Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Disaffected

Author: Gary Hart

Political insiders, practitioners and the media, treat America as a nation divided between two Parties, Democratic and Republican, and two ideologies, liberal and conservative—though those latter terms mean very little any more.  This simplified view makes analysis easier, if not also clearer, and lends itself to sports analogies, winners and losers, and even religious analogies, good and evil.

The difficulty, of course, is that it leaves out upwards of a third or even forty percent of the nation, those who list themselves as independents or who don’t bother to engage in the political process, even by voting, at all.

Political scientists spend time and money trying to profile these non-participants and Parties try to sign them up for membership, largely to no avail.  Discounting the laziness factor and the “plague on both your houses” mentality, it does seem worthwhile, especially in an era of disaffection and disillusionment, to seek some understanding of this third American Party for what it might tell us about the nation’s future.

The rolls of the disaffected have increased in recent times by an intensified attack on the United States Government itself.  Sometime in the late 1970s or early to mid-1980s a pattern formed among candidates for national office, first on the right and then spreading to the left, to campaign against “Washington”, even as the candidates were appealing for votes to go to Washington.  Many of the disaffected noted this irony and marked it down for the cynicism it revealed.

The term-limits movement in the 1980s boomed then disappeared as many who espoused it decided life in Washington was better, after all, than life in Oshkosh.

And repeated pledges by conservatives to “change things”, “drain the swamp”, and “shrink the size of government” came to little or nothing once in power.  As the Republican Congress is now realizing, it is one thing to promise your “base” to repeal the Affordable Care Act simply because it was promoted by President Obama and another thing, to actually get rid of a program offering health care and insurance that millions of Americans want and need.

In addition to the cynicism created by the constant barrage of attacks on “Washington”, there is the blatant deficit of courage.  There are more fingers on one hand than examples of politicians putting the interest of the nation ahead of their political careers.  Try to remember a recent example of a profile in courage, a vote against self-interest, a willingness to condemn presidential conduct that is rude, vulgar, deceitful, or simply juvenile.  Party loyalty is more important than defense of the dignity of the Presidential office.

To paraphrase the immortal Dante, there is a special place in hell for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their silence…and their cowardice.

Then, on top of cynicism and cowardice, there is corruption.  Putting special, narrow, and privileged interests ahead of the common good is a threat to the existence of any republic, including the American Republic.  And corruption, indeed this form of legal and sanctioned corruption, is rampant in our nation’s Capitol.

The halls of Congress are swarming with more than 13,000 registered lobbyists for those special interest and thousands more who hide behind the title of “strategists”.  That number now includes more than 400 former Members of Congress and hundreds more of former Administration officials of both Parties.

They raise and contribute campaign funds and thus trade in the coin of the realm—access.  And the privileged opened door gets you half way home to the lucrative result you want and need.

Many people don’t vote because they don’t think it makes a difference, or they are exhausted from holding two or three jobs, or are looking for work, or are financially or culturally adrift.  But many more choose not to participate in a system characterized by cynicism, cowardice, and corruption.

It is impossible to know where this pattern ends.  Some think it marks the decline of democracy itself.  The more hopeful believe that when we hit bottom politically, there will be a moral revival, a renaissance of civic duty, a return of genuine patriotism.

It is probably too cliqued to say we are at a crossroads of this sort.  But, on the other hand, we may be.

Decline of the Presidency

Author: Gary Hart

For many years it was common, at least for boys then, to hear that “in America, anyone can become President.”  We now know that to be absolutely true.

For those of us who take such matters seriously, however, there was some preparation required.  A serious candidate for President had to know something about how the national economy worked and the basic principles of public finance, diplomacy and foreign policy, and national defense, the three Constitutional duties of a President.

In modern times, from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon Presidents met those standards to greater or lesser degrees.  Private morality was assumed.  But when that assumption failed with Nixon, we then elected a moral President, Jimmy Carter, but even he had traveled the world a bit, served in the Navy, and had been Governor.

