Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy
Edward H. Miller
The University of Chicago Press, 230 pp., $25
By Darwin Payne
As Air Force One carried John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline on that short hop from Fort Worth to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the president turned to her and made a never-forgotten comment on this last morning of his life. “We’re heading into nut country today,” he said. In his hands the frowning young president held the infamous full-page, black-bordered advertisement in that day’s Dallas Morning News, an ad that effectively labeled him a communist. In Nut Country, author Edward H. Miller portrays those Dallas “nuts” and, as his subtitle elaborates, poses a provocative connection: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy.
Who knew that those nuts, in all their conspiratorial notions, foreshadowed the so-called “Southern strategy” that Richard M. Nixon followed to achieve his razor-thin victory in 1968 (Barry Goldwater having laid the groundwork four years earlier). Miller, beginning with those 1963 nuts and their antics, carries the story to the next level—how these conservatives (well, ultra-conservatives) transformed the beliefs of so many Dallasites into ballot box victories, and set a pattern for GOP successes throughout the once-Democratic Solid South that persists to this day, it’s latest permutation being the Tea Party.
First, let’s remind ourselves of a few of those best-known nuts who were making national headlines from Dallas in the early ‘60s. Army Major General Edwin A. Walker moved to the more hospitable clime of Dallas after resigning under pressure from his military commission because he introduced an ultra-conservative program to his troops and urged them to read John Birch Society literature. Fundamentalist preacher W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s huge First Baptist Church (the Rev. Billy Graham was a proud member), said, among other things, that the election of a Catholic president would bring an end to religious freedom in America. The famous and wealthy oilman H. L. Hunt’s crude novel Alpaca advocated giving extra votes to those who paid the most taxes, and he sponsored numerous ultra-conservative broadcast programs and publications. Bruce Alger became in 1954 the first Republican congressman from Texas in many years, and was the only representative to vote against the school lunch program for children, calling it “socialized milk” (the measure passed by a 348 to 1 vote). Dallas Morning News publisher Edward M. “Ted” Dealey, at a White House reception, told President Kennedy to get off Caroline’s tricycle and act like a real man on horseback. Frank McGehee, founder of the rabidly anti-communist National Indignation Committee, packed the auditorium with zealots when UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson spoke on UN Day in 1963, attempted to keep him from speaking, and assaulted him afterwards in the parking lot. Less than a month later the president was assassinated a few blocks away.
These ’60s extremists shared a fundamentalist belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible as a guide for contemporary politics, and they didn’t hesitate to say so. Racist convictions were sometimes blatant but often semi-disguised in coded language. Inevitably, there was an unquestioned acceptance of the inherent wisdom of unfettered private enterprise, and a universal belief that states’ rights were being usurped by a power-hungry federal government. A widely-held conviction was that Earl Warren and his Supreme Court were usurping traditional American values (remember the “Impeach Earl Warren” signs along the highways?). If that sounds like an earlier version of Ted Cruz’s political platform, ‘tis no accident. Cruz is a lineal descendant of Walker and Alger, Dealey and McGehee.
Several factors made “Big D” especially receptive to ultra-conservative politics. In the 1952 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson took the side of the federal government in contending that oil-rich tidelands off the coast of Texas belonged to the nation instead of the state. The Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, favored state ownership. This issue was the proverbial last straw that prompted Texas Governor Allan Shivers to bolt from the party of Jefferson and Jackson; he was joined by a majority of Texans in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, thus bringing an end to Texas’s role as a certain Democratic vote in the electoral college. Another milestone occurred when new President Lyndon B. Johnson revealed that he was no conservative when it came to civil rights, greatly hastening the exit of conservatives from the Democratic Party and to an embrace of the newly revived and increasingly right-wing GOP. Still, it took decades for the Texas’s transformation to filter down to state and local races.
Still, the headline-makers of the late ‘50s and ‘60s generally lacked the organizational abilities or aptitudes to create a political strategy capable of producing votes at the ballot box. When the aforementioned Walker ran for the governorship in 1962, he finished a dismal sixth in the Democratic primary won by John Connally. How was political ascension precisely achieved in Dallas? The more difficult but less visible business of translating an ideology into electoral victories would be left to others. Their names do not ring bells for today’s readers, but they are aptly described by Miller.
Tags: Barry Goldwater, Bruce Alger, Dallas, Darwin Payne, Dealey Plaza, Edward H. Miller, Edwin A. Walker, GOP, H. L. Hunt, John Birch Society, John Connally, John Tower, Kennedy assassination, Nut Country, Peter J. O'Donnell, Richard Bass, Richard Nixon, Rita Bass, Robert J. Morris, Southern strategy, Ted Cruz, Ted Dealey, W. A. Criswell
Hillary’s Personal Conspiracy Theorist
By Max Holland
The controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s extant and missing emails briefly put long-time Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal back in the news, with more surely to come after June 16. That is the day when Blumenthal is scheduled to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is investigating the deaths of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on 11 September 2012. It turns out that Blumenthal, Hillary’s “Svengali-like confidant since the 1990s,” advised the secretary on Libya.
Decades have passed since Andrew Sullivan rightly termed Blumenthal “the most pro-Clinton writer on the planet,” capable of making Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Kennedy-worship look downright tame by comparison. And it has been many years since Blumenthal’s less savory turn as a White House aide, speechwriter, in-house intellectual, press corps whisperer, and compiler of dossiers on aggressive reporters during the Bill Clinton’s second term. Consequently, news organizations felt compelled to remind their audiences of Blumenthal’s résumé: as NPR’s Ron Elving put it, “Who Is Clinton Confidant Sidney Blumenthal?”
Oddly, one salient fact was invariably missing from these profiles. While they often noted (as did the National Review and Bloomberg) that Blumenthal’s penchant for conspiracy theories had once earned him the nickname “Grassy Knoll” inside the White House, the fact is Blumenthal’s moniker is not figurative, but literal. Four decades ago, Blumenthal was not only in league with JFK assassination buffs who claimed shots were fired from the proverbial grassy knoll—he also argued earnestly that “the reason the hopes of the ‘60s were not realized was because a group of people at the top made certain they were dashed.”
The previous sentence comes from Government By Gunplay, a 1976 paperback book edited by Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian—Yazijian being one of the founding members of what was called the Assassination Investigation Bureau (AIB), then headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tags: Assassination Information Bureau, Bill Clinton, Bob Katz, Carl Oglesby, Clay Shaw, David Lifton, Government By Gunplay, Harvey Yazijian, Hillary Clinton, House Select Committee on Assassinations, House Select Committee on Benghazi, Jeff Gerth, Jim Garrison, Kennedy assassination, Mark Lane, Oliver Stone, Ralph Schoenman, Sidney Blumenthal, Sylvia Meagher, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
His turn as director of the Nixon Library has given him
credibility, but is it warranted?
By Max Holland
Since late April, Reuters, the Orange County Register, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker have published articles lamenting the lack of a director at the Richard M. Nixon Library (RMNL) in Yorba Linda, California.
All the articles (excepting Jeffrey Frank’s slightly more nuanced New Yorker piece) have the same narrative, almost as if they were part of an orchestrated campaign. The uncommon delay in finding a new permanent director (going on three years) is the fault of Nixon partisans, so the story goes, who are holding out for a congenial person to rehabilitate the only president to resign in disgrace. And the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is being stymied in its admirable effort to present Nixon in an objective, unvarnished light.
As proof, the articles reprise the conventional, heroic narrative about the tenure of Tim Naftali, who headed the library from 2007 to 2011. Naftali “presided over the installation of a new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit,” The Nation article said, which Nixon loyalists “vehemently objected to,” according to Reuters. That left Naftali “fiercely at odds with the . . . [Nixon] family and close supporters of the 37th president,” the Orange County Register reported. The Register also quoted Naftali to level the allegation that Nixon loyalists are consciously stalling so they can allegedly “write the text” for a pending $15 million renovation of the museum, which is the public face of the library, since most visitors to Yorba Linda do not use the archives. The Los Angeles Times article dispensed with a reporter and made these points in an article written by Naftali himself.
As the late Alexander Cockburn liked to observe, “The First Law of Journalism is to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
There are serious issues up for debate here, not the least of which is whether presidential libraries should be shrines, places that debunk their namesakes, or something in-between. There is also the question of whether Nixon deserves special handling. Before considering such issues though, it might be well to reconsider Naftali’s tenure. As the cliché goes, there are two sides to every story—even one involving Richard Milhous Nixon.
