Like most media and political writers, I often let bygones be bygones, painful as that may be. Then there are the especially tragic or high-stakes cases. For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences. This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review’s announcing yesterday, after a widely watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd, late of The Washington Post, as its new editor and publisher.
Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places. And here’s a memo from Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School (and a Washington Post vet himself) on the hiring, and Spayd’s own reaction. She was managing editor of the Post or its website for many years until last year, and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course). But I am moved to recall, and then let go, one famous 2004 article, also at the Post, by Howard Kurtz, which I highlighted in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.
In a nutshell: The New York Times, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors’ note a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war, dubbed a “mini-culpa” by Jack Shafer. The Post, almost equally but not so famously guilty, didn’t even do that, to its shame, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e., Kurtz, to report it out. His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others, usually along the lines of, “Well, what could we do?” And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post’s overall record was strong.
“I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration’s assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war…. Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely,” she said. “Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don’t think so.”
Of course, the paper’s editorial page was even worse, making the news disaster that much more damaging.
In some ways, the “hero” of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security reporter who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
But while Pincus was ferreting out information “from sources I’ve used for years,” some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was “cryptic,” as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.
Spayd declined to discuss Pincus’s writing but said that “stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper.”
The much-respected Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper’s editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.
Getler chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches). Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.
Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post’s performance. But she did defend that record afterward—and said no apology was needed.
Thursday morning, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid was on the floor guiding his caucus through the necessary steps to scrap the sixty-vote threshold on judicial and executive branch nominations, Heritage Action sent out a strongly worded alert. “For Harry Reid and President Obama, this is not about a couple circuit court judges; this is an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision.”
In many senses this is a crazy thing to say; as scholars of the Senate correctly note, Thursday’s maneuver simply returns the body to its constitutional and historic norms, wherein the president is able to effectively staff the executive branch and federal judiciary. The sixty-vote threshold was a relatively recent aberration, wielded to the extreme by the Republican minority in the Senate.
But in practical context, Heritage is actually correct. Filibuster reform is a victory for progressive politics.
Recall that the biggest historical achievement of the filibuster was to delay a federal anti-lynching law and then to delay enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1950s. Today, it’s one of the most powerful tools for conservative politicians: just in recent months, they have used it to dramatically delay or stop a Democratic president from filling crucial posts at a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect Americans from rapacious financial companies; to keep seats on the National Labor Relations Board empty; and to prevent the president from appointing judges to the federal bench who can counterbalance the right-wing ideologues placed there by George W. Bush. (Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who were both reluctant to embrace rules reform, were reportedly finally swayed last month when a Bush-appointed judge on the District of Columbia Appeals Court ruled against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as an infringement upon religious liberty.)
In short, the filibuster provided one more pump-brake on the slow but sure recent leftward trend in American politics; it was of utility only to the minority party, which is of course the ossifying, conservative GOP.
After Senate Democrats finally executed the rule change Thursday afternoon, and after Reid and his leadership team held a relatively somber news conference where Reid said it was “not a time to celebrate,” Reid and some of the Senators behind the push for rules reform—Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Chuck Schumer and Tom Harkin—met with progressive groups in a room off the Senate chamber. (The Nation and a small handful of reporters were invited to observe.)
The people in the room and the outright celebratory nature of the meeting belied the true ramifications of Thursday’s rule change for progressive politics. The Senators entered to thunderous applause and more than a few hoots and hollers, and behind their podium stood many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and representatives from a wide array of progressive groups like, for example, the Sierra Club.
Many people in the room were responsible for mobilizing public support for a relatively obscure Senate rule change—groups like Democracy for America, CREDO Action and Daily Kos, which arrived at the meeting with 285,000 signatures supporting filibuster reform.
Progressive organizing was indeed crucial to changing the filibuster, with Senators like Merkley and Udall working the inside game while the outside groups got the public riled up. Many Democratic senators—including Reid—didn’t want to do rules reform back in 2009 when the GOP began its unprecedented obstruction, and it took a lot of convincing.
They were candid about this fact during the Thursday meeting. “There were some people that needed to be convinced, and—we don’t need to go into that—but they are convinced,” Harkin said, as the room erupted in laughter.
“[Merkley and Udall] brought this idea to me, and in my heart I knew they were right, but I couldn’t accept that they were,” Reid said of his initial reluctance. “I wanted to try to get along. For two Congresses I tried to get along…we tried and tried and tried.”
Though the assembled progressives were ebullient, they also hinted that the push wasn’t over. Progressive legislation, too, has often fallen victim to the filibuster. Few people remember that, before Republicans took over the House, Democrats passed out a cap-and-trade climate bill and the Disclose Act, a major piece of campaign finance legislation—both of which died in the Senate despite a Democratic majority.
“Let no one think our work is finished,” Merkley declared at the end of his remarks. “What was accomplished today was tremendous. I am looking forward to Mel Watt being the Federal Housing Finance Authority director. I am looking forward to President Obama having his fair opportunity to fill judicial vacancies.”
“But I am also looking forward to the moment when we can have legislation come to the floor of the US Senate and have a fair chance of getting an up-and-down vote, to do right by working Americans,” Merkley concluded, and left the podium to raucous applause.
Todd Gitlin on how students are leading the fight against climate change.
