Compelled by John Kelly, Boston Marine turned Trump babysitter / White House chief of staff.
John Kelly, like Robert E. Lee, is brave, self-sacrificing, dignified, and wrong.
It’s possible to be noble and admirable and honorable and really wrong. Like, a force for wrongness.
Watched his entire press conference re: presidential respect for fallen soldiers. Found it very moving. He mentions walking for hours in Arlington National Cemetery to collect his thoughts. Maybe he should send the president.
In one of the infinite amazing connections of American history Arlington National Cemetery was built on the grounds of Lee’s wife’s house.
What about General Robert E. Lee?
The single greatest mistake of the war by any general on either side was made by Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, when he sent Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s divisions across that open field, nearly a mile wide, against guns placed on a high ridge and troops down below them, with skirmishers out front. There was no chance it would succeed. Longstreet told him that beforehand and Lee proceeded to prove him right. Having made this greatest of all mistakes, Lee rode out on the field and met those men coming back across the field— casualties were well over fifty percent—and said, It’s all my fault. He said it then on the field; he said it afterwards, after he’d gotten across the Potomac; he said it in his official report a month later. He said, I may have asked more of my men than men should be asked to give. He’s a noble man, noble beyond comparison.
(from the Paris Review interview with Shelby Foote)
Why did people love Robert E. Lee so much? He was handsome, for one thing. Here’s Elizabeth Brown Pryor going off in her Six Encounters With Lincoln:
They liked Lee too because he reminded of them of George Washington.
Is this interesting?: two of the most prominent American slaveholders, Washington and Lee, only owned slaves because they’d married rich women.
Lee’s wife was Martha Washington’s great granddaughter.
Anyway: whatever, it’s time for some new statues!
John Kelly made his most recent remarks about Lee on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News.
During that appearance, Kelly says something not true, that the events in the indictment came from well before Manafort knew Donald Trump. Not true, if we believe Slate’s helpful timeline. Manafort and Trump have known each other since the ’80s.
Didn’t Manafort live in Trump Tower off the money he made as a lobbyist for dictators?
Kelly also says that the part about where got wrong what Fredrica Wilson said at the FBI dedication, that part “we should just let that go.”
Also brooooo! What is American history up to the Civil War but a history of compromises?
Happened to read an interview in PRISM, a publication of the Center For Complex Operations, with John Kelly yesterday. He’s talking about his career leading the Southern Command, ie Central and South America.
This was not my experience talking to Latin Americans. More than one South American has pointed out to me that in their countries, “the troops” are not assumed to be good guys or on your side.
Didn’t love this:
We need more Marine generals like Smedley Butler:
I wish John Kelly would also remember the time Henry Lee put himself in harm’s way to defend the freedom of the press.
During the civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland in 1812, Lee received grave injuries while helping to resist an attack on his friend, Alexander Contee Hanson, editor of the Baltimore newspaper, The Federal Republican on July 27, 1812.
Hanson was attacked by a Democratic-Republican mob because his paper opposed the War of 1812. Lee and Hanson and two dozen other Federalists had taken refuge in the offices of the paper. The group surrendered to Baltimore city officials the next day and were jailed.
Laborer George Woolslager led a mob that forced its way into the jail, removed the Federalists, beating and torturing them over the next three hours. All were severely injured, and one Federalist, James Lingan, died.
Lee suffered extensive internal injuries as well as head and face wounds, and even his speech was affected. His observed symptoms were consistent with what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Need to learn more about this!
Maybe a statue of James Lingan, outside Prospect House?:
One last bit from Shelby Foote:
Bud, history always has bias! You don’t think this guy
thought Lee was cool, if only because they looked alike?
Does Ta-Nahesi Coates get tired of having to say the same stuff over and over?:
“History’s history,” says John Kelly on The Ingraham Angle. Is it?
Personally, when I think about John Kelly’s life, I’m prepared to cut him some slack, but man. I can’t say he “gets it.”
Thomas Ricks, as always, has the take:
The comment of Kelly’s that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves is when he half-jokingly suggests (around 26:41)
that they’re gonna replace the Washington Monument with Andy Warhol.
