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August 31, 2006


What a wonderful anecdote, Sara. Thank you for all the historical, political and passionate writing that you do on this site.

Olbermann's commentary was erudite, incisive and spot on, which puts him several long strides ahead of the talking heads that either uncritically spew goosestep lockstep Parteipolitik, or that add their own filth to the cess that is the "lib'rul media".

Add to that the fact that he's much better looking than Limbaugh, O'Reilly — or Coulter, for that matter — and you've got a recipe for right-wing panic.

Countdown could peobably do with some positive viewer response here:


What ecoast said.

fascinating. I will send your piece to a long list of friends.

the 30s were a fascinating, confusing and dangerous time. there is a lot of material for books and movies. I am not sure why more of it has not been mined for popular culture

Anyway, I look forward to your next piece

Having briefly seen breathless babbling about the Iran nuclear "crisis" on CNN today, I was in need of a little positive perspective

My father was a journalist of some standing in China during WW II and beyond--1942-1952, more or less. He had close friends in the press and the State Department whose careers and lives were destroyed by McCarthy and his henchmen (not all of those henchmen, I hasten to add, were elected office-holders). The worst thing about those witch-hunts for a family member--a boy of ten to twenty, like myself--was their unpredicatable predictability (as to the question of who'd be the next attacked), and the unending sequence of those attacks going on, and on, and on.

We can now say, in retrospect, that this experience was "traumatic," that it delivered the now well-described after-effects of such trauma (of which the chiefest, perhaps, is an inability to give other things the kinds of attention they deserve). The terror provoked by all this (and terror is what we all felt) gave rise to an irreducible streak of paranoia (complicating one's sense of reality) and to fits of rage and hatred probably unwarranted by this or that eventual provocation--the performances, for example, of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush (because they don't ride the particular wave that Sara so well describes; they simply recite the codes of a rhetoric spelled out long before McCarthy--not that McCarthy can't claim them as his rightful heirs, as instanced by Cheney's delusional and drunken resentments).

So the tendency, for folks in my situation, is to over-react, and also to under-react, to the theatrical fun of the moment. The very least to be said about their performance is that they tend to foreclose any understanding of what's really going on, and why. For a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a dropout from Yale, and a graduate of Princeton to devote such energy to close off the workings of our intellect is symptomatic of something almost ungraspable in its capricious nihilism. Because, finally, these folks come, more or less, from the very culture to which FDR and Murrow both belonged, and they wear this provenance, and its claim to enlightenment, on their sleeves in their own strange ways. And so it's hard to know whether we should simply despise them for their frivolity, or fear them as examples of the worst that can befall the "best" (two different attitudes toward the same disaster).

But the very least one should be able to do (should ever the chance arise) is to tell them in person that they are the very worst that our country produces--that they've made it ridiculous and shameful in the eyes of the human race, AND THAT WE INTEND TO TAKE EVERY CHANCE TO MAKE THIS POINT, AND MEAN FOR THAT POINT TO PREVAIL. This is perhaps the most pertinent, if not the most politically effective, gesture at our disposal, and Rumsfeld apparently knows this: why else would he blame the press, and allocate $30 million for a PR blitz to clear his name from obliquy (as Walter Pincus reports in today's Washington Post)? This is not a man who worries about mistakes; he's a man who worries about his image, fearful of watching his statue being pulled down in public places. The prospect--the injustice of it all--overwhelms him with self-pity.

But when did a war-criminal ever feel otherwise? Our daily message, therefore, must serve as our own version of the Nuremberg Trials--the judgment providing its own sentence and execution.

The issue is not whether Olberman's critique had any problems, the issue is that at least SOMEONE on the national media is doing critique. Even if only on lowly MSNBC.

I'll send kudos to Olberman. Kudos, Keith.