My new “Think Again” column is called “Murdoch and Ailes were "Right from the Start" and it’s about new and not-so-new revelations from a new book about you know who.
Alter-reviews, special guitar gods edition:
Eric Clapton, Unplugged
Eric Clapton, Give Me Strength: the 1974-75 Recordings
Eric Clapton et al, Crossroads Festival Blu-ray and CD
The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters (deluxe)
Grateful Dead, Dave’s Picks, Vol. 8
Garcia Live, Volume 3, December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour,
It’s been a rich autumn for old Eric Clapton releases. There’s a nice new two-CD/DVD version of “Unplugged,” from 1992, the album that launched the whole movement. Clapton’s willingness to go in new directions has always distinguishd him from other guitar gods and these peformances tend to justify themselves, though not always, and especially not in the case of “Layla,” which is a travesty. There are a few new versions on the cd including a cover of “Big Maceo” Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” an alternate take of “Walkin’ Blues” and early versions of “Circus” and “My Father’s Eyes” and an hour of rehearsal footage on the DVD, which is pretty cool to watch once or twice. (It’s also surprisingly cheap.)
I first discovered Clapton around 1974 or so and he was my pre-Born to Run favorite musician for “Layla” and the first solo album. I was so excited when he returned to recording and touring and a little shocked and disappointed at how mellow it all sounded; next to no guitar solos at all. But the dude was a prophet and this was where music was going; it caught up in the early eighties, and the stuff has worn tremendously well. You can now pay a lot of money for “Eric Clapton--Give Me Strength: The 1974-75 Recordings,” which is five CDs and a Bluray--or so they tell me, I only got the download.
It’s got 461 Ocean Boulevard, There's One In Every Crowd and the live E.C. Was Here—standing as one of the most remarkable rebirths in rock's history plus live tracks from Long Beach Arena (including unreleased versions of Crossroads, I Shot The Sheriff, Layla and Little Wing), the Hammersmith Odeon, Nassau Coliseum and Providence Civic Center; The Freddie King Criteria Studio Sessions featuring the previously unreleased versions of “Boogie Funk” and the full unreleased 22 minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues”
I saw last year’s editions of Eric’s “Crossroads Festival” shows last year at the Garden. Among the highlights were the surprise pairing of John Mayer and Keith Urban for the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down,” which turns out to be a much better song than I previously realized, Keith Richards and Eric doing “Key to the Highway.” Vince Gill performing "Tumbling Dice" with Keith Urban and Albert Lee and members of the Allman Brothers and by far, Eric and ABB doing my favorite song, of late, "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," and truth be told they could have played more together since they had a whole set worked out at the Beacon a few years ago, which made for two of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. The hype for Gary Clark Jr. struck me as a washout however and Clapton did not have to open the shows (and this Bluray) with his sappiest and most McCartney-at-his-most-mawkish songs. So plan to do some fast-forwarding on this terrific sounding Bluray depending on your taste. Not all of it will be loved by everyone but with so many acts—I didn’t even mention Keith and Eric on “Key to the Highway” or Eric and Robbie R, Jeff Back or Buddy Guy or that 14 year old kid Quinn Sullivan, or the acoustic peformance by Warren, Derek and Gregg, especially on “The Needle and the Damage Done,” so it’s hard not to want to have this no matter what your taste in guitar gods. Eric closes well, too, with “Sunshine.” There’s a highlight two cd package as well. Both are pretty decently priced.
And speaking of my favorite band, I somehow neglected to mention the beautiful package put together to mark the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band’s fifth album, “Brothers and Sisters.” They were in terrible shape, but it’s a damn fine record and this is a lovely package. Duane died in the fall of 1971. 1973's Berry Oakley died early in the recording of this album. They were replaced by pianist Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams, but also by an expanded role for Dickie Betts. It was their best selling album ever--clearly their most radio friendly and now we get in the “Super Deluxe Edition” a disc of previously unreleased Jams, Rehearsals, and Outtakes, and a complete show on two cds from Winterland in September, 1973. It all sparkles and came before the band destroyed itself--in that iteration--with more drugs than anyone could do and arena shows that ended their rapport with their audience. Thank goodness it was only temporary, though nobody would have guessed it at the time--what with Gregg marrying Cher and falling asleep in bowls of spaghetti
Finally, speaking of my other favorite band, there’s now a “Dave Picks, Volume 8”: the last of the limited edition releases in this series this year. It’s a complete show from 11/30/80 at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA. The highlight for me was the incredible "Scarlet>Fire,” but maybe not for you. (Again, these were not their best years.) It’s three CDs and you gotta register at the Dead website because they all sell out immediately. And hey, you can watch “Dave” talk about his work, here. He’s pretty smart.
And if that’s not enough for you, you can order GarciaLive Volume Three: December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour, 3 CD Set featuring over 2 1/2 hours of previously unreleased music mastered from original soundboard recordings. Jazzier than usual, but with a nice rapport within the Legion of Mary band featuring Merle Sanders Wonderful 18 minute “Boogie On Reggae Woman” to open. Two “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”s though, is one too many, minimum. The Dead were on hiatus and this was one of Jerry’s most fruitful periods, musically, so it’s a nice if non-essential addition to the oeuvre. More here.
By Reed Richardson
What Sen. Harry Reid did Thursday wasn’t a win for Democrats as much as it was a triumph for democracy. That the Washington conventional wisdom likely won’t characterize it that way, though, shouldn’t be surprising. For far too long, the Beltway media has, by turns, overlooked, enabled, and normalized what has been a relentless, unprecedented siege campaign by Senate Republicans against Constitutional privilege and White House authority. Once a rare, last-ditch bureaucratic maneuver on the part of the minority, filibusters are no longer about extending actual debate on legislation or questioning the fitness of a political appointee. Instead, having been deployed a record 446 times since 2006, they’ve effectively been weaponized by the GOP as an extra-Constitutional end run around settled law. So, to say Reid “went nuclear” on the Senate rules Thursday is to ignore seven years of overwhelming evidence that the Republicans blew them up first.
Nevertheless, this week’s press coverage of Republican filibusters leading up to the nuclear option was more of the same old objective ambiguity. On Monday, for example, there was the Associated Press, vaguely talking about how Obama’s nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals “[fell] short of the 60 votes required to advance” with nary a mention of the word “filibuster” anywhere. Even when the press does accurately describe the obstruction, as the Washington Post did last week in a story about the GOP filibuster of D.C Circuit nominee Judge Nina Pillard, it undermines the reality by trotting artificially balanced anecdotes as part of the old “both sides” canard. Dig down into the data, however, and you find that the GOP has blocked judicial nominees at a higher rate than at any other time in U.S. history.
Over time, the media’s steady use of euphemisms and false equivalence has buried the larger narrative of Republican filibuster abuse. Likewise, it compartmentalizes each round of executive or judicial nominations into discrete events, which only allows the GOP to escape real accountability for their egregious abuse. For instance, when NBC News’s political tip sheet First Read previewed Reid’s “nuclear option” move Thursday, note that it only did so with respect to the three most recent judicial nominees blocked by the GOP.
“And so after Senate Republican filibustered President Obama’s nominees to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—not on concerns about ideology or qualifications, but over the president’s ability to appoint ANYONE to these vacancies—Senate Democrats are poised to change the rules via the so-called ‘nuclear option’”
No. No. NO. While credit is due for highlighting the intellectual dishonesty of Republicans, this kind of short-sighted analysis of Democratic motives would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. This incredibly simplistic explanation leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that, though Republicans are being stubborn, Harry Reid just up and changed the rules in something resembling a fit of pique after a rough couple of weeks.
This is not a new phenomenon, unfortunately. Over and over, the Beltway media has examined these filibuster events through a blinkered, ahistorical prism. Thus, no mention of how Obama has tried several times to fill these same D.C. Circuit Court vacancies since he first took office in 2009, to no avail. Or that one of these court vacancies was created more than eight years ago when John Roberts—yes, that John Roberts—was elevated to the Supreme Court. Also routinely left out of the coverage, the dozens of filibusters of other federal judicial appointees as well as the heads of numerous executive agencies, like the CFPB, NLRB, FCC, CIA, and EPA. And let's not forget the time Republicans attempted the first-ever filibuster a Cabinet nominee. Indeed, Republican filibusters have become so de rigueur in the Senate that, on several occasions, some in the GOP have thought nothing of threatening to block every single White House nominee, regardless of merit or need.
To be fair, some of the blame for this situation must be directed back at Senate Democrats and the White House. For too long, Reid and a few of his more tradition-bound Senate colleagues have enabled GOP intransigence through ill-advised, one-off filibuster moratoria that Republicans have demonstrated no compunction about discarding at their leisure. What’s more, this constant Republican stonewalling has inculcated a noticeable hesitancy on the part of the administration in terms of putting forth nominations. And too often both Reid and the White House seem to mistake willful, partisan obstruction with good faith disagreement. Spending months or even years searching and vetting highly qualified nominees only to have them summarily dismissed over and over should have long ago taught Reid the lesson he only fully learned this week.
Breaking the logjam this way, some media naysayers worry, will forever change the Senate, making it operate more like the House. And that’s probably true, but the operative word in that sentence is, well, operate. For, right now, the Senate is a broken legislative body, hijacked by a spiteful few extremists who are wholly uninterested in performing even the most routine aspects of government business.
While that obvious point isn’t lost on even the most process-obsessed members of the Washington press corps, time and again news organizations have failed to draw a bright line between Senate Republicans’ filibuster abuse and the dangerously anti-democratic precedent set by their behavior. Lacking any kind of pushback from the press, is it any wonder Republicans kept pushing further and further? As a result, they felt free to intentionally hamstring regulatory agencies for years by leaving them short-staffed and without leadership, effectively undermining the executive branch’s Article I authority. And why not consistently flout the president’s judicial appointees—to, say, maintain Republican dominance on the D.C. Appeals Court? It only negates the electoral mandate provided by the public. Hey, it’s not like the press is really going to notice.
But make no mistake, even though it may fly underneath the radar of almost every big-name pundit, tilting the balance on the D.C. Appeals Court matters. For most of Obama’s tenure, the court has been split evenly, with more Republican appointees enjoying seniority. As a result, its been a friendly legal ground to enable all manner of successful right-wing regulatory challenges, whether it’s cracking down on labor organizing to unraveling the Affordable Care Act’s free contraception rules or undoing tougher Dodd-Frank regulations on out-of-control CEO pay. And it figures to loom large in the administration’s upcoming push for stricter carbon emissions rules for power plants. Outrageously, Republicans have responded with thinly veiled partisan arguments about workload to argue for cutting back the number of D.C. Circuit judges. (Phony arguments that are little more than rank hypocrisy.) Reid’s move will ensure that the court gets its full complement of judges and that overturning tougher environmental regulations among other liberal policy priorities just became a much tougher road for conservatives.
