LETTER TO THE EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: ON “JOHN KELLY AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE MILITARY COUP”

Dear editor,

As a tremendous admirer of Masha Gessen’s previous work, I was disappointed to read her latest comment in The New Yorker on “John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup.” I think Ms. Gessen speaks with little understanding of the civic depth of our society, the checks and balances in our system, the storied, culled and ambivalent relationship we have with our military, the health of our free universities, businesses and press. She does the classic move of many authors: she projects the subject of her latest book (totalitarianism) onto what she sees. So, lo and behold, she watches Adm. Kelly’s extraordinarily complex speech–by equal parts moving and disturbing, a historic text that will no doubt be dissected for years, decades to come–and she lodges her book’s totalitarian thesis into this latest space. Before reading her reaction, I had just turned on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as a retired four-star was calling Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “ignorant” because earlier today she demanded that no one question a four-star such as Kelly. David Axelrod was fuming. Meanwhile Sen. John McCain and co. have been running Defense Secretary Mattis et al through the ringer all day at the Senate. Two former presidents just took our current president to the woodshed just yesterday. That’s how our system, unlike the authoritarian Soviet Union in which Ms. Gessen grew up, works. It’s not pretty and we are still working on the recipe but the sausage still comes out damn fine.

Sincerely,
Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD

Verlander to Houston

DETROIT FREE PRESS: Justin Verlander paced in the living room of his apartment in downtown Birmingham. He was agitated, anxiously mulling his options. Kate Upton, his supermodel fiancée, was with him as he repeated: “Trust your instincts. Trust your instincts.”

Verlander, the Tigers’ longtime ace right-hander, called his agent as midnight approached Aug. 31. He called members of his family and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. He had spent 13 seasons with the Tigers, helping them reach two World Series and serving as the catalyst for one of the most successful runs in franchise history. Armed with a no-trade clause, under the league’s 10-5 rule, he could have ended negotiations with the Astros at any time. Instead, he peppered Crane and his prospective Houston teammates with questions… [FULL ARTICLE]

The Sorrows of Old Verlander

A car with two men pulled up to Justin Verlander’s penthouse apartment in downtown Birmingham. They parked. It was a Thursday at just about 11:30 pm, August 31st. They were coming from the Detroit Tigers’ central office, sent by General Manager Al Avila, with papers for the Tigers’ long-time star to sign. After a year of speculation on-and-off, after 13 years of donning the Old English D, through stubble thick and thin, less than an hour before the season’s last deadline, Verlander had been traded to the Houston Astros. The one catch, the calling that brought the pair of Tigers baseball operations officials to Verlander’s door near midnight on a Thursday, was that the veteran ace had a veto.

Under the league’s 10-5 rule, after ten years in the league and five on the same team, a player like the Tigers’ ace had the right to refuse being traded. Verlander had to sign off his no-trade clause. The pair of Tigers reps were there to get the pitcher’s go-ahead before the clock struck twelve and, in the meantime, wait outside.

Upstairs, back from a late dinner at The Bird & The Bread, about a five minute walk, it was a Thursday, the last day of August. Verlander had pitched the previous day: sixinnings, one run, at Coors Field in Denver, his 380th start with the Tigers. After a mediocre start to the season, Verlander had thrown gem after gem in the month of August, dropping his ERA from 4.29 to 3.82. There had been a bustle of trade talk in the last two months, but, that night, less than an hour to go until the midnight deadline, Verlander was convinced he would remain a Tiger for at least the last couple of months of this season. Avila had assured him that “no deal was probable.” Verlander recalled thinking, “I can put my mind at ease and just finish the season.”

