Monday, June 20, 2011

The Politics of Vanilla and Cherry Garcia

[This column originally written for THE DAILY CALLER]

Whether or not the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, manages to succeed in his quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, one thing is clear — many people think he doesn’t have enough charisma to be president. One conservative media mainstay recently referred to Pawlenty as too “vanilla.” In other words, the guy is too boring.

I’m not necessarily a Pawlenty supporter, but I find myself wondering: Haven’t we had a lot of charisma lately and haven’t we learned that style doesn’t always translate into substance?

There have actually been some rather boring presidents who turned out to be pretty effective. For example, Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency the moment Warren Harding died in a San Francisco hotel in August of 1923. Coolidge was at his family home in Vermont at the time, without telephone service or even electricity. When he received the news, Coolidge prayed on his knees. Then his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the middle of the night — certainly a modest beginning.

Coolidge was probably the least charismatic president ever. Yet, he was overwhelmingly elected in his own right in November of 1924. Known to us these days as “Silent Cal,” his economy of words was akin to his view on economics in general. He was thrifty, conservative, and talked a lot about character and values. One biographer later called him, somewhat cynically, a “Puritan in Babylon.” But like the actual Puritans of history (not the caricatures portrayed in modern textbooks and media), he was a man whose obvious decency was itself a rebuke to an increasingly indecent age.

Had Coolidge chosen to run again in 1928, there is little doubt that he would have been victorious. But it’s doubtful that he could make the first-round cut in our day.

To many Americans, Harry Truman was a welcome change of pace from the imperiousness of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Truman was friendly, but he wasn’t all that charismatic. At best, he was vanilla on apple pie. But he was an effective politician who defied political odds in 1948.

Of course, some leaders could have used more charisma — especially those who liked to act humble in an almost prideful sort of way. Jimmy Carter carrying his own luggage comes to mind. And then there was British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, who was surprisingly swept into power within months of the end of World War II — a war that was won in large part due to the leadership of his predecessor, Winston Churchill. Someone once referred to Atlee as a “modest man” in front of Churchill — a clear dig at Winston. Churchill’s response was the classic retort: “Yes, he is a modest man with much to be modest about.” Churchill was known to admit that, while all men were worms, he surely was a glowworm.

The British eventually tired of Clement Atlee’s modesty and re-elected Winston Churchill in the early 1950s.

What all of this suggests is that there is no clear connection between a leader’s personal style and his ability to govern. Charismatic leaders have at times been effective, especially during times of great crisis. But their great shining moments have often been tempered with brevity.

It is also true that boring leaders can turn out to be incredibly incompetent.

What this should tell us is that whether a candidate is vanilla or Cherry Garcia, such surface qualities should never be primary considerations.

Tim Pawlenty may or may not have what it takes to be a good president. But the decision about our next chief executive should be decided on the basis of something other than charisma or “gotcha” points in some televised debate-like showcase.

Mario Cuomo used to talk about how politics was poetry, while governing was prose. Well, we have a would-be poet in the White House these days. Maybe what we need next time is a Calvin Coolidge kind of leader — someone who is much more concerned about walking the walk than he is about talking at all.

David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His new book, “The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

WELCOME BACK!!

WELCOME BACK TO HISTORY IN THE NEWS. This blog has been down since 2009--yikes!--but I am back at it and will post here regularly, especially my opinion pieces that feature, of course, a "history in the news" theme.

I have also kept some of the "Best of DRS" articles archived here. I have written about 300 such articles over the years--this grouping is from 2008 and 2009.

Stay tuned---and watch for the release of my new book, "THE SHOOTING SALVATIONIST: J Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America." It comes out (distributed by Random House) on July 12, 2011.

Check out the website: www.theshootingsalvationist.com

Can Mitt Romney Take a Punch?

[This column was written for THE DAILY CALLER]

The parallels between Mitt Romney and his famous dad, George Romney, are many. The most obvious are that both men were successful in business before becoming governors (Mitt was the governor of Massachusetts a few years ago and George was the governor of Michigan in the 1960s).

But there may be another parallel — Mitt Romney may have inherited his father’s political glass jaw.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s, and I remember the elder Romney as a popular, charismatic governor of Michigan. His face could regularly be seen on TV channels 2, 4, and 7 — the big stations connected to the networks. Then there was Channel 50, a UHF station that you needed a special, oddly shaped antenna to receive. It was a cool station for cartoons, old re-runs of sitcoms, and vintage movie shows hosted by minor local celebrities. You would never see a politician there -- except on the weekends.