But then the standards began to slip.  Though they had been Governors, Reagan and George W. Bush had little familiarity with the world, intellectual curiosity, or sense of history.  Presidents Clinton and Obama qualified intellectually and enjoyed the company of those who had experience and lessons to provide.  But neither had traveled widely and met foreign leaders or had taken the time to study and think about defense and national security issues.

If a presidential candidate seems bright enough and curious enough, voters are willing to hope they can learn on the job what they need to know to govern, and in the case of those who don’t seem interested in books and learning the assumption is that they will surround themselves with smart people.  The fallacy of this assumption is that some smart people also have their own biases and ideological fish to fry.

As we drifted away from the standards set out above and were lowering the bar for pre-qualification for the highest office, it was virtually inevitable that one set of circumstances or another would lead us to elect an almost totally unqualified President.  And so we have.

The incumbent President demonstrates almost no intellectual curiosity, disdains briefings of any kind, boasts that he is smarter on virtually any topic than qualified experts, and with only one or two exceptions surrounds himself with those who know little about their assigned duties or whose sole aim is to abolish the governmental structures established to carry out established statutory mandates in their assigned departments of responsibility.

If we are willing to accept these absolutely minimal standards, then indeed anyone can be President.  Just don’t expect much in the way of wisdom, a sense of history and its lessons, experience in diplomacy (and the inevitable gaffes and embarrassments that lack will produce), calculation in the use of military force, balancing of public revenues with expenditures, or even an understanding of the legislative process.

Many of us in office and beyond have heard repeated pleas from business people: “Why can’t we run the government like a business?”, to which the obvious response is, “Because it isn’t a business.”  Even so, what business would select a CEO who had little or no experience in that business and didn’t seem to mind or want to learn?

The brightest hope, presuming we survive our present experience with a totally unqualified President, is that our society will once again revert to more traditional standards of qualification for the highest office—basic knowledge of the economy, experience in diplomacy, and some knowledge of military history.

Admittedly, this narrows the field of presidential candidates substantially.  But so does any list of job qualifications.  Why should any leadership position in the private sector come with a list of qualifications and the highest public office in the land have none?

My lifelong study of American history suggests that this nation is strong enough to survive our current soap opera psychodrama and emerge relatively stable on the other side.  But even the worst experiences in life hold lessons to be learned, and this current national experience should teach us to take the Presidency more seriously and insist on a much higher standard of leadership

The Anatomy of Courage

Author: Gary Hart

“It takes courage not to be discouraged.”  That was Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving Nazi war crimes prosecutor who, at the age of 27, prosecuted two dozen death camp supervisors and who, now age 97, was interviewed on 60 Minutes.  He was responding to questions as to how and why his experience had not left him bitter.

But it is also a message for those of us watching a lifetime of effort–to move our nation forward, to improve the lives of those left behind, to leave a healthier environment for our children, to control weapons of mass destruction, and many other standards of progress–being swept away.

There are many reasons to be discouraged.  Energy policy is being turned over to the energy industry.  Environmental programs are being dismantled by climate change deniers and anti-science zealots.  Public education is being privatized.  Affordable health insurance now finances tax cuts for the wealthy.  Federal judges are selected for ideological purity.

Most discouraging of all is the commercialization of the presidency.  The extended first family blatantly sells White House (or Mar-a-Lago) access to powerful interests around the world.  Heads of state are entertained at a private resort, not the White House.  The president’s family promotes its hotels, casinos, and beauty products in foreign capitals.  Foreign leaders are learning to trade access to their markets in exchange for the U.S. supporting their policy objectives.

It is too bad William Faulkner is not still living.  His trilogy The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion chronicled the rise of the Snopes family in Southern politics.  Corrupt and self-serving to the core.  He would now have to add The White House.  Looking back, it now seems almost inevitable that corruption on a monumental scale would eventually make it to the top.

