Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Reconciliation and Hope

Author: Gary Hart

Most American historians trace high degrees of national unity to two causes: depressions and wars.  Americans put ideology and party aside, at least for the time being, during these conditions.

Only demagogues seek a platform when one-third of the people are ill-clothed, ill-housed, undernourished, and out of a job or when foreign enemies threaten our security.  On any score of national unity, we get together under these conditions and generally put ordinary politics aside until we recover some degree of economic and territorial security.

On the other hand, disruptions such as globalization, immigration, and technology are less tangible and more readily reduced to partisanship.  Politicians of one kind or another will seek advantage in the disruptions such trends and tides produce.  It is too easy to blame the other side for lost jobs or economic dislocations these trends produce.

We are currently in such an era of blame and accusation and seem far from pulling together to address genuine challenges that confront us all.

Is there a way to create some form of national unity absent an economic depression or a serious threat?  Partisan media and special ideological interests make it difficult.  Inciting anger and resentment makes money.  It excites the passions, regardless whether the object of the negative passion is a fellow American.

There will always be conservatives and liberals.  Whether this is solely the product of nature or nurture will probably never be resolved.  But the differences come to the fore when there is general stability and political advantage can be generated out of discontent.

Even in the absence of economic depression or military threat, fear can and does arise and will be used by those seeking power.  Those who generate fear and capitalize upon it must look to their own consciences for justification.  Whatever else is involved, it is not in the national interest.

Looking beyond the era of Trump, it is not too soon to consider ways to bridge the political gaps, repair social damages, restore confidence in government, encourage hope, and look for hopeful ways to move our nation forward.  An era of national reconciliation would be welcomed by all citizens of good will.  But to achieve it will require most of us to lay our political cudgels aside and seek avenues that unite us.

I have long been an advocate of a national service program primarily, but not exclusively, for young people.  Advocates along the way have outlined ways in which the costs of higher education can be offset by those who participate for a year or two either in AmeriCorps or Peace Corps type services.  Such a program can and should be military/non-military in nature.  And the growing number of the healthy elderly would welcome some constructive service to undertake.

The sense of service to the nation is a boost to civic duty and civic virtue.  It lasts a lifetime.  And there is much to be done in homeland security, aid to the elderly, community reconstruction, educational and reading programs, environmental repair, shelter construction, and health delivery.  These activities and others are a major contribution to the national interest.

In addition, community and local governments can and should do more to restore civility to town meetings with or without elected officials participating.  There are a wide variety of problems at the community level that affect, one way or the other, almost all its residents.  These issues require discussion and citizen participation and input.  Individual empowerment, especially in an age of alienation, would help overcome the widespread sense of dislocation and isolation.

Religious institutions, churches, synagogues, and mosques, among others, have important roles to play.  Their leaders can and should institute inter-faith discussions and dialogues aimed at reducing and possibly eliminating fears and misunderstandings based on misinformation and in some cases calculated hate-mongering.  Such inter-faith occasions should be open to the broader public and not just adherents of one faith or another.  Questions should be invited and reasonably answered concerning religious practices and rituals, dress codes, prohibitions, religious histories, and much else concerning which ignorance may prevail.

In recent times, too many wedges have been driven into American society by those seeking political advantage.  Fears have been introduced and exploited.  Races have been divided even further than usual.  Genders have been set against each other.  Much effort has been expended in causing citizens to distrust their own government, even by those now occupying that government.

There are policies that overcome “I win, you lose” approaches.  Reasonable people can fashion immigration policies that are fair, just, and protective of those who fear for their lives.  Those policies can also encourage and welcome the best and the brightest into our technological and industrial circles.  There are balanced environmental policies that protect the health and safety of American citizens without shutting down whole industries.  There are health insurance programs that are fair to the insurance industry and affordable by most Americans.  There are public education programs that will boost test scores and student successes without wholesale privatization and higher education financing programs that do not put students in financial bondage for decades.  The list goes on.

Why do we not do this?  Politics and partisanship.  Parties and ideologies.  Forces that divide instead of unite.  Forces that believe there is only one way and that is their way.  Forces that raise and spend fortunes to ensure that the other side fails.  Forces that profit from a nation divided.