On Saturday and Sunday evenings, Channel 50 featured a guy named Lou Gordon. In retrospect, he was probably the first television host to do the kind of “gotcha” and in-your-face, hardball interviewing that is very much the norm these days. He was a pit bull and in 1967 was ready to be syndicated across the country. The inaugural show would feature an eclectic line-up, including a couple from an organization called “The Swingers” (advocates of wife swapping), as well as an in-depth interview with Governor George Romney. The Mormon moralist governor was probably unaware of the other guests when he dropped in to tape his segment. Romney was a fan of the show and had even once filled in as a guest host when Gordon was on vacation.

This interview became famous because it demonstrated George Romney’s weakness: He couldn’t take a punch.

In fairness to the late former governor of Michigan, it is important to tell a part of the story that few these days have heard, one about a tired and overstretched candidate who over-trusted his ability to think on his feet, even while being knocked off of them.

Thursday, August 31, 1967 was a typically frenetic day for Romney and included a visit with his grandchildren to the Michigan State Fair. The plan was to only stay a bit and have the photo op, giving him plenty of time to drive over to the Channel 50 studios. Then, one of his grandkids inexplicably wandered off, creating understandable panic. For a time, state troopers searching the fair grounds wondered if a kidnapping might be in play. But they found the child riding the Ferris wheel, oblivious to what was happening. Governor Romney — now rattled and very late — made his way to the studios. His shoes were covered in dirt and whatever else from the fair grounds. He really should have rescheduled.

Plunging headlong into the interview with his friend Lou Gordon, he was asked at one point a question about Vietnam. It was a predictable query for any candidate back then, but especially for Romney. He had been making fuzzy and even conflicted statements about the war in Southeast Asia for the prior few months. Romney had been to Vietnam in November of 1965, a trip that included thorough briefings from General William Westmoreland and U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Lately, however, Romney seemed to be changing his view of the war from that of “hawk” toward “dove.”

What he had to say to his friendly interviewer that day would, in fact, become his political epitaph:

“Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam…I have changed my mind…I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”

A few days later, even before the show aired, Lou Gordon read over the transcript of the interview and was struck by the word “brainwashing,” sensing that it might make good publicity for the show. He contacted a friend at the New York Times and furnished a transcript. On September 5th, a day after the show aired, the Times had a brief story about it all on page 28: “Romney Asserts He Underwent ‘Brainwashing’ on Vietnam Trip.” And over the next few days, the story went viral.

George Romney never recovered. He went on to serve as a cabinet officer under President Nixon and was by all accounts a man of decency and generosity, but the single word “brainwashing” is how most remember him these days.

Lou Gordon died in 1977, but his legacy -- rapid-fire media questioning -- lives on. Mitt Romney will no doubt face many in the media who play hardball. Will he be able to navigate their questions, or will he face his father’s fate?

[David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His new book, “THE SHOOTING SALVATIONIST: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.]

Friday, January 16, 2009

Of Mice, Pumpkins, and Former Presidents

Sometime after the transition in January of 1969, President Richard Nixon asked his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, how it felt the moment he knew he wasn’t president anymore. LBJ replied:

“I don’t know whether you’ll understand this now or not, but you certainly will later. I sat there on that platform and waited for you to stand up and raise your right hand and take the oath of office, and the most pleasant words that I ever – that ever came to my ears were ‘So help me God’ that you repeated after that oath. Because at that time I no longer had the fear that I was the man that could make the mistake of involving the country in war, that I was no longer the man that would have to carry the terrifying responsibility of protecting the lives of this country and maybe the entire world, unleashing the horrors of some of our great power if I felt that was required.”


As the nation watches the high and historic drama unfold on January 20th, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and his beautiful family. While he assumes the awesome responsibilities that come with being America’s 44th president, there will be another – much quieter – drama unfolding.

George W. Bush will fade into the political sunset and take his first steps as a former leader of the free world. And as he takes a final lap during these waning moments of his administration, complete with exit interviews, a press conference, and address to the nation, he has the look of someone who is very much looking forward to some of what Lyndon Johnson was talking about.

Harry Truman remarked at the moment he inherited the presidency that he felt as if a “load of hay” had fallen on him. Well, hay or whatever, the day he left office he felt relief. As he sat on the platform listening to Dwight D. Eisenhower deliver his inaugural address, Truman found his mind wandering. A short while later, he was in a limousine for a ride to a farewell luncheon. Suddenly, the driver stopped for a red light – the first such traffic observance for Truman since April of 1945.

