

     

    Byron’s poem begins:

     

    I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

    The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

    Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

    Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

    Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

    Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

    And men forgot their passions in the dread

    Of this their desolation; and all hearts

    Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.

     

    Byron’s poem ends:

     

    The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still, 

    And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;

    Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

    And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d

    They slept on the abyss without a surge—

    The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

    The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;

    The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

    And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

    Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

     

    And so, Thomas Jefferson too had a Byronic turn of mind in 1816. During that time, he turned to tackling one of the most vexing philosophical problems with which he had to grapple—expiscation of the nature of republicanism—and he did so in lengthy, somber letters to friends such as P.S. Dupont de Nemours (Apr. 24), John Taylor (May 28), and Samuel Kercheval (July 12). Examination of those letters reveals, first, maturation of his thoughts on republicanism, consistent with his earlier, inchoate views on the subject in works such as Summary View of the Rights of British American (1774), Declaration of Independence (1776), and his First Inaugural Address (1801), and second, a consistent political philosophy that is both rich and textured.

    This episode shows plainly what serious historical scholars already know. Historical perplexities are often solved unexpectedly, inadvertently. It is often the case that one perplexity is solvedwhile one is examining another perplexity.

     

    Moreover, it illustrates plainly the complexity of a historian’s job. It is not just a matter of studying persons or events within a particular era and culture, one must, as one particular Hippocratic physician—the author of the medical treatise Airs, Waters, and Places—stated millennia ago, breath their air, drink their water, and live in their places. Weather is not just something that happens while other things are happening. Weather often significantly affects history.

     

  • Revolutionary Inspiration for Moral Choices in Trump’s America

     

     

    The current struggle for the political soul of America turns on the stories we tell ourselves about our own history.  President Trump has spun a tale of contagious fear, inviting attacks on our imagined enemies.  When we have allowed ourselves to be governed by fear in the past, it has legitimized assaults on Catholics, race riots, and mass incarcerations.  

     

    But Americans worried about physical safety and uncertain about their political future have been known to exercise remarkable constraint in a poisonous political environment.  This was the case most notably in the early days of the American Revolution.  It’s not that violence had no attraction for the revolutionaries.  Anxiety generated plenty of anger and hate.  But they did not surrender to their worst instincts.  They upheld the rule of law and decided that patriotism could best be expressed by preserving the fundamental principles of habeas corpus and due process.

     

    During the fall of 1776 revolutionaries in the state of New York faced an existential crisis.  British forces threatened communities on the Hudson River from two directions: the recently conquered New York City in the south and the far north.  Members of an emergency revolutionary committee decided they had to do something to control the large numbers of people in the Hudson Valley who either claimed neutrality or actively supported the British.  

     

    The danger was extreme.  Violence stalked every farmstead.  The state legislature had given committees charged with enforcing allegiance to the cause extraordinary power “to defeat the barbarous machinations of their domestic, as well as external enemies.”  The committees were authorized to do whatever they deemed “necessary for suppressing insurrections; to apprehend, secure or remove such persons whom they shall judge dangerous to the safety of the State.”

     

    In New York, the revolutionary committees gathered the names of suspects—some genuine British agents, others farmers who worried that open political commitment to the American cause would expose them to retaliation and a few Quakers.  Authorities compiled lists of “notoriously disaffected persons,” while the revolutionaries urged “every virtuous citizen” to help expose their dangerous neighbors. 

     

    The campaign sparked many arrests—so many, in fact, that the local jails were soon filled to capacity.  Desperate to secure the region from possible enemies and eager to focus their attentions on the British, the committees decided to send some two hundred suspects to Exeter, New Hampshire.  The revolutionary government of New Hampshire agreed to take the prisoners, and even though these men had not been formally processed—there were no records of why the names of specific individuals appeared on the New York lists—they were dispatched on a journey to what was in fact an internment camp.  The plan exposed the prisoners to attack.  “We were told that the people of Exeter would deal with us according to our deserts,” one man noted, “by close confinement, if not by hanging.”  

     

    Some two hundred New Yorkers were forced to walk to New Hampshire.  Those thought to be most dangerous were housed in a jail, while others had to find their own lodging in nearby villages.  The Quakers were allowed to live with any Quaker families who would agree to take them in.  

     

    New Hampshire authorities resolved that “none of the Prisoners sent into this State from the State of New York have leave to write or send Letters to any person or persons whatever or wherever with the same being inspected.”  The suspects were prohibited from having political conversations with local residents. They could not use “words or arguments to people they may converse with tending to hurt the Interests of the States of America, or in opposition to the present contest with Great Britain.”

     

    These rules failed utterly to silence the prisoners most of whom thought they had been incarcerated for no clear reason.  When they asked local committee members to justify their arrest, the New Hampshire authorities weakly explained that they had no answers. No one in New York had submitted the proper documentation.   

     

    In conversations in kitchens and on village streets, the prisoners complained that they had been denied the basic legal rights that every American took for granted.  They had not received due process.  No one in New York had bothered with habeas corpus, a right assumed by all British subjects that protected them from unlawful arrest.  The people of New Hampshire listened to these complaints.  

     

     “Great uneasiness prevails among them & their clamors of being sent here without an examination at home,” a revolutionary committee in New Hampshire reported, “and conscious of their innocence which they assert, has had considerable influence among the People in these parts in their behalf.”  New Hampshire authorities begged New York for help. “We wish an Impartial Enquiry might be made into their characters,” they wrote, “and if any appear innocent who was taken up and sent from their homes in Confusion and unavoidable hurry that you was involved in at that time, that an order may be sent for their discharge.”

     

    Sensing that they had found a sympathetic audience, the prisoners did what so many other prisoners have done in similar situations. They submitted petitions for their immediate release.  Soon the New Hampshire legislature received a flood of petitions.  Again, the Exeter authorities urged the New York committee to provide instructions: “We earnestly desire some further direction relative to them, and if you think fit for them to be longer detained that you would send some particular charge of their crimes.”  

     

    By March 1777 the entire internment camp had collapsed.  The military crisis in the Hudson Valley seemed less pressing, and New York ordered the return of the remaining prisoners. Many had already escaped.  Most seem to have been reabsorbed into society. The great fear that had disrupted the lives of so many people was soon no more than a minor footnote in the history of American independence.

     

    For us, the point is not that desperate authorities in New York ignored the rule of law when they succumbed to fear, always a corrosive force in civil society.  They were not alone in doing so.  Other revolutionaries allowed fear to justify violence against Native Americans and African American slaves.  But these events should not cause us to loose sight of another story, one of restraint and compassion.  

     

    Ordinary men and women of Exeter made moral choices. Under extremely trying circumstances these citizens listened sympathetically to their political prisoners who appealed for justice when the success of the revolution hung in the balance. They established a standard for patriotic behavior that is as relevant today as it was in 1776.  To do less—to turn our backs on caged children or remain silent when confronted by attacks on minorities—represents a denial of our own revolutionary heritage.

  • The Middle East: Must We Fight Forever?

     

    As the United Nations General Assembly approached adjournment without a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, world leaders left New York wondering if and how President Donald Trump will respond to Iran’s alleged missile-and-drone attack on Saudi-Arabian oil facilities earlier this month.

     

    Mr. Trump has already announced plans to add 1,000 more troops to the 20,000 American troops already on the Arabian peninsula and the more than 35,000 deployed across the Arab world. With his latest deployment, Mr. Trump will have increased America’s military presence in Arab states by 37.5% since his Inauguration Day pledge to reduce American involvement there. 

     

    Incredibly, expansion of America’s military involvement in the Arab states comes nearly 235 years since the prescient John Adams tried stifling Thomas Jefferson’s ambitions for war against Arab pirate fleets in the Mediterranean Sea.  “We ought not to fight them at all,” Adams warned, “unless we determine to fight them forever.” 

     

    Elected President in 1800, Jefferson ignored Adams’s warning and embarked on the first of two Barbary Wars with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya (then called Tripoli). Until America’s War of Independence, the British navy had protected American cargo ships against piracy, but U.S. independence left her ships fair game. America cargo ship losses soared above 10 percent, with untold thousands of American seamen captured, often tortured, and sold into slavery.

     

    When Congress refused to go to war, Jefferson ignored lawmakers and the Constitution by ordering the Navy to the Mediterranean. By the time congress discovered Jefferson’s usurpation of power, the fleet had sailed too far to recall. When American warships entered the Mediterranean in the spring of 1801, Tripoli (now Libya) humiliated the American Navy by capturing the spanking new frigate Philadelphia, then the pride of America’s “new navy.”

     

    After an outraged American public forced Congress to strengthen the American fleet, American Commodore Edward Preble raided Tripoli harbor, destroyed the Philadelphiaand opened the way for Captain Stephen Decatur to attack and destroy much of  Tripoli’s port. In June 1806, Tripoli’s ruler sued for peace, and the United States established a naval presence in the Mediterranean that has continued almost without interruption to this day.

     

    One brief interruption came after President James Madison declared war on Britain in 1812. With American and British navies too busy fighting on the Atlantic to guard cargo ships in the Mediterranean, the Arab states resumed predations on foreign merchant vessels. By 1815, however, America had recovered from the war with Britain, and President James Madison ordered Commodore Stephen Decatur to sail into Algiers harbor and destroy the Arab fleet. In 1816, the Barbary states sued for peace and ended piracy on the Mediterranean.

     

    In 1823, President James Monroe adopted a new foreign policy to protect the merchant fleet by expanding American military might beyond its borders to protect foreign trade. In a seldom recognized extension of his famed Monroe doctrine, the President not only declared the American continent’s shores closed to foreign incursions, he extended government protection to American cargo ships on the high seas by ordering expansion of the Navy and its global deployment to protect American ships at sea.

     

    Assured of improved ship safety around the globe, President Andrew Jackson signed a trade agreement in 1833 with Muscat and Oman, on the southeastern rim of the Arabian Peninsula—America’s first significant commercial penetration of the Middle East. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln expanded American foreign commerce farther into the Arab world, signing a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with the vast Ottoman Empire and opening American trade in present-day Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.

    Then, in 1908, the discovery of oil in Persia—present-day Iran—changed the world.

     

    After World War I had showcased the importance oil would play in modern transportation, the British, Dutch,  French, and American oil companies rushed to find and claim Middle East oil fields—most of them along the rim of the Arabian peninsula. But World War II changed Middle East boundaries into a patch-quilt of independent, often feuding Arab states, whose governments seized ownership of oil fields, granting only exploitation rights to the foreign oil companies that had originally owned the properties. 

     

    The creation of the independent Jewish state of Israel and Soviet Union efforts to gain influence in the region turned the Middle East into a perennial war zone. 

     

     

    To ensure the flow of Middle East oil to America, President George H.W. Bush sent 200,000 American troops into Kuwait in 1991 and expelled an Iraqi army from oil-rich Kuwait. In 2003, President George W. Bush sent 170,000 mostly American troops into Iraq to dislodge President Saddam Hussein and restore access to Iraqi oil fields by American and western oil companies. Although Saddam died in 2006, more than 5,000 American troops remain in Iraq.

     

     

    And after fundamentalist Muslim terrorists based in Afghanistan attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the American government sent an army of more than 140,000 troops to Afghanistan to crush an insurgency linked to the terrorists. By 2017, Washington had claimed enough victories there to reduce its troop strength in Afghanistan to about 8,500.

     

     

    Since then, the Trump Administration has rebuilt American troop strength by 50 percent and will raise the total to more than 15,000 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, American troops remain in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt. 

     

     

    Given America’s new-found self-sufficiency in almost all essential natural resources, the motives for continued American military involvement in the Middle East have become less clear.  

    Indeed, decades of dependency on Middle East oil ended two years ago with the development of advanced fracking techniques for recovering shale oil in America and the discovery of vast new oil reserves in the Permian Basin of southwest Texas and New Mexico.

     

    The United States military now has nearly 200,000 service personnel deployed at about 700 bases in 177 countries at a cost of at least $100 billion annually. Nearly 70,000 American troops are in Asia and the Pacific, more than 60,000 are in Europe, at least 35,000 are in Arab states, and 100,000 others are scattered across Africa and South and Central America—an indeterminate number of them on ill-defined missions. 

     

    For the Arab world, the pervasive American military presence represents a cultural and religious as well as military affront. As long as enough Arabs adhere to the law of jihad that enjoins them to kill nonbelievers in their lands, there would seem to be little hope that American fighting in  Arab states can end.  

     

    Almost 235 years have elapsed since John Adams warned against America’s first military involvement in the Arab world. The United States today seems well on the way to fulfilling Adams’s prophecy that we will have to “fight them forever.”

  • The Nazi Census and a Quiet Hero

     

     

    In 1940, Germany invaded and captured France. Step-by-step, the  Nazi occupiers began implementing a new state. There, as in other countries, the Nazis established a census to identify and locate Jews. Once identified, the Nazi occupiers planned to arrest French Jewsand send them to their deaths in concentration camps. The Nazis were stymied in France by insufficient numbers of trained people to key punch and process a huge number of computer punch cards. 

     

    René Carmille, director of the National Statistical Service (SNS), stepped in and negotiated for SNS to control and process Nazi census data on Jews. Carmille, a member of the French Intelligence Service and the Marco Polo cell of the French Resistance, then sabotaged the Nazi census. Lists of names and addresses of Jews could not be printed for round ups.  Carmille saved the lives of thousands of Jews. His story is told in A Quiet Hero.

                

    In the occupied countries of Europe, the Nazi census was a critically important step in identifying Jews as unwanted residents. Once the census was successfully processed, the Nazis printed files of names and addresses of Jews. What remained was to send the Gestapo to those street addresses, round up Jews and ship them to concentration camps. There most of them would be murdered. This was done with great efficiency following the census of Jews in Holland: seventy-three percent of Holland’s Jews were murdered.

     

    France proved to be more troublesome. The Nazi census in France asked if the respondent was a Jew. The question itself failed to respect France’s long history of rigorous separation of church and state. Further complicating matters, France, unlike Holland, was home to a diverse mix of ethnic groups and religious beliefs. 

     

    Responses to the census’ religion question were then processed. However, the Nazis failed to plan and implement an adequate system for transferring paper-and-pencil census data to computer key punch cards. As a result, Nazi data processing capacities in France were overwhelmed.

     

    General René Carmille, former controller general of the French Army and director of the Vichy government’s National Statistical Service (SNS), learned of the challenge faced by the Nazis in processing census data. Carmille contacted Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s Commissioner General for Jewish Questions and proposed that SNS process the Nazi census of Jews in France. Vallat accepted. In the newly emerging era of computers, Carmille sabotaged the Nazi census and became the world’s first ethical hacker.

     

    The US constitution mandates a count of “the whole Number of free Persons” every ten years. Each census is the basis for the apportionment of membership in the US House of Representatives and allocation of billions of federal dollars to states. 

     

    A citizenship question was asked for the first time in 1890, when foreign-born persons in the US reached 14.8% of the population. By 1950 the number of foreign-born Americans fell below 5% and the question was dropped.

     

    In 1942, up to 120,000 Japanese American citizens were defined as threats to the country and relocated to internment—concentration—camps. President Franklin Roosevelt established the camps under an Executive Order, one of the 20th century’s worst violations of American civil rights.Japanese American citizens were singled out after the US Census Bureau, in violation of existing laws, handed over their names and addresses to the Secret Service. 

     

    In 1960, a new short-form census, without a citizenship question, was sent to most American households; the long-form with a citizenship question was mailed to 1 in 6 American households. The long form became the American Community Survey, sent annually, from 1970 through 2000.

     

    As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump estimated the number of illegal immigrants in the USA at 30 to 34 million, about ten percent of the population, vs. government estimates of 11-12 million, about five percent. Candidate Trump proposed rolling back constitutional birthright citizenship for US-born children of undocumented immigrants and possible mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants. Following his election, he continued to call for increased border security, including construction of a Mexican border wall. He has repeatedly proposed a temporary ban on immigrants from Middle Eastern, principally Muslim, countries entering the United States.

     

    Later, President Trump, after repeated references to the dangers presented by the so-called invasion of the United States by Muslim immigrants, both documented and undocumented, directed administration officials to include a citizenship question in the 2020 US Census: Is this person a citizen of the United States?

     

    Even though US law prevents the Census Bureau from disclosure of individual citizen’s census information, answers to the question could be used to identify illegal immigrants and then take steps to deport them. Documented immigrants feared unwarranted harassment, even persecution. Undocumented immigrants feared that if their names and addresses became public, deportation would be made easier. Better to remain invisible.

     

    President Trump issued executive orders increasing the number of immigrants considered a priority for deportation. A June 24, 2018, New York Times article quoted President Trump’s tweet, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judge or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” The addition of the proposed 2020 citizenship question, “Are you a citizen?” was a means to that end.

     

    After proposing the new census question, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated the question would be important for more effective enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. He testified before Congress that the Justice Department had initiated the request. 

     

    In a 2018 deposition, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Gore, who in March 2018 drafted the memo requesting the addition of the citizenship question, agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union—the citizenship question was not necessary to enforce voting rights. Further, Gore stated, Secretary Ross approached the Justice Department requesting the addition of the citizenship question, not the other way around as Ross falsely claimed.