We can wait for another depression or war to unite us.  Our efforts to regulate against exuberant risk in finance, when they are exercised, help prevent depression.  And large-scale global wars have been replaced by unending local wars and cyber conflict.  That is the good news but news that reduces the traditional causes of national unity.

So, we may have to find ourselves ways of overcoming division and achieving unity that are less costly but much more rewarding.  It is a question of national will.  Perhaps we will finally exhaust ourselves in internal political conflicts and decide there is a better way.  Perhaps we will raise up a generation of leadership skilled in reconciliation and cloaked in moral authority.  Perhaps, as a nation we will finally achieve a degree of maturity required to push aside the forces of division and the false leaders who profit from anger.

Then, hope will replace fear and we will have a chance to achieve our true destiny.

 

A Hole in the Heart

Author: Gary Hart

Today, September 11th, will remain a solemn and sad day for the nation for many years to come, possibly forever.  But it bears a particularly personal burden of memory in my case.

For most Americans, especially senior officials of the new George W. Bush administration, it was a vicious Pearl Harbor-like cowardly sneak attack.

In reality, however, it was not so simple.

In an interim report in 2000, and in its final report delivered to the President and the new administration on January 31, 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century warned of terrorist attacks on the nation sooner rather than later and predicted that “Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

Composed of eleven senior bipartisan members, the Commission undertook a review of our national security for the following 25 years, a task not performed since 1947.  It was, otherwise, without precedent.  With the late Senator Warren Rudman, I was its co-chair of the Commission for two and a half years.

Our first recommendation to the new administration was to create a new Department of Homeland Security which would principally bring together under one cabinet officer the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and Customs Service, each with a critical role to protect our borders, but each then under a different cabinet department without a common communications system or common data base.  Their coordination to prevent treachery against our nation was casual and informal.  No one had ultimate responsibility or authority

New administrations are busy learning their jobs.  But this urgent report sat unattended and unaddressed in the White House, Department of Defense, Department of State, and National Security Council.

It sat unattended until September 11th, 2001.  Then it was buried.

It must be noted that, when published in January 2001, our report and prediction drew scant attention from the press and media.  They had more sensational stories to report.

In the past 17 years, no one, including the former President, has provided justification for neglecting a clear and present warning a full eight months before our prediction came true.

At the very least, in the eight months following our warning the three principal border agencies could have easily created a common data base and common communications system.  They were not instructed to do so.  No reason has been given for this gross negligence.

The only rational explanation for this negligence is ideological: resistance to “big government”.  How can a new Republican administration explain to its adherents that the first thing it did on taking office was to produce a new Government bureaucracy.

The answer to that, of course, is that the bureaucracies already exist, and national security requires they be brought under one roof and one accountable official.  That’s not difficult to explain.

Conclusion: 9/11 did not have to happen.  3000 Americans did not have to die because of political neglect.  And the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have claimed additional thousands of lives of American troops did not have to follow.

Thus, the heavy heart and frustration of at least one American who helped prepare the warning must follow him to his grave.

An Appreciation

Author: Gary Hart

Many thanks to quite a number of you who have sent personal condolences.  A reprise of a post four months ago.  GH

 

Captain John McCain was the U.S. Navy liaison officer to the United States Senate when we first met in 1977.  Thereafter, he was escort officer on a number of Senate delegation trips and my escort on board two aircraft carriers underway in the Indian Ocean.  The most notable delegation included Senators John Glenn, Sam Nunn, William Cohen, and myself on a tour of Asian nations ending in South Korea.  Our report urged President Jimmy Carter not to carry out his proposed withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea and the President reluctantly conceded.

The solo aircraft carrier visits, thanks to John McCain’s arrangements, enabled me to fly off the decks in the radar operators back seat in high performance combat aircraft.  For anyone who has shared that experience, it is one that is never forgotten.

Thereafter, in 1980, John persuaded the Navy to commission me as an officer (Lt. j.g.) in the U.S. Naval Reserves.  My purpose was to gain insights on naval operations not otherwise available to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on which I served.  I never put the commission on my bio and never referred to it for political gain.