But it’s not just judicial appointees that can have a far-reaching impact. This past week, we saw what it can mean for workers and people in low-income areas when the Senate nominations process functions as intended. After scuffling along for years with only a minimum quorom, a now fully-staffed and fully-engaged NLRB handed down a major ruling against Walmart Monday one that penalized the company for illegally disciplining and firing employees who had participated in labor strikes. Likewise, on Wednesday, the newly created CFPB—whose inaugural director was only just approved by the Senate this past summer after a long filibuster fight—announced its first major settlement against predatory lenders.
With a rabidly conservative Republican majority in the House making legislative progress all but impossible, legal rulings and enforcement actions represent the best shot at policy success for Democrats until 2015, at the earliest. Not coincidentally, it's precisely the kind of duly-earned progress the Senate GOP’s filibuster abuse would have kept on unfairly delaying had Reid not acted. In the end, the story of Thursday's “nuclear option” is mostly a tale of winners, though—our democracy first and foremost, but both Democrats and Republicans too, since the move ultimately makes government more responsive and actually enhances the value of winning elections. (The next GOP Senate Majority Leader will no doubt come to appreciate Reid’s decision when there’s a Republican in the White House). Perhaps the only real loser in all this is the Beltway media, which showed once again that it can miss a big story up to and even after the moment it blows up.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
In an observant post last week, the blogger Braze noted one of the difficulties with using Spoonerisms as the basis for cryptic clueing. A Spoonerism—in which the corresponding sounds of two words are swapped, for example to render “The Lord is a loving shepherd” as “The Lord is a shoving leopard”—is a well-established genre of wordplay, and possibilities for using them abound.
The problem, as Braze pointed out, is that there’s no way to flag a Spoonerism without explicitly invoking Spooner—which instantly gives the game away. He’s absolutely right. We’ve been searching for years for some alternative indicator for a Spoonerism, but with no success. In fact, every clue we’ve ever published that was based on a Spoonerism mentioned Spooner himself.
(Spoonerisms are so named after the Rev. William Spooner, a famously absent-minded Oxford professor who—like Yogi Berra after him—had many more malapropisms attributed to him than are likely to be genuine. A favorite Spooner anecdote, unrelated to Spoonerisms, has him preaching a long Sunday sermon, taking his seat, and then remounting the pulpit to add, “Every time I mentioned Aristotle, I meant St. Paul.”)
Here are a couple of examples from the files:
EASY CHAIR Spooner’s tacky first-born gets a comfy seat (4,5)
RUB NOSES Spooner’s point: flowers kiss on the tundra (3,5)
NEW DEAL Roosevelt’s program, as expected: genuflect to Rev. Spooner (3,4)
But Spoonerisms are only one example of a whole range of wordplay that goes beyond the standard typology of anagrams, reversals, charades and so on. It’s not uncommon for us to come across a bit of wordplay that fits more easily into the world of Will Shortz’s weekly NPR challenge, which comes with explicit instructions (“Take an eight-letter name, then delete one letter and reverse the remainder…”) than the more elliptical style of cryptic crosswords.
Just recently, for instance, we had a puzzle that included the word FIRMWARE. The clue was based on the observation that if you swap the last letters of FIRM and WARE you get FIRE and WARM—a sort of non-phonetic last-letter Spoonerism variant. There’s no obvious way to flag that, so we wound up simply describing the process, albeit somewhat cryptically:
FIRMWARE Permanent programs can heat up if terminals are interchanged (8)
Another example was this clue, based on a very specific letter substitution:
VISCOUNT Aristocrat’s price markdown, initially reduced by 99% (8)
Again, there is no specific name for this kind of wordplay, and so the constructor can do no more than suggest how it works. The result, as the Rev. Spooner might say, is a cladistic Sioux.
What do you think about Spoonerisms and other unusual wordplay? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
“Rick,” a Facebook friend writes, “curious to see what you make of the old debate (which may have some new evidence, see Galbraith II) re JFK and Vietnam. Would we have gone or stayed if JFK lived? Or was he the fervent Cold Warrior some paint him as? (My dad marched in his inauguration, and was almost killed six or seven years later.)”
The argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the American War upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone’s JFK. It was made with only slightly more sophistication by Kenneth O’Donnell in the 1972 book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, in which the old Kennedy hand depicted the president telling him, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m elected.” O’Donnell also claimed that in an October 2, 1963, National Security Council meeting, after debriefing Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor on their recent trip to Saigon, “President Kennedy asked McNamara to announce to the press after the meeting the immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers and to say that we would probably withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. When McNamara was leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, the President called to him, ‘And tell them that means all the helicopter pilots, too.’ ” Promptly, wrote O’Donnell, McNamara double-crossed the president, giving the reporters merely a prediction of the end of America’s war, not Kennedy’s prescription of the end of America’s war: McNamara merely said they thought “the major part of the the U.S. task” would be completed by the end of 1965, nothing about the president’s intention to complete the task by the end of 1965.
