Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reason and the White House Astrologer

Joan Quigley, an astrologer who advised Nancy Reagan, died recently. While Quigley played a big role in scheduling and made MichaelDeaver’s life difficult, she didn’t have any policy influence. Still, for some this was taken as the absolute epitome of the ludicrousness of the Reagan presidency. But perhaps something deeper and more interesting was going.

Richard Neustadt, the renowned scholar of the presidency, and not inclined to be a friendly judge of the Reagan administration, was surprisingly forgiving about Nancy Reagan seeing an astrologer, observing:

Nancy was perhaps that rarity, a disinterested advisor. …her husband’s closest associates, however valuable or liked or even loved, were to be sacrificed, in her view, from the moment their continuation on the scene could compromise the President’s public relation. In concern for his physical safety, she did something Regan (out of office) characterized as silly: consulting an astrologer about her man’s engagements where the White House had discretion in setting of a date-silly, to be sure, though possibly no more so than the whims of staff, or press, or partisans, or family quite traditional in such decisions.

We imagine President’s being in control, but in many ways they are as subject to the whims of fate as anyone. A combination of duty and other people’s schedules drive their day. Nancy Reagan adored her husband and was terrified that he might be assassinated. What could she do? Did consulting an astrologer and manipulating dates give her a sense of control, which in turn brought a modest peace of mind – allowing her to help her husband?

Maybe. Is it terrible that Nancy Reagan turned to astrology, which of course has no credible scientific basis? I don’t see why? Reason rejects astrology, but reason offered Nancy Reagan no comfort about her husband’s safety. Could security experts have briefed her and tried to convince her he would be safe? Sure, but why should she believe them since an assassin got through once before? Maybe she could have had a doctor subscribe some anti-anxiety medication, it would have been cheaper (Quigley was paid $3000 monthly) but would it have had a better result?

Astrology and its many cousins fill a need. We can decry this as superstition, but is that completely fair? Certainly there are people taken in by hucksters – but it is tough to believe such people won’t find some other way to bankrupt themselves. For others, who spend a little money on occasion, it does little harm and may even do some good.

In the Richard Ford novel The Sportswriter Frank Bascombe visits a fortune teller, explaining:

But where else can you get, on demand, hopeful, inspiring projections for the real future. Where else, on a windy day in January, can you drive out beset by blue devils and in five minutes be semi-reliably assured by a relative stranger that you are who you think you are, and that things aren’t going to turn out so crappy after all?

Science is a tremendous, awesome thing, grounded on hard findings that have been rigorously tested. It has made our lives safer and more comfortable in astounding, endless ways. But sometimes it does not provide the comfort we need. We may, in this age of “big data” be moving towards analytical understanding of the affairs of the heart. So be it. But understanding something emotionally painful may not be much help working through the emotional pain.

Science may very well tell us that rationally we are tiny specks in a vast uncaring – but marvelous – universe. I personally am filled with wonder by much of it, but staring into infinity can be exhausting for all but the bravest. Sometimes, we crave small comforts and the assurance that infinitesimal speck we may be – there is some hope and purpose to us after all.

Since we are talking of astrology, I should be give the final words to my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies. In What’s Bred in the Bone the main character’s lover, a well-educated woman who is researching a book on astrology offers to give the main character a reading. She explains, “A horoscope means someone is really paying attention to you, and that is rarer than you might think.”

Later, when giving his reading and he complains about it being “far too vague, too mythological,” she replies:

I’ve told you already; it’s a way of channeling intuitions and things that can’t be reached by the broad, floodlit paths of science. You can’t nail it down, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for brushing it aside. You can’t talk to the Mothers [that character’s term for archetypes] by getting them on the phone, you know. They have an unlisted number.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Achebe's When Things Fall Apart: A Continuing Story

I purchased Chinua Achebe’s When Things Fall Apart on sale as an audiobook. When he died in March 2013, I made it a point to listen.


It begins as a vibrant portrait of a pre-modern society. Pre-modern does not mean primitive. There are laws, customs, commerce, and religion. The main character, Okonkwo, is a rich, fascinating character. Living in the shadow of his ne’er do well father, Okonkwo strives for wealth and honor. He is capable and brave, but sometimes quick to temper. So afraid to ever appear weak or unworthy, as time passes, as for so many of us, his virtues shape his vices. His choices haunt him.

It is all very compelling. This is what is so fascinating. The world depicted is not a simple pack of hunter-gatherers - it is a sophisticated society. Oknonkwo’s goals and dreams are fundamentally the same as our own – but with so much of the detritus of modern life stripped away. This depiction of life made me think of my readings of Aristotle and Plato and the glimpses of life in ancient Athens received through their eyes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote about how people pursue honor, wealth, pleasure, and justice. Stepping back from the details, we still pursue the same things. Stripped down, our careers, social media presence, and what have you are essentially new mechanisms for these same basic drives. Human beings haven’t changed. Achebe’s work helped bring that home.

For recreating this world and drawing us into it with a compelling character, Achebe demonstrated tremendous literary skill. A reader could easily have followed Okonkwo’s life; that alone would have been a satisfying read.

Then, the British arrive. British justice tears apart the society’s law. Christianity undermines the local beliefs. Objectively, the imported religion may be more just; it first attracts the slaves and the outcasts. Achebe does not hesitate to depict cruel customs. But these changes render the society’s honors hollow and the objects Okonkwo spent his life pursuing lost their meaning.

Part of the genius of When Things Fall Apart was its depiction of a complex, sophisticated society shattering from its encounter with Western civilization. It is a sobering story, one that remains relevant. The encounter that Achebe describes is continues, in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. The book was set in the 1890s. This may be beyond living memory, but it is a mere instant in human history.

But another compelling aspect was in the commonalities in Okonkwo’s life and our own. The key to literature is developing characters who have some deep appeal (they may not be likeable, but they have something) and then doing something horrible. Achebe shows us Okonkwo, a complex man, a man in full, and then he destroys Okonkwo's world. Not with a natural disaster, where Okonkwo's reserves of strength would allow him to rise to the occasion - but with a better bigger world, one with which his own cannot compete.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mysteries of Nixon

Although he served two terms as vice president, and his disgrace as president played a role in re-shaping the vice presidency, I didn't write much about him for my dissertation. I had a draft case study about him, but chose not to finish it – he was not particularly influential as VP (I’ll discuss that below.)

But the big reason I didn’t write about Nixon is because one of the keys to finishing a dissertation is to avoid rabbit holes. A rabbit hole is an intriguing area of inquiry that is related to your dissertation, but tangential to your main theme. But you start poking into it and then you fall in
and can't get out.

Iran-Contra was one such rabbit hole. I had to address it, but I couldn't write a whole separate book about it. Richard Nixon was another. Once you start writing about Nixon, he is so fascinating, brilliant, and conflicted, and the events around him are so complicated that it's easy to get sucked in and never, ever come out.

Nixon As Vice President
Nixon was not influential. Eisenhower, when asked about Nixon's accomplishments famously said, "Give me a week and I'll think of one."

Eisenhower apologized to Nixon for that and stated that Nixon had been more involved than any previous Vice President. This may have been true (strictly speaking it wasn't there had been a pair of influential Vice Presidents much earlier in U.S. history), but being more significant and involved than his predecessors was vaulting a pretty low bar.