A few of us disagree with the pundits who have settled on the last election as a class conflict.  Certainly some Trump voters were angry at various elites, liberal and otherwise.  But what about the Wall Street elites now running our economy and the corporate elites dismantling worker safety and environmental regulations and helping themselves to public lands.  And the conservative dark money elites dismantling anything having Obama’s name on it.  You will search in vain for any step taken so far or for the next three years that directly and immediately helps low income white people who are, instead, being taken to the cleaners by the Trump elites.

Since few young people today would call themselves idealists, it is left to aging idealists from the 1960s to keep that flickering and archaic torch alive.  But Mr. Ferencz is right.  It does take courage.  Not battle field courage.  But the courage that comes from believing in an American ideal that is far better than what we see today.  The courage that believes we are not witnessing a modern day version of the fall of the Roman Empire.  The courage that insists when this grim un-American detour is over we will return to our ideal as a nation of principles, political morality, and Constitutional standards.

In the meantime, it takes courage.  Courage to persevere.  Courage to see farther down the road.  Courage to believe a large majority of Americans, including many who voted for this Administration and are now experiencing shock at what they got, will return to our traditional beliefs, the faith of our fathers.  The courage to know that we will not only endure, we will prevail.

One Man’s Compass

Author: Gary Hart

What follows breaks an unwritten rule I’ve tried to follow on this site, and that is to minimize self-referential essays.  In an age where almost every spoken or written word begins with the first person singular pronoun, it is possible to make observations and assertions as direct statement without “I think” or “It seems to me”, etc.  Nevertheless, recent political upheavals have caused many to revert to basic principles and to establish foundations for why we believe what we believe.

In my case [here we go into the self-referential mode], there were two reasons I gravitated toward the Democratic Party: family and religion.  My parents were working class people from large families (Mother 13, Dad 8 children) who were unable to finish high school because they had to work early.  They raised me in the Church of the Nazarene, an off-shoot of Methodism, and I attended Bethany Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University) in Oklahoma.  My first graduate program was in philosophy and theology.

To their credit, one strain of Nazarene doctrine emphasized the Wesleyan (John and Charles) social gospel and the requirement to care for those in need.

Even in Kansas of that day, if you struggled through the Depression you had to be pretty conservative not to bless Franklin Roosevelt for his efforts to help vast numbers of people in need, those without jobs, without shelter, without nutrition, without hope.  To be on a bottom rung of the ladder meant you were probably not going to be a Republican.

I had my first paying job at the age of 11 as a car-hop at a drive in hamburger place and by the age 17 and a number of years thereafter worked summers on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads in Kansas and Colorado.  There didn’t seem to be many Republicans on those track gangs.  I don’t remember once thinking the Republican Party offered any chance for people like me.

But as my own religious principles evolved, I found little in the teachings of Jesus that promoted belief in wealth accumulation, individualism at the expense of others, devil take the hindmost ideologies, or every man for himself.  Quite the contrary, those teachings were founded on the notion that we should love and care for one another, help the poor and needy, by concerned for the widow, for the child, for those without hope, be stewards of God’s earth.  I’m still waiting for the Christian, evangelical or otherwise, who correlates the teachings of Jesus with the ideology of the Republican Party in either its Reagan or Trump mode.

The Democratic Party of my youth, of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, is adrift in part because under President Clinton and the “centrists” who followed him it joined the anti-government chorus and thus lost its identity.  To believe in a caring, just, and decent society, one does not have to advocate for “big government”.  Government should evolve to meet the needs of the people.  No more, no less.  The issue is not how much government we want.  The issue is what kind of society we want.  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were created to solve basic human needs.  Those on the right find it convenient to pretend these are not government programs.

The sad kabuki theater involving repeal of the Affordable Care Act illustrates the muddle ideologues of the right face when trying to destroy a program that is helping millions.  Preach market doctrine all you want, but there are some basic human needs that markets don’t solve.  Markets are fine for those who can pay.  There is little profit in serving the poor.

But, we are all familiar with Jefferson’s observation: “Widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot long endure side by side in a democracy.”