In a widely-noted remark at Richard Nixon’s funeral service in April 1994, then-President Bill Clinton said, “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” Naftali was supposed to hasten and facilitate that day as the first NARA-appointed director. Yet the portrait of Naftali that emerges after taking a closer look at his directorship is not as flattering as the above clippings. The former RMNL director is skilled at public relations, knows how to use the press to advance a case, and has a talent for self-promotion. But through acts of commission and omission, he failed to enrich and preserve the historical record. In one particularly egregious instance, he even helped falsify that record.
Tags: Angelo Lano, Barry Sussman, Ben Bradlee, Bob Haldeman, Bob Woodward, Canuck letter, Carl Bernstein, Charles Nuzum, David Young, Deep Throat, Donald Campell, Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Earl Silbert, Edward Miller, Fred Malek, Geoff Shepard, Harry Rosenfeld, James Flug, James Rosen, James Sterling Young, Jeff Himmelman, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Taylor, Judith Hoback, Miller Center, Millicent Gleason, Oral History, Paul Musgrave, Richard M. Nixon Library, RMNL, Robert Odle, Russell L. Riley, Seymour Glanzer, Sharon Fawcett, Spiro Agnew, Tim Naftali, W. Mark Felt, Watergate, William Ruckelshaus, William Timmons
Bacevich on the End of the American Century
Andrew J. Bacevich, currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and a former Army colonel, has become an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush-era doctrine of preventive war.
Bacevich’s latest contribution to the debate is his editing of The Short American Century: A Postmortem (Harvard University Press), a collection of critical essays about America’s historic and future role in the world.
Jefferson Flanders sat down with Bacevich in his BU office to talk about the book and Bacevich’s views on recent developments in the Mideast.
Q: Why this book now? It sees the American Century as a metaphor for American triumphalism—in your words, the illusion that the United States can preside over and direct the course of history. Isn’t the pendulum swinging away from large footprint military action? Aren’t we at a point where’s there a recognition that we can’t have both guns and butter?
Bacevich: I think we should realize that, but I don’t think we have realized that yet. The inspiration of the book is as follows: my own study of US foreign policy has increasingly been informed by an appreciation that we justify doing what we do in the world based on massive claims of our ability to shape or determine the shape of history. This notion really can be traced back all the way to the founding of Anglo-America but has been particularly evident in the post-Cold War era. When the Cold War ended there were any number of commentators and powerful politicians who proclaimed that the United States had triumphed, had become the indispensable nation, that the world was entering a unipolar moment, that somehow we were called upon now to play the role of benign global hegemon—these are phrases I’m using in a kind of a sarcastic way, but back in the 1990s before 9/11 they defined the conversation.
If you fast forward to the post-9/11 period, in particular take things up to about 2008, none of those claims seem to stand up very well. And in particular, they don’t stand up when we consider the failure of the American project in Iraq—which was not just a failure in Iraq but signified the failure of the George W. Bush plan to transform the greater Middle East using American military power. Combine that also occurring in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession and suddenly we don’t look like the world’s only superpower; suddenly it doesn’t look like a unipolar world. I concluded that if there had been an American Century, if there had been a period of American dominion, by 2008 it was pretty clearly over. And what I wanted to do was to invite a number of historians to reflect on what the American Century had been about—if indeed there was one.
In order to try to provide sort of a hook for that project I went back and took a look at Henry Luce’s great Life magazine essay from February 1941, an essay which he called “The American Century,” which consisted of an impassioned summons for the American people now to accept the burdens of global leadership, the challenges of global leadership, which Luce himself was absolutely persuaded was our destiny. And so the result is this book, The Short American Century, an American Century which arguably began with the end of World War II and by 2008 had concluded. The various scholars who contributed to this offer a wide variety of perspectives about what the American Century was all about and they don’t agree with one another, nor was the intent for them to agree with one another. I wanted to get this wide variety of opinion.
Enemies: A History of the FBI
Random House. 537 pp. $30
By Susan Rosenfeld
In the Author’s Note prefacing his book on the FBI, Tim Weiner describes Enemies as the “history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a secret intelligence service,” its major mission, according to Weiner, for most of the past hundred years. The book chronicles the “tug-of-war between national security and civil liberties”—except that as Weiner portrays the FBI, with rare exceptions, there is no tug-of-war. “Security” far outweighs civil liberties and the Constitution.
This book is not an objective study of FBI history. Instead it selects examples that bolster the contention that the FBI put its wars against anarchists, Communists, the New Left, and foreign and domestic terrorists ahead of any consideration for the Bill of Rights. Weiner concedes that proponents from all these groups actually committed acts of espionage or violence. But for the most part, he features perpetrators who were never punished.
Weiner also oversells the role that surveillance played in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and beyond. As former foreign counterintelligence (FCI) agent Robert Lamphere noted in The FBI-KGB War, “only a small fraction of the New York field office [in the 1940s]—fifty or sixty men out of a thousand—was concerned with Soviet espionage and few agents outside the squad really knew or cared much about Soviet spies.” Add to that, foreign counterintelligence work was secret and could go on for years without resulting in any arrests or glory for its agents. That discouraged them from pursuing careers in FCI. By the post-Hoover era, foreign counterintelligence had become a backwater where one could place agents with the least ability such as Richard Miller, the first FBI agent to be accused and convicted of espionage.
At the same time, Weiner either minimizes Bureau successes or turns them into reasons for criticism. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for example, the FBI had identified potential Japanese, German, and Italian spies and saboteurs and secured their arrest. Hoover opposed the 1942 internment of West Coast Japanese because in Hoover’s mind, everyone who posed a danger had already been detained. Instead, Weiner chose to emphasize whatever illegal techniques the FBI used to identify some of these enemies.
Weiner faults the Cold War FBI for not arresting more Russian spies. However, sources opened in the 1990s reveal that the Soviets had to change tactics and even recalled some spy handlers back home when FBI surveillance compromised their ability to contact their assets. As current FBI historian John Fox has noted, “Espionage is a difficult crime to prove, and prosecution for espionage, therefore, is not the standard by which to judge the success of a counterintelligence program.”
Tags: Alexander Butterfield, Bob Haldeman, Cartha DeLoach, Cointelpro, counterintelligence, Daniel Bledsoe, Enemies, espionage, FBI, FISC, J. Edgar Hoover, James Earl Ray, John Ehrlichman, John Fox, Martin Luther King, New Left, Orlando Letelier, Richard Gid Powers, Robert Lamphere, Robert Mueller, surveilliance, Susan Rosenfeld, technical means, technical surveillance, Tim Weiner, Watergate, William Sessions, William Sullivan, William Webster, wiretapping
By Jeb Byrne
The Washington Post recently told us that there is a plethora of political books lately published, or in the works, about the current president and related subjects. Some prolific Big Name authors are among the many scribes scrambling for behind-the-scenes White House exclusives.
I've written such a book, entitled Out in Front: Preparing the Way for JFK and LBJ. The book is basically framed by the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the campaign in which Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected to the presidency on his own after serving out the remainder of JFK’s first term.
When the publisher sent me my free allotment of books, I held one of them in my hands and was grateful. But then I said to myself, “Why did I write it?”
I came up with an answer in three parts.
By Merle L. Pribbenow
On October 27, 2009, The New York Times published a dramatic article about Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. The article alleged that the president’s
brother is a major Afghan drug trafficker as well as being a paid asset
of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The byline to the article listed three names, including that of James Risen, the well-known author of State of War,
a recent and controversial book about US intelligence operations under
the Bush Administration. And like the sensational allegations Risen
made in State of War, the Times article was based almost entirely on anonymous sources.
While noting that Ahmed Wali Karzai categorically denied any involvement in drug trafficking, and that he also denied being a paid agent of the CIA, the article went on to quote unnamed U.S. “military and political” officials as stating that the Agency’s relationship with Karzai had become a source of “anger and frustration among American military officers and other officials of the Obama administration.” While admitting that the evidence against Wali Karzai was “largely circumstantial,” the article charged that Karzai’s alleged involvement in the opium trade meant that Karzai was viewed as a “malevolent force” in Afghanistan (a peculiar and incendiary choice of words). The article also repeated critical comments made by anonymous US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sources about the US government’s failure to take action against Karzai and his alleged narcotics connections.
As a retired CIA officer who served in South Vietnam, the Times story struck a very familiar chord with me. Several decades ago, strikingly similar wartime allegations were made against a powerful government official, Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang, who was very close to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. Although I retired from the CIA more than a decade ago and have absolutely no personal knowledge, one way or the other, about the accuracy of the charges made against President Karzai’s brother, I believe that before the press, the American public, and senior Obama administration officials blindly accept as accurate the charges made in the Times article, it might be useful to review the earlier Vietnamese case. Lessons from General Quang’s case may be applicable to the allegations being made about President Karzai’s brother.