Along with Bill Cohen, I was invited to be one of John’s groomsmen in his wedding to Cindy Hensley in 1980 in Arizona.  Following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, we served in Congress together until my departure in 1987.

Over the subsequent years I tried to maintain contact with John and Cindy and once was invited to speak to a weekend retreat they maintained for friends and supporters at their home in Sedona, Arizona.

The story of John’s bravery as a prisoner in North Vietnam for five and a half years is well known.  He refused early release if he would endorse a statement that he believed the war to be wrong and received special punishment when his captors discovered his father, Admiral John McCain, was commander of fleet forces off Vietnam.

When John referred to his experiences in jail it was with an amazing degree of candor and lack of bitterness.  Some stories he would tell were in fact humorous and humane.

The world knows that John is ill.  The outcome is apparently not in doubt.  With Cindy’s help, I managed to speak with him yesterday and did so through my tears.

John is a hero to me and millions of others.  He ran for and could have been President.  He has lived an abundant and remarkable life.  With no provocation he was pilloried by a man who did become President, a man without an ounce of his courage, bravery, and service.  It was one of the ugliest moments in our current ugly times.  It is a mark of these times that it should have disqualified that man from holding any public office, but it did not.  That is how far down we have descended.

It is the mark of a coward that he seeks to bring anyone above him down to his level.  He cannot stand to see anyone respected when he himself is not respected and does not respect the high office that he holds.  One has only to look at those around that man to know why he could not acknowledge John McCain’s patriotism, service, and honors.

Those of us who know John McCain pray for him and his family.  Like most of us, John is not a man without faults.  He is very human and the first to admit it.  Despite those faults, though, he is an extraordinary human being.

He emerged from prison with broken bones badly set, walked with a limp, and saluted awkwardly.  Those were marks of distinction and honor.  Despite his afflictions, he laughed often and saw humor in the ridiculousness of the human folly we call politics.

Like many, many others, I am a better man for knowing John.  I consider it a privilege to have had the honor.

When John enters the next life, his flight will be straight and level…and very fast.  His laugh will be light, but he will mourn for the political chaos that is not his fault but that he could not cure.  The rest of us left here have no choice but to try.

Anchors aweigh, John.  Set your course for the horizon and your friends will join you soon.

 

 

Continuons

Author: Gary Hart

A friend brought to my attention a new biography of Charles de Gaulle, De Gaulle, by Julian Jackson, yet to reach these shores.  One of the common perceptions of de Gaulle is that he remained always an ardent nationalist.  In a recent review of the book in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik makes a more subtle observation.  De Gaulle was, he claims, much more a republican, which many interpreted as being rigidly conservative, even right-wing and absolutist.

“…de Gaulle always offered a staunch reaffirmation of republican values”,  writes Gopnik.  “His life is proof that unapologetic right-wing politics do not necessarily bend toward absolutism; they can also sometimes stiffen the spine of liberal democracy.”

This, better than anything I have read or written on classic republicanism, summarizes what America needs now.  It is the recovery of the classic republican ideal—performance of citizen duty and protection of the commonwealth—that will restore American democracy, which is devoted to our rights.  We must protect our rights by performance of our duties.

This is dramatically so at an hour when our nation is being redirected from liberal democracy toward a dangerous, racially-based nationalism.  We must close our borders to those who are different, even if they possess talents we need, says our president to his “base”.

Unless his casual indifference toward laws and legal systems trips him up, in two and perhaps even six years this nation will be in danger of losing its historic soul, perhaps permanently, and becoming a totally different nation.  It did not take long in the 1940s for many, perhaps a majority, of Frenchmen to fall in behind the fascist Vichy regime.

Those who acquiesced were corrupted by an illegitimate ideology, fascism, much as European nations are today sliding toward authoritarian nationalism.  As republican theorists from ancient Athens onward, up to and including the Jefferson-Madison republicans, knew, the greatest danger for a republic is corruption—placing personal interests ahead of the common good.

De Gaulle was moved by the experience of Jean Moulin, described as a high-  ranking left-wing prefect whose strength of character and creation of the only credible resistance network inside France “were tied to his impeccable republican attitudes.”

When de Gaulle learned that Moulin had been captured and tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, he “merely said, with the stoicism of a Cornielle hero, ‘Continuons.’ “We’ll go on.”

Trump types, some worse than others, have come and gone in American history.  In each case: Continuons.

We’ll go on.

 

Considerable time has been spent on my part over quite a few years trying to decide what this means.

It is the title of a book of stories by Flannery O’Connor and is taken from an aphorism by the Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, popular with seminarians in my theological days.  I learned recently that it also a concept valued by my friend, law school classmate, also a former seminarian, Governor Jerry Brown.

Fr. De Chardin wrote:  “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

To “rise” in this context, it seems to me, is to have spiritual wings, to lift, to “slip the surly bonds of earth” in that memorable phrase taken by another Irishwoman, Peggy Noonan, and spoken by Ronald Reagan on the occasion of the space shuttle Challenger disaster (from “High Flight,” a poem by John Gillespie McGee)

What enables a thing to rise?  Living in truth.  Nobility.  Genuine love.  Care for others. Sacrifice.  In sum, what Kierkegaard called purity of heart.

Very few of these qualities are on display today, but they do exist and occasionally, despite the haze created by human tragedy and evil, we see them and are inspired.  They are the evidence of things unseen, the proof of that which the human heart is capable.

The desperate need for qualities that rise came back with film footage of evil in Syria, the purposeful gassing of children, the targeting of hospitals, the effort to hunt and kill the “white helmets”, those saints in human clothing who try to provide even elementary treatment for the wounded.

Surely there must be a special place near Satan’s throne for those, especially the Russians, who could end this with a phone call but who refuse to do so.  And Assad himself has earned the worse fate imaginable.

Those of us who live in safety (except, perhaps, for the random supermarket or school shooting) do not like to think of evil, of pure, unadulterated wrongs perpetuated with intent.  But if goodness rises, evil descends.

One is not required to be a Biblical scholar to view human behavior as a never-ending struggle between that which is evil and that which rises.

But what does it mean for human goodness to “converge” and why must it do so?

This remains a mystery and invites us to consider its meaning.  Perhaps it is at least partly solved by these words: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed”.  It is realized when people of varied backgrounds unite to achieve a goal larger than each of them individually.  It occurs when everyday Americans shun the language of separation and denigration and follow the better angels of our nature.  Convergence occurs when all the people of good will come together to overcome the forces of ill will.

Even in desperate hours, the hope of convergence of all that is good, all that rises will overwhelm all that descends, and the better angels of courage and selflessness and human goodness will prevail.

And while we pray for that day, we struggle on.

 

Just when our nation requires principled alternatives to the current non-American wave of nationalism, isolationism, and racism, the Democratic party absolves itself of responsibility for presenting a statement of its core convictions and a summary of its identity.

Reports this week state that, instead, the Party turns its candidates loose to define themselves however they wish.  This is not only confusing to voting citizens, it is cowardly.  And it is intellectually bankrupt.

The Republican party has had it easy, at least until the age of Trump.  From the post- Theodore Roosevelt era onward, it stood for less government, balanced budgets, light taxes, and heavy defenses.  Pretty simple, certainly enough to give Ronald Reagan eight years in the White House.

By contrast, from Franklin Roosevelt onward, the Democratic party created a social safety net principally composed of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, increasing equality for races and genders, a healthy environment, expanding public education, anti-recessionary fiscal and monetary policies, and a wide range of policies and programs that addressed emerging challenges to our society.  Much more difficult to put on a bumper strip than Republican orthodoxy.

Put simply, the Republican party was monolithic; the Democratic party was and is a diverse coalition.

But now the Republican party has evolved into a coalition of tax cutters and budget busters, evangelicals against abortion (but for the death penalty), the NRA, neo-isolationists, anti-immigrant fire-breathers, and those who identify with authoritarian governments.

The mystery is why there are not a few Democratic political theorists to produce a manifesto, a statement of principles and beliefs, that unite its citizen coalition.  For example:

“We believe that America is both a nation and a society all of whose citizens should have adequate nutrition, health care, and shelter.  We believe in fairly shared wealth and not concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.  We believe every child should have access to the best possible public education.  Every American is entitled to clean air and water and a healthy environment.  Our dealings with the nations of the world should be based on human rights and collective commitment to defense of democracy everywhere.  We believe all nations should cooperate to reduce carbon emissions to protect against continued erosion of our shared climate.”