O’Donnell was seeing the world through Camelot-colored glasses. As the historian Edwin Moise demonstrates in A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002), NSC minutes are a matter of record, and the notes show the president himself approving a statement that was only a prediction that things would be over by the end of 1965, framed merely as the observation of Taylor and McNamara. (“They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”)
Now, on the broader claim that Kennedy truly intended to end the war by the end of 1965, things get more interesting, and that’s where the case recently made by James K. Galbraith, son of the famous Kennedy hand and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, comes in. As he put it categorically in a letter to The New York Times, “President Kennedy issued a formal decision to withdraw American forces from Vietnam.” Is that true? Only literally, which in the end adds up to mostly nothing.
Kennedy, of course, was the first president to send soldiers to Southeast Asia, 16,732 of them, supposedly as mere “advisers,” but many of them actually combatants. As Kennedy had told famously told The New York Times’s James Reston late in 1961 after the failure at the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.” And a damned good place, his military men kept telling him: early in his third year as president, his Vietnam commanders reported that “barring greatly increased resupply and reinforcement of the Viet Cong by the infiltration, the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”—an opinion he continued hearing repeatedly. That’s important context, for whether JFK’s plans on what to do in Vietnam were contingent on military success in Vietnam—as opposed to cutting and running even if that meant leaving the country to the Communist insurgency—is key to this debate.
As Edwin Moise notes, though, “President Kennedy also read much more pessimistic evaluations. These were written mostly by civilians—some by officials in the State Department, others by journalists like Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam. Kennedy did not openly commit himself to either the optimists or the pessimists.” What he did do was insist publicly that he would never cut and run. July 13, 1963: “We are not going to withdraw from that effort…. we are going to stay there.” September 2: “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” September 26: “We have to stay with it. We must not be fatigued.”
And what of privately? Bug-out plans were indeed drawn up. Galbraith points to an October 4 message from General Taylor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Program currently in progress to train Vietnamese forces will be reviewed and accelerated as necessary to insure that all essential functions visualized to be required for the projected operational environment, to include those now performed by U.S. military units and personnel, can be assumed properly by the Vietnamese by the end of calendar year 1965. All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all U.S. special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965.” (Galbraith himself adds the emphasis.) “Execute the plan,” the memo continues, “to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963…”
Noam Chomsky ably took on this claim by pointing out that the withdrawal plan in question, labeled NSAM 263, included language Galbraith conveniently omits, for instance, “It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.” And that supporting texts included phrases like “without impairment of the war effort,” and that “what furthers the war effort we support, and what interferes the with the war effort we oppose,” and “our actions are related to our fundamental objective of victory.” Moises points to language in minutes from the October 2, 1963, NSC meeting: “President Kennedy indicated he did not want to get so locked into withdrawal plans that it would be difficult to cancel them if the war did not go so well after all.”
In other words, whether John F. Kennedy’s formal decision would be carried through in the interim between October 1963 and January 1966 was contingent on what happened in the future. One day this summer I issued a formal decision to go the beach. Then it rained. And so I did not go to the beach.
And as anyone who knows anything about the Vietnam War knows, the people funneling intelligence to the president were alarmingly adept (“the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”) at claiming the sun was shining when it actually was pouring down rain. In fact, when it came to America’s military prospects there, it was winter in Seattle just about all the time. But tomorrow was always going to be sunny, if you asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The best evidence that this “formal decision” by JFK lacks forecasting power is the actual outcome of phase I of that selfsame formal decision: to remove 1,000 soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1963. Only 432 were actually removed by the end of 1963 (“although,” writes Moise, “some sources give lower figures,” and even that may have merely been the result of shifting deployment schedules). Sometimes war is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
And that’s not because there was a new president by the end of 1963, at least if you trust Galbraith, who cites as clinching his argument (though it actually proves his argument is wrong) that a December 11, 1963, memo noting that the plan to withdraw 1,000 soldiers was still in force, “with no reference to the change of commander in chief.” Through the rest of 1963, in other words (Galbraith’s words), America’s Vietnam policy was still Kennedy’s, not LBJ’s. The policy, as articulated two days before Kennedy’s death by Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s ambassador to Vietnam: “We should continue to keep before us the goal of setting dates for phasing out U.S. activities and turning them over to the Vietnamese…. We can always grant last-minute extensions if we think it wise to do so.”
Finally, consider context. We all know how the Cold War worked: Republican claims about “losing China” motivated a generation of Democrats into pants-pissing fears about not looking tough enough on the reds. Writes Moise, “It is hard to believe that Kennedy as a man who had spent so much effort cultivating an image of machismo and youthful vigor would not have cared about being thought a Communist appeaser.” He observes, with subtly and sharp historical acumen, “It is not at all unusual in Washington for people to write plans based on a ‘best-case’ scenario. It also seems possible that when Kennedy based plans on the optimists’ projections, he was using this as a way of putting pressure on senior military officers to be realistic in their reports. They might be less inclined to write inflated claims of progress if they were clearly told that such claims would be treated as justifications for troop pullouts.”