Those first hours as a former president must be interesting indeed.

In 1921, Woodrow Wilson was a shell of the man who had heard cheering in so many languages just a year or so earlier. There was a moment when he had been seen as an almost Messiah-like figure. But then, virtually wheelchair bound due to the debilitating effects of several strokes, his health prevented him from sitting outdoors to observe Warren Harding’s inauguration. Instead, as he heard cheers for his successor in the distance, he was driven along the quiet streets of Washington, D.C. to his home on S Street.

But Wilson was still in the vicinity of the Capitol as his presidency expired, not so with Richard Nixon who relinquished the burdens of his presidency 39,000 feet over Jefferson City, Missouri on August 9, 1974, as Gerald R. Ford was taking the presidential oath in the White House East Room. The moment was marked by the singularly simple act of Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, the pilot of the presidential plane carrying Nixon to California. He changed the aircraft’s call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000.

The most dramatic inauguration day in recent memory was in 1981. At the very moment Ronald Reagan was succeeding Jimmy Carter, 52 hostages held by the Iranians for 444 days were boarding a plane at Tehran’s airport en route to freedom. Carter had spent a sleepless night monitoring the situation. The next day, the 39th president flew to Germany on behalf of the 40th to meet the freed Americans. Mr. Carter’s defeat in the recent election was due, in part, to his inability to obtain their release. The timing of the plane’s departure from Iran was delayed. This was one final act of insult by the captors. They didn’t let the captives go until the new president was sworn in.

As the now-former president met with the hostages, one aid, Hamilton Jordan, noted that Jimmy Carter “looked as old and tired as I had ever seen him.”

Years before he was elected to the nation’s highest office, William Howard Taft – who had a well-known aversion to overt politics – said: “It will be a cold day when I go to the White House.” He was right. That inauguration 100 years ago (though then still taking place on the 4th of March) was conducted against the backdrop of frigid temperatures and freezing rain that formed an arctic crust over the Capitol grounds. But the weather wasn’t the only frosty element that day – outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt, already less-than-enamored of his hand-picked successor’s moves away from “continuity,” watched the proceedings with “a stony expression and balled up fists.” This body language seemed to telegraph coming problems between Teddy and Taft.

John F. Kennedy’s celebrated inauguration was also tempered by hard and bitter weather, in the wake of a blizzard in Washington. As he spoke that day, vapor surrounded his words. The contrast between the youthful new leader and his aged predecessor was stark.

Following the ceremony, Eisenhower and his wife Mamie slipped out a side exit and went to the F Street Club for a luncheon with close friends. They then got in their car – just the two of them – and drove to their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The drive should have taken a couple of hours, but because of the weather it turned into a ten-hour ordeal.

Eisenhower, by the way, was the first former president to retain the services of a personal Secret Service bodyguard after leaving the White House – but only for two weeks.

On March 4, 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt rode together from the White House to the Capitol to transfer power at a critical moment in our nation’s history. But any eavesdropping fly on the car window would have been disappointed at the dialogue. Breaking a long and awkward silence, the generally loquacious Roosevelt noted the new Commerce building under construction. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce before becoming president, so FDR likely thought this would be a good icebreaker. The man who would soon take the oath of office remarked: “Lovely steel.”

Hoover had no response. It was the last time they would ever “speak.”

Whatever warm fraternity exists these days between former presidents – as was demonstrated last week at the ultimate White House power lunch – no such feelings were anywhere to be found 76 years ago as administrations changed during that time of severe economic crisis.

By the way, one of the first things Harry Truman did after becoming president was to invite Herbert Hoover back to the White for the first time since March 4, 1933. Truman correctly sensed that only former presidents truly understand what the office personally means.

The journey from power to lack thereof is a short one. It passes as quickly as the flip of a switch as the clock marks the moment and solemn words are uttered. In this unique split-second, one person assumes an awesome burden, while another gives one away.

As you watch the events unfold on Tuesday, look closely at the faces of George Bush and Barack Obama and you’ll see two men smiling - one out of relief, the other out of excitement. And both men will likely be thinking “Now what?”

Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day friends had gathered – first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before - and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.