He rarely exercised influence, although Nixon’s counsel on strictly political matters - particularly dealing with the Senate, was appreciated. My hypothesis proposes that Nixon should have been an influential vice president, since he served an outsider vice president. But this was not the case for several reasons. Eisenhower was an anomaly among outsider presidents in that he was not a governor, but rather had been a general so his outsider knowledge was on national security affairs. Further, as a national hero governing in a period of economic prosperity, he was relatively free of political pressures. No matter what Eisenhower did, his approval ratings were strong because of his personal standing. On many occasions Nixon offered Eisenhower practical political advice – such as supporting a hike in the minimum wage, or proposing aerospace programs  that would have helped Nixon in California in the 1960 elections. Eisenhower was a traditionalist on economics and didn’t need the political benefits of these policies, which his economic counselors advised against.

Nixon labored under other difficulties as vice president. He did not have much staff, had limited access to the president (he saw Eisenhower a few times a week - as opposed to modern VPs who might see the President a few times a day), and did not have a West Wing office. It is an interesting question if, given those vantages, Nixon could have slowly won allies on Eisenhower’s staff. With an office in the West Wing he might have had a better sense of the state of play of issues, and - combined with access to the President and White House staff - been better able to offer useful, relevant advice. Nixon was an impressive capable guy – if anyone could have pulled it off, it would have been Nixon.

(It's also worth noting that Eisenhower fundamentally saw the Vice President as part of the legislative branch, so this may have also shaped his his thinking about the vice president's role.)

But this only puts him on a par with all of the other vice presidents. In fact, according to Jeffrey Frank’s fascinating Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, being Eisenhower’s vice president was not an easy gig.

First, in an important way Nixon did play an increased role as VP. He was the political hitman, the road warrior on the campaign trail. Eisenhower didn't want to sully himself with politics - it went against his public image as a genial national hero. Further, Eisenhower suffered health problems. So Nixon hit the road, putting in weeks of 16-hour days on the campaign trail. Nixon was a capable campaigner, but it was hard work for him. Further, being the political hitman, throwing "red meat" to the party's base, painted him as a cruel, unsophisticated idealogue to everyone else. it was an image that stuck and haunted him.

If Eisenhower had been merely ambivalent about Nixon, that would have been manageable. Instead, nearly from the beginning, but particularly after a story broke that Nixon had a slush fund, had reservations about Nixon. The slush fund story wasn’t significant – many politicians had funds donated by wealthy supporters to augment their staff allowances. But Eisenhower’s support ranged from lukewarm to ambivalent until Nixon delivered the career saving Checkers speech. But in 1956, Eisenhower again toyed with dropping Nixon, hinting that Nixon should consider a cabinet post in the next administration. Nixon engineered a write-in campaign for himself in the New Hampshire primary, which highlighted his strength with the party base. (Eisenhower may have been a brilliant natural politician, but Nixon had a much better sense of the tough business of politics.)

But then even after the issue seemed settled, White House staffer Harold Stassen ran a campaign to dump Nixon from the ticket. Eisenhower eventually shut Stassen down – but Stassen remained in the White House. 

Even Nixon’s finest, most substantial moments as vice president were painful and difficult as when he had to appear to be in charge when Eisenhower was ill. Nixon chaired cabinet and national security council meetings and had the difficult task of showing the American that their government was still working, but without appearing to be taking usurp the Presidency (such appearances have sunk other careers.) At the same time, Nixon had to oversee cabinet members and other key advisors who were Eisenhower's contemporaries and allies. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, who became close to the Vice President, praised Nixon's performance in this difficult situation.

It should be emphasized that at other times Eisenhower did praise and thank Nixon. He saw Nixon's 1960 defeat as a personal failure. Eisenhower had wanted to do more campaigning for Nixon, but because of worries about the President's health Nixon did not ask for much help.

One can have some sympathy for Nixon here. He was not quite 40 when chosen to be vice president and he was serving with a world-renown, all-American hero, at the peak of his powers. Vice presidents occasionally can have “wait a minute” moments with the president. But it is difficult to imagine the relatively young Nixon having one with Eisenhower. Eisenhower was occasionally supportive of Nixon, but the vice president was never in the inner circle golfing, playing bridge, or socializing with the president. And Nixon knew it. He was desparate for the President's approval, but when it came it was always half-hearted.