The Washington Post’s supposedly best-kept secret during its Watergate coverage—the identity of its inside source—was no secret to Richard Nixon
When W. Mark Felt unmasked himself as Deep Throat, in May 2005, the ballyhoo was dampened by a distinct feeling of anticlimax. As the FBI’s number two man in 1972, Felt was the first real suspect: speculations that he had been Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s über-source appeared in print as early as 1974. And despite 30 years of denials, he never lost his status as the most likely leaker in most observers’ eyes. His eventual admission was less a thunderbolt than a confirmation of what was already widely believed.
Haldeman, of course, turned out to be right, which begs the question: how did he know? The answer is that the White House had its own secret sources, including one who had access to The Washington Post’s inner workings. We might think of him as Nixon’s Deep Throat.
Uncovering the identity of this Deep Throat is a thornier matter. While it was one of the lawyers working for or in proximity to the Post on Watergate-related matters, apart from that fact, it may be that nothing more definitive can ever be said. Even so, exploring the possibilities one by one helps illuminate how Washington worked then, and probably how it still really works. As Benjamin Franklin once observed about keeping confidences, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
• • • •
What Haldeman Knew
On October 10, 1972, The Washington Post published what Woodward would later describe as “perhaps [the] most important” Watergate story he and Carl Bernstein ever wrote. Stretching over three columns on the upper right quadrant of the front page, the piece began,
FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.
Nine days later, Nixon and Haldeman had a desultory but revealing afternoon conversation about Watergate coverage. Nixon had sensed for weeks that someone, somewhere, was supplying the Post with its incremental but relentless scoops. The FBI was high on his list of suspects, even though several factors argued against its involvement. L. Patrick Gray, the acting director since J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972, was beholden to Nixon for his appointment, and the Bureau had a reputation for discipline insofar as sensitive White House matters were concerned. It seemed especially hard to conceive that the FBI would leak information contrary to the interests of a president who seemed certain to win re-election a month hence. But Haldeman’s information, captured on the president’s voice-activated tape recorder, left little doubt.
Tags: Alfred C. Baldwin, Ben Bradlee, Bob Haldeman, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Deep Throat, Edward Bennett Williams, Edward L. Smith, Harold Ungar, Henry Petersen, J. Alan Galbraith, Jack Nelson, Joe Califano, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Kester, Judge Sirica, Richard Nixon, Ronald J. Ostrow, W. Mark Felt, Washington Post, Watergate, Williams & Connolly
By Max Holland
Under the editorship of Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair has become the most reliable purveyor of Camelot nostalgia.
The latest cover story in the October 2009 issue is unlike its predecessors though. It’s neither a syrupy excerpt from a fawning book, nor an amply-illustrated puff piece. Instead, Sam Kashner’s “A Clash of Camelots” purports to be a serious, original piece of journalism about the 1966-67 “Manchester affair,” the first episode to tarnish the Kennedys’ escutcheon following the 1963 assassination of JFK. As the table of contents states, “[VF contributing editor] Sam Kashner unearths the story behind [William Manchester’s The Death of a President,] a best-seller that captivated the nation, divided the Kennedys, and nearly destroyed the author.”
Still, there wouldn’t be much to criticize—and it would be churlish to do so—if this boast were only the issue. The genuine problem is the article’s many errors of commission and omission, including Kashner’s uncritical acceptance of clichés and untruths in Manchester’s own narrative that have been circulating for 42 years. Some of these issues have long been points of dispute, while the truth about others has only become known recently, through the release of such sources as the once-secret Lyndon Johnson tape recordings.
Here are some of the outstanding errors of fact, interpretation, and history in “A Clash of Camelots.”
The tone and tactics of the Birther movement—those who dispute Barack Obama’s American citizenship and consequently, his legitimacy as America’s 44th president—are eerily familiar. Birthers embody that mixture of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that historian Richard Hofstadter indelibly called the “Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
But before the liberal-left chortles too loudly about the GOP being in thrall to this ragtag group of right-wingers, it would do well to remember its own problems with conspiracy theorists. Truthers and Buffs are the liberal-left’s own variations on Birthers. Truthers, of course, claim that Bush administration neo-conservatives engineered the 9/11 attacks in 2001, while Buffs have long asserted US government complicity in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. As Hofstadter rightly noted in this 1964 essay, “[M]ovements of suspicious discontent” are common to both ends of the political spectrum.
Birthers began the Obama citizenship controversy in 2008 with a series of lawsuits challenging the Illinois senator’s eligibility to run for president, arguing that Obama had not proved he was a natural-born citizen as required by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Both FactCheck.org and the Chicago Tribune quickly debunked the claim that Obama had been born in Kenya after reviewing Obama’s Hawaii certification of live birth; subsequently, the court challenges were dismissed by properly skeptical judges.
Yet the Birthers refused to admit defeat. Indeed, like Truthers and Buffs before them, and in keeping with Hofstadter’s description of the Paranoid Style’s methodology, the curt dismissal of their claim mainly served to generate new theories. Now they argued that Obama’s release of the short-form certification of live birth was a ruse and a way of hiding his foreign origin. The long-form “vault birth certificate,” a document which includes the attending doctor’s name and hospital, and from which health officials prepare the shorter form, supposedly contained the real truth.
When Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs offered a national platform for these percolating allegations, the controversy achieved critical mass and became part of the daily news agenda. Left-leaning websites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post mocked conservative Republicans who were slow to disavow Birthers because they feared alienating core supporters. Other liberal commentators chimed in by observing that Republicans’ receptivity to Birthers’ claims was proof that racist and nativist fears had captured the GOP. Seeking to accentuate the Republicans’ discomfort, Congressional Democrats gleefully proposed a resolution proclaiming Hawaii as President Obama’s birthplace, and it passed unanimously on July 27. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll released a few days later showed that only 42 percent of Republicans believed Obama had been born in the United States.
Curiously, all this occurred even while many high-profile conservative pundits, like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Michael Medved, and Bill O’Reilly, who usually set the table for the right-wing, were branding Birther claims as ludicrous, and an unwelcome distraction from the debate over Obama’s health care initiative. Some conservatives blamed Democrats, aided and abetted by a ratings-hungry media, for stoking the controversy. James Kirchick of the New York Daily News argued that the impetus for coverage of the Birthers came from liberals “. . . bent on portraying their conservative opponents as extremists—and changing the subject to help a president under increasing scrutiny for the substance of his policies . . . ”
Certainly, the extent of mainstream media coverage of the Birther movement in July was surprising, considering how little credibility its leading proponents have. Lawyer and dentist Orly Taitz, author Jerome Corsi, lawyer Philip J. Berg, and perennial candidate Alan Keyes are notorious for advancing Paranoid Style-conspiracy theories. Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, had filed an Obama eligibility lawsuit (dismissed) and a RICO lawsuit (dismissed) against President George W. Bush alleging his complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Corsi has embraced the 9/11 and the JFK assassination conspiracy theories and was co-author of the anti-John Kerry book Unfit for Command, one of the opening salvos in what became known as the Swiftboating of the Massachusetts senator. In April, Keyes publicly warned that the Obama administration would stage terror attacks in order to declare martial law and establish a police state.
Indeed, while de-legitimizing Obama greatly appeals to the far right, several prominent Birthers have only a tenuous connection with the Republican Party: Corsi is a member of the Constitution Party; Keyes ran for President on the America’s Independent Party ticket; and Berg, a Democrat, supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008.
The Warren Commission posing for its official picture. Representative Gerald R. Ford (R-Michigan) is sitting in the lower left corner, followed by Representative Hale Boggs (D-Louisiana), Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Georgia), Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Kentucky), John J. McCloy, Allen W. Dulles, and J. Lee Rankin, the panel’s general counsel.
By Max Holland
Gerald R. Ford’s FBI files, released under the Freedom of Information Act this month, will not force an instant reappraisal of America’s 38th president some 20 months after his death.
Unlike John F. Kennedy’s bureau file, which documented JFK’s trysts in the 1960s with Judith Campbell (a Mafia moll) and Ellen Rometsch (a suspected East German spy), the FBI files on Ford hold no information about any dangerous liaisons.
The files do contain information, though, on a curious liaison. Ford secretly arranged to share information with the FBI while serving on the Warren Commission, the panel charged with investigating President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. This would surely have been an explosive revelation but for one fact: Ford’s covert dealings with the bureau in 1963-1964 have been public knowledge since 1978, when 58,000 pages from the FBI’s files on the assassination were first released.