One of the first tell-tale signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon their massive collection of luggage that had been left in the carport that evening, with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed. Ladybird then uttered a phrase that captures what all former presidents probably come to understand as they take their first steps as former presidents:

“The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Barack Ballad of Abraham, Franklin, and John

With apologies to Dion and his now 40-year-old song - Abraham, Martin, and John - I see the ghosts of three past presidents standing slightly off stage as the nation watches the approach of inauguration day.

The ancient Israelites tended to name-drop a patriarchal hat trick when they wanted their rhetoric to stick. Crying out about, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” was enough to speak with authority. For a politician these days, especially the highly successful one who will have to settle on seeing the White House from his Hay-Adams Hotel room window before actually moving in, there is no better political triumvirate to invoke than the really big three: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration will certainly be one to remember. Anticipation alone exceeds anything in recent memory. The convergence of historic imagery and the fact that so many challenges await our 44th president, make this transition something that rivals only a few such moments from our nation’s past.

The inaugural prayer has become a source of controversy, and now the oath itself – at least the suffix “so help me God” – is under fire. I am sure Mr. Obama hopes what he has to say in his maiden address as our new president will be so resounding that any other pre-inaugural firestorm will fade into distant memory like that burning space heater on the platform in January 1961.

From the start, the Obama campaign dispensed with any pretense of subtlety as it sought to conjure up and identify with images of past presidential greatness. He announced his candidacy surrounded by all things Lincoln, solidified political support at a key primary point by tapping into the still apparently potent power of Camelot, and raced to the November finish line sounding a lot like Mr. New Deal.

His cabinet complete, his team now in place, and his much deserved (and no doubt needed) Hawaiian vacation over, the next event on the calendar is the inauguration itself. And all pre-inaugural controversies notwithstanding, central to that event will be the speech. The new man from Illinois has already demonstrated the ability to come through during big speeches – but this one is the granddaddy of them all.

No doubt he has been reading up for a long time on the inaugural addresses of his ghostly trio. But will he be able to deliver something that will rise to the standards they set?

When John Kennedy was working on his inaugural address, he charged speechwriter Theodore Sorenson with studying Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. JFK was very conscious of history. When he died, his widow commissioned a quick review of our 16th president’s funeral to use as a working model for her assassinated husband’s sad and somber farewell.

Of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 address is probably the most famous – largely because he entered office just as the nation’s economic outlook was at its bleakest. One thing Mr. Obama needs to remember though, if finding inspiration from FDR, is that when the 32nd president took office things were much worse than they are today.

Those who advocate a New Deal-like approach to the current economic situation would do well to read up on their history. If there is any parallel to what has happened recently and the events of The Great Depression, what should be remembered is that we are only a few months in, following a market tumble.

In Great Depression terms this is 1930 – not 1933. In January of 1930, the market had rebounded and there was little indication that things were going to get much worse. In fact, a case can be made that it was the actions Herbert Hoover and the Congress took in 1930 – things like the Smoot-Harley Act (protectionism), raising taxes, and attempts by the government to manage the economy – that led to a continued downward spiral. Add to all of this the fact that more than half the nation entered a period of sustained drought that year (timing is everything), and we had the makings of what became a long national perfect storm.

Then FDR came to town and kicked it up a notch. Thus began a frenetic period when the “best minds” made things up as they went along, content that they simply knew better because they were running things.

I once heard it said that a fanatic is someone who, when faced with the clear failure of a plan of action, determines to work harder and redouble the efforts.

Reading the entire speech Mr. Roosevelt gave on March 4, 1933 – beyond the “fear itself” stuff - is, in fact, quite chilling. In true populist fashion, the new president railed at the enemies that would become his usual suspects for more than a decade: business leaders and those he called “money-changers.” He used his words as a scourge to drive the culprits out of town:

“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

He called on the nation to fix the “overbalance of population in our industrial centers,” suggesting migratory “redistribution.” Pack your bags and go west, or south, young man. Roosevelt talked of extensive “national planning” and unprecedented governmental “supervision” of major sectors of the economy (and the country itself).

And Franklin Roosevelt threatened that if the Congress did not bend to his will on these things, he would seek “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Ray Moley was one of the men tasked with helping FDR craft the speech, and in his handwritten notes the word “dictator” appears (though without any elaboration). Possibly this was bounced around as a word fitting for that whole “broad Executive power” idea.

It is known that many on the left in those days saw virtue in the “strong man” approach to leadership. A movie (funded by William Randolph Hearst) was produced at the time called Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston, and extolling the virtues of “benevolent” despotism.

