Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Super Bowl Sunday, a Big Day for Brain Damage

NFL Logo

(Reuters/Mike Segar)

Sunday is America’s annual concussion carnival, the Super Bowl. Steve Almond knows a lot about it—he wrote the book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.

Jon Wiener: Let’s review the evidence. Are you sure that football players get head injuries that lead to brain damage—or is that just liberal whining?

Steve Almond: I’m sure it’s liberal whining, but one of the stories that got obscured earlier this season was an actuarial report the NFL commissioned in response to the lawsuit filed by former players. The NFL’s own actuaries estimated that 30 percent of former players are going to wind up with long-term cognitive ailments. In America’s most famous workplace, the employers say that nearly a third of their employees will wind up with brain damage.

I’ve heard that football is big business. Is this true?

It’s about $10 billion for the NFL, the tax-exempt NFL. The college game is probably more than that. There is the game of football, which is beautiful in many ways. Then there’s this rapacious industry that has grown up around it, which is essentially American capitalism on steroids.

Were you ever a football fan?

Oh yeah. Forty years. And I still love the game. As a form of entertainment it’s absolutely thrilling. It reconnects us to the intuitive pleasures of childhood. It’s watching greatness, grace and heroism on display.

But for football fans, isn’t part of the fun of the game witnessing the violence, the head injuries? “Hit ‘em again, harder!”

Almost any fan you talk to will say, “I don’t watch the game to see the violence.” There’s something disingenuous about that. I will say, as a recovering fan, that I did watch for the violence. That’s part of the charge of football. It’s a collision sport, which separates it from most other sports. That’s why they replay all the big violent hits; that’s the reason they have those parabolic microphones on the sidelines. You can hear it in the crowd when there’s a big hit. Touchdowns get really loud cheers, but there’s nothing like that “oooh!” sound of 50,000 people who’ve just watched a player suffer some kind of brain injury in a big hit. Football allows us to indulge in our blood lust without facing the blood part of it.

You say in your book that the problem goes beyond violence and includes racism. But isn’t football a place where black people excel and become heroes—and also wealthy men?

There is a tiny sliver of the total number of men who want to play football who wind up becoming wildly famous. But the reason they become famous that they play a really violent sport that’s a profound risk to their own health—for our entertainment. It’s the most decadent kind of plantation system you can imagine. It’s a highly monetized version of a slave auction. The only rubric by which these young African-American men are being judged by the representatives of the white owners—note the word—is how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how strong they are. Football is a way to control and channel our own misconceptions and distorted thinking about male sexuality, especially African-American males.

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Is there any way to make football safe for the players?

It’s not a concussion problem. It’s not a violence problem. Football has a physics and physiology problem. The physics are simple: mass times acceleration equals force. The players have gotten more massive, much bigger than they ever were, and they run faster than they used to. Therefore—do the math—the force is much greater than it’s ever been in the game. But the brain remains what it always was, a soft organ encased in the hard shell of the skull. The players can no longer safely play the game because of the physics of our bodies. Any of these ideas about a different helmet or a rule change are just magical thinking. No responsible neurologist suggests the sport is ever going to be made safe, especially because the real danger is not concussions. It’s the accretion of the hundreds and thousands of sub-concussive hits that leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, this form of dementia that’s associated with football at every level—not just the big catastrophic hits, but the dozens of hits that are part of every single football play.


Read Next: The Super Bowl’s military fables

Rabbi Leonard Beerman: A Force for Goodness

Rabbi Leonard Beerman presents former President Jimmy Carter with the Ridenhour Courage Prize on April 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Los Angeles, who died December 24 at age 93, was a great fighter for social justice and peace over the last sixty-five years. His lifelong commitment to nonviolence, Beerman explained, came out of his experience in 1947 in Jerusalem, when he joined the Haganah fighting for Israeli independence. “Luckily, I was spared” killing anyone, he told the Los Angeles Times. “And when I came back, I became a pacifist because of what I had seen: People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.”

In 1949 he began working as the first full-time rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and soon became “one of the most important figures on the social-justice landscape in Los Angeles”, says David Myers, who teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a close friend of Beerman. He was fearless, even in the face of his own congregation: when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, Beerman included them on his list of names read on the Sabbath during the Kaddish prayers, which honor the dead—despite angry protests from some.

In the 1960s he was a passionate critic of the Vietnam war; after Watts, he spoke out for black people in LA; after 9-11, he defended Muslims. He was co-founder of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, and co-chairman of the Jewish Committee on Los Angeles Sweatshops. But he was best known as one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish voices defending Palestinian rights and supporting a two-state solution in the Mideast. He met with Yasir Arafat in Jordan in 1983, and at Leo Baeck he did not allow the Israeli or American flags to be flown. “Nationalism and faith should not mix,” he said.

When Reagan revived the Cold War in the mid-eighties, Rabbi Beerman helped organize the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. Michele Willens, whose father Harold was a leading peace activist alongside Beerman, recalled that “Leonard and the Episcopalian Rev. George Regas of Pasadena’s All Saints Church would speak at each other’s entities on a regular basis, hold press conferences, and support pacifist initiatives. The center was considered hugely radical at the time, and both Leonard and Regas initially took heat from their own congregations. But it went on to great success.”

Rabbi Beerman was also an important member of the Nation family. He was a member of the magazine’s Circle of 100, the group of financial backers formed in 1979, and he presented the Nation Institute’s Ron Ridenhour Award in 2007 to Jimmy Carter, declaring that “in the geography of Carter’s conscience there are no borders.” He had been scheduled as a featured speaker on the Nation Cruise this past December, but had to cancel because of poor health.

Over the last decade Rabbi Beerman was part of a small group of Jews in Los Angeles that met regularly to formulate a progressive voice on Israeli politics. David Myers was another. “For the most part,” Myers explained, “it was a loud and unruly bunch in whose midst Leonard would initially remain silent. One wondered whether the great sage had been rendered mute in his advanced years. But then, just as the meeting was about to break up, typically without any consensus, Leonard would begin to speak. In perfectly formed, paragraph-length sentences, he would clarify, summarize, and propel forward the discussion, insisting that we never escape our obligation to speak truth to power. Those in attendance were simply stunned by the clarity of mind and of moral vision.”

His last sermon, on Yom Kippur last October at Leo Baeck temple, made page one of the LA Times: “Another Yom Kippur,” he said. “Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives.”

Despite his courage and fierceness in denouncing injustice, he was a warm and modest person with a twinkle in his eye and wonderful sense of humor. Victor Navasky described him as “a soft-spoken and frequently funny crusader for peace and sanity.” Richard Kletter, a writer living in LA, called Rabbi Beerman “a force for goodness in the world.” That’s the way I will remember him.

The Day the Troops Refused to Fight: December 25, 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

The Christmas Truce as depicted in The Illustrated London News in January 1915. (The Illustrated London News)

100 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1914, in the middle of World War I, British and German soldiers put down their guns and stopped killing one another. The terrible industrial slaughter had already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. But on that day, thousands of troops climbed out of the trenches in France and Belgium, sang Christmas carols, and exchanged food, gifts, and souvenirs. They traded German beer for British rum. They even played soccer. It’s a unique event in the history of modern warfare.

It’s unique in another way. Those who fought in wars—“the fallen”—are regularly remembered and honored, but remembering and honoring those who refused to fight is pretty much unheard of (except for commemorations sponsored by pacifist and anti-war groups). And yet, this season, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is being commemorated officially, especially in Europe, with a wide variety of government-sponsored memorial events.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Adam Hochschild said in an interview—he’s the author of seven books, most recently the award-winning history of WWI, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. “The Christmas Truce has always been marked unofficially. But this year every school in the United Kingdom received a packet of materials about it—photos, eyewitness accounts, student worksheets. There’s a children’s competition in Britain to design a memorial to the Christmas Truce, and one of the judges was Prince William. In Belgium a memorial soccer field was inaugurated, the British and German ambassadors came, and they are holding a soccer tournament in memory of those Christmas Truce soccer games, with youth teams from Britain, Germany, France and Austria.”

Perhaps most amazing is the three-minute TV commercial running in Britain, featuring a high-budget reenactment of the truce, where, after a soccer game, a British soldier trades a chocolate bar with a German soldier. “It’s from the supermarket chain Sainsbury,” Hochschild said. “The commercial is for a commemorative chocolate bar. The proceeds from this chocolate bar will go to the Royal British Legion, the official veterans’ organization. It’s another kind of official commemoration of this startling outbreak of peace.”

What is it about this refusal to fight that makes it safe to be officially commemorated? “I’m curious about that,” said Hochschild, who wrote about the Christmas Truce for TomDispatch. “First of all, the Christmas Truce only lasted for a day or two. The war in its full fury resumed very quickly—and went on for another four years.

“Also the Christmas Truce did not represent a breakdown of military discipline. It was sanctioned by officers on the scene. Officers as high-ranking as colonels came out to greet their counterparts from the other side in no-man’s-land.”

Hochschild points to one additional factor: “Commemorating anything these days can be big business. First World War tourism in northern France and Belgium is a huge industry. In Belgium alone, the government of the Flanders region is investing $41 million in new tourist facilities for this four-year commemorative period. That’s not counting private investment. I’m sure they are thinking, ‘if we can add a few peace sites to the existing war sites, so much the better.’”

The other profit-making industry that’s gotten involved is professional soccer. “It’s a huge business,” Hochschild says, “particularly in Europe. Five of the ten most valuable professional soccer teams in the world are in Great Britain, and it’s no accident that the trade association for professional soccer is one of the groups financing this packet of information going to all the British schools. The European soccer association is sponsoring the tournament in Belgium.”

But there are no official celebrations of many other events where soldiers refused to fight in World War I—the more radical and subversive acts. Hochschild lists several of these acts—of fraternization, desertion and even mutiny—that occurred later in the war: In the spring of 1917, after the Russian revolution, photos show Russian and German troops celebrating and dancing together in couples; on the Eastern Front, a million Russian soldiers deserted and simply walked home, and German soldiers began deserting in 1918; and in 1917, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers refused orders to attack. “These folks should all be celebrated,” Hochschild says, “because they helped bring the war to an end.”

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Finally, Hochschild says, we ought to celebrate the anti-war leaders who opposed the war from the beginning and paid a heavy price: in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg spent more than two years in prison for opposing the war; in Britain, Bertrand Russell served six months in a London jail for his anti-war advocacy. And in the United States, Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft; he was still in the Atlanta federal penitentiary in 1920, two years after the war ended.

Now the US government is planning an official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It’s being organized by the Pentagon, which has declared the purpose to be “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War…for their service and sacrifice.” But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition insisting that “no commemoration of the war in Vietnam can exclude the many thousands of veterans who opposed it, as well as the draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans, some at the cost of imprisonment or exile.” Anti-war activists “are the real heroes that period,” Hochschild says, “and we have to be sure to remember and celebrate them.”


Read Next: Why no one remembers the peacemakers

They Said ‘No’ to Torture: The Real Heroes of the Bush Years

Guantanamo protest

Demonstrators in Washington call for President Obama to close US Military Detention Facility in Guantánamo Bay. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Hidden in the Senate torture report are stories of some heroes—people inside the CIA who from the beginning said torture was wrong, who tried to stop it, who refused to participate. There were also some outside the CIA, in the military and the FBI, who risked careers and reputations by resisting—and who sometimes paid a heavy price. They should be thanked and honored.

But President Obama hasn’t mentioned them. Instead, he praised the CIA officials who presided over the torture regime as “patriots.”

We should “celebrate the ones who stood up for what was right,” says David Luban of the Georgetown University law school, author of Torture, Power and Law. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, author of the definitive book on Bush administration torture, The Dark Side, calls them “the real torture patriots.”

The opposition to torture within the CIA was so strong, Mayer reports, that the CIA Inspector General, John Helgerson, “conducted a serious and influential internal investigation.” That led the Justice Department to “ask the CIA to suspend the torture program”—at least “until it could be reconciled with the law.”

The heroes in the torture report include Ali Soufan, former FBI agent and interrogator of terrorists who, according to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, came closer than anyone to preventing the 9/11 attacks. Soufan has argued publicly against torture and in favor of “rapport-building” as the best technique to get information from suspects. The CIA heavily censored his memoir The Black Banners in what Wright called an effort “to punish a critic and to obscure history.” He was featured in a Frontline documentary made by Martin Smith and James Gilmore.

Another hero: Alberto Mora. As general counsel of the Navy in 2004, Jane Mayer reported, he tried to stop the torture program. He told his superiors at the Pentagon that the Bush torture policy violated the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He described the Bush program as “unlawful” and “dangerous,” and warned that the torturers could face criminal prosecution. He was featured in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side by Alex Gibney (which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2007).