Notwithstanding the passage of 30 years, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Ford’s secret liaison with the bureau in 1963-1964 signified. A recent Washington Post article on the newly-released files, for example, insinuated that Ford all but volunteered to steer any skeptical colleagues on the Warren Commission to the conclusion already reached by the FBI in early December 1963—namely, that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, assassinated President Kennedy.
The problem with such breathless accounts can be traced to a lack of historical understanding. The Post article both misread the documents and missed their point because it did not put the FBI memos into the context of what was going on at the time. This article will describe what troubled Ford about Warren’s leadership of the commission in the weeks immediately following the assassination.
• • • • •
The 1948 election, which initially brought Jerry Ford to Washington, was the first to be conducted after the onset of the cold war. But foreign policy was not the main issue in the September GOP primary. Instead, bread-and-butter issues like veterans’ housing defined the difference between the candidates in the race to represent Michigan’s fifth congressional district. In a stunning upset, Jerry Ford, a 35-year-old lawyer and Navy veteran with no political experience, defeated Bartel “Barney” Jonkman, a five-term incumbent who campaigned all too casually against a novice. And winning the primary was tantamount to being elected, because the fifth district was overwhelmingly Republican.
Still, foreign policy was the subtext of the campaign, if not the reason for the primary contest in the first place. The 64-year-old Jonkman was an isolationist, notwithstanding the causes and consequences of World War II, whereas Ford was now a committed believer in US world leadership. In fact, one of the Senate’s leading internationalists, Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-Michigan), had quietly encouraged Ford to challenge Jonkman, though Vandenberg could not openly take sides in a primary in his home state.
The flip side to Ford’s internationalism, of course, was a deeply embedded anti-Communism both foreign and domestic. Once Ford arrived in Washington in January 1949, he aligned himself with those congressmen who were unstinting supporters of the FBI, the arm of the government directly involved in combating the US Communist Party and Soviet espionage. Indeed, one of the ancillary revelations from the bureau’s files is that Ford himself came close to being on the front lines of the domestic war against subversion. In early 1942, while apparently uncertain about his Navy appointment, Ford applied to become an FBI agent. His background check was favorable, save for his role in organizing the “America First” committee while attending Yale University’s law school in the fall of 1940.
One of freshman Ford’s earliest statements on the House floor directly involved J. Edgar Hoover, who had already been FBI director for 25 years by 1949. Ford had nothing but praise for the director, although it was already abundantly clear that Soviet spy rings had operated with near-impunity in war-time Washington. “The question of domestic security is of vital importance,” Ford noted on July 8, and “Mr. Hoover’s record for the past 25 years is unassailable.”
Ford’s statement occurred during a discussion of compensation for top federal employees, including the directors of agencies. Ford believed that Hoover should not receive a penny less in salary than men in comparable positions, such as the much newer director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This statement of support was bound to attract Hoover’s attention and warm his heart, for the FBI’s legislative office regularly monitored the Congressional Record for all mentions of the bureau or its director. “It is always extremely gratifying to learn of such favorable observations,” Hoover wrote in response a few days later, as he thanked Ford for his “gracious comments” and expression of confidence.
Over the next
decade, as Ford concentrated on issues of interest to his district or
national defense, the Michigan congressman actually had little
direct business with the bureau. But since he held a coveted seat on
the Appropriations Committee—though not on the subcommittee with direct
oversight of the FBI’s budget—Jerry Ford was a valuable man to
cultivate as part of the bureau’s “Hill contact” program. As one
internal memo put it, Ford represented “a contact in the event his
services are needed on matters of interest to the bureau.”
During the 1950s, Ford also became close friends with Louis B. Nichols, an assistant director whose duties included liaison with members of Congress. Nichols, who developed many of the FBI’s public relations techniques, was considered one of the most influential officials in the bureau until his 1957 retirement. Then too,
Ford was clearly a Republican politician on the rise; by 1960, he was
even being mentioned as a possible running mate for Richard Nixon, the
GOP’s presidential nominee. So every two years, when fifth district
voters returned Ford to Washington by wide margins, Hoover made sure to
send a hearty note of congratulations and his best wishes.
• • • • •
The second session of the 87th Congress began in January 1963 on a familiar note for Jerry Ford and the FBI. Shortly after the Congress convened, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, the FBI’s congressional liaison, personally presented Ford with a special gift in light of the re-elected congressman’s “friendly attitude” toward the bureau. It was a signed copy of the director’s latest book, A Study of Communism (which was actually written by William C. Sullivan, assistant director of the Domestic Intelligence Division, but publicly credited to Hoover). The gesture affirmed that Ford stood in good stead with the FBI, and certainly complemented the picture of Hoover that had been furnished to Ford the year before.
Then, late in 1963, the cordial relationship
between Ford and the FBI suddenly took a very serious turn. The reason
was the assassination of President Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson’s
appointment of Ford to the presidential commission headed by Supreme
Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
In the guise of education, John Simkin’s website delivers agitprop.
By Don Bohning
If newspapers write “a first rough draft” of history, as the publisher Philip Graham once put it, then the internet can be said to host a “worst draft” of history.
There are tens of thousands of reliable websites about historical topics, of course, and many provide the actual tools (instant access to primary documents) that enable readers to reach their own, independent conclusions. But many other sites are extraordinarily tendentious and shroud their advocacy behind a mask of false scholarship.
A case in point is a website, Spartacus Educational, established in 1997 by John Simkin, a British historian. Spartacus is billed on Google as a “British online encyclopedia [that] focuses on historical topics . . . articles are geared toward students.” And the website, according to one description, is “one of the most established and popular history sites on the world wide web.” In the late 1990s, apparently, Simkin was one of the very first history teachers to recognize the potential of the internet and take advantage of the new digital medium. As for Simkin, he presents himself as a history teacher and prolific author of books about a diverse number of subjects—which he is, although his short books are mostly self-published.
An innocent student who stumbles onto Spartacus Educational would probably think the Google description is apt, and be impressed by Simkin’s credentials. It takes a little digging to figure out Simkin is much more interested in indoctrination than education, in keeping with his unreconstructed left-wing views. Simkin exemplifies the kind of militant socialists, once peculiar to the Labour Party, who were all but run out of that party by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
I first encountered Spartacus Educational three years ago, when Simkin contacted me after publication of my 2005 book, The Castro Obsession. At first I was impressed with Simkin’s diligence and outreach, and the portion of his website dedicated to US history, particularly intelligence history during the cold war. But it did not take long to learn that more often than not, the articles he featured were at variance with well-documented facts, including information I had gained directly from interviews and thousands of official documents declassified in recent years. Worse still, Simkin proved impervious to the idea that falsehoods should be corrected rather than perpetuated.
One of the most egregious misrepresentations on the Spartacus site involves “Operation 40.” The website describes it as a Central Intelligence Agency unit that was organized in the early 1960s to engage in sabotage operations against Cuba. Operation 40 then supposedly “evolved into a team of assassins.” No credible documentation is supplied to support either the sabotage or assassination claims, and for good reason: none exists.
To be sure, there was a CIA-organized group called Operation 40 involved in anti-Castro activities. And though it bears scant resemblance to the Simkin’s fictionalized version, the unit’s interesting history needs to be recounted before one can appreciate how much Simkin bends and distorts it.
By Max Holland
Twenty-five years ago this month, a handful of captured conversations helped to bring down Richard M. Nixon's presidency. Given the demonstrated power of White House tapes to record, and sometimes alter, history, it's striking that it has taken all these years to flesh out a full account of surreptitious recording devices installed at the behest of presidents. The more than 3,500 hours of meetings and conversations tape-recorded during the Nixon presidency merely represent the apogee of a slow trend that began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, and greatly accelerated during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
These recordings are presidential history with the bark off and will foster and sometimes force novel interpretations of even the most familiar events. Yet, when the source material is so raw--one is trafficking in micro-history--the potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation is great. Sometimes, a single mis-heard word can make all the difference. Consider, for example, the rendering of a September 18, 1964 conversation in Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, historian Michael R. Beschloss's initial volume on the Johnson recordings.
The first minutes of this telephone conversation between Johnson and his mentor, Senator Richard B. Russell, concern the latter's participation on the Warren Commission, which was created to investigate the Kennedy assassination. That very day, after 10 arduous months, the panel had put the finishing touches on what would become known as the Warren Report. Johnson asked Russell if the commission's findings were unanimous. Russell replied, according to Beschloss's transcript, “Yes, sir. I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they'd come 'round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat.”
The implication is that the senior senator from Georgia, one of Washington's most powerful men, signed the Warren Report under duress; that he was in fundamental disagreement with one or more of the commission's key findings, but bowed to an unspecified threat.
