Archive for category Public Affairs
How did we get here?
Posted by John Dickson in Public Affairs, Public History on July 4, 2020
Last weekend, Princeton University announced they were dropping the name Woodrow Wilson from its school of international affairs and public policy and from one of its colleges.
The President of the University, Christopher L. Eisgruber, noted in his announcement that Wilson displayed a racism that “was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
My initial reaction was skeptical. Removal of the symbols of the Confederacy – statues and flag – was long overdue. These commemorated people and a breakaway republic that fought against the United States in order to preserve slavery. Monuments and building names of other prominent Americans without this clear-cut past, like Wilson, have come under closer scrutiny as well. New York Times columnist Brett Stephens tried to distinguish between historical figures who should not be celebrated from those who had flaws, like all human beings. He drew his line based on whether or not people worked to “establish a more perfect union,” as outlined in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.
The case of Woodrow Wilson seemed less straightforward: professor of political economy, President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey and two-term President with a progressive and internationalist legacy.
History, though, is written in the present, for the present. It answers the question – how did we get here? The Wilson of the present is not the man who crafted fourteen principles on which to shape a treaty to end the first world war, not the man whose name is attached to an American foreign policy tradition of globalism and moralism.
Eisgruber calls the current moment in American race relations, and, more broadly, in American society, “a searing present.” So, we should ask how did this moment become searing? A resurgence of racism, apologized by and condoned from the top. On the same day that Princeton announced its decision, the President of the United States posted a video on his Twitter feed of one Florida supporter shouting “Where’s your white hood?” and another calling back “white power.” It is, therefore, not surprising perhaps that a few days later Trump criticized the Princeton decision to remove the Wilson name.
So, what was Wilson’s legacy on the road to the searing present? Before he was President, Wilson wrote in his five-volume History of the American People that ”white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation […] until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan.”
It was his decisions while President, though, that helped steer the country to where are now. Wilson could have left alone a racially integrated civil service, but he did not. The civil service had officially been integrated since immediately after the Civil War, but Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal departments shortly after getting sworn in, emphasizing “I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments.” He cut short a meeting with Black leaders who came to protest these policies. It took 35 years before Harry Truman would issue an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the federal service.
Less significant except for its high symbolism, Wilson decided to invite D.W. Griffith to the White House to screen his pro-Ku Klux Klan film, Birth of a Nation, the first film of any kind to be shown in the Presidential mansion. The film used Wilson’s quote on the “great Ku Klux Klan” as one of its intertitles. Protests and riots ensued, but Wilson claimed innocence in awareness of the film’s intent.
History is not supposed to be counterfactual, but it is not hard to imagine a different course of Jim Crow history in the 20th century had Wilson pursued progressive reforms on civil rights as vigorously as he did with policies as varied as child labor, woman suffrage (albeit belatedly,) national banking and income tax.
While history helps us answer how we got here, it also should help guide us towards where we want to be, and surely that is far away from this searing present. Princeton’s decision is almost an easy one, with tougher choices ahead on policies to address the racism that Black citizens confront on a daily basis.
This first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle, July 3, 2020.
100 Days…. of Opposition
Posted by John Dickson in History ahead, History in our surroundings, Personal memory, Public Affairs on April 28, 2017
Tired of the 100-day review of Donald Trump’s Presidency? You should be, with one exception. The drama, ambition and accomplishment in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency lie not in his record, but in the resistance to this President.
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt pushed through major legislation in his first 100 days in office, newly elected Presidents have had their early record measured against the same 100-day standard. Donald Trump has called this threshold “ridiculous” and “artificial,” which would probably be an accurate statement except for the fact that he used the same 100-day timetable during his campaign to lay out an action plan portraying his ability to achieve a plan as bold and far-reaching as FDR accomplished.
The country was in a very different place in 1933, well into its third year of economic crisis, following the stock market crash in October 1929. Unemployment levels moved from 4 million people in 1930 to 15 million by the time Roosevelt took office. Thousands of banks had failed and industrial production had fallen by half. The crisis demanded action, and demanded it on a fast timetable.