     

    Answers to the question would have identified persons President Trump labeled “invaders,” principally Muslims. Action could then be taken without judges or court cases. Harvard constitutional law professor Lawrence Tribe challenged Trump’s sweeping dismissal of due process. “The due process requirements of the 5th and 14th Amendments apply to all persons including those in the US unlawfully.”

     

    The American Civil Liberties Union and other public interest organizations challenged the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 census, citing research that found the question would double the number of non-citizens who opt out, not complete the census, from 5.1 to 11.9 percent. The challenges asserted that this would result in fewer representatives from congressional districts with concentrations of undocumented immigrants, principally African American, Latino, and Muslim minorities, primarily Democratic districts. For Republicans, a positive outcome.    

     

    In 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration failed to demonstrate constitutionally sound logic for inclusion of the citizenship question in the 2020 census. The court concluded that the question would serve mainly partisan, anti-minority political goals.

             

    In 1930s and ’40s Germany, a demagogue amassed political power and step by step implemented the new Nazi state, beginning with the use of the Nazi census to identify and remove minorities, principally Jews.

     

    In 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, in the absence of institutional safeguards to liberty, Gen. René Carmille, a member of the French Resistance, gained control of the Nazi census data. He then sabotaged it. Names and addresses could not be produced for round ups. Twenty-five percent of French Jews were murdered (vs. seventy-five percent in Holland). Carmille, a quiet hero, saved the lives of thousands of Jews—at the cost of his own life.   

     

    In a United States of the future, might a demagogue adopt Nazi policies toward minorities and, citing the precedent set by President Roosevelt, direct a step by step reform of American treatment of minorities? Most likely it would begin with a census to identify minorities and then follow with violations of their constitutional rights? In such a future, will we have quiet heroes to defend our constitutional freedoms?

     

    An unsettling truth grows out of the study of the past—history repeats itself.

     

     

  • The Challenge of the Democratic Primary

    Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency:  From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.

     

    The Democratic Party has a major challenge ahead of the 2020 general election. They need to find a Presidential nominee who can defeat Donald Trump by overcoming his strong base  and the likelihood of Russian interference, which he has explicitly stated he would welcome.  Their objective is further complicated  by the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to constrain accessible voting for all Americans. 

     

    Many Democrats wonder which candidate would be the most electable.  Would a white man in his late 70s,  such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont or former Vice President Joe Biden, be electable? Would a younger candidate–such as Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, or South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg—appeal more to the average American voter?

     

    The latter five would each make history if they were elected president. They would be, respectively, the first white woman, the first mixed race woman, the second African American man, the first Latino man, and the first gay man elected to the presidency.  Some Democrats worry that such a “first” would face great  prejudice and discrimination, especially against  Donald Trump and his solid political base.  Trump’s faithful followers are comprised of folks who are seemingly opposed to the concepts of a woman, a person of color, or a gay person being the next occupant of the Oval Office.

     

    What about Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, who would be the third oldest potential nominee within the Democratic Party? If elected, Warren would be older than Donald Trump was in 2017 upon her inauguration. A woman who has sparked some controversy with her political platform and cultural heritage, Warren poses a unique challenge in gaining the Democratic nomination and election victory in the present American political climate.

     

    Many would think that fresh and younger nominees such as Klobuchar, Harris, Booker, Castro or Buttigieg could be the better alternatives. But would they be able to overcome the barriers to election, or would one of the older white men (Sanders or Biden) have a better chance of besting Donald Trump in the 2020 election? This is not a minor matter, as for many Americans, the idea of Donald Trump having a second term would be insufferable and a threat to the stability and integrity of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

     

    To be clear, there is no room for error in this matter.  Trying to determine a tenable strategy for 2020 is a crucial project that requires creativity and decisiveness. This weighs heavy on the minds of many who see Trump as a threat to the survival of the nation and in what is considered as the greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

  • What Abraham Lincoln Got Right About Addiction

     

    When he wasa 33-year-old Illinois state representative in 1842, Abraham Lincoln was invited by a local chapter of the Springfield Washingtonian Temperance Society to address them on the occasion of the 110th birthday of the first president of the United States. Despite being invited to address the Washingtonians, Lincoln had no problem with his liquor. Child of the Kentucky and Illinois frontiers that he was, Lincoln was of course familiar with beer and cider, whiskey and bourbon, but he was asked to speak to the group as an interested outsider. The future president would tell the Washingtonians that “In my judgement… such of us who have never fallen victims have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.” It’s worth remembering the largely-forgotten Washingtonians this September, recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as National Recovery Month. Established to promote the “benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental and substance use disorders,” National Recovery Month exists to acknowledge the “message that recovery in all of its forms is possible… treatment is effective and people can and do recover.” In parsing Lincoln’s remarks to the Washingtonians, there are important historical reminders of what recovery can look like. 

     

    As a nineteenth-century American, Lincoln would have understood how liquor was seemingly omnipresent in both personal and professional life, contributingto the massive public health crisis of rampant alcoholism. Historian Daniel Okrent explains in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition that in the “early days of the Republic drinking was as intimately woven into the social fabric as family or church.” Okrent writes that by “1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year,” which in modern terms are the “equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week – nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation.” Despite that environment, like most people (both then and now) Lincoln had no physical dependence on alcohol himself, no addiction to the substance, no inability to temper his own drinking. But unlike many people (both then and now) Lincoln didn’t attribute his lack of that malady to a particular moral fortitude. Instead, like the current medical consensus, Lincoln believed addiction is a disease rather than a lack of will on the part of the sufferer. 

     

    The Washingtonians were a remarkable group within the larger temperance movement, for they were not founded by any particular religious denomination looking to convert unregenerate drunks, but rather by alcoholics themselves who were seeking moral support and solution. Acknowledging the public health crisis of alcoholismand the lives and families liquor had ruined,  Lincoln extoled the Washingtonian understanding that such an affliction was a disease rather than simple moral failing. “On this point,” Lincoln said, “the Washingtonians greatly excel the temperance advocates of former times…. They know [alcoholics] are not demons.” The future president argued that alcoholics should be treated as anyone would approach “the heirs of consumption and other hereditary diseases.” The belief that addicts were “utterly incorrigible” was a dangerous and deadly fallacy that Lincoln argued must be abandoned. Just as George Washington fought a war against tyranny, the Washingtonians would struggle against their own bondage in addiction. 

     

    For centuries “dipsomania” had been understood as either something to be laughed at or as a freely chosen sin, but in a nineteenth-century United States where alcoholism resulted in infirmity, abuse, and early death, there was an increasing sense that addicts were not people in need of castigation or conversion, but rather treatment. For the six reformed alcoholics who ironically founded the Washingtonians in the back of a Baltimore barroom in 1840, the addiction to liquor was something that people needed liberation from, not something that merited their denunciation or criminalization. In that regard, writes historian Christopher M. Finan in Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery, the Washingtonians are a chapter in one of the “great liberation movements” of American politics and history. 

     

    As such, the Washingtonians were inheritors of early movements such as the Native American chief Handsome Lake’s sobriety movement known as the Longhouse Religion that was founded in 1798, up to the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 by a failed stockbroker and former drinker named Bill W. and his compatriot, an alcoholic surgeon with several failed attempts at quitting who is remembered fondly as Dr. Bob. Central to the perspective and methodology of AA was a belief that it was through the group sharing of experience that alcoholics would best be able to alter their behavior, and in writings like Alcoholics Anonymous (normally referred to as the “Big Book”) and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. and other authors enumerated the flexible, decentralized principles by which alcoholics could move towards recovery. As an organization, AA unknowingly took up the mantle of the Washingtonians, affirming that alcoholics and addicts were best served not by chastisement or imprisonment, that as Lincoln told his listeners it is not “just to assail, condemn, or despise them.” 

     

    The recovery movement encompasses not just the Washingtonians and AA, but also a plethora of organizations that, for all of their different philosophies and methods, are united in the conviction that whether because of genetic predisposition, personal trauma, or acculturation, physical and psychological dependence on both drink and drugs is not a failure of will, but rather an affliction that deserves treatment. Twelve Step organizations like AA and Narcotics Anonymous use the template developed by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, and they are joined by more secular approaches such as SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, Rational Recovery, and the non-abstinence-based Moderation Management. Despite the success of such groups, and their radical role in personal emancipation for millions of Americans, there is still stigma around addiction that results in death. Finan writes that for too long “Many people blame the drunks” (and the drug addicts), and that even after the emergence of the contemporary recovery movement, for “many drunks [who] want to stop drinking, the major institutions of American life [have] refused to help them.”  

     

    If recovery today has one advantage over the Washingtonians, it’s that the former has largely rejected disastrous prohibitionist policies against both drink and drugs or takes no official line on the issue. Even with initially understandable aims, prohibition has served only to ever make the drunk and the drug addict illegal, a punishment of people rather than a banning of substances. Without reducing Temperance to its most objectionable stereotypes, and acknowledging that it’s aims were often estimable if not utopian, it must be admitted that the “War on Drugs” which started with the Nixon administration comes from a very different ideological underpinning and has resulted in the unjust imprisonment of countless people. What has made such calamitous polices possible (beyond theirclearly racist nature) is the fundamental misunderstanding thatmost people still have regarding addiction. As Finan wrote,  the “drunk’s responsibility for abusing alcohol was still being debated at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” Debating something that is medically settled has led to undue stigma against addicts, and has contributed to the current addiction crisis. 

     

    Last year over 70,000 Americans died as part of the opioid epidemic, a human catastrophe that has lowered the national life expectancy for the first time in our history. As horrific as the opioid epidemic has been, drinking related death are still more numerous, with over 88,000 people dying from alcohol overdose, injuries that resulted from drinking, alcohol withdrawal, or alcohol-related diseases. Worse, there has actually been a 35 percent increase in alcohol-related deaths over the past decade, as reported by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Perhaps this is in part a strange contemporary paradox: drinking is socially acceptable, if not encouraged, but there is a profound stigma around self-identifying as a recovering alcoholic.The Washingtonians understood that what’s so often offered is castigation, when what’s needed is charity; that what’s assumed to be conviviality, can sometimes be a crisis. 

     

    What the Washingtonians understood was that addiction is a form of imprisonment, and recovery can be a type of liberation, or as Lincoln told the assembled “we shall find a stronger bondage broken… a greater tyrant deposed. In it, more of want supplied, more disease healed, more sorrow assuaged.” There’s much that can be said about the Washingtonians, and the recovery movement which came after them. No doubt observations can be made that are historiographical, sociological, and epidemiological. But if there is one lesson imparted that’s the most important to the individual sufferer it’s this – history demonstrates that recovery is possible, and that it’s worth it.  

  • My Life with Books

    The New Press just brought out Jim Loewen’s public history book, Lies Across America, completely revised and with a new chapter, “Public History After Charlottesville.” 

     

    Recently, Shelf Awareness, an interesting website new to me, interviewed me, mostly about books that have had an impact on my thinking. The conversation was intelligent (at least on their part), and they published it today, https://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=3588#m45942.

     

    Since I seem to have moved to the memoir phase of life, I was happy to participate, and I offer the result to you below. Slightly altered, to become an essay, I think it works well. 

     

    What’s on your nightstand now? 

    For years I have been reading a fine dystopian fictional “history of the future,” the well-known Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s traveled with me to Egypt, the Azores, the Bahamas, all the countries on the Rhine (yes, I took that cruise), Iceland, and at least 20 states! My problem is, when I read in bed, I fall asleep immediately. That’s not Mitchell’s fault.

     

    Favorite book when you were a child:

    I must admit, it was the Dr. Dolittle series. Although I have not looked at them since attaining adulthood, I’m sure they were racist, even colonialist, since a white doctor knew just what to do with and for the animals and people in Africa. That I didn’t think about such things probably made their impact all the more insidious, but still, I devoured the books.

     

    Your top five authors:

    Mark Twain. He’s the only humorist from so many generations ago who is still consistently funny when reread today. And he can be deep, too.

    William Faulkner. Yes, I went through my Faulkner period, and though I haven’t reread him in years, I’m still happy to remember many passages, both for his values and his prose style.

    Walt Whitman. As Stephen Vincent Benét put it, in “Ode to Walt Whitman,” “You’re still the giant lode we quarry/ For gold, fools’ gold, and all the earthy metals,/ The matchless mine.”

    Vine Deloria. Being Native American, his worldview is different, but he makes it accessible to all.

    Edna St. Vincent Millay. Perhaps my mom’s favorite poet, she became one of mine too, especially her sonnets that sing of love and lament its loss.

     

    Did you ever fake reading a book?

    Yes, György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. In grad school at Harvard in 1966, I took Barrington Moore’s famously difficult course in social theory. Moore taught by the Socratic method, and when he queried you, you’d best be prepared. The time came to study Lukács, but his book was translated into English only in 1971. We were to read chapter 1 of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein in German. Supposedly I knew German, having taken two years in high school and two in college and then having scored 720 on the SAT German test. Actually, I knew better. I spent the next afternoon trying to read Lukács. After five hours, I had translated a page and a half. Doing the math, I realized that the whole chapter would take me another 70 hours! I had four other courses! So, when the seminar reassembled a week later, I hunkered down behind the guy in front of me, avoided eye contact with Moore, and thus avoided making a fool of myself about a book I’d not read.

    Even after the translation came out, I never read the book. Ironically, reading aboutit while preparing this answer, I now realize I probably would have enjoyed it and learned from it. Sigh.

     

    Book you’re an evangelist for:

    The only historical novel I recommend without reservation: Okla Hannali by R.A. Lafferty. Even though by a white author, I credit it as a Choctaw history of the 19th century, in the form of a biography of a fictional Choctaw leader who was born in Mississippi around 1801 and died in Oklahoma in 1900. I realize such a statement creates all sorts of problems for me–expropriation of Native knowledge, white arrogance, etc. My only defense is the work itself. I have no idea how Lafferty, otherwise known for science fiction, learned so much about Choctaws (and white folks), but every time I have checked out any fact inOkla Hannali, no matter how small, Lafferty got it right. And what a read! Only a little over 200 pages long, but an epic, nevertheless.

     

     

    Book you should have hidden from your children:

    Thomas Berger’s Regiment of Women. I read it when it came out (1973) and enjoyed it. It seemed to me to be a pioneering feminist book and funny as hell. Then my son read it, followed by my daughter. Conversation with them reminded me that the book also contained seriously awry sex scenes that perhaps should not be read by kids age 13 and 11, especially when their mother sought to use any excuse to deny me contact with them. Luckily no complications ensued, either legal or psychological, so far as I know.

     

    Book that changed your life:

    Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, photos by Walker Evans. Agee’s nakedly emotional prose helped me feel what sociologists helped me understand: most poor people are not to be blamed for their poverty. As Agee put it, in the voice of his white sharecropper subjects: “How were we trapped?”

     

    Favorite line from a book:

    As I confront the end of my own life: “Come, lovely and soothing death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving…” in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” from Leaves of Grassby Walt Whitman.

     

    Five books you’ll never part with:

    Leaves of Grass Millay, Collected Poems Okla Hannali Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Louis Untermeyer, ed., Modern American Poetry; Mid-Century Edition. This collection contains many poems that have meant a lot to me, from Whitman and Dickinson down to Langston Hughes and Kenneth Patchen.

     

    Book you most want to read again for the first time:

    T-Model Tommy and other books from my childhood. Not Dolittle, though.

     

    Book that played a crucial role in resolving a family disagreement:

    Thorstein Veblen’s classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. The occasion was a serious conversation my Dad initiated during my sophomore year of college. He was upset that I had changed my major from chemistry to sociology. He confronted me with a challenge: “Just name me one person who ever graduated from Carleton College and made a name for himself in sociology.” I was about to reply, “Just name me one person who graduated from Carleton and made a name in anything,” but I knew he would come up with some Mayo Clinic doctor who was arguably well-known. Suddenly it came to me: in its 99 years, Carleton College had produced just one truly well-known person, famous for his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. “Thorstein Veblen,” I crowed triumphantly. He was silent.

    Let me add, The Theory of the Leisure Class deserves its fame. It is as relevant today as when it came out in 1899. It explains how we model our behavior and our standards of success–even of morality–on the class next above us in social structure, all the way up to “the wealthy leisure class,” his name for what we call the 1%. One chapter, “Devout Observances,” also contains a new and even hilarious sociology of religion. If you aren’t motivated to go read Lies Across America to understand how Americans misconceive the social world (a grievous mistake!), then can I persuade you to read Veblen?

     

  • We Don’t Know What We Are Doing

    Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about poverty. The Great Society programs reduced the poverty rate during the 1960s from 22% to 12%, but since 1970, rates of poverty in the US have remained between 10% and 15%. The proportion of children living in poverty is higher, perhaps as high as 21%. The poverty rate in the US is higher than nearly all other highly developed countries, and about twice as high as most countries in western Europe. The wide variety of federal and state programs for the poor have simply managed to maintain poverty rates at the same level for 50 years. Our policy-makers, Democrat and Republican, have been tinkering around the edges of poverty, but have not found a set of policies which can make an impact. Raising the minimum wage significantly, say to $15 an hour, would slightly reduce poverty, but not eliminate it.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about homelessness. Since the great recession of 2008, homelessness has dropped slightly in the US from about 650,000 to 550,000 in 2016, as poverty levels, the main cause of homelessness, fell. Since 2016, homelessness has again risen.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about the invasion of our lives by the internet. Misinformation and disinformation, transferred to us instantaneously and constantly, pollute our brains. Young people are not only addicted to their phones, for too many their ambitions are entirely tied up in hopes of becoming “influencers” in virtual space. Impenetrable corporations demand to know our private information, and then collect, exploit and sell it.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about climate change. Scientific experts warn us about how much damage we have already done to the environment by lifestyles that few people are willing to change. Rising temperatures in the earth’s oceans have already caused irreparable damage to aquatic life and to the human lives that depend on it. No nation has put into place policies that are sufficient to eliminate further warming. No scientific warning has been able to move enough people to demand the changes that are necessary. Nearly half of Americans continue to vote for a party which officially denies that climate change is a problem.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about the corruption of our society and our politics by money. This is nothing new. Despite centuries of agonizing about how to prevent those with money from amassing the power to suck up more money through illegitimate means, in democratic and authoritarian societies, we are no closer to a solution.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about the widening social chasms, the hollowing out of the middle, the growing anger, not just at the system or “the man”, but at each other.

     

    We don’t know what we are doing about the linkage among all these problems. For the millennia that humans have walked the earth, it didn’t matter if we didn’t know what we were doing. The carefully balanced global natural systems that supported an incredible variety of life were impervious to the local activities of bands of humans. But now, with nearly 8 billion people digging up the earth, consuming everything we can get our hands on, spewing waste in every direction, and accelerating the speeds of these processes every day, we have thrown the earth out of balance. As our world apparently hurtles toward ecological, political, and social disaster, we have created problems for which there are no solutions in sight.

     

    Now is the tipping point. And we don’t know what we are doing.

     

  • In The Great Society, We Get a Marvelous, If Painful, Look at LBJ and the War that Won’t Go Away

    Hey, hey, LBJ

    How many kids did you kill today!

     

    That was one of many protest chants used against President Lyndon B. Johnson and his war in Vietnam, a tragic conflict that resulted in the deaths of some 58,000 American soldiers, plus some 200,000 South Vietnamese troops dead, and was the first war that America lost. It created a nationwide wrath against LBJ and his government and television news programs were filled for years with coverage of huge and loud protest marches against the war, especially after the 1968 Tet Offensive. The scalding story of the war, and Johnson’s heralded Great Society, is being told in a brilliant new play by Robert Schenkkan, The Great Society, that opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, at New York’s Lincoln Center.

     

    I tried to think of ways to explain the war and its awful legacy, but the best way to describe it is to quote a man I heard at the intermission of the play. “All of the good things Johnson did with his great society, all of his programs. were wrecked by Vietnam., and it wrecked the American people and tore the country apart,” he muttered angrily.

     

    That it did. The war began in the early 1960s and did not end until a peace agreement was reached in 1975. Johnson’ advisers, military and political, led by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, argued that the loss of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese would mean the loss of all Southeast Asia to communism. Johnson sent in a few thousand advisors, then 30,000 combat troops, then more and more and more and left office with nearly 300,000 American fighting in Vietnam. He bombed the hell out of North Vietnam, thinking that would force the North, and the tens of thousands of Vietcong in Southeast Asia, to quit the war. They did not and the bombing, that killed so many women and children, merely spurred the North on to fight harder. The U.S. military became angry at the North Vietnamese resistance, and so did LBJ. He was stubborn, political, short sighted and relied too much on his advisors, but, as Schenkkan points out in the drama, he made all of those final decisions and it washis fault. All of it- every single explosion, every destroyed village.  and every single cemetery grave – on both sides.

     

    A key point in the Vietnam story, as Schenkkan notes, is that the tragedy of Vietnam unfolded just as Johnson’s tremendous Great Society package of programs, and Civil Rights advances, was taking place. He had a great ally in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of Senators, such as Everett Dirksen, and Congressmen. Johnson did not understand that success in those domestic programs did not translate to success in Southeast Asia but he kept trying to make it so - to no avail.

     

    This powerful play is a painful reminder of history lost, of all those brave Americans who fought so gallantly for their country in that war, and came home battered and defeated.

     

    One nice addition to the play is its “scorecard” program insert. On it, the theater lists all of the historical characters in the show, the actors who play him/her and a brief explanation of their role in the story. It makes the drama easier to follow. Without it, all of these people might wind up as just so much historical clutter.

         

    The director, Bill Rauch, does a superb job of putting enormous amounts of drama on to a small stage surrounded on three side by the audiences He has slow motion police violence against marchers, protestors beaten up, chanters all over the place, short lines of actors that he deftly turns into long lines of marchers in a few seconds. He utilizes hundreds of videos and huge photos that play out against a backstage wall. Rauch gives the show a vivid historical-as-it-happened look and feel.

     

    Cox gets much support from a splendid, strong corps of skilled actors.

     

    Brian Cox IS Lyndon Johnson. I thought that Bryan Cranston had mastered LBJ n the previous play about the 36th President, All the Way, but here Cox is just as good. He showcases that big Texas drawl and schmoozes as magnificently as he threatens. He gives long speeches full of platitudes and then, when that does not work, reminds Senators that they might lose military bases in the next round of cuts (that does the trick, Johnson argues). He persuades. He cajoles. He is warm and cuddly and cold and ruthless. He has aa big, open arm embrace for all and a terrifying “I’ll kill you” hug for others. He trades bills votes and programs masterfully. If you can’t find a good documentary on LBJ and want to see what he was really like, see this play. Cox is a wonder.

     

    Other fine performances are turned in by Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr., who shows you the real Martin Lither King Jr., a wise religious man who also knows how to plot and scheme and can go for the jugular with the best of them,  Marc Kudisch as a dim witted, spiteful Mayor Daley of Chicago,  Bryce Pinkham as a forceful Bobby Kennedy, whom LBJ hates with a passion. There is Gordon Clapp as a hateful and oafish J . Edgar hoover, who comes off (rightfully so) as the villain of the era. There is  Marchant Davis as the activist Stokely Carmichael, who turns Dr. King’s peaceful marches violent and makes King shudder.  David Garrison is George  Wallace, a truly evil figure who later mellows.  Ty Jones is effective as Ralph Abernathy, King’s chief lieutenant, Matthew Rauch is the brilliant Robert McNamara, the leader of the hawks in the LBJ administration. 

     

    There is a magnificent scene at the end of the play that sums it all up. LBJ, near tears in his wife’s arms, laments that everything that went so well for his Presidency turned to ashes over Vietnam and admits to her that he does not understand how it went wrong and certainly does not understand how to fix it. He complains that everybody from Republicans to the press has turned against him, and sees no way out except not to run for re-election. The shaken LBJ at the end is just as effective as the garrulous, arm twisting, aggressive LBJ at the beginning.

     

    Then, as we know Richard Nixon became President and Vietnam still dragged on for several more years until it ended.

     

    Just as big a tragedy that there was no salute for all those Vietnam vets who came home, no big thank you parade for what you did and tried to do at such a high price. That was a shame. There have been many “than you” tributes and movies and documentaries over the years, and we hope that made up for the disgraceful shunning they received from their country in the 1970s.

     

    Looking back on Vietnam, you ask “How did this mess all happen?” This play tells you, and does so amid the several crises that beset the nation in those years and all of the political storms.  It is history brought back for those over 50, chillingly, and a history lesson on how not to run a country for those under 50. Either way, it is splendid drama and sizzling history.

     

    PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Louise L. Gund, Rebecca Gold, Jayne Baron Sherman, others. Scenic Design: David Korins, Costumes: Linda Cho, Lighting: David Weiner, Music: Paul James Prendergast, Sound: Paul James Prendergast, Marc Salzberg. The play is directed by Bill Rauch.

     

    ..

       

  • Is The Ukraine Scandal the Smoking Gun?

    The tape recorder that recorded what became known as the “Nixon Tapes”

     

    Sometimes a moment of clarity can change everything. The question is whether President Trump’s communication with the Ukrainian president about former Vice President Biden this past summer provides that moment of clarity in the impeachment inquiry that now has been launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

     

    Impeachment under our Constitution was meant to be a rare event. The Founders did not want Congress to impeach a president over sloppy, negligent or even immoral conduct—the Founders called it “maladministration.” If someone turned out to be a terrible administrator or ineffective or even malignant politician, that was not to be the basis for impeachment. In fact, the Founders argued at length as to whether to have an impeachment outlet at all, knowing that they already were providing a fixed term for a president (as opposed to a life term for Article III judges). The election was seen as the mechanism to remove poor or even rogue actors from the presidency.  

    But one concern caused the Founders to pause. What if a president was nothing but a tool of a foreign power? What if a president was paid by a foreign country to commit treachery against his own government? George Washington described how he did not want the United States to be turned into the “playground of European powers.” 

     

    Start with the words “Treason” and “Bribery” and you begin to see how the impeachment clause in Article II took shape. A president guilty of treason or bribery could certainly be impeached. But what about other acts? The term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was inserted with Treason and Bribery to describe other impeachable crimes against the state, major political crimes that undermined the integrity of the government or its proper functioning.

     

    So in Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee voted to send to the House three articles of impeachment. The first concerned the cover-up of the Watergate crimes by the president and his advisors. That included paying hush money to the burglars to keep them from testifying and the dangling of pardons to E. Howard Hunt, one of the masterminds of the Watergate operation. The article contained nine instances of obstructive conduct. The second article of impeachment alleged various abuses of presidential power, such as using the IRS to harass political enemies and illegal wiretapping of citizens. Five paragraphs described a myriad of conduct. The third article alleges the president ignored lawful subpoenas from Congress in violation of duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed, including responding to duly authorized subpoenas.   

    The three articles, thus, concerned abuses of political power that interfered with the lawful investigation of conduct by the president and his associates who were involved in sabotaging the nation’s free and fair election process through political espionage and trying to hide who was involved through various means of obstructing the investigation into the criminal activity.

     

    All that said, there is still something decidedly opaque about the term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” and legal scholars can and do debate when a president’s conduct obstructs justice given that the president is empowered under Article II with the discretion to decide who and when to prosecute wrongdoers as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. It was a muddle.

     

    Like the Mueller Report, the average voter was easily lost in the all the minutia of the Watergate crimes, even with live witnesses like John Dean laying out on national television instance after instance of presidential involvement in the cover-up. When some select tapes began to circulate, like Dean’s March 21, 1973 “cancer on the presidency” warning, the public and many Republicans still could not be persuaded that impeachable offenses had been committed. There was a fog of charges and countercharges, with most people aligning along a partisan divide. Nixon actually used the word “witchhunt.”

     

    It took a moment of clarity to change everything. This is not to discount the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip, drip” of disclosures during Watergate. The Senate hearings in the summer of 1973 took a toll on Nixon’s popularity. The fight over the tapes, once discovered, and the firing of Archibald Cox as the Special Prosecutor in the fall of 1973 also raised the temperature in the debate over whether Nixon should go. But still, as 1973 surrendered to 1974, there was no clear consensus that Richard Nixon should be impeached. The House Judiciary Committee opened its impeachment inquiry and voted along mainly party lines to send articles of impeachment to the House in late July 1974.  And yet, eleven Republicans on the Committee still demurred, failing to find Nixon guilty of obstruction of justice.  

    The defining moment came when the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in United States v. Nixon, ordering the president to turn over certain subpoenaed tapes. One of those tapes was of a conversation that took place just a week after the break-in. On Friday, June 23, 1972, Richard Nixon met with his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, to discuss how to get ahead of the Watergate investigation being conducted by the FBI. Haldeman suggested, and Nixon agreed, that the CIA should be asked to intervene and ask the FBI to “turn off” its investigation of the crime, as it might lead to CIA activity given that Howard Hunt had been involved in CIA activity like the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation.

     

    It was a false narrative. The CIA had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in. The presidential directive to have the CIA intercede with the FBI, though, was easily understood as the kind of abuse of presidential power that was impeachable. When the tape and its transcript became available on August 5, 1974, it was the end. The tape became known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, as it clearly showed Nixon knew of and indeed directed the cover-up from the start. The Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had not voted for Article I (obstruction of justice) changed their minds and declared that in the June 23 tape Nixon all but confessed his guilt. Amazingly, these Republicans still felt that the other evidence—payment of hush money, dangling of pardons—did not rise to the level of impeachable conduct. Days later, Nixon’s support totally evaporated in the House and the Senate and Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.

     

    The point is that the June 23 tape presented a simple, understandable, irrefutable example of an abuse of presidential power. The president was directly involved in the wrongdoing. He clearly was using his power to try to stop an investigation by misusing the CIA and the FBI. This was easy to digest. It did not have the confusing narrative of “who knew what and when.” It was stark and it provided the basis for impeachment.  

    There is a similar feel about the Ukraine incident. The president is directly involved. He is misusing his official power to investigate political opponents. He is using his office to ask a foreign power to essentially intermeddle in domestic politics, perhaps influencing the 2020 election. The story may involve a quid pro quo—the withholding of military aid as a means of pressuring a foreign state to dig up or even manufacture dirt on an opponent.

     

    There is none of the confusion or impenetrable detail of the Mueller Report. Instead this scandal provides easy-to-digest facts that show a president acting in a way that should allow the House to impeach and an unbiased Senate to convict.

     

    Could this be President Trump’s “smoking gun”?

  • “The System Worked!” Watergate’s Lesson in an Age of Trump

    The Watergate complex in Washington, DC

     

    After the fall of Richard M. Nixon, one often heard the refrain: “The system worked!” Existing safeguards, structures, and procedures protected liberty and reestablished the rule of law. After all, Nixon was caught and forced to leave office. But a haunting feeling remains. Did the system work, or did other forces bring about the downfall of Richard Nixon? And now, forty-five years later, can “the system” save us from another abusive and illegal president?

     

    “The system” is the complex web of interrelated governmental and nongovernmental actors and institutions that serve as a check on power. In Watergate, the system included the media, Congress, the courts, the public, the CIA, FBI, the Justice Department, the special prosecutor’s office, and the grand jury. How well did the system perform its function?

     

    The media began like a lamb but ended like a lion. While they were manipulated by Nixon during the 1972 campaign, after the election a herd mentality developed and they turned on Nixon. The Congress, especially in the Ervin and House Judiciary committees, played a very important role in the downfall of Richard Nixon. They moved slowly, methodically, but they moved against the president. The courts, especially Judge Sirica, and the Supreme Court at the end, were clearly a key in the downfall of Nixon. Again, they acted slowly, but effectively. The public, at first giving Nixon a landslide reelection victory eventually turned on the president. The FBI and CIA were used and manipulated by Nixon, as was the Justice Department. The grand jury was essential in getting to the bottom of Watergate. Finally, the special prosecutor’s office, treading on new ground, played an indispensable role in the process. In the end, the system had to act in concert to bring down Nixon. 

     

    For so many to act in concert is highly unusual. This speaks to the great difficulty of controlling a determined or runaway president. The system is indeed vulnerable when, even with all these political actors working against the president, it was the “luck” of two “tapes” which finally brought Nixon down! The first tape refers to the piece of tape the Watergate burglars put on the lock of the door to the Democratic National Committee to keep the door from locking shut. A security guard noticed the tape, removed it, but did not report the discovery. When the inept burglars put yet another piece of tape across the lock, the security guard, Frank Wills, finally became suspicious, reported the incident to the police, and this led to the arrest of the burglars. The second tape refers to the taping system Nixon installed in the Oval Office and elsewhere. When these tapes were released, after the Supreme Court in US vs. Nixon ordered the president to turn over the tapes, the president’s fate was sealed. This suggests that the system is actually a rather weak check on presidential abuses of power. “Watergate,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “shows how very vulnerable our constitutional system is. If the national government falls into the hands of sufficiently unprincipled and unscrupulous men, they can do terrible things before anyone can stop them.”

     

    The system worked more than anything else because of luck, accident, and ineptitude. After all, the first break-in of the Watergate was a botched job, as the bugs weren’t properly installed. This necessitated a second break-in, at which time the burglars were caught.

     

    What if Nixon had not taped himself? There would have been no “smoking gun” and Nixon might have survived. What if the coverup had been better managed? It might have held together. What if Nixon had destroyed the tapes before their existence had become known? He would not have had to defy a subpoena—one of the acts on which an article of impeachment was based.

    Nixon and Haldeman recognized the role luck played in the Watergate story, as evidenced by this March 20, 1973 taped exchange on how Watergate was “discovered”:

     

    Nixon: …a lot of bad breaks…

    Haldeman: Yeah.

    Nixon: We got a bad break with the Judge, for example.

    Haldeman: Monumental bad breaks and a string of ‘em—one leading to another.

    Nixon: This judge, that…

    Haldeman: …one lousy part-time night guard at the Watergate who happened to notice the tape on the, on the locks on the doors. If he hadn’t seen them—the thing probably would never have busted. If you hadn’t had Watergate—you wouldn’t have had Segretti. You wouldn’t have had any of that stuff.”

     

    In another sense, the system refers to the two-hundred-year-old constitutional framework and the norms and assumptions upon which it is based. This Madisonian system, described in Federalist No. 51, believed that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” that by separating power, viable checks might protect the liberty of the citizen.

     

    The framers of the Constitution saw human nature neither in excessively benign nor unmercifully harsh terms. Man was capable of great good and great evil. The Founders knew man’s darker side, his baser impulses, and sought to control this while also empowering government. In a way, it was precisely for the Richard Nixons (and now Donald Trumps) of the world that the separation of powers and checks and balances were created. And in Watergate, Congress’ role in pushing back on the president was a key.

