What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders

Was this petty, snarling man, utterly lacking in presidential temperament and heedless of the established rules and norms of politics, going to get us into a nuclear war? That’s what a lot of Americans wondered about Richard Nixon back in 1956. Chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running-mate four years before, Nixon was seen as unscrupulous, mean-spirited and reckless in smearing his opponents. So in the 1956 campaign, with Ike still wildly popular, Democrats made Nixon’s character an issue. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first hydrogen bomb, and Eisenhower had recently suffered a heart attack and a bout of ileitis (a gastrointestinal illness)—putting Nixon, they warned, perilously close to the Oval Office. In the fall Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee, invoked what the liberal New York Post columnist Max Lerner called “the triple issue”: should Eisenhower suddenly die, the unreliable Nixon would have his finger on the button.

Today, of Continue reading “What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders”

Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change History

As if by unspoken assent, we’ve adopted a name for our overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault: It’s the “Me Too Moment.” “Me too,” everyone knows, comes from the Twitter hashtag by which women are sharing their experiences with sexual predators of various sorts after the New York Times’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein. But the word “moment” is significant as well. It reminds us that there’s a time factor at work, a historical element. Starting now, it promises, we’re taking a harder line against these offenses than we did in the past.

Most of us take some satisfaction in seeing women emboldened to speak out where they had once been intimidated and seeing justice finally delivered to rank offenders. But for those concerned about history, there’s also a danger in some of the arguments being tossed about. If we’re not attentive to the history implicit in the Continue reading “Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change History”

America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence

The American War of Independence was fought from April 19, 1775 (Lexington and Concord) to September 3, 1783 (the Peace of Paris), and although Massachusetts and some other states observe the first of those dates as Patriots’ Day, neither has become a national holiday. It’s July 4, of course, that reigns as our undisputed Independence Day—the occasion for picnics and parades, festivities and fireworks, and star-spangled, red-white-and-blue kitsch. That was when the representatives at the Second Continental Congress, the 13 colonies’ newly formed governing body, signed the Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founding document, which is still often read aloud, 241 years later, at July 4 celebrations across the land.

Since 1776, the Declaration of Independence has assumed a near-biblical status in America’s national mythology—its opening paragraphs memorized by schoolchildren, its formulation of liberal principles of equality and self-government venerated by citizens of all political stripes. It still provides a Continue reading “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence”

Why Liberals Hate the New Obama Biography

Apart from journalists assigned to review it and a book editor who considered publishing it, I have yet to meet anyone who has read, or is reading, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, the phenomenal new biography of the former president by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David J. Garrow. Although the book made No. 14 on the New York Times best-seller list—no mean feat—it stayed there just one week. This is a little surprising, because Rising Star has got to be one of the most impressive and important books of the year. It’s a masterwork of historical and journalistic research, Robert Caro-like in its exhaustiveness, and easily the most authoritative account of Obama’s pre-presidential life we’ve seen or are likely ever to see. It’s also a terrific read.

Garrow’s research alone makes his book essential for anyone who wants to understand our recently departed president. Early headlines Continue reading “Why Liberals Hate the New Obama Biography”

Watergate Fueled Conspiracy Theories, Too

For all the similarities between President Donald Trump’s Russiagate scandal (or, as I prefer to call it, Onion Dome) and Watergate—the special counsels; the Congressional hearings; the talk of obstruction of justice and secret tapes—there’s one parallel that is getting less attention.

In Watergate as in Onion Dome, defenders of the president plunged deep into conspiracy theory to explain away a growing body of evidence pointing to serious White House wrongdoing. Today, Trump surrogates deny Russian interference in the election and assert that U.S. intelligence agencies—portentously (and inaccurately) called the “Deep State”—are hoping to overturn the election results through leaks and fake news. And though it has largely been forgotten, some Nixon acolytes during and after Watergate pushed a very similar claim: that the CIA, the Pentagon or other entrenched government interests secretly conspired to oust Nixon for their own reasons, even as the news media trumpeted a Continue reading “Watergate Fueled Conspiracy Theories, Too”

The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors

Ethel Kennedy opened the door in her bathrobe, welcoming us in from the blizzard. The snowstorm had made it impossible to reach Harpers Ferry, where a retreat had been planned for a gaggle of Washington-based Generation Xers, as we were called then. So one participant, Doug Kennedy, asked his mother to let us relocate to their Hickory Hill estate. Over the next hour that Saturday morning in March 1993, twentysomethings of diverse stripes including Jon Karl, now of ABC News, Jon Cowan, now of Third Way, and Eric Liu, now of Citizen University, streamed in for a weekend of debate.

The confab was hatched by a man much older than we were—William Strauss, a charming, gray-haired congressional staffer known in Washington for founding the Capitol Steps, a troupe of Hill aides who performed mildly funny political satire in a small Georgetown theater. One typical parody featured a George Bush Sr. Continue reading “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors”

The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar 

When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man. Early in his first term he had declared war on them—famously in two high-profile speeches delivered by his pit-bull vice president, Spiro T. Agnew—and he spied on many with illegal wiretaps authorized by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. When reporters crossed him, he punished them with petty retributions (excluding some from his trip to China) and unconstitutional abuses of power (siccing the IRS or FBI on others) that became grounds for his impeachment.

Well before Watergate, Nixon’s treatment of reporters led them to thunder that because of his distortions and manipulations, freedom of the press was under siege. The news media’s leading lights sounded the alarm. Accepting the “Broadcaster of the Year” award in 1971, Walter Cronkite labeled Nixon’s anti-press campaign “a grand conspiracy.” On the Dick Cavett show, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee Continue reading “The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar “