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 Carré) 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?

Friday, November 7, 2008

1968: Lyndon, Dick, and Billy

1968: Lyndon, Dick, and Billy
By David R Stokes

Forty years ago, in the wake of the hard-fought 1968 presidential election, the nation faced what many assumed would be a turbulent transition. But it did not turn out that way. Whatever happened later, the country moved from what had been the one of the most divisive campaigns in our history, to a comparatively calm and remarkably orderly (considering the times) transfer of power.

This was due, in large part, to the combined and concerted efforts of two savvy politicians and a preacher.

President’s Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have long since passed to their rewards, but the preacher is still alive and kicking. His name is Billy Graham, and he was born 90 years ago this weekend on November 7, 1918, just four days before the guns fell silent ending what was then optimistically called the War to End All Wars.

In their book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy chronicle the evangelist’s journey from White House visitor, to presidential confidant. Beginning with a somewhat embarrassing Oval Office meeting with Harry Truman - one that brought out the president’s profane side - he went on to learn the ropes during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. By the time LBJ was in charge, Billy was a regular over-night guest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Presidents loved to pick his brain. Eisenhower once asked him, “How do I know if I’ll go to heaven?” Jack Kennedy inquired about the second coming of Christ and wondered, “Why doesn’t my church teach it.” When Graham indicated that the doctrine was written in Roman Catholic creeds, JFK complained, “They don’t tell us much about it, I’d like to know what you think.” Johnson wanted to know if he would see his parents in heaven.

It was well into the morning of Wednesday, November 6, 1968 before ABC projected Richard Nixon as the winner over Hubert Humphrey (and George Wallace). The president-elect watched the returns at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. He had invited Graham to spend the evening with him, but the evangelist declined, adding: “If you lose, I will be ready to come over and have prayer with you.”

He did not lose, but he called Billy anyway and asked him to come over and pray before he went downstairs to meet with the press and talk to the nation. Entering the suite on the hotel’s thirty-fifth floor, the preacher met the president-elect, his wife Pat, and their daughters. They all joined hands as Graham prayed. The preacher specifically offered thanks for the vital spiritual influence of Nixon’s mother, who had passed away a little more than a year before. Hannah Nixon was the first to tell her son about Billy Graham after hearing him speak in Los Angeles in 1949. The evangelist had conducted her funeral.

The 1968 morning-after scene was very different from the one six years earlier when, after losing the race for governor in California, Nixon gave what he called his “last press conference.” There is no evidence that there was a hotel-suite prayer meeting that morning.

Soon after Graham’s prayer, Richard M. Nixon faced the nation for the first time as president-elect. Most memorable, and appropriate for the moment, was his reference to a sign he saw “at the end of a long day of whistle-stopping” in diminutive Deshler, Ohio. It said: “Bring us together.” He then indicated that this would be the great goal of his administration.

I am sure some reading this now may find such words to be cynical, ironic, - even sappy. But they were words “fitly spoken” and uttered in good faith. The American political reflex is to run from rancor to graciousness after a fierce battle – like weary boxers managing the arm-strength to embrace each other following the final bell.

This is something the country needs. Sure, it all eventually gives way to our default position of partisanship, but such “warm fuzzy” moments should be seized, whether “our” candidate won or lost. They are good for us – and for our children.

Not to mention our blood pressure.

I find myself sad that President-Elect Obama’s grandmother did not live to see him win. I also enjoy the “cute” moments as the Obama family begins to find a place in all of our hearts and prayers. I even like the whole “new puppy” thing. And I know that the young African-Americans in my congregation have a new reference point for achievement and success. I know also that their parents and grandparents are very proud that we have come so far as a nation. A dream has come true. This is historic and important. Let us all stop and smell the roses – it is definitely quite something to behold. I really like this stuff.

I am a conservative, just not a grinch about it.

I am sure there will be issues and policies that prompt me to speak out – but that does not take anything away from how fascinating this political moment is. Mr. Obama has my support – but more importantly – he has my prayers. I may be part of an eventual loyal opposition, but the accent will be on loyal.

But back to 1968, interestingly - though Billy Graham was a friend of the president-elect forty years ago, the man who was still president did not seem to mind sharing the preacher. In fact, Lyndon Johnson invited Billy Graham to spend his last weekend in the White House with him January 18-19, 1969. One evening he watched a movie with LBJ and his family, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn. When the president dozed off mid-film, Billy quietly went to the projectionist and asked him to keep the reels around, thinking Nixon would like it.

The president and the evangelist went to church together on Sunday, January 19th. The next day, during the inauguration of the 37th president, Billy Graham delivered the invocation. Then, following Nixon’s address – as the Johnson’s quietly left the stage – the now ex-president’s daughters kissed the preacher. And Billy went back to the White House and spent the night with the Nixons on January 20th – completing a sleepover hat trick.

The following Sunday, President Nixon began a custom of holding worship services in the White House. The first clergyman to officiate was, of course, Billy Graham.

It seems to me that Billy Graham found the balance. He managed to stay faithful to the simple gospel message, even when surrounded by the seductive trappings of power. The man of God found a way to connect with politicians in a way that earned their respect and opened doors for personal ministry.

Maybe, just maybe, this is something Christian leaders should reflect on right now. The so-called Religious Right is a thing of the past. It was once a well-defined movement. Now it appears to be dissipating like a weakening storm somewhere over America’s heartland.

Some are sad about this. Some are very discouraged. I am not. My views have not changed. I am ardently pro-life, fiercely pro-American, and passionate about limited government. And I will stand for what I believe and work for causes I consider worthwhile and just.

I have never been comfortable with the politicization of church. In fact, some who read my columns might find it hard to believe, but I actually do not preach politics at church. The closest I come is to talk about the pro-life issue – which I do with passion, but not as a partisan thing. I never endorse candidates. I vote for Jesus every Sunday.

I think this election is a wake up call to many Christians – one that reminds us that, in the final analysis, our mandate is not to reform society via the ballot box, state house, or White House, but rather to proclaim the ultimate narrative, the one that really changes lives. In other words: “It’s the gospel, stupid.” We can’t get everything we want, all the time, at the ballot box, but we can always find comfort in the fact that the mercy and grace of God are sufficient.

Billy Graham has been a faithful servant of God and citizen of America. In a very Kipling-esque sense, he has walked with presidents, but he never lost his “common touch.”

Happy Birthday, Billy!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Speech

The Speech
By David R. Stokes

Words matter. It was said that Lyndon Johnson had little regard for “the integrity of words.” Sadly, that is how it is with many politicians. But at the end of the day, though we have many ways to examine a particular candidate, it comes back much of the time to words.

The spoken word, as in “speech-making,” is still relevant. Would, for example, Barack Obama be running for the presidency if he had not been tapped to give that keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004?

We really have not changed that much in our history. For all of our technology, and the gadgetry of the Internet age – we are still moved by a good speech. Like the one Sarah Palin gave at the Republican National Convention in September.

So, here we are in late October – going through our quadrennial ritual. We are tracking polls. We are listening to talking heads. And we are bracing ourselves for the final verbal assault.

Speeches rarely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. History tells us that great political oratory happens, for the most part, away from the partisan environment that tends to characterize a fiercely fought campaign’s final days.

The most memorable phrases – those that have become part of our history – have been uttered either very early in a career (“a star is born”), or to mark a celebratory or somber occasion.

“Fourscore and seven years ago…”

“The only thing we have to fear...”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…”

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“The greatest honor that history can bestow is the title of peacemaker…”

There have just been a few times when a speech launched a career. I have already noted one - in the case of Mr. Obama. Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union comes to mind as another example of such a speech.

The 1896 Democratic National Convention, held that year in the Chicago Coliseum, was the scene for one such great and transformational speech. A thirty-six year old man from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, won the heart of his party and its presidential nomination. He would lose the election that November, and two more (1900 & 1908), but he was a significant political leader in America for a generation. When he shouted: “You shall not crucify mankind on a Cross of Gold” - he became a national figure.

But only once has a speech in the final week of a campaign made much of a difference, and it was by a man not even running for office. Yet.

I must confess something. I have not really watched a lot of the speeches this year. I endured all four debates in their entirety, but I have had a hard time staying focused for the speeches. I completely missed Barack’s Denver moment.

In fact, I have only watched two speeches in their entirety this whole political year. Just two. I watched Governor Palin speak to the RNC – and I was glad I did. That speech may be one we come back to again in the future.

And I recently watched (again) a speech from 44 years ago. The video is grainy. The audio is a little rough in spots. But I barely noticed the technical difficulties. It was a speech broadcast on NBC on October 27, 1964 – and it was by a non-candidate for office that year - Ronald Reagan.

The Goldwater campaign of 1964 has been called everything from a “fiasco” to a “glorious disaster.” He had, in 1960, asked conservatives to “grow up.” They did and Barry was nominated four years later. But they faced forces of history, sympathy (in the wake of the Kennedy assassination), and the personality and methods of President Johnson.

It was a lost cause. But like a bright star against the backdrop of a dark sky, someone who would eventually shape history stepped onto America’s political stage that year. And it all began with a speech.

“The Speech.”

Ronald Wilson Reagan’s journey from Hollywood to Washington included a pivotal transitional period where he came into the homes of millions of American’s each week as the popular host of GE Theater. The timing could not have been better, because Americans were abandoning movie houses in droves for the simplicity of the living room television.

In his wonderful book about Mr. Reagan, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dr. Paul Kengor chronicles this vital period in the life of the future president: “The show took off, eclipsing I Love Lucy only weeks into its debut, and attracting the very best actors: Ethel Barrymore, Joseph Cotton, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Alan Ladd, Jack Benny, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, Vincent Price, Walter Mathau, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Greer Garson, David Janssen, to name a few.”

Reagan himself often acted, as well. And he leveraged his role on television – his celebrity – in ways that enabled him to speak out on issues of the day. He was passionate about politics, particularly the idea of limited government and fierce anti-Communism.

By the time he left GE Theater (he was on the show from 1954 to 1962), Ronald Reagan had established himself as an eloquent spokesperson for the fledgling conservative movement. Using a series of speeches, such as one called “A Foot in the Door,” he warned fellow-citizens about the dangers of the enemy abroad and within – including what he saw as a trend toward socialism in America. By 1962 he was receiving as much as $10,000.00 per speech before audiences sympathetic to his message.

In 1964 he became co-chairman of the California Goldwater campaign. This gave him more and more opportunities to speak out. That fall, as the presidential campaign moved toward an emerging Lyndon landslide, Reagan spoke at a $1,000.00 per plate Republican fundraiser at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, hosted by Holmes Tuttle - a very successful car dealer. His speech was such a success that a group of party donors, led by Tuttle, came up with the idea of broadcasting the speech nationally. They would put up the money to pay for it.

Years later, Mr. Reagan reflected: “I said yes and suggested that, instead of just having me in a studio alone, they bring in an audience to get a little better feel. They readily agreed.”

The Goldwater camp, however, was less than enthusiastic about this. Key members of the campaign team were very much opposed.

As Reagan recalled:

“A few days before the speech, Senator Goldwater himself called me and mentioned canceling the address. His people told him that I talked about social security, and he'd been getting kicked all over the place on the issue. I explained to him that I'd been making the speech all over the state and nobody had ever said anything.

His people apparently wanted to repeat some show of former president Eisenhower and him strolling around fields at Ike's farm outside Gettysburg. I said, ‘Barry, I can't just turn the time over to you, because it's not mine to give. A private group bought this time.’

Well, he said, ‘I haven't seen the speech or heard it, let me call you back.’ So he got a copy of the sound track and listened to it. I'm told that when he heard it, he said, ‘Well, what the hell's wrong with that?’”

In the speech (called at the time “A Rendezvous With Destiny” – now known as “A Time for Choosing, “ or simply – “The Speech”), Mr. Reagan talked about the hot-button issues of the time, from Vietnam, to the welfare state, to taxes and the federal budget.

He said things like:

“No nation has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income.”

“Do they mean peace, or do they mean we just want to be left in peace?”

And my favorite:

“Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so!”

The speech did not change the outcome of the election, of course. But it did make an impact – short term and long term. First, it led to a last minute frenetic flow of donations to the nearly bankrupt Goldwater campaign. It also “electrified” the nation – though not all at once.

Nielson ratings showed that nearly 4.3 million viewers watched the speech on October 27, 1964 – about an 8.1 percent share. But, in a day and age long before YouTube, it went viral – at least in a ‘60s sense. Though completely ignored as a news item by the mainstream media of the day, and with the initial audience not being all that large, it would find its way into more homes over the next week.

The Republican National Committee – though initially reluctant about the project – paid to have it broadcast nationally two more times during the final week of the campaign. And, beyond that, Goldwater groups paid for hundreds of rebroadcasts in local markets. Somewhere in this process it reached my little home in the suburbs of Detroit.

On election night, Barry Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson, who won by promising not to expand the war in Vietnam like that scary Goldwater would. There are, however, indications that Ronald Reagan’s speech may have helped to close the gap by five or more percentage points. Not a big deal in a blowout – but this would be significant in a closer race.

For years, people talked about how “The Speech” impacted them. Some still do. But no one was influenced by its success more than the speaker himself:

“The night that the tape of the speech was to air on NBC, Nancy and I went over to another couple's home to watch it. Everyone thought I'd done well, but still you don't always know about these things. The phone rang about midnight. It was a call from Washington, D.C., where it was three a.m. One of Barry's staff called to tell me that the switchboard was still lit up from the calls pledging money to his campaign. I then slept peacefully. The speech raised $8 million and soon changed my entire life.”

Well, Mr. Reagan, it changed a lot of lives.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Very Forgettable Vice Presidential Nominee

A Very Forgettable Vice Presidential Nominee
By David R. Stokes

As this year’s campaign moves toward the final stretch, the frenetic media-driven discussion about whether or not Sarah Palin is prepared for the presidency continues. Apparently, few have noticed that she is not actually running for that office. But how does she compare to others who have sought the nation’s number two job since World War II?

Once upon a time, the choice of a running mate was made in cloak-and-dagger secrecy - as little more than a political afterthought. Those who ran, and even those who eventually served as vice presidents, became for all practical purposes historical footnotes. Of course, the few who moved up to the highest office due to the death of a sitting president were notable exceptions.

Harry Truman was ill prepared to ascend to the presidency in April of 1945. This had little to do with whether or not he was up to the job. It was because his predecessor didn’t bother to give him the time of day. His selection was matter-of-fact and his interaction with President Franklin D. Roosevelt was – well – there really wasn’t any. Finding out about the secret Manhattan Project day or so into his presidency, Truman remarked: “I didn’t know.” There were many things he, in fact, didn’t know – and this was not really his fault. Fortunately for the nation, the man from Missouri was a quick study.

By 1952, a vice presidential candidacy was taken more seriously. Richard Nixon in many ways created the modern vice presidency. Though his relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower was not without its generational complications – including a measure of dysfunction – he was an energetic and effective team player who expanded the public’s perception of the vice presidency.

His conduct during Ike’s illnesses, and his global travel as the administration’s emissary, increased his stature, not to mention his political stock. Nixon’s transition to the Republican presidential nomination after eight years of playing second fiddle was virtually inevitable, late-minute machinations by his intra-party nemesis, Nelson Rockefeller, notwithstanding.

The 1960 presidential race has been analyzed and debated probably more than any other election in the past one hundred years. Even the protracted and polarized 2000 campaign fails to fascinate us as does what happened forty-eight years ago. Three men – all who would eventually become president – occupied center stage that year: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.

Immortalized by the first book in Theodore White’s The Making of the President series, the race of ’60 has recently been revisited by historian-author David Pietrusza in his book, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon. A sequel of sorts, at least in the genre sense, to his earlier book, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents, this new work brings one of the great political narratives to life weaving together well-worn stories and some material that is not as well known.

Parallels are already being drawn between Barack Obama’s recent rejection of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s cold-calculated selection of Lyndon Johnson in 1960. If Obama eventually loses, this will no doubt be where blame will be placed. The ultimate vice presidential nominee mistake, however, may actually have been made that very same year nearly five decades ago - but it was on the Republican side.

The biggest VP crash-and-burn candidate in recent memory was a man by the name of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was Nixon’s running mate as they battled the Kennedy-Johnson Democratic ticket in 1960. Though conventional historical wisdom generally suggests that Kennedy beat Nixon because of Nixon’s first debate performance, or his failure to call Coretta Scott King, or vote-fraud shenanigans in Illinois, the real story may have much more to do with Mr. Lodge’s role.

Writing about the Lodge vice presidential candidacy, Mr. Pietrusza says:

“On the surface he seemed quite impressive – articulate, handsome, experienced, a true public servant from one of the nation’s most distinguished families. But in the long history of vice-presidential nominees Lodge – though scoring extremely well in abstract popularity polls – ranked as among the more puzzling of selections. He was unable to carry his home state, nearly powerless to affect any outcome in his region, a toxin to his party’s conservative base, and, ultimately, a drag upon the ticket in a region – the South – where real breakthroughs might be gained.”

Mr. Lodge was described by chronicler Theodore White as, “like medicine – good for you, but hard to take.”

Why would Nixon - the consummate political strategist – choose someone who would go over like a lead-balloon? Well, the answer seems to be in his desire to base his decision on the qualifications to actually serve as president, more than political considerations such as campaign skills or the ability to help the ticket geographically and demographically.

Mr. Nixon also sensed that the crucial issue of the campaign was foreign policy – possibly a reflection of his own interest-bias. To try to go “toe to toe” with the Democrats on domestic issues would, he thought, give the natural advantage to his opponents. Lodge had, in fact, been a very effective U.N. Ambassador during the 1950s and had some good press recently. After the U-2 spy plane fiasco in May of 1960, he helped the U.S. regain the Cold War public relations initiative by highlighting the fact that the Soviets had been eavesdropping on our embassy in Moscow. A device was hidden inside a gift that had been given to our ambassador back in 1945 – a great seal of the United States carved in wood. Gotcha.

Yet, the choice of a running mate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy’s home state, and, in fact, of someone who had already been soundly beaten by Kennedy in a senate race eight years earlier, seems in retrospect rather odd indeed.

In contrast to Richard Nixon’s energetic fifty-state marathon, Lodge’s hatred for the nuts and bolts of press-the-flesh campaigning translated into a monumentally lackluster performance. He took long naps after lunch, refused evening appearances, and regularly canceled those scheduled in the afternoon. One politico complained, “we didn’t mind him having a nap in the afternoon, but why did he have to put on his pajamas?”

Nixon had well-known problems with television that year, but Lodge’s work before the camera was far worse – the only redemption being that much of it never saw the light of day. During one of many attempts to produce shows or spots, he botched his delivery so badly that several expensive hours worth of work had to be completely scrapped.

Because Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. could not carry his home state, function coherently on television, or work a full day on the campaign trail, Richard Nixon, for all practical purposes, conducted a solo campaign by default. He was not helped at all by his running mate. In fact, Lodge was a dead-weight drag on the ticket. And as the campaign reached the end, the Republican vice presidential nominee gathered his team in advance of election night to prepare a statement. Margery Petersen, a Nixon secretary, was asked to type it up. She later recalled: “When I saw it, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a concession statement! I refused to type it.” How’s that for a team player?

It is generally agreed that vice presidential candidates don’t usually affect the outcome of elections. That may be true, but in 1960 there was a notable exception to this political rule of thumb. Even Nixon himself reportedly admitted years later that his selection of Lodge was a mistake.

With all the talk about whether or not a vice presidential candidate is prepared for the presidency itself, the fact is that the most effective running mates have not been people who instantly resonated with voters as presidential. On the contrary, the best of the lot have been good team players, hard campaigners, and politicians who understood that it wasn’t about them. They balanced, complimented, and did their best to help the person in the top spot to win.

Whether or not a person who steps from some other duty to run for vice president is prepared at that moment for the actual presidency is not the real issue. If elected, the vice presidency itself will provide ample training.

Sarah Palin may have a few things to learn in her new role as Republican vice presidential nominee, but she is certainly no Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. She is a superb campaigner, compelling communicator, and charismatic crowd pleaser. If John McCain is elected, he will make sure that she is prepared to become president, should circumstances ever call for that.

Of course, the real question is: Is anyone ever completely prepared to be president of the United States?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin, Roosevelt, and American Originals

Palin, Roosevelt, and American Originals
By David R. Stokes

The rollout of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee appears to be morphing into a full-fledged juggernaut. Democratic strategists, not to mention their nominees, continue to scratch their heads while trying to play the familiar political games of catch-up and gotcha.

Governor Palin is a breath of fresh air to some, and a dangerous tornado to others. But all agree that she has changed the dynamics of a campaign that was beginning to have the appearance of inevitability. She has been compared to leaders of the past. During her now famous acceptance speech, she brought up the name of Harry S. Truman and talked about sharing a lot in common with the feisty Missourian.

Some, though, have allowed their reach to exceed their grasp in trying to suggest that Sarah Palin could be the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt. The lady from Alaska may very well prove to be the real deal and continue to demonstrate that she is a natural on the national political stage. She has great gifts and the potential to go down in history as one of those rare politicians who comes from nowhere to make an indelible mark on the times. But we must be careful about trying to see her as the reincarnation of anyone.

She may very well be something much more rare – and valuable.

To say that Sarah Palin is no Teddy Roosevelt is not an insult – far from it. She may well prove to transcend him and other usual-suspect names brought up to try to describe her. Sometimes people are just themselves – and they become the kind of leaders others want to emulate. This was certainly the case with T.R.

There are some obvious similarities between the Barracuda and the Bull Moose – and these have led some to draw the comparison. She is young – so was Teddy when he became the Vice Presidential nominee in 1900 at the age of forty-one. She has served as a governor for only a couple of years. It was the same with T.R. - less than 2 years as chief executive of New York. She likes to hunt, so did Mr. Roosevelt. She has a passion for reform. Again, ditto Teddy. Mr. Roosevelt had a large family – so does Sarah. And there is a compelling similarity between the two in the idea of taking on their own party, if need be – the so-called maverick factor.

There are, however, some very clear differences between our twenty-sixth president and the woman who would be vice president next January 20th.

Garret A. Hobart died on November 21, 1899. That name may not ring the proverbial bell with many, but he was the Vice President of the United States at the time, serving under President William McKinley. They had soundly defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and it was looking like the next election would be a rematch with the great orator.

With the political playing field suddenly wide open, Theodore Roosevelt found himself the subject of relentless speculation and discussion about the number two spot on the ticket in 1900. He was, at the time, completing his first year as governor of New York.

However, unlike Sarah Palin this year, Mr. Roosevelt was a well-known hero and already a household name by the time of his nomination to run with McKinley. This was largely due to his exploits during the recent Spanish-American War. The country was enamored of the man who led a ragamuffin regiment known as the Rough Riders to success in the Battle of Kettle and San Juan Hill (the latter name becoming synonymous for both actions).

When war broke out in 1898, T.R. was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (a post his distant cousin, Franklin, would hold during World War One). He used his time there to prepare for the coming conflict, one he welcomed and had advocated. Then he resigned to serve as a cavalry officer. He was pure energy.

His new found status as a hero-celebrity paved the way for his move to the governor’s mansion in Albany, just months after the famous July 1898 battle. And he hit the ground running there, as well - though he did find time to complete the writing of his thirteenth book. As governor, he was passionate about reform (read: change). In fact, one of the reasons so many New York Republicans liked the idea of Roosevelt running for Vice President is that they would not have to deal with his annoying reform agenda.

Kansan William Allen White, who would later be known as the Sage of Emporia and spokesman for America’s middle class, wrote in 1899:

“There is no man in America today whose personality is rooted deeper in the hearts of the people than Theodore Roosevelt. He is more than a presidential possibility in 1904; he is a presidential probability. He is the coming American of the twentieth century.”

He had his fans. But he had also made more than a few enemies over the years during his career climb from New York State Assemblyman, to service on the United States Civil Service Commission, to the presidency of the New York City Police Commissioners. Though he liked the idea of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, he was not actually known for a tempered-tongue. So it should not surprise us that some powerful people were less-than-impressed with Roosevelt and actually feared the idea of him anywhere near the White House.

Republican big-wig, Mark Hanna – U.S. Senator from Ohio and one of the most powerful politicians in the nation - famously remarked about Teddy’s nomination for the vice presidency: “Don’t you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the White House?” He later told President McKinley, “your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.”

History, of course, tells us that Mr. McKinley did not live that long. He was shot while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later. On September 14, 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, at forty-two years of age, became the youngest man to ever become President of the United States.

People do not compare Theodore Roosevelt to his predecessors. Similarly, you never hear it suggested that Ronald Reagan was like someone before him, or that Franklin Roosevelt reminded the nation of an earlier president. They were not wannabes or hero-worshippers. The nation had not seen their likes before. And their names have been regularly mentioned as gold standards for leadership comparison ever since.

They were, in fact, American originals.

It is too soon to tell about Sarah Palin, but searching for historical reference points to help us accept or understand any of the current candidates may actually miss the point.

We might just be seeing someone who does not need to remind us of “so and so.” Maybe there is a fresh American original on the political stage right now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It Didn't Start With Palin

VP Frenzies Started in 1952
By David R. Stokes

It has become an all-too-familiar and sadly predictable pattern in modern life – the media feeding frenzy. It starts with the news of someone being elevated to a position of prominence and potential national leadership, but quickly enters a period of bipolar analysis and coverage. The story goes viral. Talking heads giggle with the kind of glee reminiscent of the witch on the Wizard of Oz gloating over plans for her “little pretty.”

The saga of Sarah Palin is, of course, the latest example of this. Before her came all those good, bad, average, and not-so-average people who found themselves tried by similarly ferocious fires.

Anyone doing a background-check these days on a potential major political candidate should do so with just one eye on the actual office being considered. The other eye should be on the political butterfly effect. What storm could emerge from this? And anything and everything can be grist for the media mill in our age of 24/7 News.

Long before Sarah Palin was born, there was a man named Thomas Eagleton who was drummed off the Democratic ticket in 1972. Years later, J. Danforth Quayle was famously dubbed to be “no Jack Kennedy.” And who could forget (ok, probably a multitude of people who aren’t political history wonks) commercials featuring a laughing voice for thirty seconds with just word on the screen – Spiro Agnew. Vice Presidential nominees have for years been easy targets.

And it all began with a man named Nixon.

The year was 1952 – often noted these days as the last time the political planets lined up as they have this year. We were faced with two major party tickets absent anyone from a prior administration. But what is often missed is the other connection between then and now. We also saw that year, for the very first time, a public media circus over a Vice Presidential nominee.

Richard M. Nixon was a rising political star when party leaders worked behind the scenes to get Dwight D. Eisenhower to put the thirty-nine year old senator from California on the Republican ticket. His mentors and fans were people like Thomas Dewey (two-time presidential nominee). Though he had served but two terms as a member of the House of Representatives, and had been a U.S. Senator from California for a mere eighteen months, Nixon was perceived to be the perfect bridge between the Eastern-Establishment wing of the GOP and old-guard conservatives, led by “Mr. Republican” – Senator Robert Taft.

All was proceeding according to plan, with the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket leading in the polls after their Chicago convention. That is, until a rumor that had been percolating in the early days of September burst into full public boil with a New York Post headline: SECRET RICH MAN’S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE BEYOND HIS SALARY.

Ultimately, even those who opposed and widely-criticized Nixon, writers such as Tom Wicker, had to admit that, “no evidence ever justified any part of that headline, because the $18,000 fund (scarcely a vast sum even in 1952) was public, audited, reserved for legitimate campaign expenses not chargeable to the taxpayers, and had been raised from donors of no more than $500.00 each.” But it took awhile for the truth, not to mention reason and fairness, to catch up with a media-swollen appetite for scandal.

For a period of ten days, the nation read about the story on front pages of newspapers, heard about it on the radio, and even saw coverage on that relatively new device finding its way into millions of American homes – television. It was the political story of the year. And soon – even diehard Republicans were jumping on a fast-moving “dump Nixon” bandwagon.

Mr. Eisenhower was largely noncommittal and remained above the fray. He had not been all that involved in the Vice Presidential nominee selection anyway. The general loved to delegate. Political reporters traveling on the GOP candidate’s train voted 40 to 2 that Nixon should be dumped, prompting Ike to tell them that it was important that his campaign be “as clean as a hound’s tooth.” That made good copy – even in the days before sound bites.

Political opponents were, of course, gleeful. The Democratic ticket of Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman certainly looked forward to closing the gap in the polls, maybe even overtaking Ike and Dick. The brewing Nixon scandal was a stroke of good fortune.

As the story morphed into a perfect political storm, it was decided that Richard Nixon should deliver a televised speech making his personal case to the American people. He broke off campaigning in Portland, Oregon on Monday, September 22nd, and flew to Los Angeles. Sitting on the plane, he reached for some note cards in the seat pocket in front of him. They were advertisements for the airline - with some room in the margins and on the back. He began to jot down some notes. He scribbled random thoughts such as, “Republican cloth coat” and “common people” and “lay out for everyone to see my entire personal financial history.”

He also wrote the words: “little dog Fala.”

He spent the next day preparing for the speech of his life in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel. What he would have to say would forever define him. It would also change the face of American politics forever. Telegrams and calls were coming in from all over – words of support – some of doubt. When he had finally heard from Eisenhower the day before, support from the general was tepid at best. Nixon was, no doubt, under great pressure.

In fact, just an hour before Nixon left the hotel for the 20-minute ride to the NBC studio, Governor Dewey called to tell him that it was the collective opinion of party leaders around Eisenhower that the Vice Presidential nominee should end his speech by resigning from the ticket. How’s that for a way to psyche a man up before a major speech? Oh, and Dewey implied that Eisenhower felt the same way, too!

Against the backdrop of monstrous political turbulence, and with his own emotions no-doubt in turmoil, Richard Nixon entered the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood the evening of September 23, 1952 to make history. All 750 seats, usually filled with audiences watching “This is Your Life” or “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” were empty. Nixon sat at a desk and prepared his thoughts looking over his five pages of notes – no script, no cue cards. He preferred it that way.

The speech Nixon gave that evening has been analyzed and criticized in the decades since the famous broadcast. More than sixty million Americans watched that night – that’s nearly fifty-percent of all those who had access to a television. It was, by all accounts, “the largest witness to a political speech in world history.”