     

    The impeachment process itself was shown to have very limited utility. The system of accountability is slow, cumbersome, and difficult. It can be used only in truly extraordinary circumstances. And while we do have periodic accountability (elections), and ultimate accountability (impeachment), we do not have a system of daily accountability (routine and continuous).

     

    Finally, it was the system that allowed Nixon to rise to the highest office in the land, in spite of the many clues from his career as to what “the real Nixon” was like. It was the system that Nixon used and manipulated for so long. Thus, the system both nourished and destroyed Richard Nixon.

     

    Watergate so disillusioned the American citizens that trust in government declined sharply, public cynicism toward government grew, a backlashoccurred that ushered in a spate of corrective legislation and saw a candidate for president get elected in 1976 in part because he promised the American public, “I will never lie to you.”

     

    Thomas Paine once said that in America, the Constitution is king. The downfall of Richard Nixon struck a blow for the concept that no man is above the law, not even the president. While Nixon could attempt to justify his actions in a 1977 interview with David Frost by saying, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal,” this view was flatly rejected by nearly all segments of the American system, at least until President George W. Bush resurrected the imperial pretentions of royal prerogative, and then Donald Trump further claimed truly imperial powers. Here, the words of Justice Brandeis remain operative: “If Government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law.” Reverence for the laws, Abraham Lincoln once said, should “become the political religion of the nation.” But sadly, we have moved away from Lincoln’s view.

     

    What responsibility do “the people” bear for Watergate, for the rise and fall of Richard Nixon? After all, Nixon the politician had been on the political scene since 1948; his slashing campaign style, his character flaws, his ethical lapses were part of the public record. All the elements in Nixon that led to the abuses of Watergate were all operative and observable in embryonic form in his previous political behavior. Do “the people” bear some measure of blame or responsibility for Richard Nixon? There is a saying “In a democracy, people tend to get the government they deserve.” Did we “deserve” Watergate? This sobering possibility is brought home forcefully by historian Henry Steele Commager, who has chillingly written:

     

    The basic problem posed by Watergate and all its attendant horrors is neither constitutional nor political; it is moral. It is not a problem posed by an Administration in Washington; it is one posed by the American people.

     

    After all, we can never get away from the most elementary fact: The American people reelected Mr. Nixon by a majority of nearly eighteen million votes. Either they did not know what kind of man he was, in which case they were inexcusably negligent or inexcusably naïve, or they did know what kind of man he was and did not care or perhaps liked him as he was—as some Americans still like him the way he is. The latter explanation is probably nearer to the truth.

     

    Did he not—indeed, does he not—represent qualities in the American character that are widespread and even taken for granted? In himself and in the curious collection of associates he gathered around him, he represents the acquisitive society, the exploitative society, the aggrandizing society. He represents what is artificial, meretricious, and manipulative.

     

    He represents the American preference for the synthetic over the real, for advertising over product, for public relations over character, for spectator sports over active games, and for spectator politics over participatory democracy.

     

    He represents, too, the widespread American conviction that anything can be bought: culture, education, happiness, a winning football team—or the presidency.

     

    In a very real sense, during Watergate the American public could be accused of falling asleep at the wheel of democracy. Of all the checks which are to balance our political system, none is more powerful than alert and aroused public opinion. A thoughtful, responsible, aware public is the best defense against tyranny. There is no substitute for an aroused citizenry, no hope unless there is a rebirth of what Thomas Cronin calls “citizen politics.” Richard Nixon exposed one of the vulnerabilities of the American political system. “The system” will not protect us; we must be vigilant.

     

    Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” This is the rationale of the Founders of the American republic. It expresses a sensitivity to the duality of the human condition, of the paradoxical nature of man. The Founders sought to incorporate this view into to the establishment of a limited government, under the rule of law, with a division of power, a separation and sharing of power, and a system of checks and balances. They did not seek to paralyze political leadership, merely to keep it under control. Richard Nixon never understood this. Fortunately, the Framers of the Constitution did.

     

    Now, the system—that mix of the Congress, courts, press, the bureaucracy, and the public—faces another vexing challenge. Can it withstand the assaults of a president who almost daily undermines the rule of law?

     

    After Watergate, the Congress passed a variety of laws designed to discourage future Watergates and abuses of power. As important as these laws may be, they are not sufficient to the task. Laws are not self-executing. A nation of laws depends upon the people to enliven the law. A dedicated citizenry is the only hope against tyranny. As learned Hand said, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

     

    The Framers of our republic realized that there would be times when a scoundrel found his way to the Presidency. As James Madison noted in Federalist No. 51:

     

    If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to government, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

     

    A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

     

    Are the people wise enough and our auxiliary precautions strong enough to stand up against this scoundrel now in the White House? Or is the Presidential Pied Piper playing too powerful a tune for the public to resist?

     

     

  • Myth vs History: A Study of Vietnam War Stories and Journalism

     

     

    In 2007, I presented a paper on the myth of spat-on Vietnam veterans at a Queensland University conference in Brisbane, Australia. The paper drew on the history of homecomings experienced by U.S veterans of the war; it was well received by the attending historians, most of whom were Australians.

     

    In the Q&A that followed, however, assertions were made that the Australian case was different: Australian returnees, it was said, were met with great hostility and even acts of spitting by the antiwar movement. My surprise at hearing that claim was then surpassed by the acceptance of its merit by the roomful of scholars. With the unspoken certainty of something everyone-knows-is-true filling the room, the story of spat-on Australian veterans went unchallenged into the end of the session.

     

    Later, over drinks and dinner, my probes into what research had been done by historians and students of political culture on the Australian homecoming experience hit a wall: It’s common-sense, isn’t it? The antiwar movement hated the war and the military establishment—why wouldn’t they spit on the “diggers” when they came home?

     

    I returned to the States as certain that there was an untold story in the Australian memory of Vietnam veteran homecomings as I was when began writing The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. Alas, my pursuits of appointments and funding that would take me back to Australia to do that work were fruitless. Recently, I picked up Mark Dapin’s Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs. History and it dispelled my lingering disappointment at the lost chance to interrogate some Australian coming-home-from-Vietnam stories. More importantly, Dapin does it in a way that advances the craft of myth-debunking while using his own growth from mythmaker to myth-breaker to show us what intellectual integrity looks like.

     

    Dapin keeps himself on solid methodological ground throughout the book with repeated acknowledgements that he, the myth-debunker, cannot prove the negative, cannot prove what did not happen. But he can show what did happen: that hundreds of thousands of people turned out in 1966 and 1977 to welcome veterans home to Sydney, establishing as a myth the now-widespread claims that there were no “welcome home parades”; that government documents and official correspondence clearly record the obligation to serve in Vietnam when ordered, giving the lie to claims that Australia’s troops there were “an all-volunteer army”; that the first claims that returnees were called “baby killers” came in 1997, about thirty years after they came home.

     

    Dapin takes the show-what-did-happen tactic to a higher level to attack the now-remembered demonstrations that greeted troops returning to Australian airports. So threatening were those demonstrations, it is claimed, that Qantas Airlines flights from Vietnam landed at night to thwart protester’s plans to assail the veterans. The truth, writes Dapin, is more prosaic: nighttime flights allowed Qantas to maintain the scheduled maintenance of the planes needed for daytime commercial flights. 

     

    Australia’s Vietnam is more than an empirical inquiry into the truth, say, of stories that Australian troops committed My Lai-type atrocities in Vietnam: did they happen or didn’t they? They didn’t, Dapin says, and the “memory” that they did began with a book published in the US. Dapin describes the book, Happy Hunting Ground by Martin Ross, as a former Marine “eager to impress his readers with the dangers and hardships he ostensibly faced while wandering around South Vietnam as a journalist… “(p. 110). Made-up atrocity stories function, as do other myths in Australian post-Vietnam folklore, to bolster the combat bona fides of Australian veterans by associating them with the imagery of American veterans ginned up by Hollywood. 

     

    Australia’s Vietnam is important for the rectification it brings to public memory of Vietnam War homecomings. It’s relevance for Australian readers goes without saying and used in critical dialogue with the American war-story literature it should find its place on those lists as well.

     

    But the book is equally important as a case study of journalists’ role in mythmaking. Dapin’s first chapter, “The Myths I Helped to Make,” is one of the best in the book. Told by members of a veterans biker club that 90% of them have PTSD, that others were spat on, sleep with pick-handles under the bed, live in isolated camps in the bush, or carried a bag of Vietnamese heads in Vietnam—he believed many of them and wrote some them into print. The journalistic malfeasance that Dapin owns-up to now is more than made up for by offering himself for study in why journalists believe what they do. Phenomenologists have covered a lot of that ground that Australia’s Vietnam would be stronger for having referenced but schools of journalism can make the necessary accommodations for that.

     

    Afterword. At the Brisbane conference mentioned above, I also recounted my R&R experience in Sydney in July 1969. Coming down the steps to street-side from my Kings Cross hotel, I was greeted by a young woman. “Are you a GI?” she asked. Tanned (in the Australian winter) with no hair, I confessed immediately. “Would you like to go to a coffee house?” she asked. Agreeable to that, I walked a short distance with her to a coffee shop (and perhaps bookstore) stuffed with antiwar literature and paraphernalia. There, I was offered sanctuary if I wished to desert, and eventual passage to Sweden for more long-term refuge. I left with a stack of printed material that I passed around the 41st Artillery Group upon return to Vietnam and a heavy-metal peace symbol which still hangs on my dining-room wall. The Brisbane conferees had “no idea” that Australian peace activists had reached-out to GIs and even admitted to hunches that protesters would have been hostile to GIs. It was, after all, 2007 and years before they would see Dapin’s myth-busting work.

     

     

     

     

  • The Sexual Assault and Exploitation of Enslaved Men in America

     

     

    [Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men by Thomas A. Foster. Reprinted with permission from The University of Georgia Press.]

     

    The promise of freedom may also have been used to entice enslaved men into sexual contact with white women. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, one court record of punishment meted out to a white woman and an enslaved man for having a child together sentenced her to be whipped and ordered him to “never more” “meddle with white women uppon paine of his life.” When the man was examined by the court he defended himself by complaining that she had “intised him and promised him to marry him.” His version was corroborated by the woman, who “confest the same.” Was this a promise to free him? Did she entice him and promise to marry him, or was the promise of marriage part of the enticement?

     

    A similar case suggests that a promise of freedom may have figured as a method of enticement. In 1813 an enslaved man named David was convicted of rape in Virginia. In a petition to the governor in David’s defense, one neighbor testified that the woman Dolly Getts had in fact engaged in “improper intimacy” with David for three years prior to the rape accusation. Dolly and David were known by her father to “bed together” in the father’s house. He contended that Dolly had “admitted” that David’s “improper conduct arose from her persuasions, that she frequently made use of great importunities to the said David for the purpose of prevailing on him to run off with her which he for some time refused to accede to.” Several times she apparently convinced David to spend time together miles away from the house. On one such occasion, she “earnestly solicited David to go to her father and tell him they were married and perhaps they might be permitted to remain together.” Unwilling to take these risks, “David refused and charged her with having brought him into his then unpleasant situation.” In another related example, in 1826 a white woman was captured after having stolen a horse and an enslaved man. She had disguised herself as a man, and according to the account, “she persuaded him off and that she was the whole and sole cause of his stealing his master’s horse.” The enslaved man was punished for the theft of the horse.

     

    The promise of freedom was probably less common than the threat of selling an enslaved man away. Court testimony from an 1841 Kentucky case involved an enslaved man and a white woman who lived together as husband and wife and whose case had come to court over the woman’s ability to sell her own land. The court declared that their relationship was not marriage but was instead one of “concubinage.” Moreover, the case included testimony that revealed the power dynamic within the relationship, since it was reported that the white woman “sometimes threatend to sell” the man, James, “when vexed with him.” Another neighbor testified that he “frequently heard her threaten to sell him if he did not behave himself.” In a related example, William Thomas complained that his wife, Sarah Jane, knew that he was going to sell an enslaved man, “for previously on two occasions defendant had found said negro too near Petitioner’s Bed in the night time and slipping away from her Bed privately.” The threat of being sold was a constant fear for enslaved people; it included the terror of being sold to southern states and the West Indies, known for brutal conditions and higher mortality rates, and the pain of being wrenched away from loved ones, kin, and community.

     

    Violations of privacy included punishments that involved nakedness; the threat of such physical punishment could also be wielded by some women. One former slave described his mistress as whipping him: “Mr. Hammans was a very severe and cruel master, and his wife still worse; she used to tie me up and flog me while naked.” Another man described his mistress in similar terms, emphasizing physical contact that occurred after being “stripped naked”:

    His wife was a harsh, cruel, hardhearted, tyrannical woman, her whole being was filled with hatred of the blackest and bitterest kind against the poor down-trodden, crushed, despised and trampled slave; she seemed possessed with some Satanic influence, and never was in her glory unless she could have her slaves tied up to the whipping post, stripped naked, with a pair of flat irons fastened to their feet, then she would stand by, drawing the lash like an infuriated demon, all the nicer sensibilities of her womanly nature seemed to be crushed out of existence. She would ply the lash until the poor victim would faint dead away.

    Hinton’s testimony also revealed something about the variety of tactics that women employed toward men in such circumstances, many of them strikingly similar to the strategies employed by white owners against black women: “I have generally found that, unless the woman has treated them kindly, and won their confidence, they have to be threatened, or have their passions aroused by actual contact.” Here we see that direct threats accompanied some of these relationships, or indirect manipulation, with a subtler threat of violence. Once physical contact and arousal had been achieved, a man might have little ability to resist.

     

    Regardless of the circumstances that prompted these varied arrangements, many of them clearly took place in the context of servitude and highlighted the power of the enslaving woman over the enslaved man. Harriet Jacobs, in her mention of a white woman who preyed on an enslaved man, wrote that she had picked a man who was “the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure.” Anecdotes such as these suggest that some white women initiated sexual encounters and made clear what they wanted, knowing that their cultural role, the sexual innocence expected of them, helped to hide their actions. Jacobs’s account noted that she was personally familiar with this household. Her account also suggested that the woman preyed on more than one man. She “did not make advances … to her father’s more intelligent servants” but singled out for sexual assault instead a man “over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure” because he was so traumatized. Such a man, it is suggested, had been terrorized into submission on the plantation, and she took advantage of his state of mind to force herself upon him—with the threat of additional punishment if he did not accept her assault and if he did not keep it clandestine.

     

    Wives and daughters of planters who formed these sexual relationships took advantage of their position within the slave system. Having sex with their white counterparts in the insular world of the white planter class, if exposed, would certainly have risked opprobrium, and even gossip about the women’s actions might have marred their reputations. Daughters of planters could use enslaved men in domestic settings, however, retain their virtue, and maintain the appearance of passionlessness and virginity while seeking sexual experimentation. In other words, one of the ways that some southern women may have protected their public virtue was by clandestine relations with black men. Hinton also told the AFIC that a white doctor reported to him that in Virginia and Missouri “white women, especially the daughters of the smaller planters, who were brought into more direct relations with the negro, had compelled some one of the men to have something to do with them.” 

     

    Sons of planters also engaged in such conduct, as Hinton also noted, even suggesting that young women imitated the behavior of their brothers. Hinton explained that some daughters of wealthy individuals on the American frontier, where interactions with male suitors were also relatively limited, as they were for planters’ daughters, given social constraints, “knew that their brothers were sleeping with the chambermaids, or other servants, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise than they too should give loose to their passions.” Another man reported that the conditions of slavery not only brought about the “promiscuous intercourse among blacks, and between black women and white men” but also created a context that encouraged white women to be “involved” in the “general depravity.” Harriet Jacobs wrote that daughters “know that the women slaves are subject to their father’s authority over men slaves” and therefore “selected” and coerced certain enslaved men to be sexual partners. Although Hinton and Jacobs perhaps could not conceive of women taking the initiative on their own and understood them as following the example set by their fathers and brothers, we should note that daughters seem to have engaged in the same behavior as fathers and sons, if not perhaps as many. Although clearly from Jacobs’s testimony, field hands were abused, we should also note that house slaves, given their closer proximity to white women, would have fallen under special control.

     

    White women’s sexual exploitation of enslaved men may well have led to marital tensions among enslaved couples. In antebellum Alabama, one white man petitioned for divorce and alleged that his wife had been “delivered of a black child, the fruits of illicit intercourse carried on between the said Matilda [his wife] and a negro slave” owned by her father. Loren Schweninger uses the case as an example of how enslaved people sometimes seized opportunities to run away when husbands and wives, and thus households, were disrupted. In this case, the enslaved man’s wife ran away at this time. It might also be worth pondering this case from a different angle. What would have been the experience of this enslaved man? His master’s daughter, Matilda, engaged him in sexual relations. His wife ran away. Was love lost? Was he able to say no to Matilda? Or did she break up this enslaved family, with the man’s wife running away to escape an unbearable situation?