Roosevelt delivered in a way that re-shaped the nature of how Americans view government, addressing through emergency legislation and executive action all aspects of relief, recovery and reform needed to reverse the direction of the economy. It was the nature of the crisis that dictated the unprecedented nature of FDR’s first 100 days.
That’s why this 100-day standard makes little sense. Trump, despite his rhetoric indicating he inherited a mess, actually took over the reins of an economy in recovery, certainly better than the one his predecessor inherited in 2009.
What has been more akin to FDR’s dramatic first 100 days in 2017 has been the unprecedented nature of the opposition to Trump.
First, there are the protests. They started before Trump took the oath of office and then swelled in the first 24 hours of his Presidency. There were other demonstrations greeting newly inaugurated Presidents, from the 5000 women who marched before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration demanding the right to vote, to the anti-war protesters at both Nixon inaugurals and the thousands who marched to express their opposition to the election of George W. Bush in 2001.
What was different this time was the size of the demonstrations, not only in Washington DC, but around the nation and in cities in other countries. Everyone but Trump and his inner circle acknowledge that the women’s march on the day after the inauguration surpassed the crowd attending his inauguration. Another difference is that the protests continue, against Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S., to build a wall on the southern border, to repeal health care, to refuse to release his taxes, to disregard the science of climate change.
Second, despite the control of both the executive and legislative branch by Trump’s party, the opposition has been surprisingly successful in derailing the pledges that the Republicans ran on, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Funding for the border wall is a non-starter, tax reform has been reduced to a public relations one-page set of principles, and there’s no sign of a massive infrastructure program. Republican party unity did help ensure that all of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet, except for the two who withdrew, were able to pass through the Senate, which also confirmed his nominee for the Supreme Court position, left vacant for over a year when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s selection.
A third unprecedented focus of the opposition has been the speed with which courts have responded to requests to halt President Trump’s executive orders. Both of Trump’s executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. have been thrown out, as has his administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities refusing to deputize their local police forces as deportation officers. One organization – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW – has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conflicts of interests violate the Constitution and another, American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a second such suit.
Fourth, the reaction to Trump from beyond the borders has been an unprecedented rejection of what he is trying to impose here and abroad. Not only do people outside the U.S. in the numbers of millions continue to join the protests, but voters in the Netherlands rejected the candidate who looked like Trump, and French voters will likely follow suit, worried about what they are seeing on this side of the Atlantic. Far from acting as a global superpower, the U.S. is on the receiving end of lectures from world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel on Russia, Justin Trudeau on trade and Xi Jinping on North Korea, all viewing perhaps Trump’s self-proclaimed penchant for unpredictability and flexibility as euphemisms for incompetence and lack of strategy.
Fifth, despite obstacles from the White House and certain Republicans, investigations within the Department of Justice and Congress were launched to look into the role played by the Russian government in helping Donald Trump get elected. The implications for American democracy of any connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in that effort necessitates a patient and thorough investigation and compilation of the facts.
Finally, a new, invigorated civic and political activism has sprung up to unprecedented levels. Across the country, citizens are mobilizing to make their voices heard through town hall meetings where members of Congress are seeing attendance rise tenfold since January 20. The volume of phone calls to Congress are setting records, reaching 1.5 million calls to the Senate alone. Ad hoc groups have formed to partner voting districts across the red-blue political divide, to address redistricting that favors Republican candidates, to refuse to shop at businesses owned by or supporting the President and his family, to join voter registration drives.
When FDR set the standard for 100 days of accomplishment by an incoming President, he did so in the face of an acute crisis. The crisis facing the country now is not any external mess, but is all that the new President stands for. Addressing that crisis through a sustained opposition has been the real story of the first 100 days.
This article originally appeared in History News Network and The Berkshire Eagle.
Correcting the first draft of history – Obama’s Red Line
Posted by John Dickson in International, Public Affairs on January 30, 2017
The great undoing has started. President Obama’s most defining achievements — from healthcare reform and economic recovery to the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — divided the country to the extent that our new President and Congress are hell bent on undoing anything that might be considered an enduring legacy.