The candidate waxed personal. That was rare in those days. Now it is common for someone running for office to tell personal stories – back then, not so much. Recently, even the Democratic nominees have talked about how Sarah Palin has a “compelling story.” Such narratives are par for the political course today. And it was Richard Nixon – whatever one thinks of him and his legacy – who paved the way for all of it.

He talked about his finances in a way no one did at the time. He even challenged his opponents to do the same, correctly sensing a soft spot there. He defended himself and promoted his ticket. He spoke about the threat of communism and shared a letter from the wife of a marine serving in Korea.

But the thing most people remember about the speech, the part that transformed it from a political address into a legend, had to do with that little scribbled name “Fala.” It was a reference to the humorous way Franklin D. Roosevelt had, in 1944, accused the Republicans of attacking his little dog. It worked well for FDR, so Nixon thought to try it himself:

“One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.”

Nixon’s remarks that night have been forever known as “The Checkers Speech.

It quickly became fashionable in elitist circles to ridicule the speech – and the candidate. That continued throughout Mr. Nixon’s turbulent career of, as he called them, “peaks and valleys.” But the fact remains that this was one of the most effective speeches in the history of American politics.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech, the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. was inundated with 160,000 telegrams and eventually 250,000 letters. The sentiment ran 350 to 1 in favor of keeping Richard Nixon on the Republican ticket in 1952.

Nixon survived the crisis – as he would many others. He lived to see dreams fulfilled and to also experience defeat and deep personal pain. None of what happened in the years following 1952 – the good, the bad, and the ugly – would have been possible without that speech in September of 1952. The story of those days is one that should be studied afresh and anew by political operatives and pundits. The lesson is that you can fight the media frenzy – in fact, it’s the only real option. To surrender is to turn yourself and your cause into a footnote.

As politicians ponder media and opposition-driven suggestions about dumping a candidate, someone should visit a little pet cemetery in Wantagh, Long Island. There lies Checkers – more than a dog – in fact, a metaphor for surviving a political storm.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Acceptance Speeches Can Actually Matter

Acceptance Speeches Can Actually Matter
By David R. Stokes

In late July 1968, against the beautiful backdrop of Skipper’s Cottage at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, Long Island, Richard M. Nixon worked on the acceptance speech he would soon be delivering to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Working on yellow legal pads, as was his custom, he experimented with words and ideas. He was looking for something beyond the routine campaign speech he had been giving along the primary trail. Somewhere during this incubatory phase, he decided to wax a bit sentimental and do something not usually done with major political addresses; he would talk a little about his journey. This was a break from tradition.

FDR had not talked in his speeches about polio, nor had John Kennedy ever discussed descending from Irish immigrants. LBJ didn’t reminisce about his school teaching days in Texas. In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t even talk about World War II. But when Mr. Nixon addressed the party faithful – and the nation at large via television - at 11:00 p.m. on August 8, 1968, he ended what had already been a very good speech with a personal touch:

“I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of far away places where he'd like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life. A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college. A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war but she understood why he had to go.

A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat.

And in his chosen profession of politics, first there were scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success. And tonight he stands before you -- nominated for President of the United States of America.

You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.”

So when Barack Obama uses his stadium moment next week to tell us about humble origins and his unlikely path to the presidency, he is walking down a road paved by our thirty-seventh president. In fact, both candidates will do so – and we are better for it because we get to know more about the men themselves.

Though the political conventions convene relatively late this year, and promise little in the way of compelling political drama, history shows that acceptance speeches can actually matter.

Mr. Obama has changed the address for his address to Invesco Field in Denver - no doubt to continue his not-so-subtle quest to be John F. Kennedy when he grows up. Watch for a rocking chair any day now. Maybe even an accent.

John McCain will give his acceptance speech to Republicans in Saint Paul, Minnesota a week later. But it will not – in fact, it could not – be as big of a deal as Barack Obama’s pre-inaugural media coronation. The fix is in on that.

Then again, maybe the Arizonian can use what the current resident of the Oval Office might refer to as “misunderestimation” to his advantage.

Back in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a man with even less political experience than Barack Obama, gave a Democratic convention address that brought the audience to its feet. Then those feet marched to give the Boy Orator of the Platte the nomination. He was only thirty-six years old. Speeches can make a difference.

Actually, up until 1932 it wasn’t accepted practice for a nominee to even appear at a convention to accept in person. No – instead, after the votes were counted, a delegation would travel to the candidate’s hometown to notify him. This, for example, was the case with Republican Warren Harding, who accepted the nod in 1920 from his front porch.

Franklin D. Roosevelt changed all that. He broke with tradition and flew from New York to Chicago to promise a New Deal for Americans in 1932. The next time he was nominated (1936), he told that audience about America’s “rendezvous with destiny.” But that was only after some high drama. As he approached the podium that night, one of his leg braces broke and the polio-stricken president fell to the floor as thousands watched in horrified silence. But not a single flashbulb burst – nor did the radio audience hear about it. The press had more ground rules back then.

We all know, of course, that John F. Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination speaking at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What is seldom noted these days, however, is that the speech didn’t play well on television. JFK would make up for that with a better tube moment a few months later.

There have been occasions when a nominee’s speech has been overshadowed by someone else’s appearance and rhetoric. There is actually some potential for this in Denver as Hillary and Bill have their respective moments in the spotlight.

Very few remember what Lyndon Johnson had to say in Atlantic City as he accepted his party’s nomination in 1964. But Robert Kennedy’s moment, complete with a twenty-two minute ovation, has not been forgotten. And RFK’s contempt for his brother’s successor could not be completely disguised, in spite of the surface appearance of party unity. He shared a quote from Romeo and Juliet that referenced the “garish sun.” Some saw this as a thinly veiled reference to the president. Lyndon sure did.

Though not widely-known at the time, Mr. Johnson, just the day before he was nominated, was seriously considering withdrawing from the race. He wrestled with chronic issues of insecurity – even inferiority. It was left to Lady Bird to talk the tall Texan from the ledge. She had to do that a lot. Years later, she would recall many such moments in her husband’s career, referring to his chronic self-doubt as “the same old refrain.”

Though he won re-nomination in 1980, Jimmy Carter came in second to Ted Kennedy on the rhetoric meter at that year’s Democratic convention. Not only did the flawed heir of all things Camelot outshine him in the speech-making department, he wouldn’t do that thing that all good losers are supposed to do. You know - when they join hands and raise their arms up in victory with a candidate. Poor Jimmy chased the senator all around the stage, but Teddy did the old stay-away-from-Jimmy shuffle.

Mr. Carter’s performance was so bad that night that he botched what should have been a great applause line. Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey had passed away a couple of years earlier and Jimmy wanted to say something gracious about the former vice president. But he butchered the line, not to mention the name, calling the late liberal “Hubert Horatio Hornblower…er…Humphrey.”

Too bad we didn’t have YouTube back then.

John McCain would do well to study a couple of great acceptance speeches delivered by men who were not known for their oratory and had been given little chance of ultimate victory. One of them came close to winning a race he seemed destined to lose by a wide margin. The other man actually won his race – to the shock and dismay of many political experts.

In the summer of 1976, Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, was nearly thirty percentage points behind Jimmy Carter in many polls. He was not a great speaker; nor was he known for his quick wit. But he managed to pull off the greatest speech of his career at just the right time.

Mr. Ford’s chief speechwriter Robert Hartman, along with a few others on the staff, worked for weeks on the speech. The President himself studied every previous acceptance address (of either party) since 1948. He knew that a home run performance was his best chance to get back in the game.