Lots of conversations about history, how we should remember our history, etc. Amateur historians love arguing about Lee, how can you not, he is interesting.
Robert E. Lee had many noble personal qualities, as did many officers in Hitler’s army.
If there’s anything to learn from him, might it not be that a man of principle and dignity can end up on the outrageously wrong side of the most important moral issue of his time?
Nobody should judge John Kelly without reading this Washington Post profile of him by Greg Jaffe.
About 12 hours later, the elder Kelly e-mailed his extended family in Boston, preparing them for the possibility that Robert might be maimed or killed. Kelly knew that Robert went out on almost every patrol with his men through mine-filled fields. One of the Marines at Bethesda told him that Robert was “living on luck.”
“I write you all to just let you know he’s in the thick of it and to keep him in your thoughts,” Kelly typed. “We are doing a Novena a minute down here and there is no end in sight.”
On Oct. 31, Kelly sent a second e-mail to his eldest sister, the family matriarch. “I am sweating bullets,” he confided. “Pray. Pray. Pray. He’s such a good boy . . . and Marine.”
This is painful to watch:
What a dilemma: the American people have elected a mean angry fool, do I try and do what I can to contain him or resign knowing he might do more damage without me around?
What’s the point of a statue of Lee if not to learn from him?
From this take on Lee by Roy Blount Jr. in Smithsonian mag:
We may think we know Lee because we have a mental image: gray. Not only the uniform, the mythic horse, the hair and beard, but the resignation with which he accepted dreary burdens that offered “neither pleasure nor advantage”: in particular, the Confederacy, a cause of which he took a dim view until he went to war for it. He did not see right and wrong in tones of gray, and yet his moralizing could generate a fog, as in a letter from the front to his invalid wife: “You must endeavour to enjoy the pleasure of doing good. That is all that makes life valuable.” All right. But then he adds: “When I measure my own by that standard I am filled with confusion and despair.”
We were talking about ax* murders after a visit to the Villisca ax murder house in Villisca, Iowa. Someone asked me if I’d ever been to the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, MA. I had to sheepishly admit I never had. Massachusetts is blessed with more cultural and natural attractions than southwestern Iowa, thus we didn’t have to fixate on one century-plus-old ax murder site, so I never made the pilgrimage.
Uncle-in-law Tony mentioned that there was a movie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloë Whatsername about the case. I was stunned, how could such a movie have passed me by?
Back home, I watched it immediately. I wouldn’t exactly race to see it, it’s a bit stylish and slow at times, but Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny are fantastic in it. These are incredible actresses doing stunning work. The version of the case presented in the film (spoiler) seems somewhat plausible to me as a non-student: that Lizzie (Sevigny) and Irish housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) had a sexual relationship. Lizzie took the lead on the murdering, and Sullivan covered for her.
In Popular Crime, Bill James posits that Lizzie was innocent, or at least that she shouldn’t’ve been convicted, citing some timeline discrepancies. Lizzie had no blood splatter on her clothes. James dismisses the idea (presented vividly in the film) that she might’ve done the murders in the nude.
Again, this seems to be virtually impossible. First, for a Victorian Sunday school teacher, the idea of running around an occupied house naked in the middle of the day is almost more inconceivable than committing a couple of hatchet murders. Second, the only running water in the house was a spigot in the basement. If she had committed the murders in the nude, it is likely that there would have been bloody footprints leading to the basement – and there is no time to have cleaned them up.
I dunno, I think Victorians – should that term even apply in the USA? – were weirder and nudier than we may realize. And maybe there wouldn’t be bloody footprints, I’m no expert on blood splatterings and footprint cleanings. In my own life I’ve found you can clean up even a big mess in a hurry if you’re motivated. Even James concedes that it does seem Lizzie burned a dress in the days after the murders. This doesn’t worry him though and he refuses to charge it against Lizzie. He proposes no alternate solution to the case.