Then, his cell rang at about 11:20pm that Thursday night. It had been the Tigers. They had secured his trade to the Houston Astros. They needed an answer within the hour so that Verlander would be eligible to pitch in the playoffs. And just like that, as he recalled the scene: “Someone tells you, you’ve got 35, 40 minutes to decide if you want to move somewhere else, you don’t know anybody, you don’t know anything about it. Go!” He had shown interest in playing with the LA Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, but the Houston Astros? He reached out for guidance: to his agent, his family, prospective teammates, a potential new owner in the Astros’ Jim Crane. He peppered them with questions. “I mean…it was just a whirlwind of conversations with my agent, with representatives, with both organizations just really everything you can imagine and then when I’m not on the phone trying to decide whether I want to uproot my life that I’ve been here for 13 years so…the chance to win a world series. I’ve experienced two, haven’t won it…” Verlander asked Houston’s owner about the fallout of Hurricane Harvey. He had never been traded before. In those waning minutes, over the phone, Astro’s Cy Young ace Dallas Keuchel urged Verlander with little delicacy minced no words: the Astros were going to the playoffs, Detroit was going nowhere. And, so, clocking ticking down, Verlander decided. Upton enthusiastically agreed.

detroitverlander2The Tigers reps, who had been loitering for near an hour downstairs, gathered the documents with Verlander’s signature still fresh and, at about two minutes to midnight, they photographed and e-mailed the no-trade waiver to league headquarters. MLB approval took fifteen minutes. All was set by 12:15 am. It was done. Word went out to the Detroit Free Press’s Anthony Fenech who, three minutes later, at 12:18am, with still a suggestion of disbelief, tweeted: “The Tigers have traded Justin Verlander to the Astros, I’m told.” It was the end of an era in less than a dozen words.

“In a stunning reversal, after a deal seemingly collapsed,” improbably, he was gone while most of Detroit slept, two ticks to midnight, with his supermodel fiancée, those fancy cars, his Hall-of-Fame arm…after 13 years…the break-up was official. It was “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” reporters beat and drummed. In the days following the announcement of the Tigers’ trading long-time star pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros, my Mom and I were reduced to terse texts back and forth of “sad” and “sad sad” and “still sad,” followed by “still sad”. (Or, as our president would say, “Sad!”)

Only on waking up that next morning, on that otherwise unexceptional Friday, did the excitement of a probable playoff birth kick in for Verlander. And that first morning after the trade, Tigers fans, stunned still, with appreciation and sorrow, tweeted: “too sad to get out of bed”; “truly never thought I’d see the day”; “I hope he gets a ring”; “Justin Verlander getting traded took away a part of my childhood”; “still in shock”; “worst wake up call ever”; “I can’t make it into work today on account of Justin Verlander being traded, I’m sure you understand”; “a kick in the gut”…And, yes, yes, yes, this is what happens in sports. If Michael Jordan can become a Wizard…If Roger Clemens can become a Yankee…If Brett Favre can become a Viking…

Shelve his unsold jerseys. Box his authenticated plaques, mint-collector coins, replica figurines, plush dolls, Lego figurines. Tear down the over-sized posters hung around the stadium. Cancel the bobble heads.

It truly is an end-of-an-era, as reporters have noted, not just for the loss of Verlander but for the Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1992. During his reign, Ilitch pounded dollar after dollar, some good, some good after bad. In the last decade, he opened his purse to the tune of $147,000,000 for players salaries on average each year, 5th in the league even though the city of Detroit remains 23rd in population, 17th in median income. Ilitch envisioned building a Tigers superteam. To hell with Moneyball metrics. To hell with Detroit as second class to New York, to LA, to Boston. Curse Chicago, our ever-classy cousin. Who’s Zoomin Who? Ilitch, our Little Caesar, our In-Denial-Chief, spent and spent some more, poaching other teams’ superstars, drinking their milkshakes, picking off stars: Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton.

Ilitch built a decade-long contender after longer-than-a-decade span of futility that was “not just bad” but “hopeless.” Under Ilitch’s largesse, the Tigers made the playoffs five times in nine years, putting together a team-record four-in-a-row streak, fighting to the World Series twice (in 2006 and 2012.) It was not so much an allegory but a wish fulfilled for the city’s renewal, for the Spirit of Detroit, profligacy in the face of pragmatism. And just so, Ilitch made his Red Wings champions again and again until, in direct reaction to Detroit’s dominance, the NHL tightened the screws on its salary cap for the sake of team parity. And Ilitch made the Tigers champions again, almost.