Ford practiced the speech on videotape. He watched the video over and over again - even up to the beginning of the nomination roll call. The reviews were nearly universally favorable with Time Magazine calling the address “the best of his presidency and perhaps of his career.” Though he would lose to Mr. Carter in November, his convention appearance sparked a surge that moved him to within striking distance.

The gold standard, however, for come-from-behind acceptance speeches, not to mention campaigns, has to be that of Harry S. Truman in 1948. By the time of the convention, he was being dismissed as irrelevant and the election of Thomas Dewey of New York was widely considered to be inevitable.

Even Bess Truman didn’t think her husband could win.

The party was divided several ways, the Republicans had won big in the off-year elections two years earlier, and Truman himself didn’t seem to inspire anyone. The Democrats gathered in Philadelphia where the Republicans had met three weeks earlier. The city of brotherly love was strategically located along the path of a new coaxial cable, thus conducive to television coverage.

Something happened then and there to the Man from Missouri when he addressed a fractious convention and weary television viewers. He reached down deep into himself and found a spark that would be fanned into a flame. The great Methodist preacher, John Wesley, once revealed the secret to his success as a speaker: “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” That’s what Mr. Truman did that night – and for the rest of the campaign.

Far from the tightly scripted and carefully choreographed moments we have come to expect from political stars today, President Truman had to give his important speech while circumstances were spinning out of anyone’s control. His nomination wasn’t secured until 1:48 a.m. and some wanted him to wait a day to deliver the speech. But Harry was ready and didn’t want to delay at all. The convention hall was overheated and the convention agenda far behind schedule – yet he was able to maintain his edge and couldn’t wait to come out fighting.

Then, just as he was ready to come to the platform and during Sam Rayburn’s introduction, a woman carrying a large Liberty Bell made of flowers seized the microphone. She had a point to make. Her flower arrangement was accompanied by four dozen “doves of peace,” and she set them free. The birds went crazy, having been caged for hours in the heat. One publication reported that, “the dignitaries on the platform cringed and shrank away like troops before a strafing attack.”

That was a tough act to follow, but Mr. Truman ignored the distractions, as well as the problems in his party, and gave the speech of his life. It had been decided that the president would not speak from a manuscript, but rather from an outline describing basic talking points. Aides had recently noticed a tremendous difference in how their boss had been able to connect with audiences when he departed from a prepared text. It set him free and, as one biographer said, “he was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as neighbors.”

Robert Schlesinger, in his book, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters from FDR to George W. Bush, has calculated that only about forty percent of Truman’s words that morning were actually written in his notes. It was a technique he would further develop to perfection during his whistle-stop campaign that fall.

The recent forum at Saddleback Church in California showed Americans a side of Mr. McCain that is reminiscent of the Truman transformation sixty years ago. He was relaxed, witty, informal, and transparent. And Obama played the Dewey role that night.

As the conventions convene, followed by the campaign to come, it remains to be seen if McCain can continue to compete so effectively. Some polls now have him in the lead. But there is one thing for sure - by developing and delivering the speech of his life with passion, conviction, and vision, he could teach young Mr. Young-Whipper-Snapper-Rock-Star a thing or two about politics – and leadership.

Maybe John McCain should try to spend a night or two out on Long Island at Gurney’s Inn. The Skipper’s Cottage can be rented for a mere $1,600.00 a night these days.

By the way, Richard Nixon went back out there after his election in 1968. He stopped for a pineapple sundae at a local ice cream stand and got his picture in the town paper. It would be thirty years before local residents would have another chance for a presidential glimpse. The Clintons went there in 1998.

But they didn’t stay at Gurney’s. - DRS

Friday, July 25, 2008

Moscow Rules

Boris Got it Right
By David R. Stokes

The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. displays a list of what are called Moscow Rules – commonly accepted guidelines for the good guys during the Cold War. Basically, they are based on a through-the-looking-glass approach to reality, where nothing is as it appears to be.

Some directories note as many as forty of these espionage nuggets, including things like, “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” (guess who inspired that?), or “Murphy is right,” or “technology will always let you down” (actually, I think that one’s true). But ten are in the commonly accepted list:

1. Assume nothing.
2. Never go against your gut.
3. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
4. Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.
5. Go with the flow; blend in.
6. Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
7. Lull them into a sense of complacency.
8. Don’t harass the opposition.
9. Pick the time and place for action.
10. Keep your options open.

Author Daniel Silva has brought these deep-background precepts to life in his latest novel that bears the actual name, Moscow Rules. His eleventh book is a bit of a departure from recent ones because it shifts from using the Middle East as a backdrop in favor of the intriguing world of present-day Russia.

The spy novel has come back home.

With the feel of a Cold War story, and a pace unmatched by most war-on-terror thrillers, this book is likely Silva’s best to date. Spy-Mystery-Thriller writers all have their favorite characters. John Le Carré gave us George Smiley, William F. Buckley introduced us to Blackford Oakes, Jack Higgins writes about Sean Dillon, and, of course, there’s Vince Flynn’s creation, Mitch Rapp. But in art restorer-Israeli top spy Gabriel Allon, Silva has a hero for all seasons, shapes, and sizes - a man who is intensely human, fiercely intelligent, and quite good at what he does.

In Moscow Rules, Allon finds himself moving with ease between worlds of religion, politics, and history. From the Vatican, to a CIA house in Georgetown, to the dark and dank inner-sanctum of old Soviet-style brutality in the Lubyanka, he’s a hero for everyone who still believes that there are good guys and bad guys.

Mr. Silva’s style matches the prose gold standard of Mr. Le Carré. He then, however, leaves the Brit far behind to wallow in his well-worn and historically inaccurate arguments about Cold War moral equivalency between east and west. Moscow Rules reminds us that the U.S. and Israel, though far from perfect, provide the world a vital strategic partnership against enemies of freedom. And it’s especially important to have such a relationship up and running when nations like Russia and Iran draw close to each other for their own ends and agendas.

In a sense, Daniel Silva has written a new Cold War novel. By that I mean, a story that’s very much about how an old enemy has come back from the abyss to taunt and haunt us once again. History is repeating itself. This time, however, the weapon we ultimately used to defeat that old “evil empire” – our economic strength – is no longer completely available to us. And it’s very available to them.

Today’s Russia is vastly different from the empire we tried to contain fifty years ago. It’s a place no longer marked by colorless uniformity and severe deprivation. Quite the contrary, today we find a land of great contrasts and contradictions. And we also find a nation recently flooded with petro-dollars.

If the Soviets of old had been able to tap into that kind of resource-driven wealth, the Cold War would have never ended. And the rules of engagement, even history itself, would have been very different.

The fact is that Russia today represents a greater threat to the security of the world than it ever did in the days of Cold War bipolarity. And our old adversaries are taking great pains to reconstruct an empire, one that would include their strong presence, as was once the case, in the Middle East.

Daniel Silva’s story is told against this backdrop, and it has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Readers encounter stories that are reminiscent of recent real-life dramas such as the intriguing murder of former FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died while investigating the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The new Russia is starting to strongly resemble the old Soviet Union - only with nicer cars.

Along the way, the novel takes the reader on a jet-set paced ride to places like Saint-Tropez, Courchevel, Paris, London – but back time and again to Moscow. All the while it tells a cautionary tale, one that should be widely heard these days. It’s not just the Islamists we should be watching – and watching out for – we need to keep our eye on that big old bear roaming once again in the global woods.

As Russia becomes stronger and stronger, and as its leaders tighten the reins more and more on all aspects of national and international life, the world becomes a more dangerous place with each passing day. Vladimir Putin and his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, have an agenda. They have empires in their brains. And, if the past is any indicator of the future (of course it is!), they will also play by a sinister set of rules - the most important one being: the ends justify the means.