Some of the heroes were ordinary soldiers, like Sgt. Joe Darby, who first revealed the Abu Ghraib abuses. As a result,” Luban points out, he “had to live under armed protection for six months.” Others were high officials, like Philip Zelikow, an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, who, Luban reports, wrote an “anti-torture memo” that the White House “attempted to destroy.”

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And there was Ian Fishback, an army captain who reported that his own unit was abusing Iraqi prisoners. Eventually he wrote an open letter to Senator John McCain, asking, “Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security?” His answer: “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.’ ”

Finally we have the case of Guantaánamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who refused to prosecute a teenager who had been abused in US detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. For that decision, Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems report, Vandeveld was “barred from the prosecutors’ office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.”

The Senate torture report describes CIA personnel “profoundly affected…to the point of tears” by witnessing torture, but it doesn’t reveal the names of those whose protests led to the inspector general’s internal investigation. We need to know who they are—so we can thank them for trying to do the right thing.

Obama has made it clear from the beginning that there will be no criminal prosecutions of the torturers, even though their actions violated the federal Torture Act. The least he could do is publicly honor those who tried to stop the crimes conducted in our name.

The ACLU has set up a web page with a petition to President Obama to “honor those who said no to torture.”

Read Next:“US Torture Didn’t End When Bush Left Office”

Prosecute John Yoo, Says Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

John Yoo

John Yoo testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington about the "torture memo" (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Torture is a crime, a violation of the Federal Torture Act. Those who engaged in the torture documented in such exhaustive detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report should be prosecuted, and those who conspired in that torture should also be prosecuted. They include UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, says Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School at the University of California Irvine.

Yoo was co-author of the infamous “torture memo” of 2002, when he was Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Bush Justice Department. In the memo he declared that—in the words of Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side—“cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees could be authorized, with few restrictions.”

Yoo’s memo “directly led to the torture policy that resulted,” Chemerinsky said in an interview, citing Mayer’s evidence. “That’s being part of a conspiracy to violate a federal statute. Someone isn’t excused from criminal liability just because they work for the federal government.”

The Federal Torture Act defines torture broadly, as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering…upon another person within his custody or physical control.” The penalty for violating the Torture Act is imprisonment “for not more than 20 years.”

Most important for the case of John Yoo, the Federal Torture Act specifically includes conspiracy, stating that “a person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties…as the penalties prescribed for the offense.” That means Yoo could be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison if found guilty.

“I think he should be,” Chemerinsky said. “All who planned, all who implemented, all who carried out the torture should be criminally prosecuted. How else do we as a society express our outrage? How else do we deter it in the future—except by criminal prosecutions?”

Chemerinsky, an authority on constitutional law who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, is the founding dean of the law school at UC Irvine, a sister campus of Berkeley in the University of California System. He is the author of hundreds of law review articles and eight books, including most recently The Case Against the Supreme Court.

Yoo defended his work on torture in an op-ed published by the New York Daily News. “In 2002,” he wrote, “I believed that the federal law prohibiting torture allowed the CIA to use interrogation methods that did not cause injury—including, in extraordinary cases, waterboarding—because of the grave threat to the nation’s security in the months after the 9/11 attacks.” He added that he was “swayed by the fact” that he believed “the CIA would use the technique only on top Al Qaeda leaders thought to have actionable information on pending plots.” He said the Senate report was wrong in its conclusion that torture was ineffective in exposing plots, citing CIA head John Brennan’s statements to that effect.

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But, Chemerinsky said, there’s nothing in the federal torture law that provides an exception for “pending plots.”

For a law school dean to call for the criminal prosecution of a law professor at another campus of the same university is unprecedented. When demands were raised in 2008 that Berkely fire Yoo, the dean of the law school at Berkeley at the time, Christopher Edley Jr., said that, while he agreed that “Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service,” he believed that advocating “bad ideas” was protected by academic freedom, and such advocacy “would not warrant dismissal” from Berkeley. The only ground for dismissal, he said, was specified in the official university policy: “Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty.”

Chemerinsky’s argument is that Yoo has committed a criminal act—conspiracy to torture—and that he should be put on trial for it.

Listen to the full interview with Chemerinsky, courtesy of KPFK radio:


Read Next: “Misery Made Me a Fiend: Latin America and the Torture Report”

California’s Clear Message to Republicans: ‘Not Interested’

Jerry Brown

Governor Jerry Brown, right, accompanied by wife Anne Gust Brown, talks to reporters after winning re-election Tuesday, November 4, 2014, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The morning after a dark night for Democrats, California stands as the great exception to the national pattern of Republican power. In the state, not a single Republican was elected to statewide office. In the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles, the election of progressive Sheila Kuehl will transform the all-powerful Board of Supervisors to a pro-labor force.

Voters approved a sweeping transformation of the state’s drug laws, reducing penalties for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. As a result of Prop. 47, 40,000 offenders a year—mostly young men of color—will get lighter sentences. Voters also reduced petty theft—stealing property worth $950 or less—from a felony to misdemeanor.

Governor Jerry Brown, elected to an unprecedented fourth term with 59 percent of the vote, is committed to fighting climate change; despite Republican control of Congress, he said, California already has the political will and financial resources to forge ahead with reducing carbon emissions.

In the Bay Area, San Francisco passed a $15 minimum wage, with support from 72 percent of voters. Anti-Chevron candidates in Richmond swept to victory despite Chevron’s massive financial backing for a pro-oil-company slate. The Contra Costa Times called it “a resounding political defeat for the company and its campaign tactics.” The city council had sued Chevron after a disastrous refinery fire. And a county south of San Francisco banned fracking.

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Last year the state legislature made it easier for women to get abortions, permitting nurses, Nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physicians’ assistants who complete specified training to perform the procedure.

The state’s gun control laws are among the strongest in the nation. All gun sales require a ten-day waiting period and are recorded by the state. Private sales of firearms are prohibited except through licensed dealers.

California Republicans have been stuck for years at around 40 percent of the electorate. Yesterday’s results provided few signs that the pattern is changing.

Read Next: People voted for Republicans last night—that doesn’t mean they like them

The Return of ‘Homeland’: Illusion, Reality and Claire Danes

Claire Danes in Homeland

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in season four of Homeland

Sunday night Homeland returns to TV. That’s good news for liberals, who like the show’s politics because—unlike Fox’s 24—it shows that, in the Middle East, sometimes US actions make more enemies than friends. Sunday’s episode centers around the all-to-real situation where a drone attack on suspected terrorists in Afghanistan kills lots of civilians instead. Obama, we are told, is a fan of the show, and Bill Clinton told reporters that the show “created the notion of ‘other’ which was very important for the American people to sit down and watch.” He and the show’s star, the brilliant and compelling Claire Danes, both appeared at the 2013 Golden Globes—where, she said, Clinton “asked if I would come and meet him in some special room.” (Can you really blame him?)

But I’m still unhappy about Claire Danes’s meeting with CIA director John Brennan in a special room at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a year ago. She told the press afterwards, “It’s always so thrilling and moving to meet the people who really do so much to protect and defend our country.” She’s talking about the people who didn’t think ISIS would amount to anything, and before that informed our leaders that Saddam was building WMD. (That info came from “Curveball”—remember him?) And there was also that 9/11 business. But when you’re on a publicity junket for your fall show, I guess you’re supposed to be nice to everybody.

The show intersects with reality in a much more direct and compelling way: Claire Danes’s character Carrie Mathison suffers from bipolar disorder, and her portrayal of her character’s manic break in season one was awesome and frighteningly real. We learned how she did it in an unusual place: the op-ed page of The New York Times. The real-life model for Carrie’s breakdown wrote the piece—she’s the sister of one of the show’s writers. “Bipolar extremes can be truly hard to watch,” she wrote, “excruciating even in memory.”

Reality has also posed a location problem for the show’s producers. They considered making the new season about Israel and Palestine, but that was ruled out, show runner Alex Gansa said, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “just such a difficult, difficult situation to dramatize and to explicate.” He might have added: especially when you have AIPAC breathing down your neck. “The decision also proved wise on a more practical level,” the Los Angeles Times reported, because “the violence in Gaza this summer forced two other series, FX’s ‘Tyrant’Tyrant and USA’s ‘Dig,’ to pull up stakes.” Tel Aviv, where Tyrant was in production, “was under missile fire and people were running into bomb shelters,” the show runner explained. “It was not conducive to shooting.” They moved to Istanbul.