Ilitch passed just seven months ago. Now his son Chris Ilitch controls the team. Following the Verlander trade, Ilitch the Younger, along with General Manager Al Avila, sent a letter almost immediately to season-ticket holders. Reassuring skeptical fans of their latest firesale (Avila had also traded his son Alex, JD Martinez, Justin Wilson and Justin Upton before the deadline.) The higher-ups promised “transitioning into a new era,” so unlike Chris’s father, but in fashion with the rest of the league’s latest “draft-and-develop” vogue, an investment in the “analytics department, “data-driven” solutions, “sustainable success,” and (unlike Mike’s high-priced acquisitions) “home-grown” talent, “player development”, a boost in scouting and instruction and a brand new super sexy “decision-support program” (read: computer system) for analytics named Caesar. They are positioned to cut $93 million from payroll in 2018.

And he still looks back fondly, Verlander tells his new Houston camera pool. But he dons a new lid for the first time since he made the majors. And of course, of his new friends, Verlander raves, “the fans are unbelievable.”

Now, another band of teammates sings his praises calling their newest pitcher “just old-school,” a “competitor,” “huge,” with “tremendous stuff.” Keuchel added, “excitement is an understatement.” Now it is Houston papers recounting stories Detroiters have heard time and again. The education in Verlander has begun. They review his Rookie-of-the-Year, Cy Young, Pitcher’s Triple Double and MVP. They discuss the glum intensity of his pre-start ritual: tramping back-and-forth through the clubhouse, “headphones over his ears, eyes glaring ahead, his focus so tuned that no one dared disturb him until he reached his locker.” They write of his uncanny ability to throw faster as his starts creep into the late innings. Now it’s Houston chroniclers waxing over how the spaghetti-armed Virginia kid pitched 80mph at age 13. Houston will learn that Nolan Ryan is his idol. Now it is Houston papers recounting his admirably goofy competitiveness: how, at Old Dominion, still lanky as ever, he fixated on “outdo[ing] teammates in running drills, leg presses and long toss,” only to “speed-walk to cars so he could claim the passenger’s seat.”  Verlander’s mother will again share the family lore. “We had to rein him in a little bit, even at the age of 8,” will again recall Kathy Verlander. “He wanted to be the first to finish his dinner. He wanted to play the adult rules when we played putt-putt. And still to this day, you play a game of Monopoly in this house, you’re taking your life in your own hands.”

From one restoration tale to another, from the saga of the city of Detroit’s rebuilding, now there is a new storyline developing for Verlander to take part. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield writes, “given the unfathomable damage Hurricane Harvey has caused in Houston, the Astros will become America’s Team as they go for their first World Series title, a rallying cry for the city and symbol of hope.” Astros fans will write of his Win for Warriors Foundation.

And they will read of Upton’s benign antics. They will learn of the small charms of Verlander’s tiny hometown, Goochland, VA. Of his mammoth car collection, his exacting Starbucks order: “a white mocha nonfat with no whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso.” Of his normcore aspirations with Upton, their dogs Riley and Harley. That, despite his tens of millions of dollars, he still enjoys the Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden. That, on nights before his starts, he feasts on Taco Bell: “three crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza.” But, as so many Detroiters know, “hold the tomatoes.”

For us Detroiters, for 13 years (a Bar-Mitzvah’s-worth!,) through stubble thick and thin, Verlander has been our brother-in-arm. He was no free agent, but our first-round draft pick after the historical embarrassment of 2003. He was our Rookie-of-the-Year, our ace, our all-star, strikeout king, no-hitter, no-hitter, Pitching Triple Crown, unanimous Cy Young, MVP, golden boy, slinger, scruffy diamond on our diamond’s rough, our main man on the cover of Sports Illustrated mowing ’em down for all the league to see. And just as his career looked to be down and done…a reinvention, he remade himself back into a Cy Young contender. Now, we have no more “Must See JV” to schedule around, but we can look forward to his donning the Old English D at Cooperstown. For he made us prouder. And now, for a time, quite sad.