Though by no means exhaustive, this is what a statement of principles and convictions might look like and which all party candidates should readily endorse.  If they cannot, then perhaps they are in the wrong party.

Principles are statements of beliefs, the “what” and “who” of a party.  Policies and programs flow from those principles and put them into government action…the “how” of a party.

So-called “identity politics” is fine as far as it goes.  But simply saying “We’re for this group or that group” does not make a party.  It makes confusion.  And it masks the need for broader collective identity as Americans who now share stagnant incomes in the midst of wealth, the weakening of environmental protections, the dismay at willful antagonism of long time allies, the abandonment of defense of democracy, secret deals with a nation that interferes in our elections and does not wish us well, and most of all concerns for America’s direction or lack thereof in an era of huge change.

A decision by party leaders to refuse to identify core principles is folly.  So long as this mindless lack of leadership prevails, where every man and woman makes up his or her own definition of what their party stands for, so long will the great Democratic party of the past century remain adrift.

Books become classics because they contain ageless truths.  Of such, perhaps none is more a classic than Il Principe (The Prince) by Niccolò Machiavelli.  Though written for Giuliano di` Medici in early 16th century Florence, it nonetheless survives five centuries later for the insights into the uses and misuses of power it contains even today.

A true leader must be both lion and fox.  A fox to detect and avoid the snares and a lion to overawe his opponents.

The final chapter, XXVI, is entitled: “Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians”.  Up to this point, Machiavelli has only occasionally referred to barbarians.  But he also does so in a much-neglected work (unlike The Prince, not meant as a job application) Discourses on Livy.  These references disclose that he viewed barbarians singularly and as entities.

The hordes of barbarians are generally foreign, that is outside Florentine Italy, attacking the much better educated and cultivated ruling classes of Italian republics of the day.  Similarly, the singular barbarian is uncultured, uncouth, lacking in civic virtue, having little sense of the commonwealth, and certainly corrupt and corrupting.

For Machiavelli, the Roman Empire offered the enduring example of barbarian hordes, capped off by the invading Vandals bearing swords and lances, unlike their Russian counterparts some sixteen centuries later trolling voter lists with their computers.

What are 21st century citizens of the American Republic to make of warnings being heard to liberate America from the barbarians?

Circumstances today require noting, once again, Machiavelli’s exhortation against a foreign barbarian horde and individual barbarians in our midst.

Let’s consider state-sponsored Russian hackers blatantly and systematically seeking to disrupt our democratic elections, described by the President as the “Russian hoax” but by his administration’s top security officials as an existential threat.

It seems pretty obvious to those with eyes to see that the present-day Russian Government represents barbarians every bit as much as those political powers threatening Florentine Italy in Machiavelli’s day.  The new weapons of invasion are computers, not arrows and lances, and are aimed at our political structures more than our economic ones, though the latter, made up of corporate owners of critical infrastructure, are soon to feel the cross-hairs on them.

Perhaps a modern-day Machiavelli might wish to direct an “Exhortation to Liberate America from the Barbarians” to our President.  If he were to read it, that would be a first.

But any objective viewer, and particularly a patriotic one, would also have to conclude that there are home-grown barbarians amongst us.  Some are racists of varying stripes.  Almost all have been taught to hate the First Amendment free press, with one or two propaganda exceptions, many have been encouraged to violent action by top “leaders”, and all are united against the “other” in the form of refugees and asylum seeker.

Machiavelli favored a quasi-republican principality, at least when seeking appointment by the Medici, but he also revived the largely forgotten notion of the classic republic based on civic virtue, participation, the notion of a commonwealth, and resistance to corruption.  It is that classic republic now threatened in America by domestic barbarians opposed to all these qualities.

When we finally find a leader who appreciates the threat from foreign barbarians, we will have both the means and the will to defeat them.  Of much more immediate and long-term concern, however, are the barbarians in our midst who wish to dismantle the structures of humanism, progress, civility, and community formed with many struggles over more than two centuries.