Of the many arenas for expected change, perhaps the most consequential will be the departure from Obama’s approach to advancing and protecting U.S. interests in the world. Obama consistently prioritized diplomacy. His two major international accomplishments came through diplomacy: securing an agreement to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the international climate change agreement. Unfortunately, both are high on the list of the great undoing of the Trump administration, regardless of the possible costs.
Donald Trump and his team cite a presumed loss of international prestige and influence around the world as a result of Obama’s reluctance to use military force without exhausting diplomatic solutions. As their case in point, they have advanced a narrative about the no-good options case in a prolonged Syrian civil war. Such a narrative has taken on a conventional wisdom that ignores the events that actually transpired.
The narrative has its own short-hand nomenclature: the red line. In Syria, Obama laid down a “red line” in August 2012 that, once crossed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad, would draw the U.S. into military engagement in Syria. Obama’s exact words were “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” referring to a decision on military involvement in Syria.
Within a year, video footage out of Syria began to seep out of Syria forcing such a “change of calculus.” An August 21, 2013 attack against a suburb of Assad’s own capital revealed use of chemical weapons, and UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate. Obama began preparing the groundwork for a military response, first by consulting with allies and then exploring options of limited strikes to cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. Planners assessed the risks of military strikes against caches of chemical weapons. While the U.S. had a stated policy of regime change in Syria, Obama focused his planning for military option on one achievable goal – the removal of chemical weapons.
A timeline of events over the next few weeks reveals how quickly events on the ground shifted to disrupt Obama’s plans.
On August 29, the British Parliament voted against Prime Minister Cameron’s motion condemning Assad for the attack, the first step for British participation in military intervention. Weighing heavily on that vote was the still fresh memory of the consequences of British involvement in the Iraq war.
Faced with the loss of his closest ally, Obama made two announcements two days later. First was his decision to “take military action against Syrian regime targets.” The second was more consequential. He also decided to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”
At the time, Obama sounded confident that he would be able to convince Congress on the appropriateness of military action, despite his awareness of the public’s weariness with war after Iraq and Afghanistan.
After just one week, it had become clear that Congress would not back Obama’s request to use military force in Syria. Public opinion polls also opposed U.S intervention, and Obama was running into the same brick wall that a Republican Congress imposed on any proposals emanating from the White House. On September 8, five Republican Senators announced their opposition and a sixth, Lindsey Graham, said “It’d be great if the Russians could convince Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. That’d be a terrific outcome.”
Faced with a near certain defeat in Congress, Obama’s room to maneuver was limited. In what has been portrayed as an off-the-cuff remark, Secretary of State John Kerry opened up a potential avenue to achieve the same outcome as a military strike of eliminating the chemical weapons that Assad could use on his own people. In response to a reporter’s question on September 9, Kerry said Assad could avert military action by the U.S. if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” The Russians moved quickly to propose just such an outcome. Obama responded tentatively, holding out the use of military action if such a plan was merely cause for delay.
The next day, Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote to allow for diplomacy to play out the diplomacy set in motion by Kerry’s remarks.
After an intense, accelerated negotiations, Kerry and his Russian counterpart announced on September 14 the framework of an agreement that would start a process to remove the chemical weapons in Syria under the supervision of the international community.
Less than a year later, on June 23, 2014, the UN certified that the last of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed. That included over 1300 metric tons at over 45 different sites in Syria. The size alone of that stockpile makes it hard to conceive that military intervention would have had the same outcome.
Obama’s detractors, especially those in Congress who worked to thwart approval of military engagement in Syria in September 2013, suffer from amnesia. Not content with this erroneous story line, some have connected the red line statement to the continued suffering in Syria, to the military involvement of Russia to bolster Assad, to a mass migration to escape what looks to be genocide in Aleppo and Syria’s other war-torn regions. This is misplaced; Assad and Putin hold full responsibility for those crimes against humanity.
The red line narrative that ought to be taking hold as the nation prepares for the transfer of power reveals a leader who laid out a concrete goal and achieved it, through a diplomacy that involved the UN, friends and allies, and even adversaries. We will come to appreciate such strategic deliberation. My thread of hope is that we as a nation do not pay too high a price for the untethered, transactional bullying that lies ahead.