FDR loved the movie – even offering some suggestions about the script.

Mr. Obama would be wise to put the FDR speech away, however – there is not much there that really applies to current reality. At least, let’s hope not.

That leaves us with the ghost of Old Honest Abe. Like Mr. Obama, he came to the presidency with a somewhat unimpressive resume. But he also knew a thing or two about speech making. His address at New York’s Cooper Union in February of 1860 paved the way for the Republican nomination. Before that he had gained fame and a reputation for effective rhetorical argument during his legendary debates with Stephen Douglas.

We think of Lincoln these days as a great communicator (a traits most of our more effective presidents have in common). His address at Gettysburg is still studied. His Second Inaugural was a classic with lines like “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

But can anyone quote a line from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural?

He put in a plug for the postal service: “The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union.” Inspiring stuff.

Regarding slavery he “boldly” said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He was, as Winston Churchill once described a political foe, “resolute to be irresolute.”

He, of course, did elaborate on the Constitutional idea “to form a more perfect union,” probably the most memorable portion of the speech. But beyond that, the fact is that Lincoln’s first inaugural was a bomb. What he had to say was important – and he spoke against the backdrop of perilous times. As a speech, however, it was not memorable and no one studies it much these days. It was too long – more than 3,600 words and delivered in about 45 minutes. And he tried to cover too many bases; a big mistake in inaugural addresses.

There is a reason why JFK had Ted Sorenson study the Gettysburg Address, not Lincoln’s first inaugural. The speech at the cemetery in 1863 was a mere 278 words long. Kennedy’s inaugural was 1,364 words long and delivered in slightly under 14 minutes.

FDR flirted with long-windedness – his 1933 address came in at about 1,900 words. But, his tag line, the one that is remembered, was right at the beginning. It was all down hill from there.

John F. Kennedy knew, like Abraham Lincoln grew to understand throughout his presidency, that brevity was the soul of wit. When a speech is shorter, a great line even toward the end will resonate – as did the “ask not” part.

So, before this column becomes ironic, let me simply suggest that President-Elect Obama follow sage advice ministerial students and seminarians have heard for years as they study how to preach: “Stand Up – Speak Up – Shut Up.”

Or in the great African-American pulpit tradition: “Start Low – Go Slow – Rise Higher – Catch Fire – Retire.”

OK – one more and I promise I am done. An old – and somewhat cheesy - “preacher joke” has the clergyman’s wife whispering in his ear as he goes to the pulpit “K.I.S.S.” This stands for “Keep It Short, Stupid.”

On January 20th, I will keep an eye on Michelle.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Spy Who Really Came in From the Cold

Several years ago, David Cornwell (better known by his nom de plume, John Le CarrĂ©) told an interviewer that, “espionage was not really something exclusive and clandestine. It was actually the currency of the Cold War. Spies were the poor bloody infantry of the Cold War.”

They still are – though these days we are in a different war and battling another pernicious ideology.

Cold War spy novels make for entertaining reading, but the more we learn about the nuts and bolts of what actually went on back then, the more we come to understand that truth is in many ways even more dramatic than fiction.

Consider, for example, the case of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski. He was a Polish patriot who may have saved his nation, the whole continent of Europe - maybe even the world – from massive suffering at the hands of a Soviet war machine once poised to race from behind Warsaw Pact borders to the Atlantic Ocean.

I recently attended a symposium at Langley on the life and work of this remarkable unsung hero who risked life, limb, and loved ones to pass along vital information at a crucial moment during the Cold War.

Under the watchful eye of CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden, and as part of a very real “social-contract” with this country, voluminous de-classified materials are being made available to researchers and the public at large. General Hayden was a history major back in college days and has not lost his love for thorough and informed analysis of the past. This passion has clearly informed his directorate.

The most recent historical symposium corresponded with the release of materials relating to Rsyzard Kuklinski and his work on our behalf, but especially that of his beloved Poland. In fact, Kuklinski, who died in 2004, did not see himself as working for “us” – rather he consciously recruited America, via the CIA, to work on behalf of Polish freedom during a dark and difficult time.

In August of 1972, Kuklinski sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, establishing contact with our intelligence operatives. Signing it “P.V.” (later Kuklinski said this stood for “Polish Viking”), this singular act began a relationship that would bear the fruit of literally thousands of vital documents and crucial information helping us to understand Soviet doctrine and intent.