I would like to encourage the blogging community to ask their readers to contact MSNBC and tell them that Keith's sponsors will have first consideration when they decide to spend money. In this day and age that is the best way to give support and thanks to a program that is this valuable to the American People.

our writing griot.

thank you again, sara, for a timely history story.

for me, the key passage is:

"I frankly doubt if many today can comprehend ....People finally had their little houses.... People did not want to fight again."

indeed not, then or now. most of us want just to live and let live, pursue or work and enjoy our family.

but we have faced a similar situation over the last four years with a karl rove-lead white house political team that has spread fear similar to that that McCarthy and his team (roy cohn, et al) did.

i consider karl rove, like senator mccarthy, an american political terrorist of the first rank. and i am using "terrorist" in a literal, not in some metaphorical, way.

terror is not just about guns and explosives. you're not limited to blowing up city buses in order to create a real climate of fear and stringent self-imposed limits on your opponents' political speech and action.

karl rove's effectiveness ensues from a combination of his power as a presidential confidant and assistant and from his willingness and his ability (and i suspect, his pleasure) to harm individuals who do not perform as he believes they should in the political realm.

but unlike sen. mccarthy, rove and co have worked sub rosa - thru private conversations and thru third parties, e.g., in the attack on ambassador jos. wilson and his wife, including the destruction of wilson's wife's career.

this quiet terror makes rove and co's efforts harder to detect and document and harder to counter.

rove and co have spread fear of retaliation for lack of co-operation among journalists, the corporations those journalists work for, and among republican politicians.

and they have spread fear of destruction of career among academics who oppose administration views and among democratic politicians.

in one sense, the problem in dealing with a political organization like this is similar to that of dealing with a mob in new jersey or one of those corrupt rich ranchers in the grade b cowboy movies -

individuals who "make trouble" can be picked off one by one until those left get the message.

individuals who take action are certain targets of revenge and run a high risk of losing something they value, job or reputation in our modern case.

what's to be done? something collective, no doubt. maybe olberman lit the fuse. maybe he started an avalanche that will grow with time. i don't know.

maybe james moore's forthcoming book will provide more kinetic energy.

best, i think, would be a simultaneous, persistent attack on the bush presidency's failures from all concerned quarters of this society.

this might keep team karl too busy to pick off individuals.

Great post Sara.

Thank you, Sara, great post.

Alabama writes....

"Because, finally, these folks come, more or less, from the very culture to which FDR and Murrow both belonged, and they wear this provenance, and its claim to enlightenment, on their sleeves in their own strange ways."

Actually, Murrow's social origins are anything but the Ivy League or the circles of FDR's Hudson River milue. Murrow was born into a Quaker family in North Carolina -- they were farmer, but also deeply involved in what we would call Progressive Politics. His family included Quaker abolitionists before the Civil War, they opposed the war on Pacifist Principles, Murrow's grandfather served in the NC Legislature, but got defeated over his resistance to Jim Crowism. At any rate when Murrow was about 8 or so, his family moved to the Pacific North West -- again taking up farming, and also finding employment in the timber industry. Murrow worked as a Lumberjack as a teen -- helping to support his family, and he was in the milue where the IWW was busy organizing. In fact Joe McCarthy would spend several years searching for evidence Murrow had signed a Red Card -- no evidence found. Anyhow, Murrow worked his way through a state college as a Lumberjack. He was elected President of the National Student Federation as a compromise candidate -- the larger West Coast Universities (UCLA v UC and Berkley) were deadlocked, so the compromise was Murrow from the obscure Washington state college. It was only then that he went to NYC, where NSF was headquartered -- and the career took off from this base.

The job as President of NSF involved traveling around the country, meeting with NSF chapters on campuses. NSF had chapters on Black Campuses in the South, and one of the things Murrow engineered in 1931 was an integrated conference at an Atlanta Hotel, including a tea dance and Banquet. NSF was totally anti-Jim Crow laws, and Murrow was doing that sort of politics in the early 1930's. (As one can see Joe McCarthy had much to "investigate")

Murrow never turned his back on his origins even when he was the most famous correspondant in the late 40's and 50's. Of course he picked up many refinements, particularly from the British upper class, from the wartime BBC circles. There are all sorts of comments from his collegues indicating that he always tried to pitch his reporting so the people he knew in the Washington Logging Industry, or the NC Farmers circles could understand his meaning. In a sense FDR and Murrow looked at each other as, to some extent, engaged in the same "business" with the same tools, but they came to that from entirely different social milue.

