Podcast • October 31, 2008

Campaign ’08: How was it for you, Jim Fishkin?

James Fishkin‘s ideal democracy is ruled by “the voice of the people, when they are thinking.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Fishkin (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3) James Fishkin: a thinking democracy? ...

James Fishkin‘s ideal democracy is ruled by “the voice of the people, when they are thinking.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Fishkin (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

James Fishkin: a thinking democracy?

A political scientist long at the University of Texas, now at Stanford, he is the Johnny Appleseed of “deliberative democracy” — in Europe, Australia, China and even in Texas, where his process of open representative decision-making chose windmills over oil as the preferred source of electrical power. If Jim Fishkin had his way, every primary state and perhaps the whole country would stop the music for a Day of Deliberation before any campaigning began. His mission is to fit the care and consideration of our Founding Elitists with the egalitarian idea of our mass democracy. “The Federalists were right that you need a small body,” he remarks in our conversation. “They were wrong that the people couldn’t do it.”

This is the spirit behind Jim Fishkin’s report card on the wondrous presidential campaign of 2008. On his three principal measuring sticks — participation, equality and deliberation: 1) a high turnout and the mobilization of minorities and younger voters will get high grades; 2) the iron cage of an “18th Century trap,” the Electoral College, still effectively disenfranchises most voters in all but a handful of battleground states; and 3) the economic meltdown that has framed the climax of the campaign and tips it heavily toward Barack Obama has made strangely fleeting contact with the spoken discourse.

Look at the 750 billion dollar bailout. The campaign dialogue has not connected with any of the real policy alternatives. The bailout was posed as the need to buy up toxic assets. In fact, very quickly, and in part because of the example of Gordon Brown, the strategy has changed completely. So the government is buying non-voting shares and preferred stocks in banks. And now it turns out the banks aren’t spending the money; they’re using it to buy up other banks to provide a cushion. We’re launching on the most extraordinary expenditures without a real consideration of the policy alternatives. And that dialogue, whatever it is, among policy elites has not penetrated the campaign discussion of the economy. The campaigns focus on who is going to cut your taxes more and earmarks, which are a tiny part of the budget. So there is an unreal… disconnection about the crisis.

Jim Fishkin finds much to celebrate about 2008: most memorably the bravura Obama performance but overall the air of experimentation, the talent for technical innovation, the vitality of YouTube and the Huffington Post, the alternative sources of power that keep opening up in this society. He reminds us, too, that we practice our politics in a global fishbowl:

Let me tell a little dialogue I had in China about this. We did a little deliberative poll in China at the local level where we actually used it to make decisions about what infrastructure projects to build in a city in China. The party elites thought that the public would like all of these image projects: super highways and a fancy town square. Instead what the people wanted were sewage treatment plants. They wanted clean water and an environmental plant and a people’s park for recreation. And they got exactly what the deliberative poll offered. So it was, in a way, a perfect realization of deliberative democracy without party competition, at the local level of course.

We had a big banquet with the local party leader at the end, celebrating it, and so he turned to me and he said, “See, we don’t need your Taiwanese style… party-competition democracy.” I said, “I think party competition would be a good idea for your democracy.” He said that we don’t need it. He said, “Look, even in your own country does your vote count?” I said what did you mean, and this took my breath away because I had no idea he was so well-informed. He said, “Do you live in a swing state?” I said, “I live in California.” He said, “See, your vote doesn’t count.” And then he said, “Is your congressional district gerrymandered?” I was really flabbergasted. He said, “See, your vote for congress doesn’t count either. But here we implement your ideas perfectly.”

James Fishkin of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 31, 2008

Podcast • October 6, 2008

Virtual JFK: Vietnam (and us) if Kennedy had lived

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama. The question in Virtual JFK ...

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The question in Virtual JFK is whether President Kennedy, had he lived, would have withdrawn from war in Vietnam in 1965. It is at least arguable that what hangs on the answer is nothing less than the fighting (mostly losing) “counter-insurgency” doctrine that has fired up American foreign policy for nearly half a century, and that accounts for the “permanent war” dread through the Bush years and beyond.

Presidents matter, and presidential temperament is decisive: these are the fundamental premises of the film, and the moral for voters this year. Koji Masutani, 27, made Virtual JFK with his Brown University professor of history and international relations, James Blight. Together they have chosen six “crises” from the early Sixties in which restraint prevailed: the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which Kennedy blocked US Marines from saving the misbegotten mission; the flare-up and ceasefire in Laos in Spring, 1961; the Berlin crisis over the Soviets’ wall in August, 1961, when JFK pulled US tanks out of sight; Kennedy’s early rejection in 1961 of his generals’ plea (including his favorite, Max Taylor) for military intervention in Vietnam; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, talked down by a “cautious, skeptical” president; and the secret staff planning in October, 1963 to start drawing down the American advisers in Vietnam.