He concludes archly, “To have reached a firm decision to withdraw, so long in advance, he would have to have felt that no possible new development, between 1963 and 1965, might create a prospect of an acceptable outcome of a continued struggle. To have thought the situation was such an unmitigated and unmitigatable disaster, he would have had to think that most of what was being said about he Vietnam War in the National Security Council was nonsense, and that his top military and foreign policy advisors were fools or liars. If he felt that, he did an extraordinary job of concealing it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
So what would have happened in Vietnam had JFK lived? Let the man who knew him best have the last word. Asked in 1964 whether America would have “go[ne] in on land” if the South Vietnamese were about to lose, Bobby Kennedy answered, “Well, we’d face that when we came to it.”
Part II of this series considers whether JFK’s assassination influenced the passage of LBJ’s sweeping social reforms.
Charlotte Hays, the conservative writer and director of cultural programs at the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum, has a new book out, titled When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. A broadside against the moral and aesthetic failures of the lower orders, it’s a fascinating work, not for what it says but for what it represents. It’s a sign that at least some on the right are abandoning the NASCAR-fetishizing Palinesque faux-populism of recent decades for a more overt style of class warfare.
A chapter on the foreclosure crisis and crushing student debt, for example, is called “White Trash Money Management.” “There are, I thus adduce, two keys to not being White Trash: having a job and paying your bills on time,” Hays sniffs. “The first is getting more difficult in this economy, but it is still White Trash to go on disability if you aren’t positively unable to lift a finger.”
Hays’s work is saturated with that particular kind of right-wing smugness born of the conviction that one’s willingness to express common prejudices is a sign of free-thinking audacity. What’s interesting is where it’s directed—not at liberals or their sacred cows, but at fat, broke, ordinary Americans. “We look like hell as a nation, and fat people bear a large brunt of responsibility for this,” she writes. “I can remember when going to New York meant seeing beautiful, pencil-thin people in stylish clothes on Fifth Avenue. Where are they now? The other day I saw a fat guy in polyester in my favorite New York restaurant.” Heaven forfend! She’s so delighted with her description of diabetes as “the talismanic White Trash disease” that she uses it twice.
This marks quite a change from the dominant conservative style of the last two decades. Until recently, the modern right defined itself in opposition to caricatured elitists—particularly fashionable New Yorkers. Think of the Club For Growth’s famous anti-Howard Dean commercial, with the earthy old couple decrying the candidate’s “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, volvo-driving, New York Times–reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.” Tom Frank’s hugely successful What’s the Matter With Kansas? was all about this sort of ostentatious down-home shtick. “In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war,” he wrote. “[O]n one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.”
This style, obviously, hasn’t entirely vanished from the right, but lately a bit of overt disgust towards those unpretentious millions has crept in. Or maybe crept out—if conservatives once tried to keep their contempt for hoi polloi behind closed doors, Mitt Romney–style, now they’re displaying it proudly.
You can see it in the growing prominence of Fox’s Stuart Varney, who got his own show on Fox Business Network in 2011. When he’s not giving interviews about his love of juicing and his many estates, Varney specializes in sneering at the poor in an impossibly posh English accent. (“Many of them have things,” he once said. “What they lack is the richness of spirit.”) Then there’s Charles Murray, who, taking a break from theorizing the innate inferiority of African-Americans, turned his attention to inequality among white people in last year’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. That book argued, among other things, that a “decay in industriousness” among working-class white men, not decay in the labor market, is a major factor in our country’s growing class divide.
And now we have this nasty little book, which has received favorable coverage in National Review, The Washington Times and The Weekly Standard. Writing in the latter, Judy Bachrach called it a “plaintive tract…. a serious political one, in fact.” In a sense, Bachrach is right. Hays’s flip dehumanization of struggling people does have a serious purpose. It’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore inequality’s ravages or to blame them on gay marriage or snotty university professors. Conservatives find themselves faced with a choice: either acknowledge that our economic system is failing the American people, or deride the American people for failing our economic system.
Hays opts for the latter. Her book’s message is essentially the same as Murray’s: Americans are falling behind because they are lazy and dissolute. She even mocks the idea that full-time work alone should be enough to escape poverty. The colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth, she writes, “knew you had to work full time—and then some—and maybe still do a little starving.”
In some ways, it’s nice to see right-wingers drop their everyman act and be forthright in their defense of traditional hierarchies—at least they’re being honest. Still, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” Hays’s book shows us what it looks like when ugly, vulgar ideas are displayed without shame. Maybe we’d be better off with at least a pretense of decency.
Michelle Goldberg on why liberals need to kick Alec Baldwin to the curb.
The war in Afghanistan has lasted twelve years, making it the longest in American history. Despite the unpopularity of the conflict, President Obama is working with the government of Afghanistan to formulate a new security deal that would leave US troops in the country for at least a decade more—without the approval of Congress.
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Senator Jeff Merkley, are planning to introduce an amendment to the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would slow down the President’s plans to turn a 12-year conflict into a twenty-three-year war. The amendment “expresses the sense of the Senate” that President Obama should seek congressional approval no later than June 1, 2014 for any extended presence in Afghanistan. As The Nation’s George Zornick points out, although the amendment isn’t binding, a debate in Congress could “mirror the debate over intervention in Syria earlier this year—where congressional support never materialized.”
The Democratic leadership may not let the Senate vote on this crucial amendment. Join us in calling on Senate majority leader Harry Reid to bring Senator Merkley’s amendment up for a vote. Our elected representatives must have a say in whether we prolong the war in Afghanistan. Then, to amplify your voice, call the Senate majority leader at 202-224-3542 and tweet at him @SenatorReid.