It could not have been an easy thing for Nixon to manuever around Eisenhower - who beneath his genial veneer and standing as a national hero was a brilliant strategist. Nixon wrote that Eisenhower was "a far more complex and devious man than most people realized."

Flawed Genius
It is easy to mock Nixon’s lack of charisma – although next to JFK, few would appear as anything but a wallflower. Yet Nixon won elections. Only FDR ran on the ticket of a major party for a national office as many times (5) and no one served more time in a national office than Nixon (13 years, 8 months – just edging out FDR who served 12 years and 2 months).

He won through brains and hard work.

Nixon was brilliant. Imagine if, after nearly a decade in the political wilderness, Dan Quayle had schemed and plotted his way to the presidency in 2000 or Gore had done so in 2008. That was Nixon. After a very close loss to Kennedy in 1960 and then an embarrassing loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign (after which he gave his famous press conference stating, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) somehow Nixon maneuvered his way to the presidency in 1968.

Alan Greenspan, in his memoir wrote that Nixon was, alongside Bill Clinton, the most brilliant president he had worked with – but that he occasionally launched into strange ugly tirades. And that raises the other side of Nixon, the darkness, the shadow in his person. Jon Stewart’s America: (The Book), mentions Nixon’s 1960 debate with JFK in which voters made an utterly superficial decision that turned out to be completely correct. There was something off about Nixon.

The charm that came easily to Kennedy, Roosevelt, Clinton and many politicians, eluded Nixon. They could win people over effortlessly. When Nixon tried, it was an effort and it repelled as much as it attracted. He came off as trying to hard. Think in your own life. People who awkwardly try to win you over are assumed to "have an angle" and "be on the make."

Nixon was clearly a striver.  He did everything right, punched every ticket, but on a fundamental level people did not like Richard Nixon. He wanted the sorts of things that politicians want. But in pursuing them a bit too obviously, people assumed he was up to something.

When his efforts failed, because of these suspicions, Nixon - realizing that doing everything right was not enough and the devious "Tricky Dick" emerged.

This is the stuff of novels - how each of us contains our opposite. Many great politicians, like Eisenhower, are genial on the outside but tough and even callous in private. For Richard Nixon, the devious schemer was on the surface. We (the collective American people - not me personally, I was a kid when Nixon resigned) saw the schemer beneath the earnestness. Did we press him towards it, or merely see what was already there.

As a scholar of the vice presidency, I can't help but wonder: Did Eisenhower see what the American people seemed to suspect? Did his rough, cavalier treatment of Nixon shape the devious flawed Nixon who threw away his Presidency in a bizarre - and frankly unneccessary - conspiracy?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Elegy for Ajami

A few weeks ago, when Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American lion of Middle East studies, died suddenly, I dashed of a short memorium to him and Politix was kind enough to run it. He was full of insight, but also a generous and genteel man. Personally, I was always jealous of him both for his keen insight but also for his masterful command of language. Knowing that English was his third language was only salt inth wound. He'll be missed as a person and as a scholar.

This Incisive Middle East Scholar Envisioned a Better Iraq

Op-ed by Aaron Mannes
July 9, 2014

Fouad Ajami’ s elegy to pan-Arabism, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, begins with the suicide of Arab poet Khalil Hawi after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Lebanon’s collapse and the subsequent Israeli invasion exposed pan-Arabism, the ideology to which Hawi had devoted his life, as a hollow failure. There is a terrible irony that Ajami, an incisive analyst of Arab politics who was deeply associated with the American undertaking in Iraq, died of cancer on June 22 at the age of 68 just as that endeavor was coming undone.