The famous rhyme is pretty strong propaganda. If you’re ever accused of a notorious murder, you’d be wise to hire the local jump rope kids to immediately put out a rhyme blaming one of the other suspects. It may have been too late in Lizzie’s case, but here’s what I might’ve tried:
A random peddler walking by,
Chopped the Bordens, don’t know why
Johnny Morse killed his brother-in-law,
Used an ax instead of a saw.
When he saw what he could do
He killed his brother-in-law’s wife too.
These are not as catchy. On the second one for instance you may need to add a footnote that Morse was brother to Andrew Borden’s deceased first wife, Lizzie’s mom.
True crime has never been a passion of mine, but I can see the appeal. You’re dealing with a certain set of known information which you can weight as you see fit, balanced with aspects that are epistemically (?) unknowable. In that way it’s a puzzle not unlike handicapping a horse race.
I’m reading Bill James (with Rachel McCarthy James) The Man from the Train now, centered on the Villisca murders. It’s very compelling. James is such an appealing writer, and he’s on to a good one here. One way or another, there was a staggering number of entire families murdered with an ax between 1890 and 1912. Something like 14-25 events with 59-94 victims. That is wild. In these ax murders, by the way, we’re talking about the blunt end of the ax. Lizzie or whoever did the Fall River murders as I understand it used the sharp side.
The people I spoke with in Villisca seemed more focused on possible local solutions, the Kelly and Jones theories in particular. Maybe they don’t want to admit that their crime, which did make their town famous, was just part of a horrible series, rather than a special and unique case. The Man From The Train put me in mind of the book Wisconsin Death Trip, which is nothing more than a compiling of psycho events from Wisconsin newspapers from about 1890-1900, awful suicides, burnings, poisonings, fits of insanity, etc., plus a collection of eerie photographs from that time and place. The thesis is that the US Midwest was having something like a collective mental breakdown during the late 19th century.
Anyway, if you like creepy lesbian psychodramas, Lizzie might be for you! The sound design is good on the creaks of an old wooden house.
* I’m using the spelling ax that is used on the Villisca house signage, although axe is more common in the USA
Here are some takes and items for your Sunday enjoyment!
The coach on Netflix doc series Last Chance U:
The most compelling, complex character on “TV” right now
In an old folder of articles I found this one, about Peter Thiel’s Zero To One
Thiel and his ideas are interesting to me. I’m open to the Vali/OwenE take that he might just be a kinda smart guy who got lucky and thinks he’s a genius. He definitely should not be on the Supreme Court.
I loved Zero To One, but Thiel’s support for Trump makes him seem like a much darker and more troubling figure than I felt he was when I was reading it.
Two interesting points in the article that had new meaning in light of Thiel being a Trump guy:
Is that something like what Trump did (old grouchy white men? white American nationalists? you’d think they’d be served by a lot of political competitors but maybe there was a hole in the market)? What about this?:
Unfortunately, Trump is good at sales and Hillary Clinton is kind of bad at sales.
Sometimes this campaign we get a reminder of how good at sales Bill Clinton is. Here is Bill talking about the Clinton Foundation. This clip is used by GOP and conservative sites as I guess kind of scummy because Clinton compares himself to Robin Hood:
Maybe comparing yourself to Robin Hood is a little much, but when I hear Bill explain the Clinton Foundation as asking for money from people who have a lot of it and giving it to people who don’t have any, it makes it sound a lot better.
Does anyone effectively refute the claim that almost 10 million more people in more than 70 countries have access to life-saving medicines through the Clinton Health Access Initiative?
Silence Of The Lambs
Not topical or relevant at all but for forever I’ve had in my phone a bunch of screenshots of this movie, one of the most gripping movies ever. Saw it on TV some months ago and was struck by how much of it is just a closeup of a person’s face. How unsettling/compelling!
This jumped out at me
In a not otherwise “sexy” article about English literary critic William Empson’s book The Face Of The Buddha:
Enjoyed the caption on this one, from National Geographic’s Instagram:
Thomas Frank, profiled in the Politico 50 list:
Frank went to University of Kansas, University of Virginia, and University of Chicago. Can he be trusted?