When it comes to characters out of Cold War literature and media, I can’t help but resonate with something said by Boris Badenov. No, he wasn’t a KGB leader. Nor was he ever on the wall overlooking Red Square as the missiles rode by on May Day.

Boris was a diminutive fellow with a distinct accent who, along with his wife and side-kick, Natasha, tried to foil the good guys, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose. He had a memorable saying I thought about as I read Daniel Silva’s book, Moscow Rules. It came to mind every time one of the bad guys did something rotten. In fact, what Mr. Badenov had to say should be heeded by both candidates for the presidency this year.

He said: “Never underestimate the power of a schnook.” - DRS

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Yankee Stadium's Best Night

The recent 2008 Major League Baseball All Star Game-and-a-half showcased not only the game’s current best and greats from yesteryear; it also starred a structure. The venue was the message.

As Yankee Stadium brings athletes and fans through its gates as part of a stationary farewell tour, we are witnessing the end of an era – one that has spanned eighty-five years. The house that Ruth built has been home to the New York Yankees since before the days when their line-up was dubbed Murderer’s Row. Ghosts of legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle surely inhabit the place.

But the edifice located at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx has been much more than a baseball park; it’s been America’s premier outdoor stage. If we were to pick a place that is to us what the Coliseum was to Rome in days of glory, most would nominate Yankee Stadium.

Of course, this does not mean that we are a nation of Yankee fans – certainly not. You don’t have to root for pinstripes to understand the magic of the place itself.

If we look beyond baseball (and stay with me on this, I am not, nor have I ever been, a communist), and its inseparable relationship with the stadium, we note that the field has provided the backdrop for many sports and cultural events that transcend the game. From concerts, to religious services, to a national memorial service for victims of horrific terror just twelve days after 9/11, Yankee Stadium has been part of the scenery of American life.

When it comes to sports, the stadium has not just been a place for home runs, but also the field of battle for gladiators of the gridiron and soccer stars. And, of course, there was the boxing.

It’s been more than thirty years since a championship fight was held at Yankee Stadium (Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in September of 1976), and they were becoming rare events for the venue even then. But during the sweet science’s heyday in the 1920s-1950s, the stadium ring planted over second base was the scene of many epic battles.

Sugar Ray Robinson, often referred to as the greatest “pound for pound” boxer of all time, had already won welterweight and middleweight titles. On a dreadfully hot night in June of 1952, he tried to win the light-heavyweight crown against champion Joey Maxim. And he was clearly winning when he succumbed to heat exhaustion in the 14th round. He did, though, last longer than the referee, who had been carried out two rounds before.

Jack Dempsey, on the comeback trail seeking a rematch with Gene Tunney, fought at Yankee Stadium in 1927. Tunney fought there, too. In fact, there were 30 championship fights held on that field.

Calling something the best, or greatest, or most significant, is always subjective, and therefore risky. But I think I'm right when I suggest that Yankee Stadium’s greatest moment did not involve Babe Ruth, or even Reggie Jackson. It wasn’t even a baseball game.

Seventy years ago last month, two boxers climbed into the famous stadium’s ring and squared off in the most historic boxing match, if not sporting event, of the decade – maybe the century. Max Schmeling and Joe Louis had fought in the same ring two years before, and the former world heavyweight champion from Germany had somehow, some way, found a flaw in Louis’ style.

The Brown Bomber from Detroit (by the way, the Yankees would soon be called “Bronx Bombers” as a take off on Louis’ nickname), as he was called, had been well on his way to pugilistic immortality, easily dispatching opponents - even former champions - hardly breaking a sweat. He seemed to be invincible. But the first fight with Maxie ended with Joe on the canvas in the twelfth round trying to remember who and where he was.

This was the 1930s and the world was a very ominous and confusing place. Hitler’s Nazi-Germany was on the move, and he was beginning to look invincible himself.

Schmeling, because he was a German, was blocked from fighting James J. Braddock for the title, even though he was clearly the number one contender. It fell to Louis to fight the Cinderella Man in 1937, who was defending his title for the first time. And Louis went down in round one of that fight – only to come back strong and knock Braddock out in the eighth.

Yet, though he was the champion in name, Louis knew that he wouldn’t be able to think of himself that way until he could settle his score with Mr. Schmeling. Most fight fans felt the same way.

In ancient times there was something called representative warfare, where one man from an army would do battle with an opponent sent by the enemy, and the larger conflict would be decided by this “one on one” ordeal. The Philistine giant, Goliath, who taunted the ancient Israelites was proposing this kind of settlement to the issues of his day. Then he met a boy named David.

In 1938, as the world was becoming increasingly polarized in the face of impending war, and as it was becoming clear to all people of freedom and good will that the Nazis were evil, the situation was ripe for a representative battle of sorts. And the rematch of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fit the bill.

So, on June 22, 1938 veteran referee Arthur Donovan gave his ring instructions to two determined boxers, as nearly 70,000 Yankee Stadium spectators looked on. More than 100 million radio listeners tuned in from around the world. This was the largest audience ever up to that time and included just about half of the American public. That morning, the New York Journal-American had a large cartoon in the paper, one that showed a stadium and two figures in a boxing ring. Hovering above the ring was the image of an immense globe bearing the face of a man. He was looking down on the scene on behalf of all humanity.

Yes, it was that big of a deal that night.

Author David Margolick, in his definitive account of that evening entitled, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink, wrote:

“The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing on his shoulders more than any athlete ever had. One didn’t need to be an anthropologist to know there had never been anything like it, or a soothsayer to know there would never be anything like it again. If Louis won, no rivalry on the horizon could possibly generate as much excitement. And with Europe and, inevitably, America, on the brink of war, the world would soon enough have more than prizefights on its mind.”

If you ever get a chance to see a film of the fight that night, try to find the audio of the radio broadcast by NBC’s Clem McCarthy as well. His gravel-voiced blow-by-blow description turns the ear into an eye. Joe Louis was ready this time – he knew what he was fighting for and he didn’t want to waste any time.

Seven seconds into the bout, Joe Louis snapped the head of his opponent back with a left-jab, then another, and another. Later opponents would suggest that Louis’ jab wasn’t an Ali-type flick, but more like putting a light bulb against your face, then breaking it. Thirteen seconds later he had Schmeling on the ropes. McCarthy could hardly keep up:

“And Louis hooks a left to Max’s head quickly! And shoots over a hard right to Max’s head! Louis, a left to Max’s jaw! A right to his head! Louis with the old one-two! First the left and then the right! He’s landed more blows in this one round than he landed in any five rounds of the other fight!”

You get the picture.

In two minutes and four seconds it was over. But no one felt cheated. There were no catcalls that might usually accompany a lop-sided battle. Referee Arthur Donovan later said: “A referee lives a lifetime in two minutes like that.”

So does a nation.

The rest is history. The defeat of the German in the ring didn’t slow the world’s long slide into war – nor could it have. Louis went on to fight again and again and again, defending his title successfully fifteen more times before December 7, 1941. Schmeling went home in disgrace. Nazis didn’t like it when someone from their master race got beat up by a black man.

A few months after the fight, on November 9, 1938, as Nazis terrorized Jewish businesses and houses of worship during Kristallnacht, Max Schmeling sheltered two Jewish young people in his hotel suite in Berlin.

Joe Louis served his country in uniform during the war and emerged after to continue his career, though the clock was running out on his days of glory. He died in 1981, and Max Schmeling, who lived to be just seven months shy of a hundred years old, died in 2005.

Their brief, but explosive meeting in June of 1938 at Yankee Stadium captured the attention of the world and imagination of our nation. So, as the great ballpark fades – and the new replaces the old – it should be remembered as a place for more than baseball.