Homeland’s people also considered sending Carrie to head the CIA station in Istanbul, but the Turkish government insisted on reviewing all the scripts. They decided instead to make Carrie CIA station chief in Kabul, and to shoot in South Africa as a stand-in for Afghanistan. Cape Town, the LA Times explained, “offers a large Muslim community for background casting that can, with the help of Hollywood magic, pass for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The cast is also finding inspiration in Cape Town. “It’s very moving to be somewhere where a man like Nelson Mandela came to prominence,” said Mandy Patinkin—his character, the morose Jew Saul Berenson, has at last left the CIA for a really good job with a private security contractor. “I’m reminded that I’m living in a place where horror was once in abundance and the boil has been lanced and life has improved.” Will Carrie help the Afghans lance their boil and improve their lives? Obama will be watching—and so will Bill Clinton.

How the White House Tapes Sunk Nixon’s Presidency

John Dean

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we talked with John Dean—he had been counsel to the president, and it was his Senate testimony that led to Nixon’s resignation. His new book is The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.

Jon Wiener: You set out to reconstruct the day-to-day history of Nixon’s actions from the beginning of Watergate to the end, and you had a great source, the White House tapes. We know a lot about the tapes—the racism, the anti-Semitism, the plotting and scheming—but you listened to tapes no one else had heard before. How many tapes did you find–and how long did it take you?

John Dean: When I agreed to do the book, I was trying to figure out how anybody as savvy and intelligent as Nixon could have destroyed his presidency on a bungled burglary. But had I known how long it would take—four years—I might not have undertaken the assignment. I found a thousand conversations that no one had listened to except the archivists; there were partial transcripts for only 400. There isn’t a page in this book that doesn’t have something new to me—and I’ve been pretty close to the story since 1972.

What did you discover about the motivation for the original break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex: what were the burglars looking for? And, most important, did Nixon send them?

There’s not a scintilla of evidence that Nixon had advanced knowledge. Nixon is concerned in the early days that he might have instructed Charles Colson to do this. But Colson tells him “no.” The burglars’ original mission was to break into McGovern’s headquarters. That is traceable back to Nixon. He tells Haldeman to plant a bug in McGovern’s headquarters. But the burglars started out that night with Gordon Liddy’s original plan: to find financial information to embarrass Larry O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at his office in the Watergate complex. It’s just as stupid as it sounds.

How bad would it have been if they had succeeded in finding that Larry O’Brien had taken illegal money? Would that have significantly damaged the McGovern campaign?

I really doubt it.

The first big decision was to pay hush money to the burglars. What did you learn about that?

Certainly Nixon knew it from the outset. On June 20, same day as the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap, Nixon suggests they set up a “Cuban committee” to raise money for the Watergate defendants. What’s ironic is that that plan could have been legal.

You were the president’s lawyer. When did he call you? What did you know, and when did you know it?

I don’t see the president until eight months after the arrests.

That’s when you told him “there’s a cancer on the presidency.” What did you learn from the tapes about his reaction to what you told him?

The conversation took an hour and forty minutes. The transcript runs seventy-six pages, single-spaced. You have to remember that, when I tried to convince him to end the coverup, I was a young lawyer in my 30s. I couldn’t shake him by the lapels; I had to try to persuade him with facts. Listening to the tapes for the first time, I could hear my amazed frustration. I would raise points and he would bat them down. I say, “Bud Krough is concerned he committed perjury.” He replied, “Well, John, perjury’s a tough rap to prove.” I tell him there’s no telling how much money these guys will want—and it’s an obstruction of justice to pay them. He says, “How much could they want?” I pulled out of thin air what I thought was a pretty hefty number—I said, “It could cost a million dollars over the next two years.” I waited for him to say, “That’s outrageous!” Instead, he said, “I know where we can get that.” And I now know that after I left the room, he called his secretary Rose Woods in and asked her, “How much do we have in the slush fund that only you and I know about?’”

The burglary at the Watergate was actually the second one conducted by the White House plumbers unit—the first had been at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Beverly Hills. It was Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon papers that led him to create the plumbers unit. Did Nixon himself connect the dots between the Ellsberg break-in and the Watergate break in?

He doesn’t connect them until I tell him on March 17, 1973—the Watergate arrests had been on June 17, 1972. One of the amazing things I discovered is that neither Haldeman nor Ehrlichman tell him about the jeopardy the White House has—that the same people now in the DC jail had also been used to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Nixon’s plan was to blame the whole thing on you, to say you ran the cover-up. It was your word versus the president’s. Fox News still seems to be making this argument. Could that have worked at the time—send you to jail, and leave Nixon in the White House?

I had nothing to do with the break-in or the cover-up. But there’s a good possibility it would have worked to blame it all on me—if the tapes hadn’t come out.

Nixon knew all his conversations were being taped—including planning the cover-up and arranging for the hush money. Why did he keep talking?

Occasionally it’s clear he knows he’s recording himself. But 98 percent of the time he’s oblivious—because he doesn’t think anybody will ever get access to the tapes. In April he instructs Haldeman to remove the system, but Haldeman reminds him that “Henry Kissinger might write a different history than you, so you might want to have a good record of national security matters.” He agrees with that. Then he says, “Let’s destroy everything except the national security material.” Haldeman says, “Sure,” but then never does it—because he gets consumed by Watergate himself.

What did you conclude about the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?

I concluded that “Who created the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?” is the wrong question. It’s a mystery, but what difference does it make? The important question is what they erased. My book has a special appendix on that.

Finally: What was it like for you to spend four years listening to Nixon talking?

I told my wife Maureen, “Men in my family go deaf in their mid-70s, and I’m getting there. God forbid that the last voice I hear is Richard Nixon’s.” Fortunately, Jon, I can hear your voice, so I’ve come out the other side.


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What Makes Ohio State the Most Unequal Public University in America?

Ohio State

The Ohio State University library (Courtesy of Bob Hall, CC 3.0) 

“Congratulations, Class of 2014, you’re totally screwed”—that was the graduation message offered this season by Thomas Frank, Salon columnist and author of Pity the Billionaire. The average student-loan borrower graduating in 2014 is $33,000 in debt, according to the Wall Street Journalthe highest amount ever. And a new study of public universities shows that student debt is worst at schools with the highest-paid presidents.

The “most unequal” public university in America, according to the report, is Ohio State. Between 2010 and 2012 it paid its president, Gordon Gee, a total of almost $6 million, while raising tuition and fees so much that student debt grew 23 percent faster than the national average.

The only people on campus worse off than students with loans are the part-time faculty members—and they too were worst off at schools with the highest paid presidents. OSU, while paying its president $5.9 million, focused its faculty hiring on low wage part-timers, hiring 498 contingent and part-time but only forty-five permanent faculty members.

At the same time that the regular faculty has been shrinking, the number of administrators has been growing. During the period when OSU hired forty-five permanent faculty members, it hired 670 new administrators. A similar pattern is found throughout American universities.

The Institute for Policy Studies report, “The One Percent at State U: How University Presidents Profit from Rising Student Debt and Low-Wage Faculty Labor,” examined the relationship between executive pay, student debt and low-wage faculty labor at the twenty-five top-paying public universities. Co-authors Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood reported that money spent on administration at the highest-paying universities outpaced spending on scholarships by more than two to one.

“The high executive pay obviously isn’t the direct cause of higher student debt, or cuts in labor spending,” Ms. Wood told The New York Times. “But if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”

Why is this happening? “The motor force behind these trends is the hiring of ‘professional administrators’ whose primary commitment is to their own careers and advancement,” says William R. Schonfeld, former dean of social sciences and emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine (where I teach history). “They take jobs as stepping stones to other positions higher on the ladder.”

“To protect themselves,” Schonfeld says, “they grow the bureaucracy. They are committed to goals which can be relatively quickly achieved—more funds raised this year from the immediate business community, as compared to building a strong foundation for long-term giving by alumni; new schools and academic units, as compared to the tedious and slow process of building true distinction.”

The focus on quick results—not so different from corporations’ focus on quarterly profits—is responsible for the increase in both the number of administrators and their growing salaries. At Ohio State, “We’ve been hiring financial VPs from Wall Street and HR heads from private corporations,” says OSU’s Harvey Graff, professor of english and history and Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies.