     

    From Rose’s interview we glean no indications about Rufus’s experiences with white women other than that his mistress played a key role in his forced coupling with Rose. Sexual relations between white women and enslaved black men were well known in early America and resulted in court and church pronouncements and punishments, cultural derision, and the dissolution of white marriages. Efforts to police intimate relations between black men and white women stemmed in part from a desire to control women. Such behavior threatened white men and their authority over white women’s sexuality. Discussions of these relationships have often taken their cues from late nineteenth-century understandings of white women’s passive victimhood and black male sexual aggression, but even a cursory examination of the extant records surrounding these interactions suggests that much more was at work in these deeply fraught interactions. The relative power that white women had over enslaved black men’s bodies and their lives and circumstances makes it possible for us to view their sexual relations as defying white patriarchal authority but at the expense of enslaved men and their families, kin, and communities. Whatever white women’s actions accomplished in terms of solidifying their own autonomy was not equally shared by the enslaved men with whom they had intimate relations. Those men lived under constant threat of punishment and could only carefully navigate and negotiate the thorny path that white women presented them whenever sexual intimacy occurred. One wonders if the myth of the black rapist that emerged after emancipation, the fiction that black men uncontrollably sought sexual contact with white women, was not partly informed by white women justifying their actions during enslavement—and their fear of revenge.

  • Climate Change: A Worldwide Catastrophe In The Making

     

    I could not possibly applaud enough the young men and women who flooded the streets in hundreds of cities around the world demanding from their government to take immediate and long-term action to combat climate change. By the same token, I could not condemn and denounce more vehemently Mr. Trump and many of his ilk, like Bolsonaro of Brazil, for their criminal disregard of the catastrophic peril that climate change represents. By denying the threat that climate change poses and its devastating harm to countless living creatures, they are systematically undermining any chance we still have of avoiding a terrible catastrophe, including a mass extinction of species the likes of which the modern world has never seen.

    On Monday, the United Nations Climate Action Summit, revealed how far presidents and prime ministers are willing to go. More than 60 countries announced tangible plans to reduce emissions and help the countries most vulnerable to climate change to manage the terrible consequences of global warming.

    Yet, since the beginning of his administration, Trump has been undermining environmental protections; by his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement, his refusal to attend the G7 special meeting on climate change, cut backs on the regulation of methane emissions, the freezing of antipollution and fuel-efficiency standards for cars, weakening the Endangered Species Act, while allowing gas drilling and offshore oil in all coastal waters off the United States.

    Michael E. Mann, a noted climatologist and geophysicist, has observed that the science he and his colleagues does is “a threat to the world’s most powerful and wealthiest special interests.” This explains the self-serving denials of people like Trump and his company, who choose to ignore that a disastrous climate crisis is looming.

    To have a better understanding of the unfolding disasters precipitated by climate change the following are not new revelations but point out some of the far-reaching implications of climate change that no country can afford to overlook.

    The rainforest are a crucial bulwark against climate change because they act as a carbon sink, absorbing carbine dioxide out of the atmosphere. The rampant deforestation that is occurring in the Amazon and elsewhere (including Indonesia, Thailand and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) is effectively eliminating one of the most powerful resources we have for combatting global warming. When Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, he came to power intending to open up the Amazon basin to business interests. He cut the budget of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency by $23 million, and essentially encouraged cattlemen, agribusinesses and loggers to exploit and deforest an ever-growing amount of Amazon land. Small wonder then that fires in Brazil are up 85 percent this year compared to the previous year. Although it is certainly a good thing that European leaders recognize the calamity resulting from the burning of the Amazon rainforest, the pathetic $20 million they have allocated for fighting these fires is a paltry sum considering the enormity of the disaster. This sum of money does not match the urgency expressed by the G7 leaders—do they really understand the magnitude of the disaster which is unfolding in front of our eyes? Presently, an area about one and a half times the size of a football field is being destroyed each and every minute of each and every day. The systematic destruction of the rainforest is not limited to Brazil. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen a loss of roughly 1,200 sq. miles of forest every year since 1990. That is a forest area around the size of Delaware which is destroyed annually. The rainforest in the Congo Basin is the largest in Africa, and second only to the Amazon Basin in size. Many of the wildlife species are threatened by illegal logging, including the lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. Forest elephants have seen their numbers decline by 60 percent. War, ethnic conflicts, deteriorating economies, and climate change have forced millions across the world to flee their homes. Over 1.6 million migrants and refugees reached Europe between 2015 and 2018 from Asia, Africa and Middle East. Tragically, climate refugees and internally displaced persons are just another facet of this crisis.

    Climate refugees are people forced to leave their homes due to “sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment.” The most vulnerable regions are sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America; studies show that by 2050, nearly 150 million people from these regions could be displaced due to climate change. Coral reefs are also dying at a horrifying rate as a result of global warming. 27 percent of monitored reefs have been lost and over 30 percent are at risk of being lost within the next few decades. The reasons for this unfolding tragedy are clear enough. Coral mining, overfishing, blast fishing, pollution, warming oceans and ocean acidification are among the major contributing factors.

    Sylvia Earle, a notable marine biologist and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association pointedly observed that, “Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape, a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There’s still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.”

    Factory farming is contributing directly to global warming. Over 60 billion animals worldwide – including cows, chickens and pigs – are restricted to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These CAFOs release massive amounts of greenhouse gasses, surpassing even the entire global transportation industry. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent – nearly one-fifth – of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

    Factory farming is also indirectly intensifying climate change through deforestation. In fact, clearing land for feed crops and grazing releases up to 28 million tons of carbon dioxide per year globally. As Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, states, “We know, at least, that this decision (ending factory farming) will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve publish health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in history.” Climate change equally impacts Democrats and Republicans alike; young and old; white and persons of color; men, women, and children; and every species. Those who have brought us face-to-face with this horrifying reality must now realize that their time is up. Climate change is real, and the plethora of scientific evidence is indisputable. This is a calamity in the making—all nations that care must wake up before it is too late.

    All the power to the young Swedish student Greta Thunberg who bravely stood before the UN special session on climate change and forcefully stated that, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

  • The Demise of the Republican Party

    Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

     

    The Republican Party was founded in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery. It has survived in philosophy and leadership over the past 165 years but now it has reached its demise under Donald Trump. While the Republican Party might still exist in name, it has lost all principle, all purpose, and all reason to exist under its present name.

     

    The new revelations about Trump pressuring the Ukraine President to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son for corruption now have put the Republican Party on  warning.  With the movement in the House of Representatives toward impeachment, will any Republicans speak up and condemn what Trump has most recently done, or will they, effectively, go down in disgrace with a President who has never really shown respect for the party and its history?

     

    Today’s Republicans have totally repudiated its great Presidential leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. All four of these outstanding Republican Presidents would certainly be shocked and dismayed by the Presidency of Donald Trump.  But it has also repudiated Congressional giants, including William Seward, Charles Sumner, Robert La Follette, Sr, George Norris, Robert Taft, Arthur Vandenberg, Everett Dirksen, Jacob Javits, Barry Goldwater, Clifford Case, Mark Hatfield, Charles Mathias, Charles Percy, and a multitude of other luminaries.  It has also ignored the principles and convictions of gubernatorial giants, including Thomas Dewey, Earl Warren, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, William Scranton, and many others.

     

    Under Abraham Lincoln and during Reconstruction, the Republican Party was the party of ending slavery and promoting racial equality. It was the party of responsible government regulation of capitalism in the public interest underthe administration of Theodore Roosevelt.  Under Theodore Roosevelt and even Richard Nixon, the Republican party encouraged responsible environmental and consumer legislation to protect the American people.  It was the party of a strong military and promoted national security during the Cold War under Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.  It was the party of responsible international alliances and treaties in the years since the Second World War under all Republican Presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush.    

     

    The Republican Party was far from perfect and at times it contradicted these principles. It encouraged monopoly capitalism in the Gilded Age, the 1920s, and has once again since Ronald Regan. It has ignored and sometimes encouraged racism and nativism. Richard Nixon employed the “Southern Strategy” and the Watergate tapes recordings demonstrated his anti Semitism and racism. Ronald Reagan allowed the “Religious Right’ to have an undue influence in the 1980s. The Republican Party today pushes to end the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, promotes mass incarceration and tough mandatory minimums, and continues the injustice it has done to racial minorities and the poor.  Massive evidence of government corruption under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan previously undermined Republican credibility with the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, respectively.  Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush engineered massive tax cuts, harming the middle class and the poor, and created a new Gilded Age similar to the late 19th century.

     

    But the party always had healthy internal debates: progressive and conservative Republicans clashed in the early 20th century Progressive Era and the New Deal era; liberal and conservative Republicans in the post World War II period from 1945-1980; and moderate and conservative Republicans in the age of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes.  If Republican Presidents did not always offer great leadership, members of Congress and state governors often weighed in on policy.  Whenever the Republican Party seemed to have lost its way, challenges came from Republican members of Congress and governors that kept the party viable and respectable. Few felt that the party leaders in Congress and in the states were willing to give up their independence to any President and the party leadership.

     

    But now, that has all changed.  All of the principles of the Republican Party have been destroyed in the age of Donald Trump. The Republican leadership in Congress and the states has simply given up any concept of disagreement or resistance, and have accepted Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader with no limits on his executive power.  This is true of racial and ethnic discrimination; of overlooking massive violations of civil liberties; of abuse of immigrant children and their families escaping from poverty, violence, and bloodshed in Central America; and of giving over total control of the economy to major corporations without any government regulation.  There is no resistance to policies that totally abandon  environmental and consumer regulation and fail to protect national security from the threats of foreign nations with authoritarian leaders who flatter our President like Russia, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. The Republican party now supports undermining international alliances and treaties, alienating such close friends as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India.  Additionally, the total abuse of any standard of ethics and morality, including the President’s own scandalous private life is ignored and often denied as reality by the leaders and office holders of his own party.

     

    Months ago Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee and emphasized that Russia interfered in the Presidential Election of 2016; that Donald Trump and his campaign welcomed Russian intervention; and that Donald Trump obstructed justice in the investigation of the campaign.  Still the GOP leadership has no issue publicly with Donald Trump. No matter how outrageous his statements, the extent of his lies, or the harm he brings domestically or internationally, almost no Republican defies Trump. Even Trump’s move to oppose free trade, a long held view of the party, moves ahead without much protest. In fact, it seems as if the Republican leadership and office holders are terrified of our President. Even after the El Paso, Dayton, and Odessa-Midland Massacres, there is mostly silence from Republicans.

     

    Donald Trump has promoted so many policies of abuse and corruption, including undermining the contributions of past Republican Presidents, and yet House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and nearly all Republican office holders defend him, or stay silent.  Only a few Republicans not in office anymore have spoken up and challenged Trump. 

     

    The Republican Party is dead as we knew it, and the question is this: will anyone in that party finally lead a decisive challenge to the abuse of power going on, which threatens the nation and the world at large, or will a new political party emerge, as the Republicans did in the crisis of the 1850s, when they replaced the Whig Party?

     

    American democracy and constitutional government is at stake right now every day!

  • Betrayal in Berlin: Soviet Disinformation and the Berlin Crisis

     

     

    Fears that Russian intelligence is actively working to undermine Western democracy—in the United States, Europe and around the globe—are running high. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III documented multiple systemic interferences by Russia in his report on the 2016 presidential election released earlier this year, and he warned that Russia is actively targeting the 2020 election. Similarly, Russia conducted a “continued and sustained” disinformation campaign against Europe’s parliamentary elections in May, according to a European Union report. Techniques include planting false news stories, hacking into campaign accounts, creating fake social media accounts, and using software applications known as bots to spread distorted, divisive content.

     

    While Russian bots and fake Facebook accounts are relatively new, efforts to undercut Western values and democracy and sow division among allies have long been part of the playbook for Russian and Soviet intelligence. One of the highest-stakes attempts came 60 years ago. On November 10, 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev fired the opening salvo of what would become known as the Berlin Crisis, a gambit meant to force the Western powers to pull their troops out of the divided city. Khrushchev declared that Soviet forces would withdraw from the city, and pressured the Americans, British, and French to follow suit. In effect, it was a demand that the Western powers relinquish their right of access to Berlin that had been agreed to at the end of World War II. Doing so would mean abandoning West Berlin, which was surrounded by East German territory. 

     

    Not unlike the current Russian efforts to undermine public trust in democracy, behind the scenes, the KGB waged a determined campaign using propaganda and disinformation to paint the Americans as cynical occupiers interested in Berlin only as a base for nefarious espionage operations that were oppressing the German people.The Soviets charged that West Berlin was a “nest of spies” and its victims were the citizens of both East and West Berlin. Exhibit A was the Berlin Tunnel. The audacious joint operation, by the CIA’s Berlin base chief Bill Harvey and Peter Lunn, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) Berlin station, involved digging a secret, quarter-mile-long tunnel from the American sector into the Soviet sector to tap into Red Army communications. Though the KGB had been tipped off about plans for the tunnel by the notorious spy George Blake, the intelligence service took no action against the tunnel. They Soviets didn’t even warn Red Army commanders, for fear of compromising Blake, as described in Betrayal in Berlin. For nearly a year, from May 1955 until the Soviets announced they had discovered the tunnel in April 1956, CIA and SIS captured reams of material about Soviet military capabilities, operations, and plans, as well as information from GRU (Soviet military intelligence), KGB and East German intelligence offices using the tapped lines.

     

    Ironically, the U.S. was able to counter the KGB campaign against Western espionage– thanks to intelligence gathered by Berlin Tunnel. As the tension surrounding the crisis grew in late 1958 when Khrushchev laid out his demands, the CIA base in Berlin went to work compiling information about Soviet intelligence transgressions.

     

    Khrushchev’s formal ultimatum calling for the withdrawal of the four powers from Berlin, delivered in Moscow on November 27, 1958, set a six-month deadline. Otherwise, he warned, the Soviet Union would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and cede control of access to the city to the East German regime, steps that could effectively end West Berlin’s status as a free city. Berlin is a “malignant tumor,” Khrushchev declared in his speech at the Moscow Sports Palace. “We have decided to do some surgery.”

     

    In one fell swoop, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower later said, Khrushchev had turned Berlin “into a tinderbox.” On New Year’s Eve 1958, the Allies officially rejected the Soviet demand, setting the stage for a dangerous confrontation.

     

    Disinformation—disinformazia—had long been a staple of Soviet intelligence, but the KGB had begun throwing more resources into their efforts. In January 1959, Aleksandr Shelepin, who had recently taken over as head of the KGB, established a new organization, Department D, to create and coordinate disinformation programs. Department D’s first priority was West Berlin. The KGB had recently discovered that a Soviet military intelligence officer, Pyotr Popov, was spying for the CIA. Combined with the impressive scale of the tunnel, the KGB considered the CIA’s Berlin base a major security threat that needed to be neutralized. “This unit [is] headed by the American Bill Harvey, known by the nickname ‘Big Bill’,” a KGB memorandum said. “… The available material provides a basis for assuming that ‘Big Bill’ and his coworkers carry out active intelligence work against the countries of the Socialist camp, for which they have a large agent network.”

     

    Resuming the same propaganda strategy that followed the discovery of the tunnel, the KGB launched a new campaign portraying West Berlin as an espionage swamp and center of subversive activities. A key goal was to damage public support for the U.S. among the populations of other Western nations.

     

    The U.S. State Department feared that the Soviet campaign might undercut Western solidarity about not abandoning Berlin at talks scheduled to begin in Geneva in May 1959 between foreign ministers from the four powers in an attempt to defuse the crisis. John Foster Dulles, terminally ill with cancer, had resigned as secretary of state in April, and had been succeeded by Under Secretary of State Christian Herter. The former Massachusetts governor and congressman would be facing off against the formidable Andrei Gromyko, near the start of a nearly three-decade career as Soviet foreign minister.

     

    In preparation for the summit, the CIA’s Berlin Operations Base prepared a counterattack listing a long catalog of Soviet and East German espionage and covert operations run from East Berlin, many of them discovered by the tunnel. “Now that the tunnel was no longer running, we could use it all, and we did,” recalled David Murphy, who was then deputy chief of the base. The CIA provided Herter and his aides with lengthy memos detailing the eastern espionage operations.

     

    After a month of tense talks in Geneva amid Soviet accusations about West Berlin, Herter made his move June 5 at a forum attended by the press. Herter confronted Gromyko with the evidence, charging that East Berlin was “one of the heaviest concentrations of subversive and spying activities in the world.” 

     

    The American painstakingly recited the litany of evidence compiled by the CIA. He told Gromyko that it was “reliably estimated” that the Soviets had “26,000 officers, directing more than 200,000 agents and informers” operating in West Berlin, West Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe. He accused the Soviets of responsibility for 63 kidnappings of defectors, activists, and others in West Berlin opposed to the East German regime, most of the cases involving “brute force.” 

     

    Herter further charged that the Soviets were using East Berlin as “the center of an extensive campaign of slanderous personal vilification” against Western officials, sending anonymous letters to the spouses of Allied officials and German civilians implying their husbands or wives were unfaithful. He accused them of spreading lies and rumors through whispering campaigns—what then passed for social media.

     

    “The goal of this centrally directed effort at subversion is the complete overthrow of the existing constitutional and social order” in West Germany, Herter charged.

     

    Gromyko “sat there for two hours while the secretary of state read him word by word every single thing from these memoranda about Soviet and East German intelligence operations in East Berlin,” recalled Murphy.  “It was the first time that we used counterintelligence material [to publicly confront the Soviets], and we were able to do it because the tunnel provided it to us.”