The definitive account of the Polish spy’s fascinating story is a book written by Benjamin Weiser, a reporter for the New York Times, entitled, A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country. Rsyzard Kuklinski is described at the time of his espionage work as “a small man with tousled hair, penetrating blue eyes and the gestures and mannerisms of a man within whom an unbounded supply of energy is bottled up.” He focused that energy on doing everything he could to prevent his country from being sacrificed during the Cold War, as it had been in so many ways during the Second World War.

Kuklinski was motivated by patriotic fear. His role as a high-ranking staff officer made him privy to information about what a major Soviet offensive in Europe would mean. Though always framed via lip service as “defensive” in nature, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact war plans, in fact, were entirely designed to be offensive operations.

The salient point, as far as Kuklinski was concerned, had to do with the so-called Second Strategic Echelon – a massive potential Soviet offensive involving roughly 2 million soldiers and at least a million armored vehicles. Rsyzard and others in a place to know about these plans discerned accurately that the only real response NATO forces would have to counter such a massive Soviet mobilization would be nuclear.

And those bombs would drop, not in Moscow, nor in Western Europe – rather they would obliterate Poland – the perpetual 20th century European pawn.

In fact, the materials passed to us by this highly effective Cold War spy enabled the United States and NATO to effectively plan for such a scenario. And the other guys never knew we had the information.

But even beyond the role he played for us strategically, he also became our eyes and ears during those turbulent months (1980) as the world watched a fledgling political movement known as Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, begin to achieve political traction in Poland. The world also wondered if and when the Soviets (with the complicity of their puppets in charge of things in Warsaw) would intervene as they had in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968). It seemed like only a matter of time.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was uniquely positioned in those days to report on what was going on – enabling us, in the waning days of the Carter presidency, to effectively warn the Soviets off. At one point, he sent a 16-page letter to the CIA describing high-level meetings of the Polish government where the discussion included the potential for a Soviet invasion of their country.

And the next year, 1981, as it became clear that the Polish government led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was preparing to declare martial law in the land, Kuklinski kept us informed in great detail. He despised Jaruzelski, writing in one covert dispatch that the strongman was “unworthy of the name Pole.”

In a dramatic moment on November 2, 1981, Rsyzard Kuklinski was summoned to a meeting in the office of one of his bosses. Six men sat at a T-shaped table and learned that there was a “mole” among them – someone had been leaking information to the Americans. Somehow managing to keep his composure, Kuklinski joined the chorus of voices in the room denouncing such an act of “treason.”

But he knew his days were numbered and soon found a way to communicate to his handlers: “I urgently request instructions for evacuating from the country myself and my family. Please take into consideration that the state border is possibly already closed for me and my family.”

For several days, CIA personnel in Warsaw tried to carry out a plan to evacuate Rsyzard, his wife, and their two sons. Eventually they were spirited away for the long drive to Berlin. I spoke with the driver during a reception near the famed CIA floor seal in Langley’s lobby, and he told me that they managed to get through three checkpoints en route – though acknowledging he still gets chills when thinking about that perilous trip - even 27 years later.

Life in America was no picnic for this Cold War hero and his family. They had to live under an assumed identity and avoid relationships, particularly with Polish-Americans, for years. The two Kuklinski sons met with untimely accidental deaths less than a year apart, breaking the hearts of mom and dad. Questions were raised about the nature of the deaths – one in a boating accident (the body never found) – the other on a college campus, felled by a hit-and-run driver. But no evidence (beyond the circumstantial) was ever discovered that pointed to anything conspiratorial or sinister.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was tried in absentia in 1984 in Poland, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death. After the Cold War ended, his sentence was commuted to 25 years (something that hurt Kuklinski deeply). In 1995, the chief justice of the Polish Supreme Court annulled his sentence. Then in September of 1997, all charges against him were revoked, enabling him to return to Poland a free man.

In April-May 1998, Rsyzard Kuklinski made an 11-day tour of several Polish cities. He was greeted by some as a hero - on a level with Pope John Paul II. Others, however, protested that he was – and would remain - a traitor.

Lech Walesa, for all his good work in the cause of freedom, never completely accepted Kuklinski’s account of things – even suggesting publicly that Rsyzard was a “double-agent” working for the Soviets, as well as the Americans. No such evidence exists – in fact, as new information comes out the case being made that Kuklinski was a Polish patriot and one of the good guys gets stronger and stronger. But Walesa’s remarks highlight the tension when “state” becomes synonymous with “country.”