There is no need to plow old ground.  American has still not found a way to adopt a social safety net and let it operate.  There are still Republican die-hards that want to repeal Social Security.  Mature nations find a path acceptable to a sustainable majority and then move on.  We have yet to achieve that level of maturity.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, People of Paradox, Michael Kammen captured our subconscious immaturity: “…we believe that our government is weak, stupid, dishonest, and inefficient, and also believe it to be the best in the world and would like to offer it to others.”

All the above is simply to explain why I am who I am.  It is not all that interesting or important.  But when truth itself is under attack and childish “leaders” pervert basic principles, it becomes necessary to restate immutable principles and try qualify for serious adulthood.

I am fond of this quote from John Buchan’s memorable biography of the 17th century Scottish patriot Montrose:

“No great cause is ever won or ever lost.  The battle must always be renewed

and the creed restated, and the old formulas, once so potent a revelation, become

only dim antiquarian echoes.  But some things are universal, catholic, and

undying—the souls of which such formulas are the broken gleams.  They do

not age or pass out of fashion, for they symbolize eternal things.  They are

the guardians of the human spirit, the proof of what our mortal frailty can

achieve.”

The Center

Author: Gary Hart

We are frequently reminded of W. B. Yeats’ quote: “The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  For those immersed in political ideology this reference to the “center” conjures up Clintonian refrains regarding triangulation and even Jerry Brown’s great response to a question about whether he was liberal or conservative: “I paddle a little on the right,” he said, “and I paddle a little on the left.”

For those of us in public service who were repeatedly being analyzed as to whether we were liberal or conservative, the traditional lateral construct of left to right became sufficiently tedious that, at least in my case, I created a contrasting vertical pole that went from the past at the bottom to the future at the top.  I’m not sure I ever sold it to a political journalist because that industry is totally wedded to traditional left-right, liberal-conservative categories so helpful to its shorthand purposes.

Now comes Donald Trump who, in his own way, resists categorization.  The Trumpian resistance grows with every sharp, 180 degree reversal he is currently patenting.  The resistance to the still undefined Trumpism convinced itself that if he carried out, with a compliant Republican Congress, all of the startling reversals from accepted (should we say mainstream) policies at home and abroad the United States would become a totally different country, Ebenezer Scrooge in its disregard for those left out, and isolationist—with a rightward tilt—in its relations to the world.

Suddenly, the “center” took on new meaning.  The many of us wedded to a plodding and sometime erratic progressive domestic agenda and internationalist foreign policy based on alliances, treaties, and agreements found what might be a new center, not one looking to avoid categorization but one that represented truly bipartisan consensus and most of all stability.

The institutional defenders of this post-World War II center included, among other institutions, the U.S. military and Wall Street.  Contrary to those on the left who traditionally think the Pentagon is a hot-bed of crack-pot generals conjuring up new wars to fight, those of us who know better see senior military commanders as a bulwark against wacky Strangelovian adventurism.  Remember, Dr. Strangelove was not military man.  The right-wing plot to invade Iraq did not emanate in the Pentagon but in a White House populated by those who had never worn a uniform.

On the other hand, Wall Street presented ample evidence of wackiness in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008, and forfeited any claim to reasonableness, true conservatism, and maturity.  Because of its greed, it enabled an unprincipled group of twenty-somethings to experiment with other people’s money and put the entire U.S. economy in the ditch.

But today, some more traditional bankers and money managers, including one or two in the Trump administration are closing doors to Mr. Trump’s more bizarre schemes to alienate our largest lender China, our neighbor and trading partner Mexico, and even greater Europe itself.  The most serious economic thinkers know we live in a global trading market with currencies calibrated to the dollar, huge corporate enterprises linked to multiple nations, jobs dependent on exports, and trading rules meant to level playing fields.  Nothing like having tens of billions of dollars at stake to sober up most mature bankers.

Obviously, there are a variety of other private and public sectors with a stake in stability and maturity that form a center resistant to Trumpian excesses.  A rudderless, erratic, inexperienced national leader must sooner or later respond to the adults in society who care about the nation’s long term future and their children’s future.  Only a few “advisors” with little or no governing experience are at liberty to pursue dangerous and destabilizing ventures in a twilight word of conspiracy, demons and dragons, and bet-the-farm dice rolls.