Yankee Stadium has been a field of dreams, history, and glory. - DRS

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Big Anti-Semitic Lie that Won't Go Away

(Column to appear at, Sunday, July 13, 2008)

The Big Anti-Semitic Lie that Won’t Go Away
By David R. Stokes

While fires were still smoldering at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvanian pasture, malicious people conjured up an evil myth. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many in the Arab world believed that the vicious attack on America was not the work of Islamists, but rather was an Israeli-driven Mossad operation. This legend soon developed muscular legs and is now widely regarded by millions of Muslims as the truth.

And why not? For decades school children in Muslim nations (not to mention their parents at home) have been baptized in anti-Semitic narratives. The opinions in their world about Jews in general, and Israel in particular, are concrete – thoroughly mixed up and permanently set.

And the most persistent and pernicious ideas that have been accepted by millions as factual truth flowed from the poisonous pen of a guy named Mathieu Golovinski.

The spurious publication called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an Islamist must-read. The work tells a story that fits the pattern of long-standing prejudices. The words reinforce the visceral hatred Islamists have toward Jews.

Islamist anti-Semitism is not a new thing. It didn’t begin with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, or the Six-Day War in 1967. It was around long before there was a Hitler – in fact, it grew up alongside Islam from the beginning. It’s an enmity that can be traced back to Muhammad and what he said, wrote, and did. And to those looking for ammunition to use against people they have been historically conditioned to hate, the often denounced and repeatedly refuted forgery is just what the evil doctor ordered.

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, it is true that non-Muslims and non-Nazis have at times bought into the notions set forth by the Protocols - some even in the name of Christianity. This is sad. But it is also statistically rare these days. Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan types apparently still peddle the book, but these people are the proverbial skunks at our national picnic. And eighty years ago, there were a few prominent Americans (automobile magnate Henry Ford notable among them) who endorsed the writings. But that was a passing, though very regrettable, thing.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purports to be written evidence of a vast and secret Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. It’s presented as a factual and detailed description of a late-nineteenth century meeting to plot international Hebrew hegemony through manipulation and treachery. These ideas are at the root of the mother of all conspiracy theories for those who live in the bizarre world of alternative historical reality.

In fact, the publication is a forgery – probably the most sinister and infamous fake in literary history.

The year is 1898, and Nicholas II rules a Russia that’s beginning to experience the revolutionary stirrings of modernism. The Tsar is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and tends to be easily led by strong people around him. He tries to take incremental steps toward leading the nation away from its feudal past, but some in his court are alarmed. Thus, evil men began to seek a way to short-circuit these liberalizing influences.

If only they could convince the Tsar that the voices of change he’s listening to are motivated by something other than the best interests of Russia – but how? It was in this environment that the greatest of all anti-Semitic lies was born. A threatening conspiracy would be manufactured - one that would bring Nicholas to his senses – and the Jews to their knees.

Mathieu Golovinski was living in Parisian exile at the time. Though he was Russian, having been born in the Simbirsk region in 1865, he was forced to flee after repeated clashes with Russian authorities, usually having to do with his tendency to fabricate documents and evidence in legal matters. He was a master of spin, innuendo, and dirty tricks. He was also very skilled in the arts of forgery and plagiarism.

And he worked for the Okhrana – the Tsar’s secret police.

He was approached by agents’ provocateur from the Tsar’s inner circle about creating a convincing anti-Jewish legend. They needed a narrative, one that would be seen as proof of a sinister plot behind the winds of change beginning to blow in Russia. Golovinski was commissioned to fabricate the evidence.

He came across an old book, written in 1864 by an anti-monarchist activist named Maurice Joly. It was entitled, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquie and was written as a thinly disguised attack on Napoleon III’s rule in France. The book was suppressed by the French government and the writer was imprisoned. He committed suicide in 1878.

A plan was hatched to borrow from this obscure book, changing some of its cosmetics and phrasing. It would be recast, using Joly’s fictional dialogue for a model, as the actual deliberations of a secret cabal of Jews bent on taking over the world. When the fake was finished, it was spirited back to St. Petersburg, and all that would be needed was a way to get it before the ruler of the realm.

Enter the other religious zealot in and around the court of the Tsar.

When most think of religious influences around Nicholas II, attention is usually given to Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who haunted that scene beginning about 1905. But often overlooked, and certainly more ominous as far as long-term impact on the world is concerned, is the influence of his cultic contemporary, Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus. He was a writer on religious matters and a self-styled spiritual mystic.

And he is also the man who first published Golovinski’s sinister forgery.

Initially placing the Protocols as a chapter in one of his books, Dr. Nilus saw to it that the potentate was fully briefed and convinced about the purported Jewish threat. And like Rasputin, he also had the ear of ruler’s wife – so the Tsar, never a man to have his own firm opinions, fell prey to the lie. And in the days following his nation’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese at a loss of several hundred thousand men, not to mention overwhelming financial expense, circumstances were ripe for the rotten fruit of a compelling scapegoat story.

On January 9, 1905, the Tsar’s troops opened fire on protesters who peacefully marched near the palace in St. Petersburg. This would become known as Bloody Sunday. The Tsar and his inner circle saw in the Protocols the real reason for the unrest – it was a big Jewish plot to overthrow the monarchy.

So it began – the gargantuan conspiratorial lie that has reared its hideous head time and time again over the past one hundred years. Jewish plotters were blamed for The Great War (1914-1918). Then in its aftermath, when Germany was struggling to recover from defeat, the big lie was discovered by the greatest demagogue of the day, Adolf Hitler. By the time the future German dictator was sent to prison in 1923, he was well versed in the Protocols and drew significantly from the forgery as he wrote his own hate-filled and delusional tome, Mein Kampf.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became, to men already filled with anti-Semitic ideas, proof positive of a sinister Jewish agenda. To those who believed the lie, the writings were sufficient evidence for the indictment, condemnation, and eventual execution of these conspiratorial people. The Protocols in many ways fueled the Holocaust.

Yet all along, reasonable people – scholars, journalists, and statesmen – have gone to great lengths to expose the fraudulent nature of the Protocols. Beginning with a lengthy analysis in the Times of London in 1921, to a celebrated trial in Switzerland in 1935, to a report by the United States Senate in 1964, good people have said again and again: “the book’s a fake.” Good people still do.

It’s the bad people who are the problem.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the biggest publishing hoax of the past one hundred years, is not going away. This is largely because Islamists are using it, with great effectiveness, to fan contemporary flames of hatred. In fact, it’s arguable that there are more copies of this lie-laden text extant, than ever before. The forgery is used by politicians and clerics in the Muslim world to justify their distorted and destructive world-view.

Gamal Abdel Nassar, the late president of Egypt, recommended the book to his countrymen. His Saudi contemporary, King Faisal, had the forgery put in hotels in his nation, like Gideon Bibles (he once gave a copy to Henry Kissinger). The Ayatollah Khomeini, who took over in Iran in 1979, made the Protocols a national bestseller. An entire generation of Islamic thinkers and scholars now aggressively promotes the forgery as literal fact.

Hamas owes Article 32 of its charter to these long-ago-discredited writings when it says things like: “Zionist scheming has no end…Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of Zion.” And it’s, of course, a perennial favorite with Holocaust deniers such as that wacky Iranian, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Islamist anti-Semitism is at the root of the so-called War on Terror. The bad guys use the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as their proof-text. It would make sense that if we really want to eradicate the symptom we must deal frankly with the cause. Islamism isn’t an aberration. It’s an ideology based on prejudices rooted in the distant past and lies that won’t seem to go away.

Shortly before his death in early 2005, the legendary pioneer of twentieth-century graphic art, Will Eisner, a man who spent much of his life debunking the infamous forgery, called the Protocols a “terrifying vampire-like fraud.”

Indeed. - DRS