Deep Thoughts by J. Comey (II)

“‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing,’ [he said. But] I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.'”

                                – James Comey, Jr.

The Art of the -Gate

A different version of this article appeared in The New Republic on May 16th.

And so it seems we do have Dick Nixon to kick around some more.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, Jr., once again and in force, the shade with the five-o-clock shadow returned to haunt the political stage. “It’s going to be Trumpgate, it’s going to be Comeygate, it’s going to be FBI-gate, it’s going to be something-gate,” the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward crowed the next day. “It’s going to be…it’s going to be…it’s going to be,” the one-time-kid-reporter on the Nixon beat, Woodward, chanted like a curse and a promise. Still others have recommended Kremlingate and Flynngate.

Countless times since he entered the Republican presidential primary in 2015, Trump has been likened to Richard Nixon. Once again, Nixon’s ghost appears as the measure for presidential connivance, corruption and cover-up. The clumsiness and arrogance. The brazenness and myopic desperation. The crime and the cover-up. Old familiar faces have returned to the media scene: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, David Gergen, John Dean, Ed Cox, Roger Stone, Pat Buchanan. And so too the Nixon biographers: Garry Wills, Evan Thomas, Kevin Mattson, Rick Perlstein, Douglas Brinkley and, most recently, John Farrell. They have all returned center stage to assess whether Trump’s misconduct qualifies as Nixonian.

Once again the nation waits to see if partisan loyalty will hold or if Republicans will turn on their long-embattled president. Once again, through firing and recusal, the layers of the federal government peel back as deputies and their deputies—the Rosensteins and Rukelshauses—become household names. Once again murmurs of grand-jury subpoenas grow louder. Trump’s firing of Comey, and his subsequent threatening tweet implying he secretly recorded their conversations, has redounded on the president’s head with a flood of new Nixonian comparison and invective. (In response to this latest turn, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace coined a new epithet: Tapegate.)

But for all of the trafficking in Nixonian allusion, does Trump’s behavior measure up—or rather, down—to Nixon’s? Is Trump due for impeachment or on the brink of resigning? That is, are we witnessing a new Watergate, the undoing of another American president? Is it now or has it ever been a -gate? Bestowing the –gate label suggests a story that we are not quite sure we are ready to write. For the Nixonian suffix implies a prediction that this scandal will be Trump’s exposure and ruin. A Watergate comparison is a cudgel, a way of cutting a leader like Trump down to size, to forecast his demise. It is, by the light of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, to outline the finite shape of the president’s seemingly boundless misrule by declaring that he is a threat as great as Nixon, and just as fallible.

***

Political scientists have calculated that between 1972 and 2008, 87 presidential scandals occurred or one every five months: Benghazi, the targeting of Tea-Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service, yellow cake in Niger, torture in Abu Ghraib, the outing of Valerie Plame, Swift-boating, the Lewinsky Affair, Whitewater, Willie Horton, Iran-Contra, Billy Carter and Bert Lance, the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre, phony claims of shelling in the Gulf of Tonkin, wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bay of Pigs, the trumped-up Soviet missile gap, vote-stuffing in Chicago, court-packing in the Supreme, to name a few. And yet Watergate has overshadowed passing comparisons to this waste-basketful of presidential transgressions. No other presidential indiscretion has lived up to (or down to) Nixon’s particularly pungent political violations of his office’s oath. No other president has been forced to resign. So that when presidential scandal hits, the comparisons are inevitably to Nixon, to Nixon and, when in doubt, to Nixon.

To appreciate the omnipresence of Nixon’s crimes and resignation in the American political imagination, let us review the label of his misdeed “Watergate” and what linguists call its semantic broadening. Semantic broadening occurs when a word takes on additional meanings, most often toward the more generic or to an entity with an analogous trait. For example, the word “mouse,” a specific type of rodent, came also to refer to rodents more generically, to a timid person, to the handheld device for remotely controlling a computer’s cursor and now to the definitely un-rodent-like trackpad on a laptop.