There's something wrong here. A Southern Democrat and staunch opponent of civil rights, Russell detested Chief Justice Earl Warren and the kind of jurisprudence the Warren Supreme Court practiced. In fact, Russell protested long and vigorously when Johnson informed the Georgian, on November 29, 1963, that he had been appointed to serve on the commission. It wasn't because Russell thought the duty unimportant; it was primarily because he didn't want to work with Warren on any matter. But Johnson insisted. “I don't give a damn if you have to serve with a Republican; if you have to serve with a Communist; if you have to serve with a Negro; if you have to serve with a thug,” he stated. So Russell did serve. Still, the notion that a grudging participant like Russell would ever bow to a threat from a panel headed by Warren is astounding.
Listening to the tape, it becomes clear that Beschloss's transcription is incorrect. What Russell actually said is: “I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they'd come 'round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old thread of it.”
Suddenly, the conversation makes sense. Russell came to the commission's last meeting on September 18 determined to register his opinion on two pivotal issues: whether a foreign conspiracy existed, and the sequence of the bullets that struck Kennedy and Texas Governor John B. Connally in Dallas's Dealey Plaza. Far from threatening the Georgian, Warren had labored that day to oblige him.
The chief justice believed it was inordinately important for the commission to deliver a unanimous decision to the American people. If complete agreement proved elusive, Russell, of all the members, could not be the lone dissenter. Russell was to conservative opinion what Warren was to liberal: a standard bearer and powerful influence. So along with the other panel members, Warren kept massaging the final language until it incorporated Russell's views. Finally, the senator could only assent.
Construing history from presidential recordings is an arduous but hardly thankless task. Yet, it requires being steeped in contemporary minutiae: events of a given day and sometimes a given hour; the nuances of every issue before the president; and the foibles of each individual unwittingly recorded for posterity. It might not even be an exaggeration to say that those who would interpret the recordings need to be as well-versed as these evocative voices were in their day.
Postscript: Despite an enormous volume of tape recordings waiting to be transcribed and annotated, Beschloss has not released another book of Johnson tapes since his second volume, Reaching for Glory, was published in 2001.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1999
© 1999 by Max Holland
By Max Holland
Conventional wisdom attributes Gerald R. Ford’s presidency solely to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Yet it is no less accurate to say that but for the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, it is likely that Ford never would have become president. His ascent was the culmination of eleven tumultuous years, not two.
To be sure, in the early 1960s, many Republicans believed the tall, blond, athletic congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan represented the GOP’s best response to Kennedy’s youthful appeal, the perfect spokesman for a modern, postwar brand of Republicanism. But at the time, the 50-year-old Ford had only one great ambition in life, and it certainly did not include running for president. All he yearned to accomplish politically was to preside as speaker over a House of Representatives firmly in Republican control.
The November 22nd assassination changed all that. Akin to a political earthquake with large, persistent aftershocks, the assassination marked the first in a series of convoluted, yet interrelated, developments that would ultimately thrust Ford into the Oval Office. The sequence defied imagination in 1963, and remains astounding even in retrospect.
The first tangible effect of the assassination on Ford’s career was the new president’s decision to appoint him to the Warren Commission, the presidential panel charged with investigating the assassination. That single decision lifted Ford from being a parochial congressman—apart from his constituents, he was largely known only to the small club of reporters who covered Capitol Hill—and introduced him to the country at large as a politician worthy of national responsibilities.
When I interviewed Ford in 1996, I asked him about President Johnson’s November 29th telephone call. Effectively, LBJ was asking Ford to serve under Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose competence and jurisprudence Ford harshly and regularly attacked on the House floor. Ford’s recollection was that he was unenthusiastic, and had to be dragooned by Johnson into serving. Unbeknownst to Ford, however, LBJ was secretly taping their phone conversation, and the extant recording proved the opposite. Judging from the alacrity of Ford’s expressed willingness to serve, he immediately recognized that the new president was handing him a great big political plum. He leapt, in fact, at the opportunity.
Ford might well have eventually risen in the GOP ranks on his own merits, but service on the Warren Commission—in its day, the equivalent of the 9/11 Commission—indelibly marked him as a leader, someone who “would rise to the consciousness of responsibility,” as Speaker John McCormack (D-Massachusetts) put it when Johnson asked McCormack what he thought about selecting the little-known Michigan congressman to sit on the Warren Commission. After the 1964 election, in which the GOP suffered a landslide defeat, the so-called “Young Turks” in the House, led by a newly-prominent Jerry Ford, mutinied against the House minority leader, Representative Charles Halleck (R-Indiana). Ford won the vote to replace Halleck.
By 1966, Johnson rued the day that he had plucked the Grand Rapids congressman out of relative obscurity and put him on a national stage. LBJ would complain bitterly about Ford’s hard-ball tactics to Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), Ford’s counterpart in the upper body. The energetic Ford had proved to be far tougher in the political clinches than Halleck ever was, or some of the other GOP congressmen Johnson contemplated appointing to the Warren Commission.
Over the next decade, the landscape that Ford expected to contend with for the balance of his political life shifted dramatically, also precipitated in no small part by John F. Kennedy’s absence. By 1966, the Democrats’ New Deal coalition was coming unglued under the twin pressures of the Vietnam war and civil rights, and although the party’s congressional majority would largely persist for another 30 years, decay was in the air. The skillful Texan who succeeded Kennedy might have coped successfully with one of these elemental challenges, but not both taken together. Southerners and conservative whites elsewhere began abandoning the party in droves, effectively ending Democrats’ hegemony.
Of course, it’s absurd to think that John Kennedy would not have faced the same troubling issues that destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s desire to stay in office until 1972. Still, it’s hard to imagine, had JFK served two terms, that things would have worked out exactly the same for the Democrats, which is to say, as badly as they did. Johnson had to make critical decisions about South Vietnam in his first term, whereas Kennedy, facing the end of his tenure, might have cut American losses with the same cold calculation that prompted him to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem. It’s also unlikely that JFK would have ever have lost the allegiance of the Democratic Party’s intelligentsia, much less have been subjected to its blistering attacks.
The 1968 Democratic crackup, symbolized by the party’s unprecedented repudiation of Johnson, culminated in the narrow election of Richard Nixon, who had seemingly been consigned to political oblivion following his defeats in 1960 and 1962. But with Democrats hopelessly split over foreign policy, Nixon could reasonably claim that a return to Republican stewardship was needed, and he augured in a nearly unbroken period of GOP control of the Oval Office until the cold war ended.
Nixon shared some of Johnson’s demons, specifically, paranoia about war protestors and the Kennedy mystique. Yet in his lawlessness Nixon was so brazen that it eventually threatened his own tenure in office. When he needed to appoint a vice president who might actually succeed him in office, the pool of plausible GOP candidates for a national office was not that large. Former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was anathema to GOP conservatives, and former Texas governor John Connally (another political phenomena formed by the shots in Dealey Plaza) was unacceptable to the GOP rank-and-file, not to mention a Democratic Congress. The GOP leadership in the Senate, after decades of being in the minority, was relatively old and uninspiring, which left the stolid, vigorous Ford as the only Republican who could plausibly claim to have national standing.
Rather than label Ford the accidental president, because he was never elected, it might make more sense to place him in the same category as a Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower. These were also men who, initially, never yearned for the presidency with every fiber of their being. Only events, and their performance in positions of responsibility, conspired to put them into the Oval Office.
By Max Holland
Nearly all the obituaries for Eugene McCarthy credit the
former Minnesota senator with forcing Lyndon Johnson out of the 1968
race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Without taking
anything away from McCarthy’s principled run against a sitting
president of his own party, this is simplistic history that ignores
everything we have since learned about that fateful year.
To be sure, McCarthy added to Johnson’s sense of beleagurement when the little-known senator made an unexpectedly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, garnering 42% of the vote. Johnson had talked plenty about quitting months earlier. He was worn and exhausted by the burdens of office, especially the war, and worried about his ability to survive another term. The Tet offensive by communist forces in South Vietnam, while a defeat for Hanoi, was particularly debilitating. It gave lie to Johnson’s claims of steady progress in the war, and was undoubtedly a decisive factor in McCarthy’s unexpectedly strong showing on March 12. Before the offensive, reliable polls indicated that Johnson was going to “annihilate” McCarthy. Johnson did not announce his withdrawal the day after the primary.
Indeed, political soundings taken soon afterward showed that he could still garner enough delegates to win the nomination, and Johnson was convinced that if nominated he would be reelected, assuming Nixon was his GOP opponent. To some degree, Johnson relished the prospect of running against the liberal intelligentsia in his party, an element he had assiduously courted but one that had never truly accepted him. So what precipitated LBJ’s withdrawal on March 31?