Murrow's influence was very much a matter of the right person mastering a new technology, in a crisis environment. He was not hired by CBS as an over the air broadcaster -- his job was more that of a producer, and he had been sent to Europe to arrange for European political and cultural figures to speak over CBS's network. However, during the Anschluss Murrow was in Vienna as a witness, but he had no broadcaster available, so after establishing short-wave links through London to New York -- he did his first on air work, describing the arrival of Hitler's forces in Vienna. For American Radio it was a whole new style -- the broadcaster as true reporter-correspondant. So between 1937 and 1939 all of the networks re-staffed and re-organized along the Murrow model, and for the most part, this was how Americans actually experienced World War II at home. The big box in the living room, the little box on the kitchen table -- out of it coming "the voice" who was immediately witnessing events, giving you the sounds, describing the action. Radio, as with good newspapers, seperated reporting from editorial material. The commentary was done by others out of New York Studios. Murrow's influence derived from the fact that the story he told held up no matter what aspect of the war he reported. It never seemed selected in terms of an agenda, though there clearly was one. I rather seriously doubt if FDR could have gotten as much support as he did, pre-Pearl Harbor for things like the draft, lend lease, re-armament, and so forth if Murrow hadn't been telling these stories night after night along with his collegues. Yet for the most part the development of this form was quite unplanned. It was nearly the total opposite German (Goebbels)propaganda and communications strategy, and for the most part rejected BBC cultural elitism. But beyond those negations, it really was led by what was technically possible.

Glad to be reminded of Ralph Flanders. When I worked a Senate campaign in Vermont in 1970, Flanders was much remembered among voters who that in year were turning to a Democrat (not enough though.)

My sentence was rather unfocused, Sara, and I thank you for reading it with a keen and instructive eye. But for me, the main riddle today is as follows: American cultural authority can be acquired, and it says of the one who acquires it that he or she comes from a recognized cultural space or place (I see this as a "provenance" of sorts). In effect, it's an Anglophilic space, largely spelled out, I suppose, by J.P.Morgan and his Anglo-American banking culture (it all started, I mean, in the decades after the Civil War). You could come from anywhere, and rise to the top of this space, provided you adopted its codes, its style, its points of reference, its stated values. Robert Lovett (who came, I believe, from Texas), would be one of many spectacular examples. And we can see why this had to have happened: FDR's "household milieu" (and J.P.Morgan's as well, for that matter), was far too small to staff our money machine in all its exponential growth. Schools and colleges were crucial to acculturating the "candidates" required to join this exploding ownership (a somewhat democratic process, at least in appearance). And this acculturation carried an "ethical" promise: it presumed that one would act, or learn to act, in enlightened ways--ways forever being celebrated by Ivy League Presidents, for example....And I think this myth of enlightened leadership survives to this very day, or at least it does for me, and does so to my great confusion: how else, for example, could I find myself shocked, really shocked, at the standing and antics of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, men I regard as damaged, damaging, and finally downright vulgar? It shocks me to remember that Bush got an honorary degree from Yale, if only because he's just as vicious, finally, as Joe McCarthy. He may not smear his victims, but he certainly likes to kill them (we must never forget the 300 executions performed under his governership of Texas, and his giggling at the execution of Carla Faye Tucker). Melville said it well: "What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?" (Israel Potter).

Well, in the cases of the three guys you mention, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, you actually have three very different models of how one jumps up in the systems.

Bush was "to the manor borne" and in fact born to one of the worst of the manor houses. I can't strongly enough recommend Kitty Kelley's 2004 book -- they rushed it off the market as fast as possible, but I think she got it very close to right. Barbara was from an elite family that had seen better times, but still she descended from Franklin Pierce, a calling card for the circles she wanted to join. For all her pretentions, she never finished college, never really did any work, and apparently has no driving interest other than golf. GHW Bush was pretty much AWOL as she was raising the kids -- doing deals, doing Republican Politics, networking, but he left Barbara home alone -- they never entertained, in fact Barbara could not cook so meals were frozen TV and the like. There was little emotional attachment in the home -- it was a cold place where you just existed. GHW apparently had a number of women in long term relationships on the side, and Barbara just soured and took it. I think all this shows up in George. He has no real social grace, few interests, he passed through the "Name" schools and all -- but never caught the slightest flame of interest in an interior intellectual life. He is, simply, the guy who inherited a name and access to lots of money. His friends are friends because of loyality -- whatever that means. It probably means he cuts them into deals. Were he not the son of GHWBush and the grandson of Prescott Bush, he might have been an assistant project manager at Enron. It's a case of a high borne learning all the compensations for covering up his emotional and intellectual poverty, playing way out of his league. But yes, he is Yale and Harvard.