It is clear to Jim Blight, anyway, that JFK’s instinct and persistent pattern were to avoid the war option, to say “no” to his generals, to engage his own restless, combative mind in peaceful, face-saving alternatives. Kennedy was a multilateralist, a man with a delicately balanced reading of an interconnected world. He did not hesitate to speak of his and our responsibility to “mankind” and “the human race.” He would have welcomed “the global test” of American policies. He spoke of “adversaries,” not “enemies.” He dealt with interests, not “evil.” He said: “I hope I am a responsible president. That is my intention.”

Koji Masutani

What the contrarian viewer sees as well is that JFK was up to his neck, at least, in Cold War reflexes. Those wacko nuclear bomb shelters were “useful… important,” he says in a press conference. Kennedy bought the domino doctrine that the fate of Southeast Asia was all or nothing, and he sold the silly simplistic line that nasty “guerrilas” were disrupting a peaceful democracy in South Vietnam. In his lesser moments Kennedy can sound shockingly close to George W. Bush, needling up fear and hostility around catch-phrases like “the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” But then, what if it really was?

The seductive beauty of Virtual JFK is watching the play of doubt and responsibility, learning and wit on the weathered face of a 45-year-old war hero who is, unbelievably, the president of the United States.

KM: Imagine sitting in an editing studio in the dark for three years, hours and hours a day, having grown up with parents who are not American… I am listening to Kennedy, a president who is articulate, essentially disarming. I found this very surprising, as if he was an alien. I am just surprised that we have been here before: muddled in a war that can’t fully be explained. In the second part, we get in to Lyndon Johnson, someone who uses the kind of rhetoric that George Bush uses today, in absolutes.

JB:It’s so interesting because Johnson’s tapes are phone tapes and it feels like you’re sitting right there with the man himself. For the first three or four months, the phone tapes with McNamara show that McNamara, in a sense unconsciously still thinks he’s talking to Kennedy because he keeps interrupting him, and that is not something that is done with Johnson. He also keeps bringing data to bear on the situation, and Johnson doesn’t want to hear that either… until about March when…we did a rough calculation: about 50% of McNamara’s interventions after that are “yes, sir.” There is no known instance of a conversation with Kennedy that we have on tape where Kennedy talks and McNamara says “yes, sir.” It’s McNamara talks and Kennedy asks questions and then thinks about it…

KM:Kennedy required competitive information. At every meeting Kennedy wanted to hear from people who disagreed with him, and then under Johnson there was evidence that he wanted a consensus to take place before the meeting occurred…

Koji Masutani and James Blight of Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Koji Masutani conceived his movie before the shape of the 2008 race was remotely clear. The movie never mentions Barack Obama, but one feels that Obama has been growing into the Kennedy role. Ted Sorensen, who wrote many of Kennedy’s best lines, isn’t mentioned in the movie either. But Sorensen figures largely in our conversation here:

James G. Blight

So [we asked] Ted [Sorensen, Kennedy’s former speechwriter] what is it about Barack Obama that reminds you of your former friend and boss. He said, “it’s this: his first reaction will be to think, to consider. It will not be to strike out to strike out at the first opportunity, it seems to Ted, and it seems to me, frankly. That doesn’t make him a ditherer, not a person who is incapable of making a decision, but a person who wants to hear as many points of view as are relevant to the situation as possible and then to move forward and to try to do the least harm. Not an ideologue, not going to try to democratize the world and the moon and Mars and everything with it.” The point of leadership, he said, according to Kennedy, was to do as little harm as possible. And he thinks that Obama has kind of internalized that.

James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown University and Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Podcast • March 17, 2008

Cuba on our Minds (III): David Kaiser’s JFK

The journalist and diplomat William Attwood is the exceptional spirit in David Kaiser‘s new history of the JFK assassination, The Road to Dallas. Attwood leaps off the page as a man of imagination and mettle ...

The journalist and diplomat William Attwood is the exceptional spirit in David Kaiser‘s new history of the JFK assassination, The Road to Dallas. Attwood leaps off the page as a man of imagination and mettle who (on a first reading) might have saved the Kennedy brothers and redrafted hemispheric relations.

Out of LOOK magazine and the Adlai Stevenson campaigns in the 1950s, Attwood came into the Kennedy administration as JFK’s ambassador to Guinea in West Africa, with a long-standing free-lance interest in Cuba. In late October, 1963, Attwood was looking for high-level permission to renew a conversation with Fidel Castro in Havana, specifically to pursue indications from Castro that, as Kaiser writes, “if the United States would lift the economic blockade against Castro, he would evict the Soviets from Cuba.”

But nobody in the Kennedy command was interested in anything that sounded like a relaxation of hostilities with Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (April 1961) and the Missile Crisis (October 1962). In the fateful autumn of 1963, McGeorge Bundy in the White House, Robert Kennedy himself and the chiefs at State, Defense and the CIA all “agreed that it would be better for Attwood to return to private life before meeting with Castro.”