     

    Gromyko was “stony-faced through the recital,” according to one account, while the rest of the Soviet delegation “acted pained and aggrieved.” Finally, Gromyko responded that the Soviet file on Western spying in Berlin was “much more comprehensive” than the American list, but he needed to give only one example: “the matter of the tunnel dug from West to East Berlin.”

     

    It was certainly a valid point. 

     

    But the elaborate American presentation was widely reported by the Western press, with numerous articles highlighting the vast scale of Soviet espionage operations against the West. Herter reported to the president that the counterattack “shook Gromyko up a bit” and had blunted the Soviet campaign. “We may hear very little more about it,” the secretary of state predicted to Eisenhower.

     

    Meanwhile, Khrushchev proved unwilling to go to war over Berlin, and the six-month deadline he had set for Western withdrawal passed virtually unnoticed. “It was the ultimatum that, only a few months before, many had feared would bring up the curtain of World War III,” Eisenhower later wrote. “The day came and went—a day lost in history.” But as Eisenhower well knew, the Berlin problem was hardly solved.  

    Three years later, with Khrushchev’s consent, the East German regime led by Walter Ulbricht constructed the Berlin Wall in August 1961. With free access across the sector borders closed, Berlin was effectively shut down as an espionage center. But it came at an enormous cost to the Soviet and East German regimes. Any pretense that the communist governments were defending the freedom of those behind the Iron Curtain was gone.

     

    When the Berlin Wall finally fell 30 years ago, a development was soon followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, many celebrated what was widely seen as the final and complete triumph of liberal democracy in the Western world. But as the warnings of Russian interference from the recent reports by Mueller and the European Union make clear, that battle is ongoing.

  • The Value of the USA’s Founding Values in a Time of Political Turmoil

     

     

    Roger Fortin, Ph.D., arrived at Xavier University in Cincinnati in the fall of 1966 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of History.  During his fifty years at the University, he was promoted to the rank of Professor and assumed a number of administrative positions, including Academic Vice President and Provost.  During his tenure he wrote four books, including Faith and Action: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati: 18211996; To See Great Wonders: A History of Xavier University: 1831–2006; and Fellowship: History of the Cincinnati Irish, as well as numerous scholarly articles.  A popular and dedicated teacher, Fortin has been recognized by Xavier University as Distinguished Service Professor of History.

     

    Andrew Fletcher: We often reference the Founders as the originators of many of the ideals that still guide us today. What Founders’ ideals are at the core of America’s promise?

    Roger Fortin: In addition to the ”unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the founding generation saw civic virtue as necessary to ensure a nation of laws and establish a political system with checks and balances largely designed to prevent the abuse of power. They expressed what they deemed possible and desirable, arguing that individuals should develop themselves as fully as possible.  The Founders also emphasized the importance of honesty. Motivated by a love for the truth, they urged accuracy, clarity, and precision in language. While the Declaration of Independence symbolized the dignity and worth of every individual, there were glaring paradoxes in society. Blacks, women, and Native Americans were not viewed as equals to white men. Notwithstanding the failings of the Founding Fathers, over time their ideals have proven more energizing than their flaws. 

     

    Andrew Fletcher: Why did the Founders promote education as much as they did? What is the value of a liberal education in America?

               

    Roger Fortin: For individualism and social responsibility to coexist, they thought, depended heavily on the quality of education. They hoped to provide a liberal arts education, implanting in the minds of young people the principles of virtue and liberty that would enable them to act as free and independent human beings, making it possible for them to live full and happy lives, as well as helping others.

              

    Andrew Fletcher: What is the essence of the American Dream?

     

    Roger Fortin: To some people the American Dream is success measured by money, power, and fame. To others the term may connote freedom, equality, opportunity, upward mobility, owning a home, among others. The American Dream is about hope, the hope that every individual of whatever status has the chance to be all that he or she can be. That is the essence of the Dream.

     

    Andrew Fletcher: The country is now in a much different place than it was 243 years ago. How has the American Dream changed or stayed consistent, and why?

     

    Roger Fortin: The American Dream is part of America’s soul. Like our nation’s ideals, the Dream of a better and happier existence for everyone is timeless. As part of America’s lifeline, it is indispensable in sustaining our identity and mission and safeguarding and energizing the nation’s ethos.

     

    Andrew Fletcher: You discuss the Founders’ belief in the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic right. What did the Founders mean by “pursuit of happiness?”

     

    Roger Fortin: The founding generation agreed with John Adams when he wrote that the government that provides “ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.” They also generally agreed with Adam Smith, the eighteenth century Scottish economist, philosopher, and father of capitalism, that true happiness lay in “tranquility and enjoyment,” which had less to do with an individual’s economic status than it did with the moral qualities of men and women. 

     

    Andrew Fletcher: America finds itself in an uncertain position and unstable political climate today. What modern challenges do America’s values and character face? In Chapter 5, you assert that the Founders’ ideals help us to lead more fulfilling lives. How do the Founders’ ideals relate to contemporary everyday life for Americans?

     

    Rogert Fortin: While there are things that divide Americans, such as racism, ethnicity, and class, there are many more things that unite us. Our common humanity and fundamental desire to be happy unite us. We’re interlocked with other human beings; we’re all connected. 

     

    We live at a time when we’re experiencing a continuing revolution in time and space relationships as well as seeing the digitization, virtualization, and automation or more and more things. The new technologies have thrust a new scale of life upon us. As we assess our nation’s ideals and values and reflect upon our sense of direction, we should care about our character. Living life consistent with one’s values and convictions is the most noble of human endeavors. As Jefferson put it so well, “in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle stand like a rock.”

     

    Throughout the nation’s history, Americans latched on to the Founding Generation’s ideals, which encourage refinement of those qualities that characterize individuals at their best. As gardens bear the same flowers anew year after year, so in each generation – especially today – the ideals must be born anew and revitalized.

  • How Global Elites Can Address Misinformation

    The President-Elect of the EU Commission Ursula van der Leyen, the Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Secretary Genera Elhadj As Syl, the CEO of Penguin Random House Markus Dohle, billionaire philanthropist and Chair of Bertelsmann Management Group Liz Mohn, and two dozen other high-profile global elites joined me at Trilogue Salzburg in August 2019. 

     

    This yearly event is described by its organizers as follows:

    Surrounded by the stimulating atmosphere of the Salzburg Festival, the Trilogue Salzburg convenes leading thinkers, decision-makers and renowned personalities from the arts, civil society, business and politics to engage in cross-cutting, inter-cultural and future-oriented debate.

     

    Each year, the organizers of the conference choose a different future-oriented topic. This year, the topic was “Fragmented Realities - Regaining a Common Understanding of Truth.”

     

    Indeed, this year did not disappoint. Full of prominent leaders - ranging from politicians and business leaders to nonprofit leaders and thought leaders - the conference featured extensive discussions of how to address misinformation and post-truth politics. 

     

    I was invited to attend and participate in a roundtable panel there. You can see me second from left in the back in the photo above, and also at 3:17 in this video

     

    If you enjoy video, here’s a videocast based on this blog:

    A prominent thought leader, I’m a social scientist who published substantial peer-reviewed research on how to fight misinformation, a public figure who wrote hundreds of articles and gave hundreds of interviews on this topic, and a best-selling author who wrote The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. I’m also a civic activist as the co-founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge project, dedicated to uplifting truthfulness in all areas of public discourse, and President of the Board of Intentional Insights, the 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit that runs the pledge project. 

     

    What surprised me most at the event was the percentage of high-profile participants who lacked research-based perspectives on this topic. Conference attendees mostly advocated old-school approaches to addressing the lack of truth and trust in society, such as more education about misinformation and critical thinking. So I found myself at odds with most of the participants.

     

    I pointed out that if such methods worked, we wouldn’t be in the bind that we are, and we wouldn’t need a conference on how to deal with this problem! Research has found that many forms of education about misinformation actually leads to the spread of misinformation. Even the typical ways that journalists try to counteract misinformation can often backfire, causing people to hold more strongly to these myths. So do the ways health experts teach about health misinformation.

     

    That’s why simply saying “we need more education” is a very, very bad idea: the traditional and intuitive way we teach about misinformation is often exactly the wrong thing to do. We need the right education - the specific type of education that research has found to not spread misinformation - which is not what is usually taught! Global elites taking part in the conference can make a meaningful difference in improving education.

     

    Several participants made the claim that the recent wave of misinformation resulted from economic inequality between the rich and poor. In their view, such inequality led to the poor being more willing to believe misinformation. Yet measures of inequality haven’t changed much between 2000 and today, while misinformation has become much more powerful and prevalent in the last few years. 

     

    Instead, the key difference is the astronomically quick growth of social media as the source from which people get their news, and the prevalence of misinformation on social media, since tech companies aren’t doing much to filter out fake news. The global elites who attended the conference have the power to address the inaction of tech companies, and indeed some conference attendees are already starting to do so.

     

    Hopefully, some of the research-based perspectives shared by myself and a couple of other participants familiar with cutting-edge research in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics on promoting ethical and truthful behavior will make some impact. I shared some of the points about education and many other topics informed by my scholarship and writing.

     

    Another example. One of the other attendees was Dhruv Ghulati, co-founder of Factmata, who personally signed the Pro-Truth Pledge and whose organization signed it as well. He discussed the need to reward - financially and otherwise - high-quality journalism, instead of the current financial incentives rewarding click-baity journalism. Providing financial incentives for such journalism is the essence of Factmata.

     

    Most exciting of all, Pro-Truth Pledge donors gathered sufficient funding to make an early, pre-release run of my forthcoming book co-written with Tim Ward, called Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics, available for pre-order here.

     

     

    The book describes how we can turn back the tide of post-truth politics, fake news, and misinformation that is devastating our democracy through the Pro-Truth Movement: a movement which has already begun, and is making a tangible impact. I was able to make personal, signed gifts of copies of the book to 23 out of 30 conference attendees. My hope is that it will make a real difference to the fight against misinformation to have such high-profile people read this book. My gratitude to the donors who helped make it happen!

     

    P.S. Don’t forget to pre-order the book now!

     

    Image Credit: Bertelsmann Stiftung

     

    Originally published at http://glebtsipursky.com on September 22, 2019.

     

    Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. His expertise and passion is using pragmatic business experience and cutting-edge behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience to develop the most effective and profitable decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019), The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide (2017), and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (2020). Dr. Tsipursky’s cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 400 articles and 350 interviews in Fast Company, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inc. Magazine, and elsewhere.

     

    His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training experience as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. Its hundreds of clients, mid-size and large companies and nonprofits, span North America, Europe, and Australia, and include Aflac, IBM, Honda, Wells Fargo, and the World Wildlife Fund. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist with over 15 years in academia, including 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University. He published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals such as Behavior and Social Issues and Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

     

    He lives in Columbus, OH, and to avoid disaster in his personal life makes sure to spend ample time with his wife. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook, YouTube, RSS, and LinkedIn. Most importantly, help yourself avoid disasters and maximize success, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace, by signing up for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.

     

  • Impeachment—a Tool to Prevent War?

     

    Some 45 years after the movement to impeach President Nixon, the speaker of the House of Representatives reviewed—or revised?—its history.

     

    Interviewing Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Rolling Stone, publisher Jann Wenner raised the question of impeachment. Were we headed there, following Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian election interference and the resulting report?

     

    Ms. Pelosi (my representative in Congress) showed no sympathy for the movement to impeach President Donald Trump. She correctly stated that the House never impeached Richard Nixon. However, she incorrectly stated why the House did not impeach him:

                     

    The House proceeded with the hearings, but they never impeached because of information that came out that made it clear that they shouldn’t put the country through this process. It’s a very disruptive process to put the country through, and it’s an opportunity cost in terms of time and resources. You don’t want to go down that path unless it is unavoidable.

     

    Actually, Nixon headed off impeachment and removal as president by resigning. 

     

    Recalling Watergate

     

    “Watergate” became a household word when leading press and broadcast media pursued that scandal. It began quietly with “a third-rate burglary” (quoting a Nixon spokesman) at Democratic headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex in June 1972. Watergate grabbed ever more headlines and TV time, once the burglars, Nixon’s “plumbers,” got linked to his reelection campaign. Woodward and Bernstein and All the President’s Men became well-known names. 

     

    By mid 1974, the public, Congress, and courts stood quite ready to put the country through the impeachment process outlined in the Constitution.

     

    Few Americans who followed television or newspapers could ignore the Senate Watergate Committee’s nationally televised hearings, begun in May 1973; indictment of seven Nixon aides, naming Nixon as “unindicted co-conspirator”; televised impeachment proceedings by the House Judiciary Committee, begun in May 1974; prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s subpoena for 64 tapes of White House conversations; Nixon’s transcripts (with each “expletive deleted”); and the Supreme Court’s 8–0 order to release all tapes.

     

    In one belatedly released tape, recorded days after the burglary, Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, were heard plotting to block investigations. It was “the smoking gun.”

     

    House Judiciary approved three bipartisan articles of impeachment in late July 1974. The charges were obstruction of justice, abuse of power by misusing government agencies, and contempt of Congress by ignoring subpoenas. (A charge of illegally bombing Cambodia won no GOP votes.)

     

    Republican leaders informed Nixon that his congressional support had nearly disappeared and, if he stayed in the White House, he would be impeached and convicted, i.e. unseated. So on August 8, 1974, he announced his resignation. The next day, Nixon became the first president ever to quit—and thereby avoided getting fired.

     

    A proposal

     

    History notwithstanding, the Pelosi interpretation highlights a current split among House Democrats. Some welcome impeachment, alleging Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation, unlawful emoluments, and provocative statements. Others, most notably Speaker Pelosi, shun the process as too disruptive, eating up time and diverting representatives from important legislation. Anti-impeachers make another argument: If Trump is impeached, i.e. charged with offenses by the (Democratic-led) House of Representatives, his trial in the (Republican-led) Senate will surely end in acquittal. Trump can then say, “See? I’m innocent. The House lied.”

     

    To the disputants, I suggest a compromise. It could help put the brakes on impending U.S. warfare.  

     

    In a national broadcast, I proposed this idea to Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA 17th in “Silicon Valley”): “If the House—or Speaker Pelosi—would let it be known that if Trump started any war, he would be impeached, it might possibly discourage him from attacking Iran or some other country.” (“The Thom Hartmann Program,” 7/8/19.)

     

    The congressman’s response: “It’s not a bad idea actually. We have an amendment to defund any activity in Iran. So if the president then goes and attacks Iran to start an offensive war without authorization, in defiance of Congress’s spending power, I think that is the type of case for impeachment that the Founders envisioned. I think it’s worth considering.”

     

    Good for him, although frankly I had in mind Congress’s constitutional war power (Article I, Section 8, paragraph 11), rather than its spending power (Article I, Section 8, paragraph 1), and any new war, not just with Iran. As for that amendment, to the National Defense Authorization Act, by Rep. Khanna and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL 1st), it passed the House July 11 and awaits Senate action. 

     

    Later it occurred to me that employing any weapon from our nuclear arsenal was an especially grave offense. It would not only violate international law but also jeopardize human survival. 

     

    So under the compromise proposed here, the House of Representatives sets aside impeachment as long as U.S. forces don’t engage a new enemy or use a nuclear weapon. But the House resolves that if either event takes place, it will be treated as an impeachable high crime.

     

    Is there reason to suspect that Trump would start a war or drop a nuke? Yes! John Bolton, his national security adviser—who persuaded Bush Jr. to attack Iraq in 2003—has long urged  against Iran. [The sudden end of Bolton’s job was announced 9/10/19.] Sanctions and provocations harass both Iran and Venezuela (both oil producers, like Iraq). And Trump, up for reelection, sees political advantage in a presidential war, judging from his tweets. In 2011 he wrote, “In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran.” Trump repeated the prediction twice in 2012. 

     

    Now let’s look at his martial record as president.

     

    Trump at war

     

    In 2013, citizen Trump repeatedly warned against attacking Syria. But in April 2017, President Trump shot 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield, also striking a nearby village. Nine civilians, including five children, and seven military men were reported killed. By committing sixteen homicides, Trump supposedly punished Syria for using a chemical weapon, though lacking authority to act as judge and executioner and lacking evidence that Syria even possessed the weapon.

     

    He had usurped Congress’s exclusive power to initiate war. Yet Rep. Pelosi, then House minority leader, called the attack “a proportional response.” 

     

    U.S. forces under Trump have also battled in Yemen and aided Saudi bombings of the Yemeni people even after Congress voted to end support. Secret Trump operations in African lands came to light in October 2017 when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger. And in a continuation of the undeclared war on Mideast “terrorists” that Bush Jr. and Obama waged earlier, civilian deaths have soared under Trump

     

    Although condemning others’ chemical weapons, he permits use of the flesh-burning white phosphorous. In Afghanistan in April 2017, the MOAB (massive ordnance air blast), largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, with a mile-wide blast radius, was detonated for the first time, without concern for civilian safety. 

     

    Trump could justifiably be impeached for treaty violations. (That could have been said of every president since FDR). The Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War (signed 1907, ratified 1908) forbids signatories to attack or bombard communities, dwellings, or buildings that are undefended; to employ poison or poisoned weapons; to kill or wound treacherously; to deny a foe quarter; or to employ arms, projectiles, or material causing unnecessary suffering. 