The only event of significance between McCarthy’s unexpected showing and Johnson leaving the race was Robert F. Kennedy’s entry. RFK announced his candidacy on March 16, after refusing to challenge Johnson earlier because he reportedly feared that it would be perceived as only personal. But after New Hampshire, Kennedy could plausibly claim that the Democratic Party was deeply split over the war, and that he was not the cause.
Much of the media treated Kennedy’s entrance as proof that Johnson was unlikely to be renominated. But as any hard-boiled, vote-counting politician would have realized on March 16 - and Johnson was among the best - RFK’s entrance enhanced Johnson’s chances. The 1968 process involved a different set of rules for nearly every state, meaning that delegates were largely controlled by elected officeholders and party bosses. And since McCarthy deeply detested Kennedy, and was not about to withdraw or join forces with him, a three-way race meant the antiwar faction of the Democratic Party was irrevocably split between two Catholic, liberal senators. As The New York Times reported on March 24, LBJ seemed likely to get at least 65% of the delegates for the nomination.
Nonetheless, it was Kennedy’s entrance that was the precipitating factor in Johnson’s withdrawal. Johnson believed, and with good reason, that he had always kept faith with the 1960 political compact he had formed with John Kennedy in Los Angeles, when LBJ stunned most observers by giving up the Senate to run for vice president. In return for subordinating himself to an undistinguished senator who was clearly his political junior, Johnson was given the opportunity to be on a national ticket and thereby transcend the onus of being a southerner, perhaps the last political vestige of the Civil War. If he ran well, LBJ could keep alive his burning desire for the presidency - in 1964, if the JFK-LBJ ticket lost, and in 1968 if Kennedy served two terms.
Instead, of course, Johnson was abruptly catapulted to the White House in 1963. He was then treated, first by RFK, as a usurper, grabbing at the accoutrements of power, and then later by the country as an unworthy successor, even though Johnson had done far more to advance liberal causes than JFK.
The flaw in Johnson was that he was not content to lead and be respected. Rather, he demanded almost slavish support and public adoration. Such deep emotion is reserved for very few presidents, and usually, they have to die in office to achieve it. Johnson’s curse was that he inherited the presidency from such a man. And now RFK was repudiating everything Johnson represented or hoped to accomplish. As Johnson told his biographer Doris Kearns after he left the White House: “I felt [in 1968] that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions. . . . And then the final straw. The thing I feared from the first day of my presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy . . . openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets. The whole situation was unbearable for me.”
If McCarthy cannot be credited with forcing Johnson from the race, the meaning of his challenge to LBJ is hardly diminished. In fact, it reverberates to this day. It was McCarthy’s candidacy that cracked open the Democrats’ consensus on foreign policy. Nearly four decades later, the party is still struggling with that divide.
Though it has been slow to develop and achieve recognition, it is now becoming apparent that scholarly works based on the extraordinary cache of presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation.
The history profession is familiar with books that exploit new primary sources, or interpret old primary sources in a fresh way, along with works that are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. There is also an honored place in the canon for books that annotate the private papers of such prominent figures as Woodrow Wilson. Books based on audio recordings, however, are arguably distinct from these traditional categories. The main reason is that the historian shoulders an even larger burden in this new genre. He or she is obviously selecting, deciphering, and making judgments about a primary source, much like the editor of a documentary collection. But, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also creating a facsimile—while still endeavoring to produce a reliable, “original” source. In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim” is irreducibly subjective at some level. As a result, the historian’s responsibility in this genre is a very unusual one, and requires the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of discovery and/or interpretation in the historical canon is quite comparable.
As the audio recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies have become available, historians have eagerly taken up this unprecedented challenge—and understandably so. The attraction of being able to convey even a fraction of what actually transpired in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room from 1962 to 1969, and 1971 to 1973, is irresistible, the ultimate fantasy for many historians. The recordings offer the tantalizing prospect of history “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”—as it really was—in the famous formulation of the 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke. Or as Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley put it in 1997, “No collection of manuscripts, no after-the-fact oral history, no contemporary account by a journalist will ever have the immediacy or the revelatory power of these conversations.” Almost a dozen “tapes-based” books have been published since 1997, more are in the offing, and this does not count the growing number of conventional histories and/or biographies and articles in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals that selectively but increasingly rely on the presidential recordings for substantive insights, anecdotal asides, or simply colorful quotes.
One issue must be acknowledged before leveling any criticism: transcribing these tapes is far more difficult than it appears on the surface for subjective and objective reasons. There are knotty stylistic issues, for example, that have substantive consequences. When is a hesitation or “uh-huh” significant? Something as seemingly minor as eliminating a pause, or “ironing out a cadence,” as one historian put it, can shift emphasis and even change meaning. Not being able to fully render tone or intonation runs the same risk. If LBJ lapses into his most Southern dialect, and that is reflected in the transcript, does he risk being portrayed as some character out of a Mark Twain novel? Alternately, does it misrepresent LBJ to render him speaking the King’s English when he demonstrably does not? Reading even the most faithful transcript will never substitute for actually listening to the recordings themselves; as one historian put it, “transcripts are not interchangeable with the original tapes.” A transcript, or a narrative that attempts to capture both the verbal and affectual dimensions of the tapes, can further refine our understanding. But only the tapes can be legitimately cited as the genuine primary source.
These questions aside, the most daunting issue is the frequently poor audio quality of the tape recordings. It can be exasperating to try to decipher something as fundamental as who is speaking, particularly on the tapes from the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, which include many recordings of meetings. Even the most painstaking effort to transcribe the recordings is bound to result in some errors, the present authors’ own attempts included. Accordingly, all three presidential libraries have desisted from producing official transcripts—although without transcriptions the recordings are not user-friendly, despite the libraries’ best efforts to index and catalog them. The libraries have decided (wisely, in our view) to regard the recordings as the original document and everything after that as a facsimile or interpretation, almost a translation, so to speak, and one that must be vouched for by the scholar(s) who produced it.
Another factor, of course, is the enormous commitment of time and resources it would take for the presidential libraries to produce high-quality transcripts. When the Kennedy Library estimated, nearly 20 years ago, that it would take about one hundred hours of listening to produce an accurate transcript of a one-hour recording, it was widely suspected of manufacturing an excuse to avoid the work. But time and experience have proven that ratio to be right on target. Producing books based on the tape recordings is (or ought to be) an extremely labor-intensive endeavor. It is microhistory, and presenting it accurately demands that the scholar be steeped in the subject matter. Often he or she must know the events of a given day, and sometimes a given hour. There is, in other words, a direct correlation between the time one invests in listening to the tapes, and in researching their context, and the sense one is able to make of them. Regardless of the difficulty in rendering accurate transcripts, the onus remains on those scholars of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies who willingly assume the burden and claim in print to have carried it off.
The remainder of this essay will examine several of the most acclaimed works in this evolving historical genre, namely, the volumes based on the Kennedy recordings by Ernest May, Philip Zelikow, and now the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the books on the Johnson recordings produced by Michael Beschloss.
Tags: Cuban missile crisis, Ernest May, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Max Holland, Michael Beschloss, Philip Zelikow, presidential recordings, Richard M. Nixon, Sheldon Stern, Stanley Kutler, Tim Naftali, Warren Commission
By Max Holland
One of the older conventional wisdoms in our nation’s capital is that any president who tries to plug leaks in the ship of state is engaged in a futile, self-defeating exercise. The leaker(s) can never be definitively identified, and any attempt to do so involves tactics more familiar to a police state and likely to boomerang. Richard Nixon’s formation of a secret “plumbers unit” is invariably cited as proof of this proposition, as it was arguably the first step in the self-destruction of his presidency. But Washington clichés often seem like athletic records: they exist in order to be broken.
Regardless of how it ends, the investigation into who leaked the occupation of Ambassador Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, to columnist Robert Novak has already shattered several conventions. When special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald took up his charge in 2003, many observers predicted that his probe would wind up like countless others mounted in the past. He might develop a list of probable sources, but ultimately Fitzgerald would prove unable to pinpoint the leaker(s)—and reporters, of course, never identify their confidential sources.
But espousers of the conventional wisdom too quickly discounted several unique aspects of the case. Fitzgerald was specifically investigating whether a felony had been committed under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, rather than some run-of-the mill leak. Plame’s standing as a CIA officer under non-official cover was also a secret known (and only of interest to) a very small circle outside the agency, chiefly the office of Vice President Cheney. By working the investigation from the inside out, via e-mails, schedules, telephone logs and interviews, Fitzgerald was able to pinpoint what two White House aides, Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, knew and when they’d learned it. Fitzgerald then extracted waivers of confidentiality from the two men by hoisting them with their own petards: since the White House had confidently declared that neither aide was involved in outing Plame, Rove and Libby could hardly refuse.
That was the moment that Rove, Libby and their lawyers must have started to feel very queasy about Fitzgerald’s ability to achieve the previously unachievable. The waivers helped open the door for reporters to talk, some more willingly than others, about their conversations with the White House aides. The Supreme Court was not about to reverse precedent and rule that reporters have an absolute right, during a criminal investigation, to protect their sources under the First Amendment.
It seems obvious that Rove and Libby were wedded, as much as anyone, to conventional notions about how the leaking game is played in Washington. Otherwise, what happened defies explanation. The only plausible reason Libby would have given his allegedly false statements to the FBI, and committed perjury and obstruction of justice before a grand jury, was that he believed he could get away with it, i.e., he was convinced that reporters’ sworn testimony would never be pitted against his own. He also seems to have miscalculated in thinking that the main legal threat he faced was violation of the 1982 act. Fitzgerald has charged no one under that narrow law, nor is he likely to.
Judging from Fitzgerald’s five-count indictment, if Libby had simply feigned a loss of memory or told the truth, he might still be the vice president’s chief of staff and national security adviser. At this writing, the only difference between Rove and Libby seems to be that Rove and/or his lawyers were quicker to realize that this leak investigation just might be different. Rather than initially attempting to deceive and later to obstruct, Rove seemed to have a fresher memory of events with every grand jury appearance.
Libby’s indictment has already exacted a political toll on the Bush administration regardless of how this situation plays out. Even with the Iraq War raging, and even though the White House further distorted already flawed intelligence to justify that war, President Bush had managed to enjoy a positive rating with the public in terms of his personal integrity. No longer. The Libby revelation has struck a nerve with the public. Nearly six out of every ten citizens believe the administration is ethically challenged, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted in early November.
If the Plame affair were to be investigated no further, it would likely be remembered as the pivotal mistake of the Bush presidency, the moment when the administration’s arrogance and bald duplicity on national security matters finally caught up with it. But the shattering of conventions in this leak case has likely not yet run its course. If recent signals from Libby’s lawyers are to be believed, his defense team plans to pursue testimony from journalists aggressively, both those named, and those unnamed, in the indictment, and to seek access to their notes and records. Such a strategy threatens to turn any trial into a protracted legal battle over reporters’ privilege, with reporters coming out the losers.
Such a turn would be in keeping with an ominous trend, because the Libby indictment is not occurring in a legal vacuum. For nearly three decades following the Supreme Court’s decision in a 1972 case known as Branzburg v. Hayes, federal courts rarely issued subpoenas seeking the disclosure of reporters’ anonymous sources, despite the absence of a federal “shield law” protecting reporters’ historical privilege to keep the identity of their sources confidential. But in the last few years this privilege has come under concerted attack in a variety of cases. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have been resorting, in increasing numbers, to the tactic of using reporters and/or their ostensibly privileged information to achieve victories in court that might otherwise be unobtainable.
In a pending lawsuit brought by Wen Ho Lee, for example, five journalists are facing contempt-of-court charges and $500-a-day fines because they refused to reveal their government sources for stories written or broadcast in 1999 about the former Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist. Lee was publicly accused of espionage then—wrongly, it turned out—and he is now suing the Energy and Justice departments, and the FBI, for violating his rights under the Privacy Act. He claims that five reporters (H. Josef Hebert of the AP, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, James Risen of The New York Times, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, and Pierre Thomas, then with CNN) received confidential information about his employment and finances from federal officials. It does seem obvious that they did. But in order to prevail in his civil suit, Lee must identify precisely which government entity provided the information, and only the reporters know that.
Short of complying with the lower court order to be questioned by Lee’s attorney, the reporters have only one recourse: an appeal to the Supreme Court. If the Lee case is accepted by the Justices, it will mark the first legal test of reporters’ privilege since 1972, the last time the Court addressed the issue. And while there is little doubt Lee is justified in seeking redress for the grave personal damage done to him, a marked erosion of reporters’ privilege would be a high price to pay for compensating him.
Meanwhile, an entirely separate legal proceeding raises a somewhat different, but still very troubling, issue. In this instance, federal prosecutors seem bent on criminalizing the dissemination of classified information to a journalist. The case involves a Washington Post reporter, Glenn Kessler, and two lobbyists, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel organization.
Unbeknownst to Kessler, Rosen and Weissman were put under FBI surveillance in 2004 after Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst, admitted to having passed classified information on to them as well as directly to journalists on numerous occasions. Franklin had agreed to participate in a “sting” operation, whereby he would pass an allegation about an Iranian plot in Iraq to Rosen and Weissman while the FBI monitored the two lobbyists to see what they would do with the information.
On this occasion Franklin handed no actual documents to Rosen and Weissman, so when they phoned Kessler in July 2004, all they could convey was oral information, gleaned, they told him, from “an American intelligence source” whom they would not identify. Kessler never wrote a story based on the leak, but that tape-recorded conversation is now part of the federal indictment of Rosen and Weissman, who were charged in August with “conspiracy to communicate [classified information] to persons not entitled to receive it.”
This particular allegation represents a very aggressive application of the 1917 Espionage Act. Indicting either AIPAC lobbyist for knowingly passing classified information to a representative of a foreign power (which the lobbyists deny they did) is one thing, but still in keeping with traditional prosecutions under the statute. On the other hand, including “members of the media” as persons not entitled to receive that information is a startling departure. If allowed to stand, it will tend to “criminalize conversations with journalists,” as Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post put it, if not nudge application of the 1917 law uncomfortably close to a British-style Official Secrets Act.
Another worrisome situation concerns Dana Priest, a Washington Post reporter, who broke a November 2 story about a “hidden global internment network” run by the CIA to house suspected members of Al Qaeda. The so-called “black-sites program” dates back to six days after the 9/11 attacks, when President Bush signed a directive authorizing the CIA to kill or detain Al Qaeda members anywhere in the world. The first black site was established in Afghanistan, and by mid-2002 another two existed in Thailand and at the U.S. base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, alongside the prison that is known to the public. By early 2003, the agency had brokered deals with two Eastern European countries—later identified in England’s Financial Times as Romania and Poland—to establish black sites in Soviet-era compounds. “The top Al Qaeda prisoners exist in complete isolation from the outside world,” wrote Priest. “Kept in dark, sometimes underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights, and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or to otherwise verify their well-being.”
This is precisely the kind of investigative reporting Americans acutely need about the war being waged in their name. Priest’s story was drawn directly from, among others, CIA officials who are deeply concerned about the legality, morality, wisdom, and/or the sheer practicality of imprisoning even hardened terrorists indefinitely, in complete secrecy, and without the slightest bow to international law or convention. What is surely extremely troubling is that the covert program, originally designed to sequester the top Al Qaeda leaders thought to be directly responsible for 9/11, has grown like mad. The standard for consigning suspects to this “invisible universe” has been lowered or ignored, Priest wrote. “They’ve got many, many [prisoners] who don’t reach any threshold,” said one intelligence official.
Under normal circumstances, Priest’s biggest concern would surely be what to wear when she accepts a Pulitzer Prize for her work. Instead, she is contemplating the distinct possibility of a proceeding that might ultimately attempt to force disclosure of her confidential sources. CIA director Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida, has referred the leak to the Justice Department for investigation—thus putting in motion the same process that resulted in Libby’s indictment.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) have ostentatiously called for a joint congressional investigation, with Frist declaring that the leak itself presents a greater threat to national security than the existence of the black sites. And the House Intelligence Committee has announced it will oblige Hastert, which might force Priest into an awkward confrontation with grandstanding politicians.
The rank partisanship that pervades Washington now threatens to spill over into arenas that have been comparatively free of bitter, tit-for-tat politics. The sooner reporters’ privilege is codified into law at the federal level, the better off everyone will be. The District of Columbia and 31 states have passed shield laws for the press. There is no reason why there should not be a federal statute so that reporters can go about their job without having to look over their shoulder to see if lawyers are coming after them.
This article first appeared in The Washington Spectator, 1 December 2005
© 2005 by Max Holland
By Max Holland
In August 1964, presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote Lyndon Johnson a spare but revealing memorandum. The Republicans had just nominated Barry Goldwater in San Francisco, rejecting if not humiliating the Rockefeller-led, internationalist wing of the party. Bundy sensed a golden opportunity for LBJ to court the “very first team of businessmen, bankers, et al.” orphaned politically by Goldwater. And the key to these people, claimed Bundy, was a Wall Street lawyer, banker, and diplomat named John J. McCloy:
He is for us, but he is under very heavy pressure from Eisenhower and others to keep quiet. I have told him that this is no posture for a man trained by Stimson . . . . [McCloy] belongs to the class of people who take their orders from presidents and nobody else.
My suggestion is that you should . . . ask him down for a frankly political discussion next week . . . . I think with McCloy on your side, a remarkable bunch of people can be gathered; this is something he does extremely well.
Nine years later, in the middle of the Watergate scandal, McCloy again came to mind when another leading Democrat sought to communicate with the “very first team.” As W. Averell Harriman recounted in a 1973 memo for his files,
I called Jack McCloy . . . to tell him that I thought the New York Republican establishment should review the seriousness of the White House situation and take some action. They had a responsibility to get the president to clean up and put in some honorable people that would help to reestablish the credibility and confidence in the White House . . . .
He asked me who I had in mind as the New York establishment and I said that I was too much removed from the scene to give him names. If Tom Dewey were alive he would be the one to talk to and the responsible heads of the banks that were greatly concerned by the economic instability and the international lack of confidence in the dollar. I said unfortunately Nelson Rockefeller is too competitive with Nixon to take any leadership. He suggested Herbert Brownell, whom I endorsed.
As journalist Richard Rovere observed in a famous 1961 essay, members of the American Establishment routinely deny that it exists, preferring to maintain that they are merely good citizens exercising their individual rights and responsibilities. This unofficial policy of self-denial makes these candid memos all the more impressive. The authors are impeccable sources; Bundy even indiscreetly entitled his memo “Backing from the Establishment.”
The notion of an American Establishment, or, or more generally, of a governing elite in America, is accepted by some scholars, primarily sociologists and anthropologists who have studied inequality and stratification in various societies. But the concept has not won full acceptance in other disciplines or by the American public. Inequality is as dear to the status-conscious American heart as liberty itself, William Dean Howells once noted, but America self-consciously celebrates egalitarian man. “Elite” is practically a fighting word. No one seriously asserts that power and authority are evenly distributed in America, but the notion of anything akin to a privileged, self-perpetuating Establishment – an elite that governs, and therefore classes that are governed – sounds profoundly out of key, so counter to American myth that it would seem worth of an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee were it still in existence.
On those occasions when it is noticed, the American Establishment is usually accorded inordinate power and foresight, most often by polemicists at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, where conspiracy theories abound. Considering the Establishment’s significance, though, there is a dearth of serious research and writing about its composition, culture, and contributions. One British historian, borrowing from Sherlock Holmes, has likened the situation to the dog that did not bark in the night: The American Establishment is made all the more conspicuous by the absence of literature about it.
After a belated discovery in the mid-1950s, and some hot pursuit and scathing treatment in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Establishment and the role of elites are once again being more or less ignored. Following the American debacle in Vietnam, it was widely suggested that the Establishment, then badly fractured, should never again be entrusted with the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, where since World War II it has been most visible and active. In a famous declaration before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, the Georgian’s close adviser, Hamilton Jordan, announced, “If you find a Cy Vance as secretary of state, and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed . . . . The government is going to be run by people you never heard of.”
After Carter’s feat in 1980 by yet another self-proclaimed outsider, Brzezinski himself declared the Establishment all but dead, and successive pundits have tended to agree. But these reports, as Mark Twain might put it, have been exaggerated. After all, today’s executive branch features blue-bloods George Bush (Phillips Academy, Yale), James Baker (Princeton, corporate law), and Nicholas Brady (Wall Street’s Dillon, Read). If the position of these men does not prove the staying power of the Establishment’s Republican strain, it at least illustrates the continuing influence of individual White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elites in America.
A society without a class structure, and therefore a governing elite, has never been constructed and may be a hopelessly utopian ideal, to judge from recent communist regimes. The more interesting question is, who comprises society’s governing elite and what does it do? For if stratification is inescapable, it follows that a society will largely reflect the goals and beliefs of elites from its most powerful class.
When exploring a complex subject, the philosopher Descartes once advised, divide it into as many parts as possible; when each part is more easily conceived, the whole becomes more intelligible. To follow this principle with respect to the American Establishment leads inexorably to one of its more significant parts, the same lawyer, banker, and diplomat whom Bundy advised Lyndon Johnson to cultivate in August 1964, and whom Averell Harriman called in 1973 during the Watergate crisis. John McCloy’s life is a classic guide to the American Establishment of the 20th century. His origins in Philadelphia, his ethnic background, and even his lifespan all coincide with, and thereby illuminate, the trajectory of the 20th century Establishment.
The creation of a national Establishment, or what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell called a “primary group of prestige and power,” was a social consequence of industrialization, of business and then political activities that were by the 1880s fast growing beyond traditional city boundaries. As a preindustrial ethos based on family ties and on landed and inherited wealth melted away, new social formations arose to bind together the industrial-era upper class on a national scale and to provide a semblance of tradition while absorbing and regulating new money. In the eastern financial centers of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cleveland rose the citadels – the banks, corporations, law firms, and investment houses – that set the rules. The boarding schools, Ivy League colleges, fraternities, and metropolitan men’s clubs became the training grounds of upper-class society. And each of these institutions figured prominently in the life of John McCloy.
In April 1976 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, headed by Senator Frank Church, made its valedictory report on domestic spying and other intelligence agency abuses. The 2,000-page Church committee report identified victims of wiretapping abuses by name, including Martin Luther King, Jr., several newsmen, and aides to Henry Kissinger.
The report also included a cryptic reference to the wiretapping of an unnamed “former Roosevelt White House aide” between June 1945 and May 1948. The Washington Post speculated that the person involved was Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran, an influential Washington lawyer and power broker. But the story went largely untold because the documentation linking it to Corcoran was lacking and because other revelations, especially the wiretap on King, dominated the media post-mortems. Now, however, a considerable body of evidence, including Corcoran’s own substantial Federal Bureau of Investigation file, crucial internal Bureau memorandums and the wiretap transcripts themselves, has been made public, much of it under the Freedom of Information Act. The story of the most extensive partisan political wiretap instigated by any postwar president can at last be fully revealed.
The evidence shows that just under six weeks after assuming the presidency, Harry Truman had Edward McKim, his top aide and close friend, ask the FBI to place a wiretap on Corcoran. Although the order for a tap on the flamboyant lawyer came from the White House, the idea that Truman might eavesdrop on his political enemies was planted by J. Edgar Hoover, who was resentful of Corcoran’s supposed efforts to depose him and eager to ingratiate himself with the untried president. The FBI promptly installed the tap but, contrary to Justice Department rules on warrantless wiretaps, never obtained oral or written approval for it from Attorney General Tom Clark. For more than two years, Truman received summaries and transcripts from the round-the-clock tap through his military aide and poker companion General Harry Vaughan. Truman retained the wiretap reports and transcripts in his personal files until his death, in 1972. Then they were deposited in his presidential library in Independence, Missouri. The transcripts remained closed until Corcoran died, in December 1981, and were only recently opened to researchers.
The conversations of Tommy Corcoran cover a diverse range of foreign and domestic issues, which is not surprising, since he regularly chatted with such movers and shakers as Nelson Rockefeller, Drew Pearson, Harold Ickes, Lister Hill, Henry Morgenthau, Tom Clark, Francis Biddle, Alfred McCormack, Donald Hiss (Alger’s brother), Abe Fortas and James Forrestal. The transcripts will be required and highly colorful reading for historians writing about the purging of the New Dealers from the Truman administration, the use of the atomic bomb, early McCarthyism, the China lobby, Democratic politics, and the machinations of Washington power brokers.
In the transcripts, Corcoran says Truman is “dumb” because he thinks he can “surround himself almost entirely with mediocre Missourians and run the greatest country in the world.” He describes his own “troubles” with what he calls “the pro-Russians in the [FDR] White House.” He calls liberals, including Henry Wallace, Claude Pepper, and Hugo Black, “a bunch of guys that had the world in their hands last year” and are now “a helpless bunch of sheep.” He tells columnist Drew Pearson in August 1945 that he thinks the only reason the United States hasn’t dropped more atom bombs on “the Japs” is that “we and the British are sort of in an anti-Russian way and want to try to keep the Japs together as a nation,” whereas “the Russians and the Chinks want to bust that nation up.” Commiserating with the newly fired Nelson Rockefeller, he blames Rocky’s fate on “that wild Commie-kike crowd that are sure that if you’re not willing to dissolve all existing forms of society to their benefit, you’re an s-o-b.”
Why did Truman do it? Why Tommy Corcoran?