After a chaotic opening round of Trump government, or version thereof, a head-snapping series of 180 degree turns on NATO, Russia, China, taxes, health care, and daily U-turns still to come give evidence that the cool-aid drinkers of the campaign are sobering up.  Perhaps there is a real center to America that flirts with excess for a time but then sees the cliff toward which the nation is heading and the peril its experiments in novelty and hilarity represent.

Too soon to say.  But a few days of sober Trump suggest reality may be setting in and that the world he promised is not only impossible to achieve, it is downright dangerous.

 

In an era of radical change such as ours, comfort is often sought in reconstructing conditions that existed before the change began.  That seems to be the central organizing principle, to the degree there is one, for the current U.S. Administration.  “Make America Great Again.”

I am unable to identify any instance in human history where an effort such as this has been successful, for the very obvious reason that economic, political, and security conditions that existed two or three decades ago, or more, simply cannot be recreated.  Building walls, dismantling international markets, authorizing pollution, privatizing education, and much else will not restore “greatness”.  While we return to the 1960s, the rest of the world moves on following rules we are choosing to ignore.

Furthermore, the basic premise of the stop history movement is wrong.  Despite his efforts to create conditions of disaster, President Trump inherited a country that had the largest, most productive economy on earth, that had the most powerful military in history, that led coalitions to maintain stability, address climate change, and create trade regimes built on policies we promoted, and that built coalitions against terrorism.

Even discounting for traditional partisan rhetoric, the Trump effort to describe a nation in ruin doesn’t withstand a moment’s inspection.  But, apparently the theory is that if you wish to return the country to a past that never existed, you must first grossly mischaracterize where it finds itself today.  Our current afternoon in America is at least as successful as the previous “morning in America”, but that success must be dismantled in order to justify uprooting health, environment, and education advances and a large network of hard-earned international agreements and alliances.

There is no “greatness” in thumbing our nose at our allies and dealing with other nations rudely.  There is no “greatness” in cancelling health insurance for millions.  There is no “greatness” in leaving polluted air and water for our children.  There is no “greatness” in increasing an already wide income gap.  There is no “greatness” in the denial of the Statue of Liberty’s welcome.

There is no system of logic or reason that supports an idea that retrenchment to a previous age where our strength depended largely on the weakness of others will make us “great” again.  If, as some have speculated, some in the White House envision an Armageddon between the Christian West and a Muslim caliphate that doesn’t exist and that apocalyptic bloodbath is the path to greatness, then God help us.

Most Americans, a very solid majority, do not see the road to the restoration of “greatness” paved with the stones of nationalism, religious orthodoxy, a rigid cultural conservatism, ethnic purity, intolerance, and authoritarianism.  Nor do they see a return to a Darwinian culture of devil take the hindmost as the path to a secure, just, and principled American Republic.

America is not just a state.  It is a society.  In terms of our shared public and natural resources, our common wealth, we are all in this together and we possess a moral imperative to improve that society for future generations.

That imperative is the guiding light toward a truly great America.

Deep State

Author: Gary Hart

The gap between reality and fantasy has grown in recent days.  Among the unexpected demons the new Administration has encountered since entering office is something variously called the “deep state” or the “administrative state.”  A Mr. Bannon, its discoverer, now attributes road blocks to the Administrations confused agenda to this mysterious entity which otherwise is undescribed.  The suggestion is that this entity lies deeply imbedded within the United States Government, obeys no orders from elected officials, and pursues an agenda of its own.

Let’s consider how this might work.  The “deep state’s” tentacles would necessarily have to extend to virtually all federal agencies from the Pentagon, to the Treasury Department, to the Small Business Administration, Food and Drug Administration, Transportation Department, Intelligence agencies, and so on.  Either this network is small, but still effective, in which case it is perhaps several hundreds of people, or it is very large and has thousands if not tens of thousands of members.

To be as insidiously effective as it is suggested to be, this network, or at least a committee of its leaders, would have to meet or otherwise communicate to coordinate agendas—the suggestion being in this case to thwart anything and everything of consequence the Trump Administration proposes.  The further suggestion is that this “deep state” has been around for a while.

Presumably this network is loyal to Democratic or progressive administrations.  If so, how have we gone through two Eisenhower, one and a half Nixon, two Reagan, one H. W. Bush, two W. Bush administrations and not one senior official has blown the whistle on this “deep state”, written a book or books, dominated Fox News with interviews, let the American people, or at least those right of center, know about this insidious and sinister monster inhabiting the basements of dozens of granite federal office buildings throughout the city?

There is also Congress to consider.  Its committees are required by the Constitution to oversee the budgets and performance of all federal agencies.  Both Houses of Congress are under the control of the President’s Party.  Few if any have stepped forward to support Mr. Bannon’s frightening allegations about a state within a state, a secret government run by whom, accountable to whom, and with what agenda?  Has it been lying in wait all these years for…Donald Trump?

A couple of generations of Woodward and Bernsteins have forgone Pulitzer Prizes and wealth and fame by neglecting (or conspiring to hide?) this secret.  But that is the loathed “main stream media” and who pays attention to them anymore.  But what about Fox itself?  Is it so fair and balanced that it walked right by the story of a lifetime, one that would guarantee conservative government for decades to come?

Because the scattered pieces of this puzzle don’t begin to form a coherent picture, thoughtful people can only conclude that the “deep state” exists somewhere in that universe of alternative facts, available only to those in the know, those who have learned the meaning of the ultrasound dog whistle, can fully understand.

If this kind of stuff continues for four years, we are going to have to build a lot more homes for the mentally ill.  The question is: who will be on the inside and who will be on the outside?

The current hiatus in American political development offers an opportunity for reflection on the great works, written and spoken, by great American leaders that compose what might be called an American political canon, the solid core of what America represents in theory and in reality.  If such a canon were composed it would have to have at its center those presidents whose words best defined the nation and its central purpose for their times.  It would then have to expand to include statesmen of stature whose contributions supported and augmented the themes of the highest elected officials.

  1. The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1776). The first and still most persuasive argument for why there must be a United States of America. [“We hold these truths to be self-evident….”]
  2. The Constitution of the United States, James Madison (1789). The enduring foundation for America’s political structures and laws. [“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”]
  3. The Federalist, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (1788). The theory and logic of the Constitution and its necessity in creating a national Republic.
  4. Farewell Address, George Washington (1796). Establishing the principle of presidential term limits and laying the foundation for definition of the role of the presidency.
  5. The Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe (1832). An early pillar in the construction of a United States foreign policy, in this case as it proscribed European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. [“…The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”]
  6. The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln (1863). An elegy justifying the cause of union, laying the groundwork for reconciliation, and blessing those who have not died in vain.  [“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”]
  7. The Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln (1865). A magnanimous embrace for secessionists and the path for a reunited nation. [“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”]
  8. The Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant (1885). A monumental military history of the Civil War demonstrating a magnanimous spirit that helped begin the long healing process.
  9. The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt (1896). This four volume history of the Western frontier is valuable for what it says about America and its author.
  10. The Four Freedoms, Franklin Roosevelt (1941). Defining America’s role in the world after World War II and a platform for a new engaged foreign policy for the remainder of the century.  [freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear.]
  11. The American University Speech, John Kennedy (1962). A prophetic warning of the dangers of confrontation in the nuclear age and the case for arms control negotiations.  [“While we proceed to safeguard our national interests let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.”]
  12. I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King (1963). The iconic case for civil rights at last and the anthem of a movement.  [“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”]

This list is preliminary and incomplete.  But it does reveal a central theme: many if not most of America’s great leaders have also been great writers.  Great writing comes from familiarity with the classics, both literary and political. These authors have in common respect for ideas and ideals.