This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network.
The Wall Trump Should Build
Posted by John Dickson in Berkshires, Personal memory, Public Affairs, Public History on January 10, 2017
Recently, I received in the mail a notice from the city of Pittsfield that, as a member of the Pittsfield Historical Commission, I had to complete my annual review of conflict of interest rules and laws.
Dropping off the signed form at the city clerk’s office gave me pause: why would I, a volunteer member on a small municipal commission, be subject to conflict of interest rules and regulations, but not the President of the United States?
On the one hand, it’s discouraging that it’s even necessary to remind people that service such as mine is not to enrich oneself, but to fulfill objectives on behalf of a larger community. As a public servant for almost 40 years, I have had to abide by the many conflict of interest rules and laws, such as filling out financial disclosure forms and refusing gifts over $50 from any foreign entity.
On the other hand, though, I do understand the need for promoting the public’s trust and confidence in the institutions that serve them and in the people who run those institutions. The motivations in making decisions should be based on the merits of the issue at hand, weighing the benefits and costs to the greater public. We are, after all, human and susceptible to temptation, so such rules and laws are needed to draw the lines clearly for public servants. On more than one occasion over the course of my career, I had cause to refer to the Office of Government Ethics to get a ruling on situations that arose within our work.
I also had good role models. Our Ambassador to Canada, and former Governor of Massachusetts, the late Paul Cellucci, beamed when he showed off the high-end driver he received from the professional golfer Vijay Singh, but he also quickly went to his checkbook to reimburse the cost of the club. Singh earned his visa renewal at the Embassy on his own merit, not on the gift of a golf club.
Here in Pittsfield, it does not take much research to uncover past dealings that jar our 2016 sensibilities regarding strict separation of business dealings with public service. In the early 1800s, the first Berkshire County mill operators appealed to their Congressman in Washington, Henry Shaw, to support a tariff to raise the price of the imported goods, and help their products compete. A supporter of Henry Clay’s “American System” that included a tariff on imports, Shaw voted for its passage in 1824. The next year, Shaw (who happened to be Josh Billings’ father) took full advantage of the tariff he helped pass when he led a group of investors to buy land south of Pontoosuc Lake and build a woolen mill, the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill. The national politician Henry Clay returned the favor to Shaw whom he visited on a trip to the Berkshires that, naturally, included a tour of his mill.
Thirty years later, another politician, Thomas Allen, the grandson of the Congregational minister who helped recruit soldiers during the Revolutionary War, moved to Missouri where he made a fortune as an early railroad builder, becoming President of the Pacific Railroad in 1850. The same year, he won election as a state senator and used that position to secure land grants from the state legislature for his railroad. Allen kept his ties to Pittsfield, and used some of his fortune from the railroad business to make the initial large donation to establish the Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in 1876.
It would have been right for citizens to question whether the tariff that Shaw voted for was in the country’s best interests or Shaw’s? Likewise, was Allen serving the people of Missouri in promoting the construction of railroads or his own business interests? Examples like these led to laws enacted as early as the Civil War that made it a crime “for Members of Congress and Officers of the Government of the United States from Taking Considerations for Procuring Contracts, Office or Place from the United States.” Civil service reform followed in 1883 and, the law that set up the Office of Government Ethics was passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate when public confidence in the integrity of government dipped to all-time lows. The new law laid out the rules and penalties relating to financial disclosure, acceptance of gifts, outside earned income and post-government employment, among others.
Massachusetts passed its first conflict of interest law fifteen years before the federal law governing state and municipal employees. Once the federal law was passed though, Massachusetts set up its own ethics commission and added a financial disclosure requirement for political candidates and state employees in “major policy-making positions.”
Our incoming President-elect is legally correct in stating that the 1978 federal law exempted the President and Vice-President from the conflict of interest requirements. That exemption had more to do with concerns over restricting the President’s ability to have the full range of options in the course of carrying out his duties.