Doing some reading about AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically modified animal
A growth hormone-regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon, with a promoter from an ocean pout, was added to the Atlantic salmon’s 40,000 genes. This gene enables it to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer. The purpose of the modifications is to increase the speed at which the fish grows without affecting its ultimate size or other qualities. The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.
Asked Anonymous Investor to take a look at the financials of the AquaBounty company.
I haven’t looked into the science, but if their salmon is all that they claim, AquaBounty should have a big pricing advantage. Because their fish grow so much faster than a normal salmon, they should be much cheaper to produce, and sell — undercutting their competitors.
This reminds of the tiny speculative biotech companies I invest in. There’s no money coming in, only money being burned. But you’re hoping someday for a big FDA approval that will open sluices of torrential cash. In this case, the FDA approval has come But the primary problem (they have a few) is that major buyers like Kroger and Target vowed not to carry the product. My guess is the company will eventually make inroads, just as Monsanto, Syngenta, etc, have in the past. But it might take a long time. Big money usually wins in the end. And the hippies, as always, will go whining back to their yurts.
AquaBounty is selling for around 64 million dollars. Not a bad price for a what looks like a pretty decent lottery ticket.
Not sure why AquaBounty only trades in London. The volume is extremely thin. This is a stock not on many people’s radar.
I do know that AquaBounty is controlled by Intrexon (the same company trying to battle Zika via their patented breed of mosquitos). They own over 50% of AquaBounty. Intrexon trades here under the ticker XON. It’s a 3 billion dollar company. (A year ago it was worth more than 6 billion). Intrexon does a lot of interesting Monsanto-type things, and the stock is sort of a darling of Wall Street. But lately doubt has crept into the story. Intrexon has been slow in providing evidence for many of it’s scientific claims. The company says they don’t want to divulge their trade secrets by releasing too much data. Skeptics speculate that they’re not disclosing much, because, they believe, much of the science probably doesn’t work.
Interesting. Here’s what Intrexon (NYSE: XON) has been up to:
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the birth of these adorable kittens,” noted Blake Russell, President of ViaGen Pets. “As the largest global provider of genetic preservation services for companion animals, we look forward to expanding the life-enriching connections that people form with their pets. Our goal is to bring this opportunity to all pet owners and their families.”
Sure. Anonymous Investor adds:
In the salmon world, AquAdvantage salmon are considered “ugly”. In a test 95% of salmon chose to mate with wild salmon over AquaBounty salmon.
American Dad co-showrunner Brian Boyle has a very fine set of glasses with the AD characters on them.
One fan’s opinion? the show should do more with Reginald.
The Flemish Giant
Somebody at work mentioned that the biggest kind of rabbit is called a Flemish giant.
Well worth the image search.
A good, clear discussion of an often misunderstood issue from this classic
On the subject of Boston:
In Australia this kind of coconut frosted cake is known as Boston bun. Everyone was baffled when I told them I’d never heard of it.
A Boston bun is a large spiced bun with a thick layer of coconut icing, prevalent in Australia and New Zealand. Traditionally the bun contained sieved potato, and modern versions sometimes contain raisins. It is often served sliced, to accompany a cup of tea. The origin of the name is unknown.
In New Zealand they’re often called a Sally Lunn, especially in the North Island
from good times in Australia. A bizarro version of the United States, upside down and weirdly (to a USA observer) developed in all kinds of ways. For instance, Australia people talk about “the deep north” as like a joke on the way we talk about the “deep south.”
Important to remember that on the other side of the equator, you have to flip countries upside down to think about them. Their south is our north. If you think about that pointy part of Queensland as Florida, the Northern Territory as Texas, Tasmania as Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, Melbourne as Boston and Sydney as New York, you’re still way off but getting somewhere.
Huge thanks to the many people of New Zealand and Australia who helped me out. Puts me in mind of this week’s scripture, Matthew 25:35.
Bummed to miss
Had to come back to the USA before the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, so I missed Lionel Shriver of We Need To Talk About Kevin fame apparently light it up with a wild speech about cultural appropriation (attacking what seems to me to be a ridiculous straw man?)