James Madison and later Hamilton provided extensive editing for Washington’s farewell speech.  The Monroe Doctrine was a collaborative effort.  Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy both had assistance in the preparation of their historic speeches.  Abraham Lincoln, an American literary genius, drew from the Bible and William Shakespeare.  This core canon was produced by literate leaders who had extraordinary talents at self-expression and at intuitively sensing the soul of a nation.

A voluminous list of works by others might well provide a second circle.  Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, would be one.  It is widely believed to be the best autobiography ever produced by an American.  Biographies of all Presidents, a few more than others, must be added for their historical value.

The works of the best historians, Gordon Wood’s magisterial history of the founding era, An Empire of Liberty, for example, should provide yet another circle around this canon.

All are invited to suggest additions to this list of works all Americans, especially students, should be familiar with.

 

The Russian Cloud

Author: Gary Hart

Presidents in the past, most notably with Bill Clinton and Boris Yelstin and George W. Bush with Vladimir Putin, have committed what might be called the “buddy fallacy” where U.S.-Russian relations were concerned.  That is they thought even a modicum of personal congeniality could be the basis for U.S. policy.  President Trump seems to be repeating that fallacy.

At its best, friendship between the leaders of two great powers must be considered a plus.  At its worst, it confuses personal relations with complex disparities in national interests.

Thus, in one respect President Trump’s visceral belief that it is better to have Russia as a friend than an enemy makes common sense.  On the other hand, it blurs real differences between what Russia views as its interests and what we view as ours.  And, for a President with no foreign policy experience and still dubious prior relationships with Russia, it can lead to serious misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Compounding the confusion is the appointment of a Secretary of State whose considerable interactions with Russian officials have all been corporate commercial.  And now an Attorney General who swore, inaccurately, that he had not had contact with Russian officials.

Conflicts in interests are well known and documented: Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine; tacit pressure on the “near abroad”, especially in the Baltic region; troublesome relations between the Putin regime and expanding Western European right-wing political parties; and Russian military and political support for the Assad regime in Syria.

On top of all this is blatant Russian interference in the recent U.S. national election, clearly aimed in a partisan sense against the Democratic Party and its candidate Secretary Clinton.  Mr. Putin has longed believed that the United States has sought to manipulate Russia’s political structures and provided covert support for democratic insurgencies through non-governmental organizations.  This may provide the basis for a belief that he is simply retaliating in kind.

Against this backdrop there are what the media call “mixed signals” coming from the Trump Administration where Russia, among other topics, is concerned.  The President’s attitude (it cannot be called a policy) to date is simply that it is better to have Russia as a friend than as an enemy.  The new Secretary of State has been silent to date.  Our Ambassador to the United Nations has taken a traditionally critical position concerning Russia’s actions in opposition to us and our allies.  And, perhaps most ominously, senior “strategists” in the White House have signaled, at least indirectly, that they welcome the rise of the right across Western democracies that identifies with Mr. Putin’s nationalism, cultural conservatism, religious orthodoxy, demonization of immigrants, and resistance to social tolerance.

Likewise, the attitude (one must call it that instead of policy) toward the Atlantic Alliance, especially NATO, by the Trump Administration is untethered.  The President has called NATO “obsolete” but his Secretary of Defense confirmed our continuing commitment to it.  At the very least this causes confusion in European capitals.  Is the United States committed to its principal post-World War II security alliance, or should each nation make its own arrangement with Moscow?  At stake in all this is not simply the future U.S.-Russian relationship, but even more importantly the U.S. relationship with Europe and the democratic world.

It is difficult to imagine normalization of United States-Russian relations either in a traditional sense or on some new as-yet unarticulated basis until the mystery of the President’s personal attitudes toward Mr. Putin and whatever background they represent are clarified and laid to rest.  It is difficult to disprove a negative, to prove that something that didn’t happen didn’t happen.  But the only known way to do that is to turn over every rock not only where Mr. Trump is concerned but also the several individuals close to him who have dabbled in Russia in recent years.  Sunlight is the best disinfectant.  Unfortunately, one of the rocks that must be overturned has to do with Mr. Trump’s taxes and that seems an immovable stonewall.