Frankly, Rsyzard Kuklinski’s work – his willingness to risk it all for what he believed was right – left the world a better place. The Soviet Union eventually fell apart and freedom broke out in his beloved Poland. Neither would have happened had Warsaw Pact nations acted on clearly defined plans for continental – even global – hegemony.

When Kuklinski died in February of 2004, then Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet said: “This passionate and courageous man helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot, providing the CIA with precious information upon which so many critical national security decisions rested. And he did so for the noblest of reasons – to advance the sacred causes of liberty and peace in his homeland and throughout the world.”

Long before that, Rsyzard Kuklinski reflected, “I am pleased that our long, hard struggle has brought peace, freedom, and democracy not only to my country but to many other people as well.”

So are we.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What Would the Sage of Fair Lane Think?

As the big boys from the big three pressed their case this week for a taxpayer funded bridge or bailout (pick your metaphor), the role of big labor in Mr. Obama’s coming administration is being seriously tested even before the guy gets to say “so help me God.”

Of course, at issue is the fact that he promised the proverbial moon to an interest group not really known in recent years for its capacity to pack too much of an electoral punch. Whether or not he will be able – or inclined – to actually keep his pledges is quite another thing.

It is likely that many months ago, when Barack Obama was assuring various union dense audiences of his support for them, he never anticipated having to really do anything about it so soon. But it will be on his plate on day one and the issue may just keep him up some nights until 3:00 a.m. – in case the phone rings in the wee hours.

The problems with the American automobile industry are legion, but likely the most glaring is the cost of labor and management. Bloated salaries in the boardroom and borderline outrageous wages on the assembly lines have pretty much brought the entire U.S. auto industry, once the envy of the world, to its knees - if not the brink of disaster.

Workers at a Toyota plant in Kentucky, a non-union shop, receive about $47.00 per hour in wages and benefits. That translates to about $98,000.00 per year (not counting overtime). Those doing essentially the same job at GM, Ford, or Chrysler – whose assembly line workers are members of the United Auto Workers union – receive roughly $71.00 per hour – or about $150,000.00 annually (again, minus any overtime).

Public school teachers across the country make, on the average, no more than a third of that.

Detroit has been losing money on every car sold for quite some time. The easy criticism is that they have been building “gas guzzlers.” But that dog won’t hunt because one of the reasons they have had difficulty shifting gears (so to speak) to smaller, cheaper, and more fuel efficient models is that they would lose more money per unit on them. They have not been competitive for a long time and there isn’t a bailout number big enough to fix the problem without changing management (getting rid of the guys who ran the place into the ground) and renegotiating labor contracts downward.

And there’s the rub. The United Auto Workers is a formidable foe with a new best friend moving into the White House.

The irony is that this union looks and acts these days more like the guys they fought against back in the 1930s and 1940s. It began as an advocate for hard working people who had been getting the shaft. Who’s holding said shaft now?

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit hearing the legendary stories about “sit down” strikes and an epic encounter called “the battle of the overpass” - where Ford Motor Company “muscle” beat up Walter Reuther, his brother, and other union organizers who were passing out leaflets.

My father was a long time member of the Teamsters (same local as Mr. James Riddle Hoffa) and all the kids on the block had dads who loved and depended on the unions. I know that back in the day the UAW did some good stuff for those who had no real influence or voice. The union effectively helped its members “to free them from the tyranny of arbitrary decision or discriminatory action in the work place,” as Neil Chamberlain wrote nearly half century ago. I get that.

But we have come along way since those days. This is an age of change – remember?

Ford Motor Company was the last of the big three to agree to let its employees organize after a lengthy and brutal battle. Led by Harry Bennett, a close confidante of old Mr. Ford (who later wrote a book about his boss entitled, We Never Called Him Henry), a “goon squad” spied on and intimidated workers for years, keeping them in line and out of the UAW.

In the spring of 1941, as the nation was reluctantly preparing for inevitable involvement in the growing global war, Bennett fired several employees unwittingly creating the catalyst for the first real strike (exclusive of episodic “wild cat” actions) the company ever experienced. For ten days, work at the massive River Rouge Plant was at a standstill and tension was in the air.