Average pay for university presidents continues to rise, according to the annual Chronicle of Higher Education survey. Nine chief executives earned more than $1 million in total compensation in 2012–13, the Chronicle reports, up from four the previous year. The median total compensation of the 256 presidents in the survey was $478,896, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.

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So while university presidents are making huge salaries, Tom Frank explains, students “borrowed and forked over enormous sums in exchange for the privilege of hearing lectures…lectures that were then delivered by people who earned barely enough to stay alive. It is a double disaster of the kind that only we Americans are capable of pulling off.”

The schools that followed OSU on the “most unequal” list were, in order, Penn State, and the universities of Michigan, Minnesota and Delaware.

What is to be done? The IPS study suggests that debt relief for college grads is the number-one task—and recommends Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act,” which would refinance student loans at 3.86 percent—cutting almost in half the payments required of students currently carrying loans at 6.8 percent. Warren’s bill would pay for the lower interest rates by adopting the “Buffett Rule,” which would raise the marginal tax rate on income in excess of $1 million.

Also, the IPS study says, state legislatures should limit pay for administrators, and require that spending on non-academic administration be pegged to money spent on scholarships—the authors suggest the ratio should be two to one. “Bringing down spending on administration while increasing scholarships will help make college more affordable and discourage rapid tuition increases,” the report argues. The authors also favor granting organizing rights to part-time adjunct faculty.


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The Nixon Library Needs a New Director, Now

Nixon Library

The Nixon Library and Gardens in Yorba Linda, California (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

August 8 will be the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. That’s a good target date for the long-overdue appointment of a new director of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.

The library has been without a director for two and a half years, ever since the departure of Timothy Naftali in 2011. He presided over the installation of the new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit—his number-one duty after the Nixon Foundation agreed in 2007 to bring the library, which opened in 1990, into the National Archives presidential library system.

Before that, Nixon had been the only president to refuse to cooperate with the National Archives, which ran all the other presidential museums. In 1974, Congress insisted that the Archives, rather than Nixon himself, have control of all of his presidential papers and tapes. The result was a seventeen-year standoff during which the Nixon Foundation ran a private museum in Yorba Linda that served as the nation’s center of Watergate denial, defying the National Archives.

Now the standoff has returned. The Nixon Library has no director because the Nixon Foundation, run by old-time Nixon loyalists and family members, blocked the appointment of the candidate selected by the National Archives: Mark Atwood Lawrence, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. Lawrence is a respected middle-of-the-road scholar who was fully qualified for the job; he’s the author of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.

But the Nixon Foundation didn’t want Lawrence. Ron Walker, chairman of the Foundation’s board of directors, told Daniel Langhorne of the Orange County Register that he was concerned about Lawrence’s “perspective” on Vietnam. “It was just different,” Walker said. “I’m not going any further on that.”

How different was it? Lawrence doesn’t call Nixon a madman or a war criminal, but he does challenge those in the Nixon administration who argued at the time that an American defeat in Vietnam would do irreparable damage to US influence in the world. In the scholarly journal History: Reviews of New Books, the reviewer of Lawrence’s book wrote that “for a subject that has all too often inspired overwrought critiques of the various parties involved in the conflict, it is refreshing to have a synthesis that adopts a more neutral and dispassionate view of the Vietnam War.”

Lawrence wasn’t exactly vetoed, but the foundation made clear their hostility to him, and eventually he withdrew his application.

The power to appoint directors of presidential libraries rests with the archivist of the United States, currently David Ferrio. He has been deferring to the Nixon loyalists and family members, but his responsibility is to the American people. The National Archives’ mission is “to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government.”

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The problem is now approaching a crisis because the foundation, which funds the exhibits and public programs of the museum, has announced plans for a $15 million renovation of the exhibits. Apparently, it prefers to do this without a director in place to oversee the historical accuracy of what it has in mind.

The number-one exhibit in need of revision, not surprisingly, is the one concerning Vietnam. Currently the museum devotes more space to the return of American POWs from North Vietnam than it does to the war itself. The result is an exhibit that suggests America was fighting in Vietnam to get our POWs back.

Redesigning the exhibits in Yorba Linda should be the work of a professional director committed to a nonpartisan and historically accurate museum, not one deferring to old-time loyalists and family members who want a shrine that celebrates the life of their hero. Archivist David Ferrio needs to make that appointment before the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 8.


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