All men and women of good will, and that includes the vast majority of Americans, will not permit this Republic, to which so many have dedicated their lives, to be lost to posterity.  That is a tragedy that must be avoided at all cost.

The Elite

Author: Gary Hart

Trump supporters, we are told, forgive his many indiscretions so long as he pokes the eyes of the “elite”.  Often used, but seldom defined, what does it mean to be elite and who are they?

We each have our own image.  Mine is a corporate executive with an Ivy League education earning high six or usually seven figures annual income with kids in prep schools, membership in one or more exclusive country clubs, whose social circle is composed of similar types, and with high end cars in the garage.

But that individual, man or woman, voted for Trump.  And he or she ain’t me.  By not voting for Trump, did that make me one of the hated “elite”?

By any definition, no cohort in our society has benefited financial under Trump more than that kind of elite.

Let’s compare profiles.  The author grew up in a working-class household in a small Kansas farming town, attended public schools, graduated from a small church college, married his college sweetheart (and is now celebrating his and hers 60th wedding anniversary), lived frugally, and resides in a Colorado town of 800.

The author had some good fortune along the way.  I was accepted by and graduated from the Yale Divinity School and Law School.  That may have been on merit, but it also may have been a whimsical experiment by the admissions officers.  I was elected twice and served 12 years in the United States Senate.  That alone is pretty elite, but far be it from me to question the wisdom of Colorado voters.  And, yes, there was a strong, but unsuccessful, campaign for the presidency.

My deepest convictions are diametrically opposed to those of Mr. Trump.  He is far more elite, in large part thanks to inheritance, than I am.  Yet, for his supporters, people like me are “the elite” who deserve his thumb in the eye.

People like me deserve a better description than “elite”.  How about (1) those with a social conscience; (2) those who believe society’s wealth should be used in part to undergird the elderly, children in poverty, and the involuntarily unemployed; (3) those who think America should stand for principles, lead by example, accept a fair share of refugees, and cooperate with allies; (4) those who believe we are stewards of nature with a moral obligation to clean the air and water and preserve our more valuable spaces for future generations; (5) and those who believe a growing economy should benefit all, not just those, like Mr. Trump, who are at the top.

If that is what he calls “elite”, then I qualify.  But those who forgive him his transgressions and betrayal of the public trust as long as he uses us as punching bags to justify his betrayal of the best instincts of most Americans should find a better description.

How about loyal, conscientious, concerned, and humane Americans?

The Lion and His Fate

Author: Gary Hart

It must have been in a very early visit to the Carnegie Free Library in Ottawa, Kansas, when I first encountered an essay and pictures of African lions, probably in National Geographic.  I immediately knew the leader.  He was magnificent and he was indeed the king of the jungle.

Since then, and throughout a complex life, I’ve identified with this lion and to a certain degree with his avian counterpart the bald eagle as avatars of the creatures of nature whom God has created.

Since the dawn of wildlife conservation beginning with the age of the great Republican Theodore Roosevelt and much beyond, most of us who revere nature have assumed nature’s most magnificent creatures, and in more recent years, smaller, less charismatic species, are worthy of decent respect and preservation from man’s predatory expansionist instincts.

That was then, the heyday of conservation and preservation.  But we have entered a new, a more revanchist, throwback.  The incumbent American administration has just ruled that bans on importation of lion remains are to be lifted and may now enter the United States.

There are more instances of revision to pre-humane policies that would distract attention from the plight of the king of the jungle.  But attention must be paid.  In the not too distant future, one of the president’s progeny, already known for the prowess against unprotected foreign wildlife, will arrive on our shores from Kenya or Tanzania, with a prize African lion head and skin and will clear customs, thanks to his father, free to mount his trophy on his Park Avenue luxury apartment wall, or God forbid as a rug on the floor for all his elite, wealthy friends to admire.

They will, no doubt, praise him for his prowess as a hunter and marvel at his bravery, not knowing that his kill was made with a high powered 30/06 or even 50 caliber rifle at a range of 800 yards surrounded by armed guides and protectors to make sure the distant lion had no chance to retaliate or even contemplate the fate to which cruel politics had committed him.

If any symbol of Trumpism is ever erected, I nominate this scene as illustrative.

What chance did the lion have.  What chance do any of us have.

A Contrast

Author: Gary Hart

The first week of December 1986, I met with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin for almost four hours.  It was toward the end of his first full year in office and less then 60 days from his Reykjavic summit with Ronald Reagan.  He had yet to become acquainted with members of the Democratic party and especially those representing a new generation of leadership.  In 1984, I had been runner-up for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, and the Russian Embassy in Washington believed I would be a candidate again, and possibly a successful one, in 1988.

Mr. Gorbachev was congenial, relaxed, but curious.  He graciously invited my daughter Andrea, then studying U.S.-Russian relations at the University of Denver, to join our conversation.  Former Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Dobrynen, whom I knew well joined the conversation as did Doug Wilson, my foreign policy advisor and former State Department official.

Much of the conversation revolved around Mr. Gorbachev’s confusion at Reykjavic and thereafter.  The summit was not considered a success as much as anything because of a pattern by President Reagan of seeming to agree to bold nuclear arms reductions and confidence building measures and then, after consultation with his staff, reversing himself.

As he was headed to a final press conference, President Gorbachev turned to his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and said: “It is a disaster.”  Shevardnadze responded: “But you cannot say that”.  Gorbachev turned the huge disappointment into the theme that “much work remains to be done”.

Poignantly, toward the end of this long session, Mr. Gorbachev asked me who I thought they should deal with in the U.S. Administration.  Without saying as much, he clearly was searching for a back channel with whom they could communicate to overcome our president’s vagueness and forgetfulness.

Having disqualified myself as a member of the opposition party, I did say that Secretary of State George Schultz struck me and others as being steady, reasonable, and diplomatic.  I have been led to believe that arrangement may have been made.  At no point did I denigrate our president.  And upon return we delivered Doug’s copious notes to our State Department.

Aside from Reykjavic, President Gorbachev went into great detail about his plans for perestroika and reforms of Russia’s economic system and the loosening of the political system under glasnost.  He was extraordinarily candid about the hurdles he faced and why good relations and arms control with the U.S. was crucial to his sweeping agenda.

At shorter length, I tried to summarize the reforms I hoped to bring about in America in making the revolutions in globalization and information lift those left out of our economy and reiterated my life-long commitment to nuclear arms reduction.

To the outsider, tone, mood, and atmosphere in high level international meetings seem overrated.  But they are not.  They are important to the formation of trust and friendship.  Even if he considered my challenge for the presidency a long shot, he nevertheless treated me seriously.  By this time I had experienced enough high level diplomacy in the Middle East and elsewhere to know how to behave, to treat national leaders with dignity and respect, and, at the same time, defend my country’s interests forthrightly.

Based upon his performance in Helsinki, others must judge whether Donald Trump met that standard.  As stunningly off key as it was, it will never enter the history books as successful diplomacy.  At the very least, it is powerful evidence that we should never send amateurs into the international diplomatic arena.  Buying and selling real estate is insufficient training for the diplomatic amphitheater.  High level international diplomacy requires special talents which in this case seem to be missing.

Since, in the long run, there are no secrets in these matters, the real mystery of Helsinki is in the two-hour unrecorded Putin-Trump meeting.  Behind a smoke screen of “fake news”, that is where the truth of Helsinki and perhaps Trump himself is revealed.

Mr. Trump may or may not have been taking care of his own interests, but manifestly he was not taking care of the interests of the United States.

The only time I had a secret meeting with a head of state, was previously in the summer of 1986 in the upstairs study of His Majesty King Hussein’s summer palace in Aqaba.  He revealed to me that he had been having secret meetings with Israel’s then Prime Minister Shimon Perez to explore a peace agreement.  He asked for my help.  Upon return a few days later to the U.S. I went immediately to the Department of State to brief Secretary Schultz.  Alas, the Reagan Administration did nothing to support those negotiations.

U.S. Presidents can do great damage to our nation’s interests, as well as global stability, if they don’t know what they are doing.  We received ample evidence of that this week.