Born in the shadow of the Crusader-built Beaufort Castle in 1945, a member of Lebanon’s marginalized Shia community, Ajami came to America in 1963. He earned his doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle and taught at Princeton and later Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. Initially enthralled with the fiery pan-Arabism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ajami embraced his adopted country, grew to love it, and begin to swim against the tide of orthodoxy in Middle East studies. His first book, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967, rejected traditional Arab complaints of Western colonialism and placed the blame for the region’s ills squarely on the corrupt self-serving Arab leaders.

Academic work that is clear and intelligible is often described as “lucid.” But this is insufficient to describe the power and beauty of Ajami’s prose, particularly in what was perhaps his greatest work, The Dream Palace of the Arabs. The title itself evokes the sense of unreality that pervades Arab politics. Poetry resonates in the Arab world and language and Ajami traces the evolution and decay of pan-Arabism through the eyes of poets and intellectuals who were inspired by this dream and then fell into despair. The Dream Palace of the Arabs, a book on a seemingly obscure topic, is spellbinding, captivating, and sad. Describing the dashed hopes of a people, it is an elegy: a mournful poem, a funeral song, from the Greek for lament.

Developed in the first half of the 20th century, pan-Arabism was an effort to develop an Arab modernism that would pull the Arabs into the contemporary world. Its chief architects were Arab Christians who sought a worldview that would end the pervasive religious and tribal divides and place them on an equal footing with their Muslim neighbors. It was an enterprise doomed from its inception. Ajami writes that a village elder told Anton Saadah, the Christian founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, “…you want to rule the Muslims and they will not be ruled by someone from outside their faith. If you persist they are sure to kill you.”

(Saadah was executed by Lebanese authorities in 1949.)

This is the great lesson of Ajami’s book. The Middle East is riven with these deep divides, rooted in history and geography, between sects and clans, families and languages. Political parties and ideologies (to some extent Islam itself) are efforts to bridge these chasms by creating all encompassing super-tribes. But alas, whatever the virtues of these ideologies, they become tools that empower tyrants, a new veneer over hoary structures built on clan and sect.

Even the tendentious skirmishes of the Arab literati and intelligentsia were ultimately fronts in these ancient feuds. Ajami himself was reminded of all this after an academic junket to Kuwait. He made a few, innocuous recommendations to improve the political science program at Kuwait University and found himself attacked by a leading Kuwaiti pundit as an agent of imperial interests. Of course the real source of animus was that Ajami was Shia. Ajami wrote, for Americans “…these furies were incomprehensible. But those for whom Arab lands were home… were face to face with atavistic feuds that had never gone away.”

In all of this, Ajami was a sober observer who recognized the dark unfathomable waters that could sink Western ambitions in the Middle East, and yet Ajami became a leading proponent of the American endeavor in Iraq. In part this reflected Ajami’s stubborn hope that the Middle East did not have to trapped in its brutal cycle of cruelty.

Ajami threw his formidable literary talents into The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, The Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq to explain to Americans what was happening, what was possible, and what was at stake. He unabashedly supported the enterprise, but was clear-eyed about the difficulties. Ajami believed the United States could do a great good in Iraq, not a establish a democracy but instead, “…something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it.”

The Foreigner’s Gift was written, in great part, because Ajami feared that “innately optimistic America” would tire of Iraq, “a land steeped in a history of sorrow.” Changing Iraq would take many years, but “The custodians of American power were under great pressure to force history’s pace.”

Even a few months ago it was possible to believe that Iraq could muddle through. While the Prime Minister was showing “autocratic tendencies” this was a vast improvement over the Saddam’s naked tyranny. But the collapse of Iraq’s army in the face of the rag-tag followers of the a pretender to the Caliphate and the re-emergence of Shiite militias to oppose them shatters any illusions that Iraq was somehow finding its way. Ajami himself knew better, just weeks before he died he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that President Obama, in his desire to be free of Iraq, had indulged the Iraqi Prime Minister’s growing despotism. The scenario Ajami had feared came to pass. Sect and clan have re-emerged, shredding the delicate cloak of Constitutionalism brought by the Americans.