Earlier this week,The Nation’s George Zornick reported on Senator Merkley’s plan to introduce this crucial amendment.
On the twelfth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! spoke to Malalai Joya, an activist and former member of the Afghan Parliament who has argued forcefully against a continued United States military presence in her country.
Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who has wisely determined that he does not want to become an American version of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, says he will take a leave of absence from the US House of Representatives to address his penchant for cocaine.
“I’m struggling with this disease, but I know that I can overcome it,” explains the conservative Republican.
Fair enough. The congressman wants to finally deal with an addiction problem he says he’s struggled with “on and off for years.” And there is every reason to wish him well as he does so.
But it would be good for Radel and his colleagues to note that he has identified his challenge as a disease, not a bad habit.
That’s a very different line than was taken by the House Republicans Caucus (of which Radel has been an enthusiastic member) when the chamber this year gave voice-vote approval to an amendment that allows states to require drug-testing of food stamp recipients. Why would they seek to penalize victims of what the congressman says is a disease? Why would they go after the neediest Americans in what Congressman Jim McGovern—the House’s most ardent advocate for nutrition programs—with a “degrading and mean-spirited” approach?
Why, in general, is there a rush to penalize Americans who are in need far more aggressively than Radel, a former television reporter who was elected to Congress last year with the backing of Tea Party groups that have made it a priority to promote crackdowns on recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Radel’s penalty for an admitted purchase of cocaine from an undercover agent will be a year of supervised probation.
He will not lose his job, or the benefits that will allow him to overcome his disease. He even suggests that he wants to “continue to serve.”
Radel seems to be safe from the worst ravages of the drug war. He's getting a chance to "overcome" his problems.
But Americans who are not members of Congress continue to be harmed. Shouldn't they get the same chance that Radel has gotten?
§ The number of people behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than a half of a million today—an 1100-percent increase.
§ Drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, totaling more than 1.63 million arrests in 2010. More than four out of five of these arrests were for mere possession, and forty-six percent of these arrests (750,591) were for marijuana possession alone.
§ Arrests and incarceration for drugs—even for first time, low-level violations—can result in debilitating collateral consequences for an individual and their family. A conviction for a drug law violation can result in the loss of employment, property, public housing, food stamp eligibility, financial aid for college, and the right to vote—even after serving time behind bars.
And Radel’s House Republican Caucus just led the fight to make it even harder on people suffering from what the congressman identifies as a disease—or for people who simply engage in recreational marijuana use—to get by.
There are lots of calls for Radel to step down.
But wouldn’t it be better for him to get his treatment and come around to the realization that penalizing and punishing people who use drugs is a bad policy? Wouldn’t it be better if he recognized, as a participant in future policy debates, that this bad policy is too frequently applied in a “new Jim Crow” manner that sees people of color and low-income Americans face far harsher penalties than wealthy and politically connected white folks?
Radel could be a leader in backing legislative proposals would change not just policies but the broader debate about how to end a failed “drug war.” So, too, could more members of a House Republican Caucus that still errs too frequently on the side of punishment of those in need rather than common sense.
Some Republicans have already come around. There’s bipartisan support for some of the soundest legislative proposals. But the support has not been sufficient to get the House moving on what the Drug Policy Alliance identifies as essential reforms, such as:
§ The Safety Valve Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and in the U.S. House by Representatives Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Virginia, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted. (Notably, Radel is a co-sponsor of this measure. Unfortunately, he’s one of just 18 House members—15 Democrats, 3 Republicans—who are now on board.)
§ The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the US Senate by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and in the House by Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug law violations, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted. (Ten members—7 Democrats and three Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)
§ The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the US House by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.(Seventeen House members—12 Democrats and 5 Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)
These pieces of legislation represent vital steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the first step is to recognize that Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” has failed and that it is absurd to continue to respond to that failure with an unreasonable and unequal regimen of penalty and punishment.
Zoë Carpenter describes how inequality is “literally killing America.”
Meet the new occupation: same as the old occupation! Or pretty much: not as many troops, not as many dead and wounded every week, but still. In the new US-Afghanistan accord—which may or may not be ratified early next week by President Hamid Karzai’s Loya Jirga, and which may or may not be signed until some in mid-2014—the United States will be able to maintain as many as nine military bases in Afghanistan. In addition, American troops and US contractors can go in and out of Afghanistan without visas. And neither the troops nor the contractors will be subject to Afghan law.
In a hilarious statement of his priorities, Karzai said: “We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and laws and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money.” The delegates to the Loya Jirga laughed, said The New York Times.
The Afghan foreign ministry released draft text of the accord, which (among other things) codifies that the United States must continue to finance Afghanistan’s ragtag security forces indefinitely, or at least through 2024, saying “the United States shall have an obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of” the Afghan forces.