     

    Attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc. violate the Pact of Paris, or the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, signed in 1928 (under President Coolidge). Still in effect, it condemns war for solving international controversies, renounces war as an instrument of national policy, and vows to seek settlement of disputes or conflicts only by pacific means. Nazi and Japanese war crimes defendants were charged with violating the pact by aggressive war. 

     

    Latter-day aggression also breaches the United Nations Charter, adopted in 1945 in San Francisco. Article 2 requires all members to settle their international disputes by peaceful means and refrain from threatening or using force against any state’s territorial integrity or political independence. Parties to any dispute that might bring war must, first of all, seek a peaceful solution; seven methods are suggested. The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 (the basis for NATO) echoes the UN mandate to settle quarrels among nations peacefully.

     

    Disrespecting treaties & nukes

     

    Trump’s reaction to pesky treaties is to scuttle them. In early August, he declared the U.S. out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and approved by the Senate 93-5 in 1988. It permitted Russia and the U.S. mutual inspection and eliminated nearly 2,700 missiles that could have sent about 4,000 nuclear warheads to kill millions. 

     

    Trump treats nuclear weapons nonchalantly. He considers allowing commanders “battlefield nukes,” each possessing the power of the Hiroshima bomb. He suggested giving A-bombs to Japan—the only nation hit by those weapons. He continued (and took credit for) Obama’s trillion-dollar plan to “modernize” the nuclear arsenal, saying, “Let it be an arms race.” And he reportedly asked, “If we have them, why don’t we use them?” Answer: because a nuclear war could obliterate human life.

     

    It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to adopt a treaty, so Trump’s one-man undoing of INF should raise a red flag. Although the Constitution does not expressly mention the termination of treaties or statutes, note these facts: Article 6 makes treaties federal law. Under Article 2, a president must enforce the laws. Repeal of a law requires another law and, by Article 1, only Congress legislates. Thus presidential repeal is unconstitutional. (For more details, see www.warandlaw.org, specifically “President’s right to exit arms treaty disputed…” and “Executive assault on treaties perils peace and Constitution.”) 

  • The History Briefing on Impeachment: How Historians Covered this Week’s Top Story

     

    Editors note: This is the first article in a new History News Network series: The History Briefing. Contributors will historically contextualize the week’s top headlines by summarizing how different historians have added their unique perspective to enhance news coverage. This week, we begin by examing how historians have enhanced our understanding of Nancy Pelosi’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry.  

     

    On Tuesday afternoon Nancy Pelosi opened an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The media responded appropriately by producing nonstop coverage of impeachment proceedings. But not all journalism is the same. Impeachment is a nuanced subject that has a complicated history. Let’s take a look at how historians are adding to the impeachment story. 

     

    Jonathan Katz, a historian and journalist, wrote a compelling story that traces impeachment inquiries through history. He convincingly argued that both inquires and charges overwhelmingly result in damaged presidencies. In some cases – such as John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon – their presidencies ended entirely, even without formal charges or convictions. Katz also pointed out that the president’s political parties suffered as a result. He highlighted several instances in which political parties failed to elect presidents or gain a majority in Congress in the decade following impeachment. His argument presented a compelling case and added an important distinction to the dominant news story: impeachment historically has a very negative impact on presidents and their parties. His historical perspective is important because the media is often focused purely on the contemporary while failing to understand historical precedence.  Katz does precisely the opposite, suggesting that President Trump should be nervous. 

     

    Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post’s Retropolis – a historically informed section of the newspaper – wrote an intriguing comparison between Watergate and the current investigation. Her article highlights an important nuance that many journalists miss: the document released by the White House is a memorandum – a fancy word for a rough document – not a verbatim transcript of the phone call. Her journalism drew a distinct parallel that highlighted the Nixon Administration releasing a rough memorandum as well. She emphasized that his memorandum and the actual transcripts read quite differently and had serious consequences for then President Nixon. Her historical comparison teaches an important lesson to this breaking news story: conclusive evidence cannot be drawn from rough draft documents. Her nuanced understanding of history conclusively portrayed to the public that we need original documents, not summaries released by the administration itself. 

     

    Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, both of Princeton University, wrote another piece that connects Trump to Nixon. They open their story with convincing evidence that the Trump investigation is a much closer parallel to Nixon rather than Clinton, as many had suggested. Their argument also parallels that of Katz, by noting that the impeachment process impacts public opinion. Many journalists have failed to make this distinction and have rather focused on current public opinion polling. Their article offers nuance to the media discussion by establishing a fleshed out comparison between Trump and Nixon while contrasting them against Clinton. Their piece – which was written before Pelosi’s inquiry – urges Democrats to proceed with impeachment because, in the past, it has strengthened their party and the nation.  

     

    Ronald Shafer, again for the Washington Post Retropolis, wrote the often untold story of President Tyler’s impeachment inquiry, the first in American history. Tyler, unlike Trump, was being investigated by his own Whig party because of his unwillingness to cooperate. While that is not the case for Trump, the article alludes to an important distinction: a partisan struggle and a deeply divided country. Tyler’s inquiries did not result in charges because of the divide, a conclusion that would align with much reporting that warned against Trump’s impeachment. The House Committee did not suggest impeachment because of “the current state of public affairs”. Shafer’s telling of Tyler’s story gives the reader a key insight to what could happen to the current President because of today’s partisanship. But as Katz reminds us, the impeachment process resulted in Tyler not seeking reelection.

     

    Sidney Blumenthal – a fellow at the Society of American Historians – wrote a comparison between Nixon, Clinton, and Trump. The most comprehensive comparison of the list, Blumenthal analyzes public opinion data, the timeline of events, and indictments of those close to the presidents. He concludes that, because of public opinion data, the Clinton case is not an adequate predictor of the upcoming Trump impeachment. He focused on Trump’s unprecedentedly low approval ratings to prove how much of an anomaly this case is. In conclusion, he uses Nixon’s deteriorating approval ratings during the trial as evidence of a scary future for Trump. It is his belief that Trump faces far worse circumstances and a similar demeanor to Nixon, who had a much stronger case than our current president. Blumenthal’s account adds interesting parallels between the three modern cases for impeachment, their public support, and how the plan on combatting evidence to the public. It is Blumenthal’s belief that Trump should be nervous.  

  • What Does History Tell Us About Impeachment and Presidential Scandal? Here’s 7 Historians’ Analysis.

     

     

    What a week! I–like many of you, I’m sure—have been glued to my phone, constantly hitting refresh on Twitter and the Washington Post’s website.

     

    This morning alone, lawmakers released the whistleblower report at the center of the ongoing controversy over a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Joseph Maguire, the acting intelligence chief, is testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. Trump’s response? “THE DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO DESTROY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND ALL THAT IT STANDS FOR. STICK TOGETHER, PLAY THEIR GAME, AND FIGHT HARD REPUBLICANS. OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!” 

     

    Perhaps most significantly, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced she would launch a formal impeachment inquiry on Tuesday.  218 members of congress now support an impeachment inquiry—a majority of the 435 members of the House of Representatives. 

     

    As we wait for the next big development to break, it’s valuable to pause and zoom out to the bigger picture of American history. To help us to do that, students in my “History and the News” class asked several historians to offer their perspective on this week’s events. Some are established historians; some are in graduate school. All provide valuable insights into the historical context of this momentous week. 

     

     

     

    “I expect a tumultuous next year”

     

    Eladio B. Bobadilla (@e_b_bobadilla), Assistant Professorat the University of Kentucky

     

    Historically, impeachment has been exceedingly rare. Only two presidents have been impeached—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—and neither was convicted.

     

    The two cases were starkly different. In the backdrop of Johnson’s impeachment lay critical debates about Reconstruction, a defining period for millions of newly-free African Americans and their descendants. The case of Clinton, by contrast, revolved around allegations of personal (specifically, sexual) misconduct. What the two did have in common—beyond the failure of the Senate to convict—narrowly in the case of Johnson, less so in the case of Clinton—was that they proved to be captivating political theater and that they reflected deep divisions in both government and the population.

    While historians are hardly equipped to predict the future, I expect a tumultuous next year, especially as we head to an election season that will be defined by impeachment proceedings and political, legal, and social battles.  

     

     

     

    Impeachment has historically “made it difficult for the president to keep control of the public conversation”

     

    Varsha Venkat (@varsha_venkat_), PhD student at the University of California, Berkley 

     

    An impeachment inquiry is more than just an indictment against the president’s actions, historically it has made it difficult for the president to keep control of the public conversation. In our current technological age with the 24 second news cycle, this is probably the most important consequence of the House’s decision to begin an impeachment inquiry. Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton each experienced this loss of control as well. It has also been the case that historically, during the turmoil of an impeachment process, the president has been more receptive towards compromise and even restraint. Though President Trump has not revealed this capacity during his time as president so far, one can hope that even the process of daily hearings and public discussion about his removal will lead him to reconsider some of his more problematic decisions. History shows us that impeachment has been a political decision, and it is important to keep in mind the political consequences for both the Democratic and Republican parties during this process, not just the potential consequences for the president.

     

     

     

    “The rule of law is legitimately threatened at this moment”

     

    Jennifer Mercieca (@jenmercieca), Associate Professor at Texas A&M University

     

    The rule of law is threatened by right wing nationalists all over the world. Yesterday we saw institutions in two nations make political decisions to uphold the rule of law. Most people watching the events unfold yesterday in Britain and the US probably didn’t notice that both the UK Supreme Court and the US House of Representatives justified their decisions based upon the need to defend the rule of law. That’s historic both because the rule of law is legitimately threatened at this moment and because institutions are acting to defend it. I hope, we all hope, that this isn’t the moment that future historians will point to as the rule of law’s “last stand.”

     

     

     

    Impeachment “comes with political and historical red flags”

     

    Andrew Hartman (@HartmanAndrew), Professor of History at Illinois State University

     

    Getting impeached would be just desserts for Trump, someone who has always skirted legal boundaries for selfish purposes, a habit that did not end when he became president (in fact got worse because the stakes became much higher). But I would qualify this in two ways: 1) There’s a great deal of uncertainty as to whether this will work to the benefit of Democrats, since it will embolden Trump’s sense of victimhood which he has played to his advantage for the last four years. Some would argue that political calculation should not factor into impeachment considerations because the law’s the law, but this is naive since politics always and especially factors into something as serious as impeachment. Moreover if people are that concerned with law and order in the White House there are hardly any presidents that have not deserved impeachment, which leads me to my second qualification. 2) What does it say when our willingness to impeach is correlated to the potential political advantage and not to matters of war. Nixon should have been impeached for illegally bombing Cambodia, a much more serious offense than Watergate. Reagan should have been impeached for the CIA illegally mining Nicaraguan harbors under his watch. The list goes on and is not limited to Republican presidents. The immoral and unjustifiable Vietnam War was ultimately a Democratic war for which LBJ deserved impeachment or worse. In short, impeaching Trump would feel good to those of us who find him a disaster of a human being and an embarrassment to the nation. But it comes with political and historical red flags.

     

    P.S. I wrote the above before the whistleblower complaint was made public. It seems more likely than ever that Trump might finally be in trouble. The dam seems to have finally broken. Which is good, and perhaps changes the political calculation (though not the historical calculation).

     

     

     

    “The law is whatever those in power make it”

     

    Derek Litvak (@TheTattooedGrad), PhD student at the University of Maryland

     

    “No one is above the law.” When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said this, a question I often ask myself came to mind. What is the law? Studying legal and constitutional history has brought me to the same conclusion on many occasions: The law is whatever those in power make it. And therefore, the Constitution, as the “supreme law of the land,” follows suit. However, as much as history has taught me this lesson, it has also shown me how much those not in power can affect change. From the abolition of slavery, to women’s rights, to marriage equality, the law and our Constitution have always been a battleground. Some battles are won. Many are lost. I remain hesitant to put much stock in Speaker Pelosi’s “impeachment inquiry,” as opposed to formal articles of impeachment. But perhaps Democrats are now willing to at least fight the fight, and stop letting those in power make the law what they wish.

     

     

     

    “The sustained grassroots pressure…seems to have finally born fruit”

     

    David Walsh (@DavidAstinWalsh), PhD Candidate at Princeton University

     

    To me, one of the biggest questions for historians when thinking about the impeachment saga is, “why now?” After all, Trump committed essentially the same set of offenses during the 2016 election and actively obstructed justice in office while attempting to cover it up – which ultimately culminated in what essentially amounted to an impeachment referral by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to a Democratic House less than six months ago. And the Democrats punted. So what changed? There are two factors: one, this is an *active* attempt to solicit foreign aid by the sitting president for his ongoing re-election bid. The smoking gun, as it were, is still in the president’s hand. That makes this scandal distinctive from Watergate, Iran-Contra, and even Trump’s criminal behavior in 2016. Two, the fact that congressional Democrats punted on impeachment six months ago has fueled a tremendous amount of anger at the party from its voting base. The sustained grassroots pressure on Democratic incumbents to, in the words of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, to “impeach the motherfucker,” seems to have finally born fruit.

     

     

     

    Trumps’ behavior is “exactly what the Founding Fathers worried” about

     

    Rick Shenkman (@rickshenkman), founder and former editor-in-chief of the History News Network 

     

    Republicans are, it is safe to assume, going to disparage Speaker Pelosi’s decision to begin a formal impeachment inquiry.  But given what we know already about President Trump’s behavior an impeachment inquiry is exactly what the Constitution calls for.  At the heart of the latest Trump violation of historical norms is the allegation that he turned to a foreign government for dirt on potentially the strongest opponent he is likely to face in the upcoming 2020 election, according to current polls.  This goes Richard Nixon one better. To take out his perceived strongest opponent (Ed Muskie) in the election of 1972 Nixon merely resorted to a series of dirty tricks.  Trump, in contrast, has shown a willingness to involve a foreign government in his machinations.  This is exactly what the Founding Fathers worried might happen and is the reason they went to such great lengths to insulate the presidency from foreign influence. There is a reason the Founders included in the Constitution the clause forbidding a foreign government from bestowing on any federal officeholder ”any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” without the approval of Congress. They worried deeply that our politics could be upended by foreign meddlers, as in fact happened almost immediately when French Citizen Genet saw fit to involve himself in our affairs in George Washington’s second term. The present case is a kind of reverse Genet Affair.  All accounts suggest in this situation the foreign power in question has wanted nothing to do with this nasty business.  Rather, it is the president of the United States who instigated it.  That surely compounds the crime.

     

     

  • Roundup Top 10!

    Video of the Week

     

    Video of the Week: The Historical Context of Impeachment

    For the fourth time in American history, an impeachment inquiry has been launched against a sitting president. Presidential historian Jon Meacham joins Chris Jansing to discuss the context of this monumental moment in time.

     

    Roundup Top 10

     

    President Trump’s Ukraine call and the dangers of personal diplomacy

    by Tizoc Chavez

    There are no systemic constraints on how presidents engage with their foreign counterparts.

     

     

    The woman behind Elizabeth Warren’s blueprint for the presidency

    by Rebecca Brenner Graham

    Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet secretary, is a model for how to bring activism to government.

     

     

    How Understanding the History of the Earth’s Climate Can Offer Hope Amid Crisis

    by John Brooke, Michael Bevis and Steve Rissing

    Our planet’s relationship to carbon dioxide has changed drastically before; it can change again.

     

     

    This Is Why the Impeachment Clause Exists

    by Adam Serwer

    The authors of the Constitution foresaw the possibility of a corrupt president who would abuse his official powers to stay in office.

     

     

    The Long History of American Slavery Reparations

    by Manisha Sinha

    From the colonial era to today, the bitter legacy of bondage and racial oppression has sparked demands for compensation, with some successes and many broken promises.

     

     

    If This Isn’t Impeachable, Nothing Is

    by Tom Nichols

    Until now, there was room for reasonable disagreement over impeachment as both a matter of politics and a matter of tactics.

     

     

    Beware, Democrats. Impeaching Trump will backfire

    by Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti

    From a legal point of view, the case for impeaching Trump may well be difficult to resist. Politically, though, it’s a different story.

     

     

    I Voted to Impeach Nixon. I’d Do the Same for Trump.

    by Elizabeth Holtzman

    The Ukraine scandal has a lot of similarities to Watergate.

     

     

    America’s Secret History in East Asia

    by Alexis Dudden

    Japan and South Korea are at odds today because Washington has been playing favorites for decades.

     

     

    Why fears over Generation Z are overblown

    by Miranda Sachs

    We keep comparing young Americans to baby boomers and Generation X, but those comparisons are deeply flawed.

     

  • What To Know About the History of Emoluments and Impeachment

     

    With Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the U.S. House of Representatives will begin an official impeachment inquiry, at least two committees—the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—will investigate President Donald J. Trump’s alleged violations of a constitutional ban on “emoluments”—or, in simpler English, profiting from his office. 

     

    Whether such violations constitute impeachable offenses—i.e., high crimes and misdemeanors– will be a question for the full House to decide. If impeached, he would become only the second of forty-five presidents to suffer such a humiliation. Although thirteen presidents faced threats of impeachment, Congress only impeached Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998). 

     

    If, as charged by some in Congress, President Trump did in fact receive emoluments, he would only have adhered to an all-but-hallowed American tradition that dates back to the nation’s origins—and even earlier.