Just so, the word “Watergate” has broadened in meaning. “Watergate” began as the name of a popular office and residential complex for, mainly, politicos, just off the Potomac River in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC, next to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was named for the nearby, large water gate between the Potomac and the Ohio and Chesapeake canals. Then, in 1972, “Watergate” became a stand-in for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the office complex. The scene-of-the-crime became the name of the crime. However within a year, “Watergate” had also become shorthand for the cover-up of that burglary, for the scandal and whoop-la surrounding the burglary and cover-up, then broadening to include Nixon’s entire portfolio of crimes and dirty-trickery, then a reference to an entire category of political crime and cover-up, then to a category of any crime and cover-up especially if it entailed corruption, covert surveillance, a series of interlocking misdeeds and a media circus.

This multi-definitional malleability would prove not a limitation but an asset for the staying-power and for the seemingly endless associative reinvention and reinvigoration of “Watergate”. (Just so its progenitor, as the New York Times described in its 1994 Nixon obituary: “again and again, Mr. Nixon reinvented himself-so much so that people talked and wrote about ‘the new Nixon’ and ‘the new, new Nixon.’”)

As one senior editor for the Oxford English Dictionary wrote, “Watergate…reshaped the language of scandal and controversy,” itself. For “-gate,” the verbal ending of Nixon’s high crime, became the standard label, not quite the synonym but the suffix to denote scandal. There was Envelopegate at the Oscars, Golden-Showergate in the 35-page dossier, E-mailgate in the Hillary Clinton campaign, Pizzagate in the minds of the alt-right, Gamergate in the culture of video games, Nannygate in Canada, Deflategate, Bountygate and Spygate in the NFL, Sonicsgate in the NBA, Bridgegate in New Jersey, Nipplegate at the Super Bowl, Rathergate at CBS, Bibigate in Israel and Troopergate in Arkansas, New York and Alaska, to name a few. Aiding its rise to colloquiality, the definitive and self-contained “–gate” bore none of the spelling and pronunciation ambiguities of far trickier endings like “–iary” or “–ious” or “ence.” After all, is it “-ible” or “-able” (or “eable”)? “-ize” or “-ise”? Like “-bot” or “-dom,” “-gate” offers an easy-to-add extension, a strong final stroke of clear linguistic resolution.

“It is as if a scandal without an agreed-upon label lacks the identity that turns a story into history,” hypothesized the former Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist and maestro of –gate-keeping William Safire. For a ritual of –gate sanctioning developed, of judging whether a scandal was –gate-worthy. This –gate’ing game lifted up “Watergate” as the standard while, oftentimes, diminishing Nixon’s misdeeds through association to far less weighty even silly affairs. As early as April 1979 Safire worried, “the excessive use of this suffix [wa]s becoming a linguistic gategate.”

A similar phenomenon played out in Italy with the suffix –opoli, beginning in 1992 when a bribe (tangent) scandal across Italy between politicians and businessmen became known as Tangentopoli. –Opoli (traditionally the suffix of a city like “-ville” or “-burg”) became a suffix, like –gate, attached to various affairs to denote scandal. And yet, even in Italy, Calciopoli—the name for a 2006 football scandal involving top clubs and payouts to crooked referees—goes often by the name Calciogate.

Moreover, crucial to a “Watergate” scandal is the suggestion that, as with Nixon’s, the conspiracy will not hold, truth outs, and it proves to be the assailant’s undoing. For “Watergate” has also become synonymous with the gotcha and the smoking gun, the self-inflicting incompetency of a third-rate burglary and the bumbling hubris of power corrupted. Such is the morality tale embedded in the “Watergate” mythos. It is the story of a (mis-)step too far, the last straw and the cascade of repercussions. To affix the label of “Watergate” to a crime is to project, not always accurately, the ultimate ruination (and public humiliation) of the criminal. As Dean asserted in 1973, “the truth always emerges.” Just so, in 1994, liberal commentators blasted Safire for “Watergating” Clinton over his shady Whitewater real estate deal: referring to the episode as “Whitewatergate,” comparing it to Nixon’s “cover-ups,” “stonewalling” and “conspiracies” and thereby, specifically, for prematurely predicting Clinton’s demise.