I can’t find a photo of her wearing a sombrero, as she is alleged to have done. Did she really refer to herself as a “renowned iconoclast”?
Which Australian state library is the best?
I enjoy Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria so much:
I mean how can you not admire that they have Ned Kelly’s armor on display?:
Some great illustrations on Ned’s wiki page:
Let’s take a virtual look at Australia’s other state libraries:
Would a better state library be a step towards helping Tasmania’s insane illiteracy rate?
New South Wales:
Impressive. Classic if slightly dull exterior, solid interior, I rate it a 9 (out of 11).
A big swing on the exterior, the interior kind of interesting but also kind of a like a weird mall. I’ll give it a 7.
No independent library building, it’s housed in the Parliament House which is kind of cool. DNQ for the rating system.
Trash exterior, interior so weird as to be kind of interesting. 8.
The old version, once housed in Hackett Hall, appears to have been pretty cool:
Aw yeah! 11/11.
Australia/New Zealand publishing is so good at short books. I read a bunch of short books while traveling.
This one began as speech Flanagan gave, focusing on his disgust for the abuses, catastrophes, and inhumanity at Australia’s offshore detention centers for asylum seekers, but also about a general disappointment in political and cultural life:
Conformists par excellence, capable of only agreeing with power however or wherever it manifests itself, they are the ones least capable of dealing with the many new challenges we face precisely because those challenges demand the very qualities the new class lacks: courage, independence of thought and a belief in something larger than its own future.
The new class, understanding only self-interest, believing only in the possibilities of its own cynicism, committed to nothing more than its own perpetuation, seeks to ride the tiger by agreeing with all the tiger’s desires, believing it and not the tiger will endure, until the tiger decides it’s time to feed, as the mining corporations did with Kevin Rudd, as News Limited is now with Julia Gillard.
He goes on about the alternative:
If I may make a crude summary Flanagan’s argument could be he wishes Australia remembered Matthew 25:35 a little more.
Flanagan and I once shared a publisher, and I’m told his books are masterpieces, especially Narrow Road To The Deep North.
Also good, and more lighthearted if at times equally scorching:
Here’s a taste, where Pieper is digressing about a dog he adopted:
Took a page out of Vali’s book and wrote Mr. Pieper a short and simple fan letter complimenting him on his book. He wrote a gracious note back. Gotta do this more often.
I can’t write to the great New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield because she’s dead:
If I could, I would compliment her on “The Garden Party.” This story starts out so boring and stodgy and Victorian I really thought I was in for it. But it pays off. Spoiler alert this is the last page:
What life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie.
This scene, on Brisbane’s Southbank, really reminded me of this one, in Paris a hundredsome years ago:
Impressed by this massive painting at the Milani Gallery in Brisbane by Australian indigenous artist Richard Bell.
(The price in Australian dollars is 55,000.)
Bell caused controversy in April 2011 after revealing that he selected the winner of the prestigious Sir John Sulman Prize through the toss of a coin.
Let’s see if I can make an absolutely definitive list:
20) The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
This book is like nine hundred pages long and it sounds sexy, there were worn paperback copies at every library book sale of my youth so it must’ve hit home. Haven’t read it, but I think it’s an achievement, it makes the cut.
19) True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
I myself didn’t finish it but it definitely seemed like an achievement.
18) The movie Oscar and Lucinda.
This movie is weird and great. Ralph Fiennes can’t stop gambling. A real achievement.
17) The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.
Enormous, ambitious, compelling, tremendous work of historical storytelling. Some excerpts give a sense of the style:
“At the lower end [of poor London circa 1788] were occupations now not only lost but barely recorded: that of the “Pure-finders,” for instance, old women who collected dog-turds which they sold to tanneries for a few pence a bucket.”
of the first night the convicts were allowed on land in Australia: “as the couples rutted between the rocks, guts burning form the harsh Brazilian aguardiente, their clothes slimy with red clay, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly be said to have begun.”
“Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February of 1813 by lurching to the ship’s gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife’s hat.”