A golden opportunity so narrowly missed, as I remark here in conversation with David Kaiser. But Kaiser, the much-praised historian at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I, brings me up short. I’d mistaken a double twist in his book. Kaiser says: “The men who wanted to kill JFK” — notably the Mafia and the fiercest of the anti-Castro Cubans in the U.S. — “would not have been pleased by any attempt to normalize relations with Castro. On the contrary…” JFK might have sealed his fate more certainly by encouraging Bill Attwood’s detente initiative.

In a round of conversations about the obsessive lure of Cuba, this is a historical digression on the eternal question of Who Killed JFK. We seem to be coming closer to the eternal answer, with Cuba at the core.

Our guest David Kaiser argues (to me, persuasively) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the triggerman and fallguy for a diversified conspiracy of men and interests that wanted President Kennedy dead. Oswald was the “who” that killed Kennedy, but the historian’s emphasis after nearly 50 years is on the “what” that killed him. In a story crackling with lethal ironies, the “what” was the convergence of two passionate public campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first, by the mob-infected Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, was to crush organized crime in America. The other, initiated by the Eisenhower administration, was to eliminate Fidel Castro and Communism from Cuba, by virtually any means imaginable, including assassination by American mobsters. Oswald, in David Kaiser’s telling, was a multi-purpose assassin who with minor shifts of circumstance might have shot Castro before he ended up shooting Kennedy. But he seems to have been working the mob’s plan on November 22, 1963; and of course it was the mob’s man Jack Ruby who, two days later, shot Oswald in Dallas police custody to shut him up.

It is still a hair-raising tale of a host of men — Richard Helms, Sam Giancana, Jimmy Hoffa, Loran Hall, Carlos Marcello, David Atlee Phillips among the scores — with Cuba and killing on their minds. “Where did these men find the audacity to kill a president of the United States?” Kaiser asks. He believes JFK had compromised his immunity by taking girls from Frank Sinatra and by playing the assassination game against Castro. He argues that RFK lost official immunity by the recklessness of his vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa. “All these men knew that Hoffa’s comment about the attorney general — that Robert Kennedy would not rest until Hoffa was behind bars — was true for them as well. These were desperate times that called for desperate measures?”

Kaiser clarifies the story of a crime, the killing of a king, that — as Olive Stone’s JFK suggested — touched each of us, and the country, with some of Hamlet’s madness.

From the Archives • June 25, 2007

The Newest Nixon

In 1962, after losing the governor’s race to Pat Brown, Richard M. Nixon pronounced: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Unfortunately, Nixon’s admonition was more like an exercise in reverse psychology: as president, ...
statesman or slimeball?

Statesman or slimeball?

In 1962, after losing the governor’s race to Pat Brown, Richard M. Nixon pronounced: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Unfortunately, Nixon’s admonition was more like an exercise in reverse psychology: as president, former president, and even posthumously, Nixon has been kicked around…a lot. And as this week marks the 35th anniversary of Watergate, you would think that the blows would be coming fast and hard, but they’re not.

To say that people are now treating Nixon with kid gloves would be a gross exaggeration. However, the convergence of the Watergate anniversary, the batches of new Nixon biographies, and the Broadway sensation Frost/Nixon — all within the context of Bush’s presidency — has politicians, partisans and pundits looking at Nixon’s legacy in a new light.

A few weeks ago I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon. That’s in no small measure a tribute to Frank Langella, who should win a Tony Award for his star Broadway turn in Frost/Nixon….Frost/Nixon, a fictionalized treatment of the disgraced former president’s 1977 television interviews with David Frost, does not whitewash Nixon’s record. But Mr. Langella unearths humanity and pathos in the old scoundrel eking out his exile in San Clemente. For anyone who ever hated Nixon, this achievement is so shocking that it’s hard to resist a thought experiment the moment you’ve left the theater: will it someday be possible to feel a pang of sympathy for George W. Bush?

Perhaps not. It’s hard to pity someone who, to me anyway, is too slight to hate. Unlike Nixon, President Bush is less an overreaching Machiavelli than an epic blunderer surrounded by Machiavellis. He lacks the crucial element of acute self-awareness that gave Nixon his tragic depth….It would be a waste of Frank Langella’s talent to play George W. Bush (though not, necessarily, of Matthew McConaughey’s).

Frank Rich, Failed Presidents Ain’t What They Used to BeThe New York Times, June 3, 2007

 

photo of bumper sticker

The good old days

[ekai/ Flickr]

Do you agree with Frank Rich? How do you look at Nixon’s presidency as Watergate recedes further into history? Do you consider him a great statesman? Or has Nixon’s: “If the president does it, than it’s legal…” sentiment set a precedent for all presidents to abuse their power? What does Nixon’s “self-impeachment” say about today’s political climate? Does his legacy suggest that we are a nation that is incapable of learning a lesson? As the saying goes: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Or has our current president better captured our zeitgeist with his masterful paraphrasing: Fool me once shame on you…fool me — and you get fooled?