In this way, Nixon, the ringleader of the original Watergate scandal, has become the measure of iniquity gone too far. He is the bar to judge political malfeasance, the intolerableness of the illegality, the length of transgression that stretches presidential prerogative a rung too many so as to demand resignation. When political and especially presidential misconduct is committed, the corpse of Nixon’s crimes are, once again, exhumed. They are, once again, brought to life for the reviewing stand (flanked by the patron inquisitors Woodward and Bernstein) so that we may compare and contrast and compare. And if Reagan’s or Clinton’s or W.’s or Trump’s misdeeds match Nixon’s then, it is concluded, Reagan or Clinton or W. or Trump, like Nixon, deserves an ousting.

Just so in August 1998 Woodward and Bernstein appeared on Meet the Press to assert categorically to host Tim Russert that Clinton’s Lewinsky affair (“Zippergate”) was, as Woodward judged, “not something of [Watergate’s] magnitude” and, as a “chief accuser,” Lewinsky was no Dean. Bernstein added, “this is about the private consensual sexual life of the President. Watergate…was about a vast and pervasive abuse of power.” By contrast, in 2004 Dean wrote a book judging President George W. Bush’s term Worse than Watergate, painting the White House as a secretive, insular cabal of lying liars with Vice President Dick Cheney, once the deputy to then-vice-president Ford, as the bridge between venal regimes.

This year the Trump-Nixon comparisons have flowed steadily. Farrell’s recently published and highly praised biography, Richard Nixon: The Life, was no doubt largely planned and researched far before Trump dipped his toe into the political-press pool. Farrell’s account was meant to be a sympathetic if quite critical portrait. But instead, asked over and over for presidential comparisons on his press tour, Farrell has been added to the list as the latest and one of the foremost Nixon-Trump analogists. As the USA Today headlined its review of Farrell’s 752-page account of Nixon’s life: “New Bio: Why Richard Nixon Matters in the Trump Era.”

***

Key are the ever-lauded Woodward and Bernstein, themselves. That is, inherent in a Watergate tale is a pivotal, persistent and heroic press. The oft-commemorated protagonists of the Watergate saga are not the Republican Congressmen who broke party-lines to threaten impeachment, not the three Congressional investigatory committees, not the countless and faceless staffers who toiled untold hours for those committees and not the FBI and its agents whom Nixon was so intent to stop. The central protagonists are not remembered as the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus whose resignations during the Saturday Night Massacre catalyzed the investigation, not Cox’s replacement Leon Jaworski and his team of lawyers who carried out the prosecution, not U.S. District Judge John Sirica and his 12 grand jury members who voted unanimously to force Nixon to hand over nine of his secret tape recordings, not the countless “leakers” (aside from Deep Throat) who filled newspaper columns with insider information nor Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard, who originally found the duct tape left by the burglars on the door lock of the Democrats’ office.

To a lesser extent, whistleblowers like Deep Throat and Dean have continued to be hailed in the Watergate story for their collaborating. To his great credit, number two on Bernstein’s list of journalistic suggestions at the WHC dinner was the importance of sources: “to listen and empathize with…[,] not objectify simply as the means to get a story.” For the felling of a conspiracy on the scale of a Watergate does, after all, take a village.

And yet, in the popular memory of Watergate, journalists (ya know, those guys Redford and Hoffman played) remain the heroic figures, the rag-tag duo of Davids who felled the Goliathian Nixon administration. All the President’s Men was not The Wire or Norma Rae or Selma celebrating police detectives or union workers or a social movement. It was not celebrating the superhero-stylings of a secret agent like 24 and certainly not reifying the political force of moral suasion like The West Wing. To traffic in the language of Watergate is to place implicitly one’s hopes in a fierce free press as the last, lead detective and prosecutor. –Gate’ing has become a rallying cry for robust reportage.