16) The song “Waltzing Matilda”
Give it up, this is catchy song.
15) Flinders Street Station
Australian architecture has to be represented. You can’t give it to the Sydney Opera House though, designed by a Dane. The Royal Melbourne Exhibition Hall gets a lot of attention, but I think Flinders Street Station is the more unique and impressive building and thus the greater achievement.
14) Wandjina Rock Art of the Kimberly.
Spooky, mesmerizing, and 4000 years later (judging by pictures, never seen it, would love to) it still holds up.
13) The Bee Gees, To Love Somebody
Not sure if the BeeGees should be included, they weren’t born in Australia, but feel like they make the cut. Corny? Maybe, but sometimes putting it all out there heart-wise is the way to go. Don’t agree? Take it up with with Beyoncé:
The Bee Gees were an early inspiration for me, Kelly Rowland and Michelle. We loved their songwriting and beautiful harmonies.
12) The song “Tomorrow” by Silverchair
Just a slam dunk of ’90s rock. These guys were 18 when they recorded this.
11) Paintings of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri
Wild, original, great. Previously covered here.
10) The movie The Proposition
Intense, gripping, cool. The soundtrack alone almost got its own entry.
9) Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain / Russell Crowe’s performance in The Insider (tie)
Wasn’t sure how to place individual acting achievements in non-Australian movies, but felt like they should be represented. Heath Ledger is so good in this movie, he walks such a dangerous line, it’s tense all the way through. Crowe in The Insider is, imo, his best and most human performance in an incredible career.
8) AC/DC’s song “You Shook Me All Night Long”
Indisputable party rock classic. It’s true, maybe “Highway To Hell” or another AC/DC tune could go here, but I think “Shook” is the more dramatic achievement, standing out from the crowd of AC/DC songs.
7) The movie Gallipoli
Young Mel Gibson, deeply moving movie about running, buds, war. What an intense journey this film takes you on.
6) Tame Impala’s album Currents
Why are some songs on this list and some whole albums? Because it’s my list, I can do what I want.
Kevin Parker of Tame Impala has said that listening to the Bee Gees after taking mushrooms inspired him to change the sound of the music he was making in his latest album Currents.
5) The movie Walkabout
Why are Australians so good at making dreamy movies? Great kid performances. One of Warburton’s top seven!
4) Cait Blanchett in I’m Not There
What a masterful performance. Amazing achievement.
3) The movie Picnic At Hanging Rock
Is there another movie with such a special combo of creepy, trippy, mysterious? Peter Weir crushing it.
2) The Mad Max epic.
Ride chrome into Valhalla. When you put all three movies together, it’s a wonder this didn’t come in first.
1) The Avalanches album Since I Left You
Number one by a mile. Name a better album by Mozart. You can’t.
- This painting of a platypus by John Lewin
- Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn“
- Summer Heights High (respect, I just never got too into it)
- Rebel Wilson’s performance in Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect
- One of Patrick White works (“The Ham Funeral”?). Dude won the Nobel Prize, but I have not read them and can’t include them here.
- Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (seems admirable)
- Kath & Kim
- The Slap TV drama
- Nicole Kidman’s performance in Moulin Rouge
you might’ve thought Nicole Kidman would’ve made it into the top 20 but the fact is she didn’t!
- INXS, “The Devil Inside”
a strong case can be made for INXS – my countercase is why didn’t I remember them until Boyle suggested them when I told him about this list?
- Joseph Reed’s interior for the State Library of Victoria
- Brett Whiteley’s Summer at Carcour:
I welcome your arguments in the comments.
If you live in LA County, here are some endorsements based on a very casual roundup from smart people. I have not looked into all this myself but this may be slightly better than voting at random:
Sheila Kuehl for supervisor.
No on 46.
Yes to all judicial reappointments
Dayan Mathai for judge.
IDEAS: What evidence exists for saying America has a double government?
GLENNON:I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against. Why would that president continue those same policies in case after case after case? I initially wrote it based on my own experience and personal knowledge and conversations with dozens of individuals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies of our government, as well as, of course, officeholders on Capitol Hill and in the courts. And the documented evidence in the book is substantial—there are 800 footnotes in the book.