Perhaps a new approach to clearing the air and the deck where the Trump Administration and Russia are concerned should be considered.  Because of the role it played in the recent election, whatever investigations the FBI is undertaking regarding Russian connections may be suspect or discredited.  Congressional inquiries, even with a Republican majority, will be partisan, politicized, and media saturated.

Consideration, therefore, might be given to a special panel composed of respected statesmen and women of both Parties empowered to compel testimony under oath, inspect personal and classified documents (including tax returns), and issue a public report that either eliminates all suspicion of prior Trump-related activities in Russia or identifies areas of conflict of interest.

Otherwise, it seems inevitable that a cloud will linger for years to come regarding how relations between the current U.S. Administration and the Putin government are being formulated and whether in response to some prior arrangements or personal understandings.  That will confuse whatever policies are adopted either to strengthen U.S.-Russian ties or draw lines against Russian actions in opposition to the interests of the United States and our allies.

The Axe on the Table

Author: Gary Hart

Historians and political scientists analyze the world in terms of nation-states.  The nation is the people and the state is the government.  When a gap occurs between the people and their government, even a democratically elected one, a variety of things can happen on a graduated scale from a new election to a revolution.

The new Trump Administration is not the first to be led by a president with a low approval rating.  It is the first where that low rating occurred so soon after an election.  Even presidents such as Harry Truman who experienced low approval at certain points, came back to be considered by history and reflective opinion to be somewhere between better than average and outstanding.

Aside from this early opening slump, the other rare circumstance for the new Administration is that its Party controls virtually all of government, not only the White House and all the executive agencies, but also both Houses of Congress and soon the Supreme Court.  This partisan accumulation of power in effect sets aside Constitutional checks and balances, leaving one Party, and only one of its wings, to dictate policy and its application.

Several factors contribute to the public unhappiness with the President and many in the Congressional majority, even though they claim to be carrying out the promises they made during the recent election campaign.  One is the gap between propaganda and reality.  Stunning numbers of those supporting repeal of Obamacare did not know it was the same as the Affordable Care Act.  When asked if they believe there is too much government regulation, a large majority concur.  The same people object, however, to elimination of clean air and water regulations, worker safety rules, food and drug regulations, and much else.

When asked if taxes are too high, a large majority say yes.  But the same people are angered at tax cuts for the rich.

The difficulty is that those now running the government mean it when they propose to cut taxes, including for the wealthy, slash regulations across the board, eliminate government agencies that deliver services the public expects, reduce public pensions and privatize Social Security and Medicare.  The people, the nation, thought they voted for a scalpel that might disadvantage a few others but not an axe that chopped off whole elements of society.

Those now in power have been sharpening the axe for decades, in some cases since the age of Franklin Roosevelt.  Now, the time they have been waiting for has arrived.

Elimination of the “administrative state”, the professed goal, is guaranteed to produce an everyman-for-himself society with unsafe food and drugs, polluted air and waterways, dangerous working conditions, lower wages, reduced childhood nutrition, and the elderly and poor further marginalized.

Were the dangers not so great, it might be interesting to observe the results of a domestic and international experiment in populist nationalism that casts off security alliances, exiles immigrants, withdraws from trade treaties, lets climate temperatures (and oceans) rise, and cancels much of the New Deal and Great Society.  Decades of progress now under siege did not result from the hated liberalism; it was bipartisan.  The massive rejection of that progress is also a rejection of moderate Republicanism that believed in free trade and responsible regulation.

Despite the nonsensical notion that Trumpism is a revolt against the “elites” (consider the Cabinet), it is instead a revolt against social progress, mature government, and a civilized society.

In the absence of checks and balances and a mature sense of history, we have entered dangerous waters where the gap between the state and the nation will only widen.  When the radical wing of one Party achieving its objectives, there will be no wide-spread demonstrations of public gratitude and affection, no town hall meetings at all, and only repeated rallies of the dwindling true believers.  Even those rallies will be smaller and much angrier.