Even before what’s been called Trump’s Tuesday Night Massacre, parallels were being drawn. It was hard to miss the allusion amidst the hallelujahs to the first amendment at the latest White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Who filled the president’s absence as the keynote or at least most notable guests but the original Watergate sleuths of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein. Seated on opposite flanks of the podium, as their mutual distaste seems never to abate, they were the stars of the night in the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom.

As a member of the Nixon generation, Bernstein gave a list of instructions for the next generation of journalists, the Trump generation, on how to (un)cover the next Watergate. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said in his speech, clearly identifying where he believed the bones were buried and by whom. “And,” he added, “when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.” In turn, Woodward extolled the lesson that a reporter must “not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Theirs was a call-to-arms to the media, providing a path for writing a new Watergate. It was a night with one looming lesson. To fell another president, to earn an entry in the pantheon of presidential scandal, to get another -gate, the press would have to hold the shining light. Bernstein finished with advice he learned all those years ago at the Washington Post, not on how to do top-notch reporting, but, specifically, on how to cover a conspiracy, the next Watergate: “Yes, follow the money but follow, also, the lies.”

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On Syria and Confusion…

This essay was first posted on Intellectual Takeout :

We were warned. What would happen? Who could we trust?

In the era of fake news, “alternative facts,” insult, and innuendo, when the time came…who was to be believed? In the fog of war–even of limited war and tactical skirmishes–the truth splinters into half-truths, conflicting conclusions, and incomplete accounts.

On Tuesday, April 11,2017, the Washington bureau of the Associated Press (AP) published a report, headlined “Official: Russia knew Syrian Chemical Attack Was Coming.” According to the AP’s source, a “senior US official,” the Russian government had advance warning that Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad would conduct a sarin attack against his own people. Subsequently, a Russian-made fighter jet “bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons.” Just before the second strike, a Russian surveillance drone buzzed over those rushing to the hospital to treat themselves and their loved ones. This, according to the US official, was the smoking gun because the Russian drone could only have reached the scene of the WMD crime with advance warning. Russian collusion in a chemical weapons attack, the senior US official alleged? Complicity? A game-changer?

One caveat the AP buried in the second of its three-claused opening sentence: the aforementioned senior US official “has no proof of Moscow’s involvement.”

Huh? What does that even mean? What then is this article reporting? Five paragraphs later, the AP wrote that “another U.S. official cautioned that no final American determination has been made that Russia knew ahead of time that chemical weapons would be used.” Furthermore, it wasn’t “clear who was flying the jet that bombed the hospital, because the Syrians also fly Russian-made aircraft.” Are we to trust the lone American, “senior” official, speaking anonymously to the Associated Press? Or his equally anonymous colleague? The AP has certainly built up journalistic capital to spare over the years. And yet the news giant sprinkled a seemingly straight-forward piece of breaking news with enough caveats and quote marks to wriggle out from any future twists and turns that might contradict its claims.

odonnellwagdog

Who is to be believed?

Pulling from the fringes are conspiracy theories concocted by the Right and the Left. From the alt-right, it has come to be expected. They mastered the art of conspiracy-mongering throughout the 2016 presidential election–from Hillary Clinton’s health to Sandy Hook denial to the child molestation charges of #pizzagate. They helped crown a president who made his name off the baseless and the Birthering. And let’s not forget Swift Boats and Vince Foster. And now the alt-right has spun a moribund web of theories explaining the “#SyriaHoax,” Infowar’s abstraction centers on the inimical plotting of George Soros, the international aid organization, the White Helmets, and al-Qaeda. In a fit of creativity, one of the alt-right’s loudest voices, Mike Cernovich, tweeted: “Did [Sen. John] McCain give ‘moderate rebels’ (ISIS) in Syria poison gas and Hollywood style film equipment?”