Unlike the despairing Khalil Hawi of The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Ajami continued to hope. Over his career he wrote half a dozen books and hundreds of articles and essays. In recent years, at the Hoover Institution, he wrote The Syrian Rebellion and called on the United States to support efforts to end the cruel tyranny of the Assads. His latest book, The Struggle in the Fertile Crescent, on the history of great power involvement in what is now Iraq, has been published posthumously.

As a prognosticator and advocate, Ajami may have embraced his adopted land’s optimism more than the land of his origin warranted. But as a historian he was clear-eyed and honest about the Middle East in a way few others have been. Born Shia, he could respect the needs and priorities of the Sunni powers. An acolyte of Arab nationalism, he grew to understand Israel. A child of Lebanon, he came to love the United States. Our discourse will be poorer and less profound without him.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Winning by Losing: US & the World Cup

It was good for Belgium to beat the United States at soccer (or football, as the rest of the world insists on calling it.) Not because a loss to a tiny European country that in population and area is smaller than Pennsylvania will force the United States to really invest in soccer and build a strong program - quite the opposite.

Let the rest of the world have soccer – the United States is the greatest country ever. I mean great in its true sense, great – big – large. We do things on a bigger scale, whatever it may be, than anyone ever has before. We also are, on the whole, pretty good (or at least we try.) We are most certainly not perfect, but I would argue that we are the least bad great power ever. Few would seriously trade American hegemony for the alternatives. We get into trouble when we press the point too far. Unfortunately it is in our national character, our fatal flaw if you will, to do exactly that. The late Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist, in speaking against NAFTA observed:
…the extravert is one who derives his energy from his contacts with the external world; for him everything lies outside and he moves outward toward it, often without much sensitivity to the response of that toward which he moves…. The extraversion of the United States is easy to see. It assumes that it must dominate, that its political and moral views are superior to all others, and that it is justified in interference with countries it thinks undemocratic, meaning unlike itself. It has also the unhappy extravert characteristic of seeing all evil as exterior to itself, and resistance to that evil as a primary national duty. Americans are generous to a fault…the Americans [are] charming, extraverted, certain of their acceptance everywhere…
(Aaron, you cite a Canadian novelist on international affairs a lot, which is odd, particularly since Davies himself had so little interest in politics which he called “external things: only a fool gives his soul to them.” 

Me: True, and that’s kind of the point, Davies was interested in what really mattered and sometimes those things are not subject to traditional analysis, not what truly moves us.)

The point here is that the United States is enormously powerful and rich and – on the whole – a force for good in the world. I'm writing this under an American flag, waving on my front porch - I think the US is awesome.

However, imagine if, in your own life, you had a supremely talented, charming, and wealthy friend. This friend helps you all the time, while also regularly besting you at most things (and perhaps is less than humble about all of it). Might you not resent this friend just a bit (and perhaps the fact that the friend is so generous makes your own resentment grow?) You might begin to suspect your friend’s motives. You might, alternatively, tell your self that your more modest, but well-appointed home is in fact much more comfortable and pleasant than your friend’s rather gaudy mansion. You might convince yourself your friend, for all of his outward success, has no interior life and is not truly happy. You might focus on your friend’s failings.

You will almost certainly gather with other acquaintances and gossip about the overbearing friend – focusing on all of these things and reinforcing your resentments. You might also, REALLY, REALLY enjoy seeing this friend lose or fail at something – especially if it is to you. That’s us and, if we can be objective, we can see why other countries – even ones with which we have innumerable shared interests – might resent us on occasion.

Having some failings and weaknesses makes the US easier to take. In the big picture, losing to Belgium – a small, lovely country with a rich history and complex identity of its own, that also makes fantastic beer and chocolate – is kind of a win.

(That's me at a beer festival in Brussel's beautiful Grand Place - because there is a lot more to life than politics.)