     

    As early as 1778, Patrick Henry exposed profiteering by Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin, the Philadelphia merchant who created winter-long food shortages at Gen. George Washington’s Valley Forge encampment by hoarding foodstuffs in his company’s Philadelphia warehouses. Although 11,000 Continental Army suffered near-starvation, Pennsylvanians elected Mifflin their state’s first governor in 1780.

     

    At the same time that Patrick Henry was exposing Mifflin’s profiteering, polemicist Thomas Paine, then secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs, was exposing rampant profiteering by members of the Continental Congress. “To what degree of corruption must we sink,” the author of Common Sense demanded to know, “if our delegates and ambassadors are to be admitted on a private partnership in trade? Why not as well go halves with every quartermaster and commissary in the Army?” 

     

    Treasury Superintendent Robert Morris—arguably America’s richest man—reacted with fury.  “In becoming a delegate,” he shouted at Paine, “I did not relinquish my right of forming mercantile connections.” Morris’s business partner Gouverneur Morris—an unrelated delegate in Congress and a business partner of Robert Morris—moved to dismiss Paine, and Congress fired him, in effect embedding profiteering by public officials into American politics.

     

    Far from any popular outrage at such official profiteering, Americans often cheer and, in some cases, re-elect public officials convicted of such crimes. Governors of 13 different states have been convicted of illegally profiting from their offices. In Illinois alone, one U.S. senator, six representatives, and five governors have been convicted of illegal profiteering, along with fifteen judges and twenty city and state officials of varying ranks. In Connecticut, Bridgeport voters re-elected their mayor for a seventh term after he had served six years in federal prison.

     

    In what may be unique in American history, though, a sitting President now faces three suits charging him with violating the emoluments clauses in Articles I and II of the Constitution. But like many constitutional prohibitions, the clauses are vague. For one thing, both clauses fail to define emoluments clearly. Nor do they specify who can sue a President for alleged violations or which courts should hear the charges: civil, criminal, state, or federal. Private individuals filed one of the suits against Mr. Trump, members of Congress a second, and the District of Columbia joined the state of Maryland in filing a third.

     

    As for defining emoluments in the past, there was no objection, for example, to Lafayette’s giving his friend President Washington a key to the Bastille prison in Paris Lafayette was a French Commanding General, and the key, was—and remains–a treasured artifact. It now hangs in a gilded glass case in Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Strictly speaking, Washington clearly violated the constitutional ban on accepting “any present” from any “king, prince, or foreign state.” 

     

    He may, however, have committed far more serious violations as President by personally managing his 7,400-acre Mount Vernon plantation and collecting revenues from the sale of its grains, fish, whisky, and other products. Thomas Jefferson, our third President, was guilty of similar violations while President, selling thousands of barrels of corn, wheat, hogs, and cattle—and buying and selling slaves–at his 5,000-acre plantation at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Virginia.      

       

    Presidential enjoyment of emoluments did not stop with Jefferson, however. In 1869, scandal enveloped the Ulysses S. Grant administration, when cabinet officers appointed 40 relatives to government posts and engaged in widespread gold speculation. And in the next century, after President Warren Harding had died in 1923, his Secretary of Interior Albert Fall went to jail for accepting bribes for leasing two government oil reserves to private oil companies. It was unclear whether the President had shared in the “emoluments.”

     

    “The President,” says one of the Constitution’s two emoluments clauses, “shall not receive…any other emolument [besides his salary] from the United States, or any of them.” By today’s standards, our first, third, and the other presidents who managed and earned money from their farms and businesses while in office should have placed their holdings in blind trusts under independent trustee supervision. In an effort to carve emolument clauses into stone, President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced his long-time White House chief of staff, former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams, to resign for having accepted a gift of a vicuna overcoat and oriental rug from a manufacturer-friend then under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

     

    In the modern era, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush avoided the faintest odor of emoluments by putting their assets into blind trusts and relinquished control in favor of unrelated third parties. 

     

    President Donald Trump’s refusal to follow suit provoked three lawsuits. Two of them charge the President with violating both the domestic and foreign emoluments clauses by accepting payments from the U.S. and foreign governments at his various Trump hotels and resorts. A third suit—filed by members of Congress—charges the President with violating the foreign emoluments clause by receiving foreign-government payments for lodging and meals at Trump hotels and resorts, along with licensing fees and other moneys. Now, in addition, six committees the House of Representatives will begin a wide-ranging impeachment investigation that will examine whether he used the threat of withholding foreign aid to coax officials in the Ukraine and other foreign nations to contribute possibly damaging intelligence against his political opponents.

     

    In one recorded telephone conversation, the President allegedly threatened to withhold foreign aid to the Ukraine unless the president of that country investigated Democratic candidate Joseph Biden and his son. 

     

    President Trump has boasted of foreign leaders flocking to his hotels—especially the Trump International Hotel, seven minutes by taxi from the White House in Washington, D.C.  The Kuwait embassy, for example, held lavish independence-day parties there in 2017 and 2018, while Bahrain’s government and the Azerbaijan embassy each hosted elaborate events there. All would appear to violate the foreign emoluments clause to prevent foreign influence on federal officials. 

     

    The President himself has spent untold amounts of government money on weekend and vacation visits to luxury Trump resorts in Florida and New Jersey with his family and his huge staff. In addition, most members of his cabinet and, according to The New York Times, about half the nearly 200 Republican members of Congress “have been seen at or spent money at Trump-branded properties,”spending “close to $20 million since 2015.”

     

    Mr. Trump has also admitted that the American military has repeatedly paid for uniformed military flight crews to stay and play at the five-star luxury Trump Turnberry hotel in Scotland, where the Saudi royal family has invested millions partnering with Mr. Trump’s company. The Saudi partnership, along with the visits by American military flight crews would appear to violate both emoluments clauses. The Pentagon disbursed $184,000 to Turnberry between August 2017 and July 2019 and $17 million to nearby Prestwick airport since January 2017.

     

    Nor is Mr. Trump shy about his apparent violations, even promoting his properties in official pronouncements. In anticipation of the next summit meeting of the Group of 7 world leaders in 2020, he announced that his luxury golf resort in Doral, Florida, is a “great place” with “tremendous acreage” to host the meeting. “We haven’t found anything that could even come close to competing with it,” the President crowed.

     

    The President, of course, is not only convinced that he is innocent of constitutional violations, be is confident he will never face trial. Given the army of lawyers he commands and the all-but-endless delays in the discovery process in federal courts, he may be right. 

     

    The Emoluments Clauses of the U.S. Constitution

    The Foreign Emoluments Clause: Article I, Sect. 9., Clause 8: No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States:  And no person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

     

    The Domestic Emoluments Clause:Article II, Sect.1, Clause 7: The President shall at stated times, receive for his services a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected and he shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.

     

    —–

    Impeachment

     

    Article II, Sect. 4: The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

  • Nancy Pelosi Announces Formal Impeachment Inquiry: Here’s How Historians Are Responding

    Click inside the image below and scroll down to see articles and Tweets. 

  • “A Republic, If We Can Keep It:” What Historians Want You to Know About Impeachment

     

    Click the image above or here to read what historians are writing about impeachment. 

  • Trump Insists You Can’t Trust the Press. He’s Borrowing From Nixon’s Playbook.

    Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

     

     

    Every day we organize our lives around trust in people we have never met. Listening to the weather report, waiting for a bus, asking for directions, eating at a restaurant, putting money in a bank or accepting someone else’s check, giving out our credit card number on the internet, and in dozens of other ways, our daily lives are based on trusting that people will be honest and do what they say they will. Without high levels of trust in other people and the institutions they represent, the free flow of goods and services on which we depend would stop, and our social interactions would shrivel.

     

    During my lifetime, trust in public institutions has fallen. Trust in government was very high in the postwar period, remaining at nearly 80% during the Kennedy years. My generation is partly responsible for increased skepticism about what government tells us. During the 1960s the unprecedented suspicion of young Americans toward people in power turned out to be justified. The government lied to us about the war it was waging in Vietnam. LBJ’s fabrication about the Tonkin Gulf incident was only the most egregious example. Year after year, official military reports about the war consistently painted a false picture of success. The dogged and dangerous reporting of print and TV journalists eventually brought us a truer image of endless stalemate. President Nixon’s dishonesty served as further proof that our government was not to be trusted to tell us uncomfortable truths. I remember devouring the daily news as the Watergate scandal developed. Government lied and covered up, media uncovered and revealed what we deserved to know.

     

    Trust in government fell precipitously after 1965, varying between 20% and 40% (except for a brief jump right after 9/11) until recently, hitting only 17% earlier this year. This plunge was common to both parties, all generations, blacks, whites and Hispanics.

     

    The self-congratulatory myths about American society as uniquely free and equal drilled into our heads at school were exploded by the realities brought to light by the civil rights movement. The American past had been whitewashed by generations of authorities in schools and colleges, media and government. High school history texts and college courses portrayed slavery as a beneficent system. The mass murder of Native Americans, the persistence of lynching into the 20th century, the ubiquity of discrimination in North and South were hidden from view. Again the media took the lead in revealing the truth about systematic discrimination, displaying for all to see the violence behind segregation.

     

    Although the unpleasant revelations of the late 1960s and 1970s damaged popular trust in leading institutions, the skepticism they engendered is healthy. No government should be trusted to tell the full truth about how well its policies are working. Taken as a whole, the media tend to provide a rosy picture of our society. But while “Father Knows Best” embodied the white myths about American life, news broadcasts and articles brought the disturbing information about war and racism into our homes.

     

    The series of Gallup polls shows the broad decline in trust in major American institutions since 1975. The proportions of Americans who said that they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in organized religion fell from 68% to 36%, in Congress from 40% to 11%, in the presidency from 52% to 38%, in public schools from 62% to 29%, in the medical system from 80% to 36%, in banks from 60% to 30%, in television news from 46% to 18%, and in newspapers from 39% to 23%. These are startling numbers. Trust in the military and the police has not fallen.

     

    Pew survey at the end of last year demonstrates the current widespread distrust of people in power in America. 17% of those surveyed believe that members of Congress act unethically “all or most of the time”, and another 64% think this happens “some of the time”. Leaders of technology companies, journalists, and religious leaders are also mistrusted by two-thirds of Americans. The best ratings are given to military leaders and public school principals, but more than half of the public thinks they, too, act unethically more than “a little”.

     

    What has further eroded trust is the concerted partisan attack on the institution that has most consistently delivered the information we desperately need – the media. In response to more openly critical news coverage of the American status quo, conservatives made the news itself into the enemy. Nixon was the first President to make the press into a significant target, even though an amazing 93% of American newspapers had endorsed him in 1972. Once the Watergate scandal began to dominate the news, Nixon attacked the media as unfair. In late 1972, he told Henry Kissinger, “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy…write that on the blackboard 100 times.” Vice President Spiro Agnew had been attacking news reporting since he took office in 1969.

     

    For a long time, it appeared that this Republican strategy had little effect on Republican voters. Surveys from 1990 through 2005 showed that the difference between Republican and Democratic respondents about their trust in the media was relatively small. Between 60% and 70% of Democrats thought that news organizations tended to favor one side in their reporting, as did about 75% of Republicans. After 2006, as the Bush administration lost popularity, more and more Republican voters turned against the news. The mistrustful Republican proportion jumped to about 85%, where it has remained. When Sarah Palin based her 2008 campaign on attacking the “lamestream media”, she was preaching to the Republican base.

     

    Most recently the mistrustful Democratic proportion fell to 52%. Overall, trust in the news is very low, but with significant partisan differences: 35% of Democrats, but only 12% of Republicans say they trust the information they get from national news organizations “a lot”. Less than half of Republicans think journalists “provide fair and accurate information” and less than one-third think they “cover all sides of an issue fairly”, while these percentages for Democrats are 84% and 74%.

     

    This partisan lack of trust in the news is not healthy. Conservatives who mistrust national news organizations have shifted their attention to openly biased and often untruthful internet sources, like Breitbart News and Alex Jones’ Infowars. There they absorb packaged nonsense which reinforces their prejudices, along with more claims that the real news is “fake news”.

     

    Skepticism about those who wield power, including news organizations, is healthy when it encourages careful criticism, fact-checking, an unwillingness to take opinion as fact. Conservatives hate the mainstream media which reveals what they don’t want to know, especially when their President is constantly shown to be a liar, and perhaps a traitor to the Constitution.

     

    Blind trust is foolish. Blind distrust is dangerous.

  • Playwright Stalks Caesar, Cleopatra, Ptolemy, the Roman Navy, Good Weather, Free Beer and Wacky History

     

    In 1898, famed playwright George Bernard Shaw decided he wanted to write a play about Julius Caesar’s relationship with Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. He was not happy with all the previous versions of their story, including William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and piles and piles of history books. No, he wanted a new story, his story, and wrote Caesar and Cleopatra.

     

    The story is great fun but, er, pretty much invented and not that close to the truth.

     

    In it, Caesar does not romance sultry young heartthrob Cleopatra. He does not bed her, kiss her or even tag her on Facebook. The Queen, one of the most powerful women in the history of the world, is totally controlled by her maid, Eeethratatama, or something like that. Cleo yearns after Mark Anthony, Caesar’s military chief of staff, before she even meets Caesar himself. Her brother and co King, Ptolemy, 12 years old at the time, duel for years over who should run the country. Everybody runs up and down the stairs, gasps a lot and sneers. 

     

    It is a lot of fun, but nowhere near the true story. Cleo and Caesar did have a son and there were not a lot of storks flying about the Nile in those days.

     

    Why is the history stretched so thin? Shaw had hundreds of books on the pair to research, didn’t he? Well, he did, but he picked Theodor Mommsen’s 1856 work History of Rome. In it, Mommsen invented his version of Caesar, so different from the real Julius. Shaw liked Mommsen’s view and wrapped Caesar, and Cleopatra, in it for his play. Why? Who on Earth knows?

     

    The distorted history play, a rather wacky version of the story of the Roman cictator and the Egyptian beauty, opened Tuesday at Theatre Row, on W. 42d Street, New York. It is zany, confusing, off beat to be sure and full of laughs for the audience, that sits there wide eyed, trying to absorb the rather complicated story.

     

    If you want to learn about Roman and Egyptian history, this play is not for you. If you want a solid and emotional drama, this play is not for you.

     

    If you want to just sit back and laugh, though, Caesar and Cleopatra works well. It is bawdy, sophomoric, forced and has a lot of really unusual situations. It’s not a good play, but it’s a good night at the theater and a lot of chuckles. This play, penned before the turn of the last century, is very much like a modern Saturday Night Live skit. All it needs is a band.

     

    Folks you never saw Egypt this way, not for a moment.

     

    The play opens in a marvelously decorated theater (they just renovated Theater Row and the complex looks wonderful). The usher hands you a newspaper with stories about Caesar and Cleo, along with a brochure describing the background of the play and a ghastly sketch of playwright Shaw. 

     

    Then, as you walk in, your eyes spot half a dozen large EXCAVATION STE broadsides. You sit down and stare at a construction set up on stage with half-finished walls and wooden stairs. Apparently, the contemporary Egyptian Archaeological people have stumbled upon something and it is the old story and the play.

     

    A moment later, Cleo’s vivacious maid, Etatateeta (don’t try to pronounce it), takes center stage in one of the chicest white pants suits you, or Julius Caesar, ever saw. She spins the beginning of the tale, setting up the two main characters, their battle, Cleo’s kid brother Ptolemy (Ptolemy is played by a large puppet).

     

    The story: Caesar has arrived chasing his military enemy, Pompey, whose has been murdered by Pompey’s men, but in the play, you don’t know that. Caesar then meets Cleopatra (she does NOT roll out of a rug here). She wants his army to help her crush Ptolemy’s army, that is fighting Caesar’s army, that is part of Mark Anthony’s army, that has re-enforcements somewhere that are always on their way and there are ships and explosions and fires and thousands of men fighting – all very messy.

     

    The play is fun. There are audacious characters, led by hyperactive teenybopper Cleopatra herself. Then there is Appolodorus, “the Sicilian,” who bounds about the stage for two hours, Pothimus, an elderly adviser who gives everybody bad advice, and Caesar’s two aides, Rufio and Brittanius, who talk too much and aid too little.

     

    Shaw just insists, over and over again, that Caesar had no romantic or sexual interest in Cleopatra and wastes countless minutes showing him as her “mentor” in an effort to get her to be a wise and good ruled. Let me get this straight -a guy has no romantic interest in a  well-dressed rich woman with a lot of land and chests full of gold who was so good looking that Hollywood had to get Elizabeth Taylor to play her?

     

    You’ve got to admire director David Staller. He keeps a tight rein on a story that might go off the 32d Dynasty rails at any moment. He gets fine acting from Brenda Braxton as maid Etatateeta, Robert Cuccioli as Caesar, Teresa Avia Lim as Cleopatra, Jeff Applegate as Rufio, Jonathan Hadley as Brittanius, Rajesh Rose as Pothimus and Dan Domingues as Appollodorus.

     

    Is the play different? Oh, yes. Is it funny? Yes. Is it worthy seeing? Up to you.

     

    PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Gingold Theatrical Group. Sets: Brian Prather, Costumes: Tracy Christiansen, Lighting: Jamie Roderick, Sound: Frederick Kennedy. The play is directed by David Staller. It runs through October 12.