The legal exemption, though, is not the same as Donald Trump’s claim that “a President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Being “legally exempt” is not the kind of statement that builds public confidence in its government and institutions. The line is blurred between his vast empire of business holdings and the decisions he will have to make on, for example, tax reform or foreign relations with countries where he conducts business. Former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray (a Republican) agrees that “presidents should conduct themselves as if conflict of interest laws apply to them.” He was elected, after all, with a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, so he really needs to start by leading by example.
Over the next few years, the public will undoubtedly learn more than it ever imagined about the intricacies of conflict of interest law, picking up terms like “nepotism” and “emoluments.” Unless, of course, the incoming President takes the steps needed to ensure the line between his personal assets and the public interest is not blurred. That’s the wall he should build.
It’s what every public servant does.
This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network
To Russia With Love
Posted by John Dickson in International, Public Affairs on December 17, 2016
When wondering how to make America great again, encouraging a foreign government to influence our election, does not come to mind. Neither does denying that it happened, let alone refusing to even receive the intelligence reports that indicate the extent of that foreign involvement.
The tables have been turned. For decades, the U.S. did meddle in foreign elections. The cases are well known, whether it was CIA financing a propaganda campaign to ensure victory for Italy’s Christian Democrats in 1948, Edward Lansdale of the CIA running the campaign for Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953 or even spending millions of dollars to prevent Salvador Allende from winning the Chilean election in 1964.
The U.S. did not stop at trying to influence elections, but actively sought to overturn elections that had put into power leaders inimical to our interests. Declassified documents spell out efforts in Iran, Congo, Chile and Guatemala to destabilize the countries in order to lead to the overthrow of the elected leaders.
Perhaps, this is the era of greatness that Donald Trump had in mind when he adopted the slogan for his campaign. However, these activities did not make the U.S. great, but in the long term harmed our reputation around the world. More recently, overt attempts by the U.S. to weigh in on foreign elections have backfired. In 2002, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha warned that the election of Evo Morales as President might result in the cutoff of aid to the country. Morales lost that election but rode to victory in the next elections, riding on resentment against the U.S.
Foreign media seek out U.S. statements on their elections, but most Ambassadors are careful to avoid becoming part of the electoral debate. In the Philippines elections this year Ambassador Philip Goldberg resisted the temptation to criticize the authoritarian candidate Rodrigo Duterte and echoed the refrain taken by the U.S. in foreign elections, “Our job and my job and also the job of the people in the U.S. is to stay out of your politics and to let the Filipino people decide who is going to be your President.”
Now, however, we are faced with the likelihood that the U.S. has been on the receiving end of foreign election meddling. In considering this turnaround on the sanctity of democratic elections, it is important to note a series of troubling aspects:
— this is the electronic equivalent of the Watergate burglary, where operatives physically broke into the offices to seek physical files from the Democratic campaign. This time, files were copied electronically.
— the release of the files did influence the outcome of the election. The e-mails did not break news of illegal activities, but did highlight embarrassing statements from Democratic party officials on a recurring basis over the course of the final weeks of the campaign. Further, they provided enough material for a candidate who is so cavalier with the truth to repeat his “Crooked Hillary” theme to audiences primed to chant for her arrest.
— Donald Trump denying that this happened is a little like Donald Trump repeating for years that President Obama was not born in the U.S. Just because he says it, does not make it so. And even knowing it is false doesn’t mean he will stop saying it.
— it is not out of character that the man who is famous for not having even a short attention span would reject intelligence briefings. Those analysts preparing the briefings were not the people behind the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. That was George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and George Tenant who politicized the process and got the intelligence they wanted, even if they had to make it up.
— the connection to Russia and to Vladimir Putin that Donald Trump, his campaign and now several of his Cabinet selections should raise questions about the motivation of the Russians and of the Trumps. There are many ways to reset relations with Russia, and perhaps good reasons to do so. But, denying their involvement in our elections? Next, he might deny they have taken over Crimea. No, he actually already did say that.
Most alarming, though, is contemplating what should be done as a result of this electoral meddling, and further what could be done. The constitutional crisis borders on the unthinkable and the unprecedented. The courage to investigate this fully, first by President Obama and then by members of both parties in Congress, is the best example of a democracy still intact.
This post originally appeared in History News Network.