IDEAS: Why would policy makers hand over the national-security keys to unelected officials?
GLENNON: It hasn’t been a conscious decision….Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.
The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”
No surprise here to readers of The Wise Men.
Enjoyed reading this Michael Kelly profile of David Gergen from 1993.
A speech-department staff member culled dozens of anecdotes about Nixon from intimates and aides in a lengthy report, with each anecdote indexed according to the character trait it was meant to advertise: Repartee, Courage, Kindness, Strength in Adversity. What is most painfully obvious about these undertakings is how little the anecdotalists had to work with. Exemplifying the President’s talent for Repartee was an account of Nixon silencing a New York businessman who had upbraided him over the Vietnam War by telling the man not to “give me any crap.” Illustrating the President’s Strength in Adversity was a bald little story of how the young Congressman Nixon, falling on an icy sidewalk, still managed to keep his 2-year-old daughter, Tricia, safe in his arms.
In this perfectionist and paranoid atmosphere, Gergen learned the bones of his craft.
He learned the importance of saying the same thing, over and over and over: “Nixon taught us about the art of repetition. He used to tell me, ‘About the time you are writing a line that you have written it so often that you want to throw up, that is the first time the American people will hear it.’ ”
He learned about the gimmicks of phrasing calculated to catch the public ear: “Haldeman used to say that the vast majority of words that issue under a President’s name are just eminently forgettable. What you need to focus on is what’s the line that is going to have a little grab to it.”
He learned the theory of controlled access. If you gave the press only a smidgen of Presidential sight and sound on a given day, reporters would be forced to make their stories out of that smidgen: “Nixon used to go into the press room with a statement that was only 100 words long because he did not want them editing him. He knew if he gave them more than 100 words, they’d pick and choose what to use.”
He learned the endless discipline required to protect the image, which was as evanescent as morning mist: “It went into everything — the speeches, the talking points, the appearances. Haldeman had a rule on appearances: if you wanted to put in a scheduling request for anything the President was going to do in public, your request had to fulfill what we called H.P.L. — Headline, Picture, Lede. You had to say, in writing, what the headline out of the event was going to be, what the lede was going to be and what the picture was going to be.”
Then, on Jan. 21, 1980, Bush unexpectedly won the Iowa Republican caucus and became the instant front-runner. “The very next day, Gergen called up Baker and said, miracle of miracles, he had managed to clear his schedule and would be able to take the job after all,” Keene says. “When Baker said the job was filled, Gergen came in as a volunteer speech writer.” In the month between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, when Bush was the leading Republican candidate, Gergen, according to Keene, “was very visible.”
But on Feb. 26, Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to a resurgent Ronald Reagan. “And Gergen just disappeared completely, I mean right away,” recalls Peter Teeley, Bush’s press secretary at the time. “We never heard from him again until he turned up with Reagan at the Republican convention.”
Even the Reaganites, who benefited from Gergen’s leap, were appalled by the speed of it. “He came to us as soon as it began to seem Bush was going to lose, definitely before Bush pulled out, and quite frankly this made us very suspicious of him,” recalls a former Reagan campaign official. “I mean, there’s jumping ship and there’s jumping ship. This guy was elbowing the women and children aside to get overboard.”
Gergen strongly denies that he showed any undue haste in switching allegiances. “It is not true that I disappeared in the campaign,” he says. “I continued to advise Bush much in the same way I had up to the point he was nominated Vice President.”
Let me note here (as I have elsewhere) that I took a class with David Gergen at the K School. I found him to be a serious but approachable and warm dude, always engaged and present. He did have a habit of ostentatiously taking notes during any guest speaker’s talk, but I took that to be a form of politeness.
I recall him telling a story – it’s possible I read this somewhere but I think I heard him say it – that he had a meeting with Nixon when he was (I believe) leaving law school and about to go into the Navy. Nixon advised him to serve as a regular old line officer on a ship, and not to use his law degree to get into a headquarters job.