Now Cheney started at Yale, but got dropped for low grades his first year. Later, he got it together, and attended the U of Wisconsin for a Political Science PHD. (I rather doubt if the Badgers brag much on that these days.) The picture of Cheney as a grad student in the 60's in Madison is interesting. Apparently he absolutely hated the idea of military service (for himself) and played the system well to avoid Vietnam. The person I've talked with who knew him in Grad School is convinced that Lynn did most of his papers, and apparently he had real difficulty with seminars where one is expected to talk up, and at times make presentations. But he did his work, got a serviceable PHD, and went off to work as a Hill Staffer, and eventually migrated into the Nixon WH Staff circle. The friend who knew him in Grad School said that when he went on Nixon's staff the FBI or some sort of similar service, went to the U of Wisconsin and scrubbed the campus for any evidence of Cheney's work. Chopped his name off library cards, went through professors and departmental files for any papers he had written. He apparently didn't want to ever be associated with an idea he had encountered in Grad School. But he was there when Madison was being Madison in the 1960's, and apparently he did attend a few meetings and the like. Word is that Cheney took a seminar in something like the History of Political Theory, and one of the other participants in that was Michael Meerpole -- the elder son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who did his PHD in History at about the same time. At the time, Michael was semi-out as to his real identity, and most involved in SDS stuff. If I were a playwrite, I'd reconstruct that seminar as a play. Anyhow, Wisconsin is one of the really great American Universities -- particularly for Grad School, and while the Harvard Degree may have more prestiage, Wisconsin is really world class.

I actually think Rumsfeld probably got the better education of the lot -- yes, Princeton, but then he actually served 4 years in the navy in the mid 50's, and I suspect he had to actually work at whatever he did on ship. I don't remember where he did graduate work, but as I understand it, he did the navy so as to get the benefits to support grad school. He wasn't from the house of privilege at all. At any rate he was recruited to run for Congress, and then moved into the Nixon-Ford staff. He seems to have moved through a whole variety of short courses on Military Strategy, Geo-Politics, and the like -- the kind of thing that was on offer as special programs in DC during the 1960's. U of Chicago (one of the seats of Neo-Con-ism) did a number of these in that period for those planning a Government Career, and I suspect that is how he connected up with his current ideology.

Anyhow -- putting some of these details on the table about the three men in question, is really about putting some of the detail in place around which we can assess whether the notion of merit (cream rises to the top) or birthright and inheritance dominated in the late 50's and 60's -- which is the time frame when these men formed their public and professional characters. (Bush about ten years later). I think it is very worth speculating on the interaction among systems and opportunities, the actual culture of the times, and the personalities in interpreting how they became what they are right now -- and I agree with you -- they are dangerous, all of them.

What else was going on then -- well American Students were volunteering for the Peace Corps. Students were the core of a great social movement, the Civil Rights movement, and then the questioning of the Vietnam War, many aspects of Cold War Ideology, and then additional movements, Environmental matters, Feminism, Gay Rights, the problem of poverty. They missed all this. Why?

It's late in the day, Sara, and I'll save my thoughts about your broader cultural questions for tomorrow. But as for these three guys: none is especially gifted, though each is probably more skilled at certain things than they show (Bush's knack for raising money, for instance, may be due to some minor skills as a salesman, of which I'm unaware). None, in fact, is truly gifted, but each requires, needs, demands, and drives to acquire the standing and the rewards that gifted people can acquire: Paul O'Neill is renowned as a truly brilliant problem solver, as we see in his success at rescuing companies; William Perry was a highly esteemed Secretary of Defense, due to his talents (I"m told) at administration and engineering; and Bill Clinton, coming from nowhere, won and sustained his tenure as President in the face of a decade-long assassination attempt (finishing off, as he did so, a good six or seven Republican aspirants along the way). And today he's perhaps the most powerful politician in the world. I believe those men owe their success to their native gifts, and the skill to manage them well (strange as this may seem of Clinton, whose career supports the point).

Now there's nothing more to be found in Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney than a sick drive to win the world's acclaim as the most powerful, awesome, eminent men on earth. But when we watch them, what do we see? Three pigs with opposable thumbs behaving like pigs! And the disaster they visit upon us is such that no one, I dare to guess, will care to mention their names in ten years' time. The obloquy that awaits them will go deeper and farther than Nixon's, expressing a truly vengeful malice at the damage done to our land. A response that thinking people should worry about, I should add--since the more pertinent agents of this disaster are the folks who allowed it to happen (just think, for example, of Princeton's other bright ornament, James Baker, and his infinite circle of accomodating colleagues).

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