Not to be outdone in the Age of Alternative Facts, the Left has jumped into the ring with their own greatest hits. On MSNBC, late-night host Lawrence O’Donnell proffered the most popular falsely flagged hypothetical. “It’s perfect,” O’Donnell preened, “it’s perfect.” What if it was not Assad but Putin who “masterminded the last week in Syria?” What if Putin recommended that Assad launch a “small” chemical weapons attack:

  • so that the Middle East dictator would draw international attention to his civil war,
  • so that Trump would catch the news on television,
  • so that the president would be outraged,
  • so that he would lob a round of Tomahawk missiles on Syria without causing too much damage,
  • so that the American press would pivot their focus head-on to the Syrian affair,
  • so that the media would stop covering the ever-increasingly shady connections between the Trump White House and the Kremlin,
  • and they would see Trump defying Putin by attacking the Russian leader’s ally,
  • so that Trump would no longer be accused of being a Putin crony.

Thus, O’Donnell righteously mused, Putin may have “conspired to kill people as a way of helping the image of the president of the United States.” The MSNBC anchor concluded his stream of implication with the irrefutably vague grandiosity of a conspiratorial flourish: “you won’t hear…proof that what I’ve just outlined is impossible…because with Donald Trump, anything is possible.” The newsish segment cruised along with a luxurious buoyancy not weighed by evidence. AND don’t forget, one of the night’s pundit-guests added, now Steve Bannon can wage his “war against the brown people.”

Far from extolling the turn of events, projecting a mastery of the situation, crowing at their allegedly successful gambit—or adding clarity—the Russians, Iranians and Syrians have replied to the American accusations and airstrikes with their own iffy explanations and cover-ups. They claim that Al-qaeda and/or the anti-Assad rebels secretly stockpiled the nerve agents which were dispersed only after innocent Syrian airstrikes unknowingly targeted the rebel’s chemical-filled warehouse.

As the head spins with baseless accusation, as even the AP has joined into broad conclusions in shallow waters, as the President of the United States ties up countless political resources to prove or disprove his empty accusations against our previous president that he tweeted out as a lark, one solution becomes clear: we must wait.

With patience and with a wary vigilance we must methodically gather the snippets of evidence. We must fight the temptation of the hasty 24-hour news answer. We cannot just rest on an edition of the AP or The New York Times or The Washington Post. We must gather. For we are all journalists now.

And to our questions, in the meantime, to more half-founded accusations, let us remember and repeat what the Cuban scribe Osvaldo Farres once famously wrote, “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.

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Letter to the Editor, New York Times: On “What Was Lenin Thinking?”

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Dear Editor,

In Tariq Ali’s April 3, 2017 editorial in the New York Times, Mr. Ali wove together a good story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Russian ascent to power. Yet Ali’s nearly hagiographic essay is not even really about Leninism but a simplified take on Marxism. Ali’s Leninism (Marxism) reads as a singular, coherent idea whose mission was to act as a foil or alternative to Western capitalism and Russian monarchism.

Ali fails to grapple with the central nexus: Lenin’s innovative idea of a “vanguard,” the point where Lenin’s politics and Marx’s ideology clashed. For Marx left his followers without an explanation for how the rebellious proletariat (working classes) could organize their Socialist/Communist revolt and how they could sleninportrait2ubsequently rule. Lenin’s key innovation was that the “vanguard,” an elite cabal of ideological warrior-thinker-administrators, would serve as the head of the proletariat giant in another Russian Revolution. [As a side note, this kind of revolutionary rule most likely is Steve Bannon’s fantasy when he evangelizes over Leninism.]

With the idea of the “vanguard” of Red rulers, Marxism became Marxism-Leninism with all of its attendant contradictions: the “dictatorship of the people,” the many led by the few, the corrupt and bureaucratic state of apparatchiks, the Party that developed to administer the “vanguard’s” ideas for/over the masses.

Without understanding Lenin’s innovation, historicizing his tortured sense of betrayal by European Marxists who had chosen country over communism during the First World War, Lenin’s often messianic Russian nationalism, his compromises, Ali misses the central quandary: did the Soviet Union abandon Leninism or was it a product of Leninism in real life? Ali crafts an easy morality tale as he vaguely suggests the former while never grappling with the possible consequences of the latter interpretation.

Sincerely,

Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD

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