Through surrogates like Bennett, Henry Ford insisted that the strike was the work of communist agitators. He had been working closely on the sly with a key, though out of favor, labor leader - Homer Martin. The first president of the UAW, Martin was, in fact, on Ford’s payroll, retained ostensibly as an in-house liaison to the increasingly restless workers.

Homer Martin is now little more than a footnote in the story of the rise of the UAW, having been outmaneuvered by the Reuther brothers and largely written out of the “official” history of the movement. A former Baptist minister, he had been fired by his rural Missouri congregation for outspoken support of workers who were pro-union. He then went to work in a Kansas City automobile plant and soon rose to the top of the fledgling labor movement. Known as “an orator of the evangelical, stem-winding school,” he could “draw fire from an audience.”

Under Homer Martin’s leadership, union membership experienced exponential growth in its early years. A strong anti-communist in a movement rife with socialists, Martin is largely characterized today as an incompetent leader and erratic personality. The truth may actually be that he was bitterly opposed by the Reuther brothers because of his religious faith and the strong support he had from southern workers who connected with his “preacher” persona. Whatever the case, though out of power he continued to spend significant time and energy on the labor cause in the auto industry. And he played an ironic role in the Rouge Plant strike.

As the walkout continued during the first week of April in 1941, Martin – at the urging of Harry Bennett - used his rhetorical skills to try to persuade strikers to quit and get back to work. Meanwhile, the Reverend J. Frank Norris, a fiery fundamentalist Texas preacher who was also pastor of a mammoth Detroit congregation, preached a sermon that was broadcast on WJR radio and printed word for word in the Detroit Times. Norris called the Rouge Plant strike the work of “revolutionaries” and “Bolsheviks,” and suggested that anyone participating in it was not being patriotic in light of the war clouds looming on the international horizon.

But on April 10th, Michigan Governor Murray Van Wagoner intervened and the strike was suspended. Mr. Ford was beat. For a brief time he pouted and moped around his 1,300-acre Fair Lane Estate in Dearborn - even threatening to shut his whole company down. But his wife Clara disabused him of the notion. And in a secret ballot – emphasis on that word secret – Ford workers elected to go into the UAW by a 97 percent vote.

Now, fast-forward sixty-seven years to current day. There is a curious and ominous piece of legislation floating around Washington, D.C. called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which has been nicknamed the “card check” bill. In effect, it would eliminate the idea of using the sanctity of the secret ballot for elections when employees of a company vote on the issue of whether or not to join a union.

So imagine you are working one day – and a guy comes along and says, “sign this.” Would you feel the pressure and the potential for intimidation?

Sadly, the UAW has in some ways become what they used to fight against – autocratic, coercive, intimidating, and manipulative. If such a bill passes and is signed by our 44th president, Harry Bennett wannabes will be back on the job, only this time they will twist arms for the unions. Even someone whose liberal bona fides are as unimpeachable as George McGovern thinks this is a terrible idea.

President –Elect Obama supports the EFCA. I would hate to think that democracy in America might one day find itself on a slippery slope toward becoming a “thugocracy.”

We are now at a crossroads. Labor unions grew during the Great Depression and peaked just after the Second World War. They have been in decline for years, but now as the economy tanks they seem to be getting another lease on life. The current scenario with the auto companies asking for money in Washington with one hand, while in the grip of the UAW with other, is going to yield powerful and revealing clues as to what the future will look like for American businesses.

The corporatism that came out of the New Deal, and took decades to even begin to undo, is knocking at the American door once again. And the man who, after January 20th, will be in a position to let labor back into the economic living room has already given every indication that he has a pro-union welcome mat in the moving van.

Be prepared to hear much more talk about “fair” competition than “free” competition. They are both four-letter words, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Long after the 1941 strike was settled (by the way, the company offered more generous terms than those the union was seeking), Henry Ford met with UAW leader Walter Reuther to congratulate the man now representing his workers. During an odd exchange, he told Reuther, “It was one of the most sensible things Harry Bennett ever did when he got UAW into this plant.” Caught by surprise by the comment, he asked, “How do you figure it?”

Henry Ford then told the man who became for a generation - Mr. UAW: “Well, you’ve been fighting General Motors and the Wall Street crowd. Now you are here, and we have given you a union shop and more than you got out of them. That puts you on our side, doesn’t it? We fight General Motors and Wall Street together, eh?”

His analysis may have been flawed – but then again, maybe the old man was on to something. I wonder what Henry Ford would think about company executives jetting privately to Washington to beg for money to “save” an industry he invented in his little backyard shop?