Monday, November 25, 2013

Harry Reid Bayonets A Grand

Harry Reid Bayonets A Grand Illusion

La Grande Illusion, the 1937 Jean Renoir film, is one of the great masterpieces of French cinema.  Although the story is set in WWI, it is rooted in time, less about war, and more about the relationships between men.

Two French aviators, the aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu and his working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, go on a reconnaissance flight. Their plane is tracked and shot down by the German aviator and Junker, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein. The two Frenchmen land safely, but are captured.  When Von Rauffenstein returns to base and learns this, he inquires whether they are officers, and when the answer is in the affirmative, they are invited to lunch.  During the meal, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances—and an odd friendship is begun.

The idyll is short-lived, and de Boeldieu and Maréchal are moved from camp to camp, suffering greatly, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein himself.  Van Rauffenstein can no longer fly, having been badly injured in battle. He chafes at inaction as much as he chafes at brace on his back, but he renews his friendship with de Boeldieu. 

Wintersborn, the Germans think, is escape proof, but de Boeldieu comes up with a scheme.  The prisoners create a commotion, and when the German guards assemble, de Boeldieu calls attention to himself on a fortress roof.  The guards shoot, but thanks to de Boeldieu’s distraction, Maréchal and another prisoner, Rosenthal, escape.

Von Rauffenstein emerges and has the guards stop shooting at de Boeldieu.  He begs his friend to come down, but de Boeldieu refuses. Von Rauffenstein finally shoots at de Bouldieu’s legs, but the stiffness from his injuries causes him to hit de Bouldieu’s stomach, mortally wounding him.  In de Bouldieu’s final moments, Von Rauffenstein, who is consumed by guilt, attends to him.  His death marks the passing of not merely a friendship, but an era where the kinship of those of a common class was often more important that mere national borders.  Their era is passing, to be replaced by one that is perhaps more egalitarian, but more brutish.

I don’t know if Harry Reid is an old movie fan, but I think he’s absorbed the lessons of Grand Illusion, both past and present.  His institution, the Senate, has long functioned as a type of aristocracy, a “cooling dish” designed by the Founders as a place for contemplation and debate, quite untainted by the hurly burly of those crass two-year House of Representative types. 

Sarcasm aside, there is much to support this argument.  The Founders were influenced by the House of Commons/House of Lords model, as are almost all of the State legislatures.  Theoretically, the six-year term serves as insulation from the hottest political passions and allows the luxury of legislating in a more inclusive way.  Even that wasn’t enough, however. The Constitution itself created an even greater opportunity for the elites to keep sway. Until the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913 (1913!!) it was state legislatures that picked Senators. 

Inside the Senate, a web of rules has taken hold to give minorities, even a minority of one, the ability to delay or even block legislation or Presidential nominees.  The filibuster is the most prominent one, but procedural tricks like the Senatorial hold can gum up the works effectively.  Again, this is supposed to have a moderating effect: if the majority knows that the minority can be obstructive, they pick with more care and “cool the dish” again.  

The system has largely worked.  You can always find mistakes or overreaching, but generally Senators have played by the rules.  They roll out the filibuster for something really big, with the implicit understanding that it’s a “no” for this person or law, at this time, under this set of circumstances.  Historically, it was preserved for things like Southern opposition to Civil Rights legislation or a way-out-there nominee—a discreet, isolated, no.  Through 1970, there were virtually no filibusters.

Have there been mistakes and overreach, by both sides?  Of course.  But they have been mitigated by four interlocking concepts.  The first is that, to an extent, elections do matter, and you give the President a certain amount of leeway (not unlimited, but a fair amount) to pick his own Cabinet and judicial nominees. The second is practical: government has to function, and while nutty Congressman can be bomb-throwers because they have no one to answer to other than their possibly equally nutty District, Senators have a broader responsibility and know better.  The third is purely self-protective, although probably the most motivating; there is no such thing as a permanent Senate majority, and the shoe will be on the other foot.  And the fourth is a corollary of the third: use the tool too often, and it will be taken away.

But the rules of the game have changed, because the aristocracy of the Senate is fading into irrelevance.  The numbers are staggering.  The GOP uses the filibuster for virtually everything they oppose, both appointments and legislation.  As Ezra Klein quotes Professor Gregory Koger of the University of Miami, it has become the “new veto point in American politics”. 

There are a lot of reasons for this.  The “aristocracy” is fading—fully 40 new Senators have been elected over the past decade, and many are coming from the fiercely partisan House of Representatives.  These people have no institutional memory beyond trench warfare.  Mix the newbies from the House with the Tea Party-take-no-prisoner types like Ted Cruz, and cooperation becomes a mortal sin.  And, it is not only the parties that have become more polarized; the regionalization of ideology is becoming the rule.  In effect, whole states are becoming more like Congressional Districts—win the primary by satisfying the most motivated and rabid, and you win the Senate seat.  That pulls everyone from the center--even established Republican Senators who have been dealmakers in the past have had to prove their bona fides by playing the partisan. That’s not merely rhetoric—look at Lindsey Graham (former member of the “Gang of Fourteen”) blocking everyone in sight.  His excuse—a 60 Minutes report on Benghazi.  When CBS had to retract it, Graham simply said, “never mind” and dug in.  His original rationale was no longer relevant, but the answer was no, it would remain no, it will always be no.

Harry Reid is no saint.  But he also recognizes the obvious. In a game where one side no longer plays by the rules, then the rules only constrain the side observing them.  He got support from Senate Democrats, many of who are still institutionally (not politically) conservative, because they now believe that the minute the GOP gets control of the Senate, they will toss out any Senate rule they don’t agree with, no matter how long-standing.  In this respect, John Boehner did the nation a great disservice last month with his eleventh-hour seizure of power in the House—he eliminated the rule that any House Member could get a vote on a pending bill and arrogated it only to the Speaker or his designee.  And, the GOP’s opposition to three Obama nominees to the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals might have been the clincher. Even Republicans agree that all three are highly qualified.  They just don’t want them on that Court, because it is presently a tie.  So they have outdone themselves with specious excuses, including the latest that the Court isn’t busy enough.  There isn’t a Democrat in the Senate who doesn’t believe that this alleged lack of workload will suddenly disappear upon the election of a Republican President.

In short, there is no trust.  While it is hard to visualize Reid and McConnell as the dashing, elegant, and honorable de Bouldieu and Von Rauffenstein, simply sticking to the rules shouldn’t have been a stretch.  But they haven’t, to everyone’s detriment.

Renoir’s film was widely admired and became the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar.  The original print was thought lost, but, in the late 1950s, a partially restored version was made from extant prints.  Renoir personally reintroduced La Grande Illusion, saying “It is also a story about human relationships, and I am convinced that the question is so important today that, if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world.”

I agree with Renoir. And I think Reid made a mistake, because I believe human relationships mean something, and the rules mean something. 

But, I understand Reid’s thinking.  As de Boeldieu tells von Rauffenstein, "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time.”

Michael Liss

Please visit us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, November 18, 2013

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

The great 20th Century pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a renowned neurotic. The litany of his personal quirks could fill a small book and, several times during his more than fifty-year career, his stage fright overcame him and he simply stopped performing in public. 

On May 19th, 1965, after a hibernation of twelve years, Horowitz returned to Carnegie Hall.  For the classical set, this was the equivalent of the Beatles landing, and, for hours before, the crowd lined up around the building in anticipation. Wanda, Horowitz’s wife (and the daughter of Arturo Toscanini) sent out cups of coffee.  By every account, Horowitz was a wreck.  Schuyler Chapin, later head of the Metropolitan Opera, was at that time acting as a sort of major domo to Horowitz, and later said he literally spun his charge around 180 degrees and shoved him out on the stage.  

Horowitz took his bows, sat down in front of his personal Steinway (he only played on his own piano, placed just-so on the stage) and opened with a Bach-Busoni transcription.  His giant hands crashed down on the keys.  And, before he even got started, he hit a clunker more at home at a sixth grade recital.  A collective, stifled gasp from the crowd.  If there were a New Yorker drawing of the scene, it would have had to have included a caption of  “oh no, he’s lost it.”

This is a week where we both celebrate and mourn perfection and imperfection.  Tuesday, November 19, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Friday, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

History can be a harsh mirror.  If there is one enduring impression you get from watching Larry Sabato discuss JFK in his excellent on-line course, it is that how very great and how very small Kennedy could be.  There is something about JFK that loves the camera; look at old photos and newsreels and you will find his image creates the odd effect of being colorized when others are in black and white.  Stack him up against the politicians of the day, against Nixon, or Khrushchev, and you see an expression of an America as it would like to be, youthful, virile, and self-confident.  He is as far away from the party apparatchik or the 50’s era man in the gray flannel suit as is possible.  You can go to the moon with JFK.  You can go anywhere.  But there was a darker side to the trip.

JFK’s death was so public and so tragic, the mourning so exquisitely staged, that his greatest legacy was his image.  Lyndon Johnson was both bedeviled and enabled by it.  The most powerful Senator of his time, perhaps of any time, he found himself needing to make a ritual bow with each accomplishment.  Who could resist even the most far-reaching when it was packaged in black crepe? 

Listen to Sabato, who idolized JFK as a boy, and memorized his Inaugural Address, and you hear the undertones of irony and sadness. The irony, of course, is that JFK would likely never have gone as far as Johnson did, either on civil rights, or the Great Frontier.  JFK was an unconventional and bold politician, but a conservative and gradualist lawmaker.  And the sadness is that the public image of Kennedy hid a less flattering side; his willingness to play bare-knuckle politics, his early-term inexperience, his uncontrolled sexual behavior.  Sabato’s conclusion: that as those with memories of JFK pass inexorably from the stage, his image will become less important than his actual accomplishments.  He will no longer be thought of as in the first rank of Presidents. 

Lincoln was as ugly and ungainly as Kennedy graceful.  “Friend and foe alike” openly mocked him.  But he and Kennedy shared one trait; they were both men capable of inspiring eloquence, of defining a future filled with aspirations. 

At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke for barely two minutes—not even enough time for the photographer to set his lens.  What Lincoln accomplished in a few hundred words has been recounted thousands of times over.  Whole books have been written about it.  It is a magnificent work; classical in structure, both mournful and optimistic, rescuing the Declaration of Independence from the blood and ashes in which it was immersed.  The genius of Lincoln’s prose is in its simplicity and its modesty.  Politicians and orators are not heroes, their words do not elevate the sacrifices of those who risked all for a principle. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln lived this.  He grounded the intellectual aspects of his leadership around core principles; Union and Freedom.  For those ends, he was willing to employ every tool at his disposal.  But as to the emotional, he was taxed to his limits.  The political historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote “Lincoln was shaken by the Presidency.  Back in Springfield, politics had been sort of a exhilarating game; but in the White House, politics was power, and power was responsibility…To be confronted with the fruits of his victory only to find that it meant choosing between life and death for others was immensely sobering.” 

Somewhere in dark and depressive parts of his mind he found his core.  Lincoln is great not because of his words but because of his dogged humanity and essential humility.  He fought without joy, but with purpose.  He probably wielded more power than any President in United States History, and there are many who still curse his memory, but there is no generational clock on his star. 

It might seem odd to find Vladimir Horowitz, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy in the same post, but somehow it seemed appropriate. All three men had a peculiar genius.  Kennedy’s trumpet perhaps sounded the brightest, but may well fade with time.  Lincoln’s beat seems that of the human heart, timeless.  And, as for Horowitz, he stumbled and almost seemed to teeter during that first piece at Carnegie Hall.  And then he centered himself.  His hands regained their magic, he soared.  I was fortunate enough, years apart and in separate cities, to have spoken to two people who met on line that day, waiting to get in to see the master.  Both described their horror after the first few notes.  Then they went on, their memories as fresh as if it had been just last weekend.  They both concluded with exactly the same words “of course, he finished beautifully.”

Sometimes, you just have to wait.

November 18, 2013
Michael Liss (MM)

follow us on twitter @ SyncPol

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Conspiracy Theories--How JFK's Assassination Explains It All

Conspiracy Theories—How JFK’s Assassination Explains It All

It was all downhill after the Warren Commission. 

I have been participating in Professor Larry Sabato’s online course “The Kennedy Half-Century, and there is a segment covering the investigation of the assassination of JFK.  Sabato makes a point that is rather startling in its scope; that the findings of the Warren Commission led to the pervasive cynicism that so many Americans have about their government.

It is a fascinating story. The nation is traumatized by the public execution of their young, energetic, impossibly charismatic President.  It is all played out on television; the early cut-in to regular programming, the gripping moment when Walter Cronkite announces that JFK has been declared dead, the elegant, mournful funeral with John-John saluting his father’s casket, and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. 

We live in a culture where violence is ritualized and glamorized to the point where it like empty calories, but watch this clip of CBS’s coverage.  The grainy black and white, the stunned reporter for the CBS Dallas affiliate almost incoherently repeating himself, the well-dressed crowd in the Dallas Trade Mart (JFK was headed there to give a speech) moving back and forth without direction, the African-American waiter mopping away his tears.

That is reality, unscripted, chaotic, and human.  The feelings of shock and of loss feel real, because they are real.  Watch Cronkite’s intensely personal reaction:  how he takes his glasses off, how he dips his head, how his voice catches.

People wanted answers.  There were wild rumors floating around of vast conspiracies.  President Johnson needs an authoritative determination about the events surrounding JFK’s death to bring an end to the speculation, and he wants it wrapped up before the following year’s election.  He brings in the respected Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren to head a commission that will bring finality.  Faced with a time-line, the Commission’s review is anything but exhaustive, and many of the members don’t even show up for the majority of the meetings.  Numerous witnesses are never interviewed.  Contrary data is discarded. A desire for closure leads to a convenient conclusion.

The Chief Justice goes to the White House to present the report. The iconography is right—the portentous music and voice-over, the white haired and distinguished Warren trailed by his Commission, the backlit Oval Office, the grim-faced LBJ and the solemn handshake.  But the conclusions are immediately mocked.  No conspiracy.  Oswald acted alone and his secret (if there was any) died with him.  The Zapruder Film that shows the impact on JFK and Texas Governor John Connelly to be too close in time for Oswald to have fired two shots (he was using a single-action bolt rifle) leads to the so-called “single bullet” theory.  A lawyer for the commission (34 year old Arlen Specter) concludes that a single shot from Oswald’s rifle took off the top of Kennedy’s head, tore through his throat, and then hit Connelly, causing additional serious injuries.

And yet, while Specter might have been right (and he has his defenders) the feeling in the country was that Commission’s conclusions were political.  The people weren’t being told the truth by their government, and the cover-up began at the very top--the President and the Chief Justice. 

Why?  Adults understood that there was always a little chicanery in politics, and a little secrecy in foreign and military affairs. But there is a fundamental difference between the small-bore fabrications that make up a politician’s daily life and a whopper on a topic of universal interest.  Why would our government lie?  What purpose is to be served?  What is the hidden secret that is so damaging that these supposedly wiser heads think the country cannot be trusted with the truth?

Fifty years later, we just don’t know.  The conclusions of the Warren Report, even those not entirely substantiated by the evidence, might very well be true.  But there remains clamminess; the discomforting sense the government, our government, either didn’t look hard enough, or if it did, decided not to share.  If we cared so much, what does it say that they cared so little?

This mistrust has never left us. It’s been passed on like an untreatable virus from generation to generation.  It is amplified by ambitious politicians and by opinion makers looking for votes and attention.  It runs amok on the web, where any distortion can go viral, and any set of data-points can be arranged to “prove” even the most outlandish.

A healthy mistrust of government isn’t a bad thing--I briefly considered reciting one of the truly crazy rumors, but edited it out when I realized that the mere mention of it might get me on some NSA list of crackpots.  But pure paranoia, seeing conspiracies everywhere, is a little too much for most rational people. So they align themselves around a set of truths—political truths—that permit them to focus their fears. It leads to a different type of bi-polarity: government is not to be trusted, but their guys are the moral ones.  This also allows them to live with the inherent dissonance in some of their positions; combatting evil requires a strong hand, and a virtuous end justifies the means.   

So, if you truly believe that (Democratic, of course) vote fraud is pervasive, it was perfectly fine that Ken Cuccinelli purged 40,000 voters from the ranks in the weeks before the election.  And, if you are convinced that the only electoral result that is valid is the one that supports your candidate, you have absolutely no problem with the Virginia State Electoral Board issuing a ruling this last Friday (that would be three days after the election) that requires provisional voters (including some just purged) to physically appear on their own behalf (on a work day) to plead their cases, instead of having a representative.  This despite long accepted bipartisan practice.  And which county is this being applied to?  Fairfax County, which went heavily for the Democratic candidate for Attorney General. How many provisional votes in question?  About 400.  Who cares about 400 votes?  Well, Democrat Mark Herring trails Republican Mark Obenshain by about 130 votes Statewide, and Fairfax County has gone more than 2/1 for Herring.  You can do the math.  So, apparently, can others.  Just why did the Virginia State Electoral Board change the rules after the election? On the order of the Attorney General, a Mr. Ken Cuccinelli.

Put the purge and the sudden fealty to voting rules together in a tight election, and you have a bit of a conspiracy, if one would want to see it.  Put together a promise by a President “if you like it, you can keep it” and the enactment of a controversial program, and you can see another. 

Perhaps that is the true legacy of the investigation into JFK’s assassination; an expectation that those in power, or who want power, trim constantly to meet a personal or political agenda.  Government that is not so much immoral, as it is amoral. 

I would say Professor Sabato is on to something.  Let’s call it the single bullet theory of governing.  Take your shot, truthful or not.  You never know who will believe it.

Michael Liss (MM)

Follow us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, November 4, 2013

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

When I returned home Saturday I found the following gem in my mailbox:  A post card imploring me to vote Lhota-Garland under an all caps heading “THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE!”  On the flip side, above a backdrop of a chalk outline of a victim; “DO THE MATH, DE BLASIO + KALLOS+ NO STOP & FRISK= MORE MURDERS.”