According to The Washington Post: “The United States can maintain up to nine bases, and American troops and support contractors will be able to enter Afghanistan without having to obtain a visa.” Karzai said that as many as 15,000 foreign troops could remain in Afghanistan through 2024. Of those, it’s expected that less than 10,000 would be American troops, including Special Forces units that, under the terms of the accord, will be able to conduct night raids against targets suspected of terrorism. And the bases can be used, presumably, for launching drone attacks against targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The government of Afghanistan gave in on a critical US demand, that American troop and contractors not be subject to Afghan law. That was a deal-breaker in the talks with Iraq, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected a similar US demand. Says the Afghan text of the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, in rather convoluted language:
Afghanistan, while retaining its sovereignty, recognizes the particular importance of disciplinary control, including judicial and non-judicial measures, by the United States forces authorities over members of the force and of the civilian component. Afghanistan therefore agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over such persons in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan. Afghanistan authorizes the United States to hold trial in such cases, or take other disciplinary action, as appropriate, in the territory of Afghanistan.
The text adds: “Passports and visas shall not be required. Such personnel shall be exempt from Afghan law and regulations on registration and control of foreign citizens.”
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, is pushing a proposal on Capitol Hill to require that the continued occupation of Afghanistan, even if ratified by a US-Afghan accord, be endorsed by Congress. That’s an interesting idea, but despite strong public disapproval in polls for continuing the war in Afghanistan in any form, it’s far-fetched to think that Congress would disapprove the pact.
Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on how diplomacy with Iran is straining US-Israel relations.
Today’s top—though belated—media criticism comes from Erik Wemple from The Washington Post. He dissects the long-lamented but until now much-overlooked blending of ads and coverage within Mike Allen’s fabled, overrated, “Playbook” morning tip sheet (and e-mail newsletter) at Politico. Allen, a former Post reporter, has been one of the chief Politico staffers since its beginning.
One can only cheer when Wemple observes early on in his lengthy piece, “It’s about time that Politico’s Allen got his due as a native-advertising pioneer.”
Other media commentators are now responding and I’ll chart their reactions (and any Allen reply) below at the end of my piece. Jonathan Chait at New York magazine has tweeted, for example: “The ethical disaster most journalists would define as a firing offense is, for Mike Allen, a job description.” And he’s written this. Andrew Sullivan’s headline declared, “Mike Allen, Busted.” Seveal wags have retitled the Wemple piece, “SLAYBOOK.”
So what’s native advertising?
One of the hottest issues in journalism today is “native” advertising, the tricks that publishers deploy to elide the domains of journalism and advertising. BuzzFeed has sustained gray-bearded criticism for its boundary-defying listicles. The Atlantic earlier this year ran a native ad from the Church of Scientology that inflamed its audience and prompted an apology and a review of Atlantic procedures for approving ads. Forbes, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post are also experimenting with this approach to funding journalism.
Until now, Allen’s alleged transgressions, well-blended as they are—for example, ads from the US Chamber of Commerce plus outsized coverage of its work and views—have never been catalogued. Wemple took the time and summarizes:
A review of “Playbook” archives shows that the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of “Playbook.” The pattern is a bit difficult to suss out if you glance at “Playbook” each day for a shot of news and gossip. When searching for references to advertisers in “Playbook,” however, it is unmistakable. And its practitioner is expanding the franchise.
Beyond the Chamber…
Another big name that’s gotten a healthy dose of earned media from Playbook is BP, a company that has faced quite a challenge in image-conscious Washington, thanks to the 2010 oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the company. In recent months, BP has blanketed “Playbook” with ads hyping the company’s status as “America’s largest energy investor.” The free BP mentions authored by Allen tell a similar story.
Then there are examples involving Goldman Sachs and other big-business entities, along with Allen’s going out of his way to show some love for Sheldon Adelson and so on. Allen and Politico chief John Harris refused interviews for the piece. Wemple:
In rejecting a sit-down discussion, Editor-in-Chief John Harris said the premise “is without merit in any shape or form.” Without an interview, it’s impossible to judge Allen’s motivations. For example, does he write nice things about the chamber because he wants more advertisers or because he feels their agenda doesn’t get fair play in other outlets? Did he publish those BP plugs because he thought they were newsworthy or because he’s got a friend at the company?
As noted earlier, Andrew Sullivan has weighed in at his popular blog, The Dish.
Dish readers know what I think of “native advertizing” and “sponsored content.” If it’s an advertorial, just call it and clearly label it an advertorial! Full disclosure and transparency are essential. The rest is whoredom, not journalism. When a journalist becomes a copy-writer for big advertisers giving him or his publication money, and does not clearly disclose the conflict of interest, he or she has ceased to be an independent journalist and joined the lucrative profession of public relations.
Read Erik Wemple’s evisceration of Mike Allen’s Playbook and make up your own mind. But to my eyes, it reads like a meticulously researched tale of at least the appearance of blatant corruption.
Glenn Greenwald has tweeted that the Wemple piece shows “how Mike Allen reaches new lows in renting out his journalism to the highest corporate bidder.” Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones editor: “Wemple’s story codifies what many have suspected: Lack of a moral core at center of Politico.” Jay Rosen: “At issue: what is an ad and what is news?”
And this from Nick Confessore, political reporter for The New York Times: “Near absence of
@ErikWemple’s story on my Twitter feed a pretty good testament to how much of D.C. officialdom sups at Mike’s table.” David Carr, media writer at the Times: “Playbook reads different through the prism of @erikwemple’s eye-popping story. Brutally good content analytics.”
But Philip Bump at The Atlantic’s Wire muses: “Not to detract from Wemple’s piece, but anyone unaware of Playbook’s cloying obsequiousness clearly doesn’t actually read Playbook.”
Michael Serazio explores the troubled waters of sponsored content in the digital age.