There is nothing like politics to bring substance and intelligent debate to a complex issue.  If I vote for de Blasio or Ben Kallos (Garland’s opponent for my local City Council seat) I am complicit in murder.

Wonderful.  That is certainly a way to get my support.  If only real life were this easy.

If people would stop shouting at each other we would realize that there are two unacknowledged truths about stop and frisk:  The first is that it probably reduces crime.  The second is that stop and frisk is dehumanizing. It makes the target less of a citizen by striking at a basic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution: to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.  To my Tea Party friends who warn of a riots and murders if one iota of stop and frisk is curtailed, I would only ask them to put on their three-cornered hats and imagine themselves in Boston in 1773, when some kindly men in red coats respected the rights of no one to be secure in their homes and their persons.  We fought a Revolution to secure those rights, and the Constitution is a balance between liberty and security, erring, if you would call it that, on the side of liberty. Stopping and frisking someone, without some underlying probable cause, simply because of the way they look, is on the wrong side of that balance. 

The same basic issue arises in the ongoing debate about the massive spying apparatus we have developed.  Right now, the headline news is the “shocked” reactions of the Germans and French to the disclosure that we were listening in on their leaders’ pillow talk. Quelle horreur! Without spending too much time dwelling on the manifest hypocrisy here, I would have to say, as an American, that I expect my government to do what is necessary overseas to keep me safe.  Espionage is a tool in the toolbox, and while it may be an unpleasant truth, and polite ladies and gentlemen may recoil a bit, I’m neither surprised nor all that much troubled.  When the Germans and the French start taking their orders from Washington and supporting us in all endeavors, then we can revisit the situation.

Unfortunately, the appalled reactions to knowing what type of cookies Angela Merkel might like temporarily obscure the primary issue—that of massive domestic spying. The NSA program is stop and frisk writ large, over an entire population.  If every phone conversation, every Internet search, every email, even every card-swipe can be monitored, then where are we as a free people?  The argument is exactly the same as stop and frisk. It isn’t that our security/police should be powerless to investigate potential threats.  It is the unpleasant reality of our lives that crime (and terror) exists and need to be confronted.  But, as citizens, we are entitled to be able to walk the streets, or surf the net, without being watched and detained, unless and until there is probable cause that we are about to do something criminal.  It’s not the other way around: “we watch you until we have probable cause.”

What both these programs do is to universalize, and institutionalize something that really should be resolved in the political and judicial area, through careful consideration and compromise.  We should be discussing these things, finding the correct approach, and implementing it. 

But, if you look at the language employed by the anonymous supporter of Lhota and Garland (and their surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani) you will see the same sensibility that is also expressed by those, like Senator Diane Feinstein, who support virtually unlimited domestic surveillance.  Lhota’s imagery is more visceral, but both offer a pure, binary choice between liberty and death.  No nuance.  Do it our way, don’t discuss the rights of the individual, or blood will be on your hands.  Hit the disease with everything you’ve got.

The German scientist Paul Ehrlich did seminal work in chemotherapy, immunology, and hematology, and shared the Nobel Prize in 1908.  He is also known for his discovery of the first effective treatment for syphilis, Arsphenamine. Ehrlich was looking for a cure for the microbe-caused disease sleeping sickness. He found that a chemical called Atoxyl was effective, but highly toxic.  Through intensive testing Ehrlich and his lab searched for the proper combination between cure and kill.  They tested over 900 compounds on mice, before they went back to #606.  606 didn’t seem to help much with sleeping sickness, but was very effective on the newly discovered microbe that caused syphilis. Over and over, they tested the compound on mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits, achieving complete cures with no mortality.  The drug was introduced, and after some early difficulties in the manner in which it was administered, revolutionized treatment for this awful, often disfiguring and even fatal disease.

Testing between toxicity and efficacy, even 900 times. It works in the scientific laboratory, and in the laboratory of ideas. You don’t just administer the drug wholesale to entire population (or group) just because you think it will cure a disease in a few of them.  And you never ignore side effects.  That is what democracy is all about, a debate about ideas and approaches where both the needs of the majority and the rights of the minority are respected.  We don’t kill the patient.

Unfortunately, in the supercharged atmosphere of our political culture, many simply don’t care.  They won’t tolerate 900 tries, or for that matter, even a few. They don’t see themselves as the targets and so they think they are trading other people’s liberties for their personal safety.  Easy exchange--take it from someone else.

They are wrong.  When government has largely unfettered power to stop or spy on whomever it wants, then the individual holds liberty only at the sufferance of those currently in power. 

Unfortunately, that is a disease that has no known cure. 

Michael Liss (MM)

Please follow us on Twitter @SyncPol