I’ve Lived In Interesting Presidential Times

When you look back over all of the United States presidents, you see a lot of boring looking white dudes.

However, I posit that, during my lifetime, we’ve had a selection of presidents that defy that normalcy (as one of the more extreme nonentity presidents, Warren Harding, might say).

Let me go through the list:

John Kennedy: Sure, I was only five months old when he died (I was nowhere near Dallas, I swear). He was the last president to be assassinated. That’s pretty big. And oh yeah, he hid the fact that he had a very serious disease, was regularly getting amphetamine injections by a physician that literally went by the name Dr Feelgood, among many other drugs, and for decades took corticosteroids, which among other side effects, leaves you randy as a goat (which of course, he apparently did nothing to fight).

Lyndon Johnson: He almost certainly won his first senatorial bid through overt fraud. He was so proud of his, um…johnson… that he’d regularly whip it out for effect. As president, he once personally called his suit maker (don’t presidents have handlers for that?) to make sure that the next suit would have adequate space for his ‘bung hole’.

Richard Nixon: Where to begin? Well, first of all he’s a conservative Republican that actually created the EPA and for a time was thinking of supporting a basic income plan (where all citizens are guaranteed an income). He was a lifelong red-baiter that went to China and negotiated arms deals with the Soviets. Apparently when he was drunk, he’d order nuclear strikes that were somewhat conveniently ignored. And, oh yeah, he would have been impeached and probably convicted but instead chose to be the first president to resign the office.

Gerald Ford: He was the first president to assume the office without ever actually receiving an electoral college vote (vice presidents are also elected via electoral college; since he followed the resigned vice president Spiro Agnew, and then the resigned president Richard Nixon, he never actually was voted on in any way by the people). Also, Gerald Ford was not his birth name.  His name was Leslie King, but almost immediately his mom separated from his father because he was abusive. A couple of years later, she met and married Gerald Ford, who gave the young boy his name.

Jimmy Carter: First of all, Jimmy? Seriously? Not a presidential name. A United States President that is attacked by a killer rabbit? What is this, Monty Python? Or a born again Christian thinking that it’s a good idea to give an interview to Playboy magazine, admitting that he has many times lusted in his heart for other women? More seriously, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is generally considered something approaching a secular saint, but he authored the Carter Doctrine, which basically said that the Middle East is a vital US interest, thus involving us in forty years of war, thousands of US soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and trillions of dollars of military spending gone to waste.

Ronald Reagan: An actor? I mean seriously, at least vote for a movie star, not a second class mediocrity (Bedtime for Bonzo, anyone?). We have the arch social conservative who was the first president to be divorced and only went to church when there was a good photo op to be had. He was the first president since Woodrow Wilson who was obviously incapacitated by the time he left office. He was the only president in my life time that actually probably did deserve to be impeached (Iran Contra, read about it here).

George H.W. Bush: This is the first of two parts. He is the father part of the second father/son combination of presidents that have been elected. Considering the fact that the first father/son were the Adams’, it can be safely said that American leadership has not been evolving in a positive direction (although fair to say, despite their gifts, the two Adams’ actually weren’t stellar presidents either).

Bill Clinton: The second president ever to be impeached. Like the first, Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate (although Clinton’s outcome, unlike Johnson’s, was never in doubt). He was another one that just couldn’t keep it in his pants. Unlike JFK, Clinton lived in a time of media ubiquity. Therefore, although reporters during JFK’s time hushed up his indiscretions, with Clinton we all got to enjoy tales of oral sex, semen on dresses, and improper use of cigars.

George W. Bush: This is the second of two parts. He is the son part of the above mentioned father/son combination. Isn’t it great that we live in a country where anyone can be elected president? That we live in a meritocracy? Oh yeah, he’s also the fourth person (first one in over 100 years) that lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. And the first one since Rutherford (aka Rutherfraud) Hayes to probably have won through electoral chicanery (Florida is one fucked up state if you’re black and you want to vote).

Barack Obama: Oh yeah, we elected a black guy. How weird is it that when I first wrote this list, I almost forgot him? Just in case anyone thought that the United States is some kind of post-racial nirvana, we got to enjoy eight years of people calling him a Kenyan Muslim socialist atheist. Oh yeah, he was also the third sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize (before people get angry at me, I know that four presidents have actually won it, but Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, way after his presidency). Teddy Roosevelt was the first, which is kind of hilarious considering his basic bellicosity and Woodrow Wilson won for his work setting up the League of Nations, which is further proof that history has a sense of humor when considering that the US never joined it and the League was singularly ineffectual in stopping fascism and the second world war. It’s not clear exactly why the Nobel prize committee gave Obama the prize in the first year of his term unless it quite literally was a thumb in the eye of George W. Bush.  Regardless, considering that by the end of his second term, he was regularly raining hellfire down upon citizens in neutral countries from unmanned drones, the peacemakers in Stockholm might be wishing for a do-over.

And of course, this bring us to Donald Trump. Fuck, why not give the narcissistic reality television star a shot at it? He wants to run it like his businesses, which I’m really hoping is a campaign promise that he has no intention of holding to since he regularly runs his companies into bankruptcy. Oh yeah, he’s now the fifth person that has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (at least this time, it wasn’t done fraudulently). For those keeping score at home, the Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections but have only served four terms and are now currently going through some existential identity crisis.  Isn’t American style presidential elections fair and fun?

So, there you go…the rogues’ gallery of presidents that have served in my lifetime. You can say a lot of things, but it certainly hasn’t been boring.

Sometimes They Really Are Out To Get You

When I was younger, I was prone to conspiracy theories. For a while, it must have been in my mid-twenties, I did some fair amount of research into the various Kennedy assassination  theories. Was it the Cubans angry about the Bay of Pigs invasion? Was it the Soviets sending in their Manchurian candidate sleeper agent? Was it the Mafia, killing John to send a message to Bobby to get off their back? Or, was it (Oliver Stone’s favorite) LBJ and the military industrial complex knocking him off so that they could drop some Agent Orange on those pesky Viet Cong?

As you read, you get deeper and deeper into the theory and you start getting caught up in the labyrinth of interlocking, contradictory theories that insiders debate endlessly. What’s up with the Magic Bullet? Who’s buried in Oswald’s grave? Who’s the Babushka Lady? The three tramps? The Umbrella man?

At some point, if you’re a reasonable person, you hit a point of no return. In my case, it could very well have been the Coca-Cola theory. IIRC, this is that Oswald was so addicted to refined sugar that he suffered severe impairment, which somehow caused him to assassinate JFK and then not remembering the act.

You emerge, blinking uncertainly back into the bright light of reality, slightly abashed and ashamed that you just dedicated some not insignificant amount of  brain cells to this endeavor.

The fact is, IMHO, there are seldom conspiracies.  I work for a very large company (>150,000 employees) and large entities like that just don’t lend themselves well to conspiracies. I’ve seen multiple things at work that, from the outside, could very well look like some nefarious plot of evil genius, but when exposed to the sunlight, they are the usual acts of unqualified people feebly trying to figure something out that is unimaginably complex to them.

So, my policy, for many years, is to never assume evil any act that can be explained by stupidity. I’ve taken off my tin foil hat and have placed it up in the high reaches of my closet shelf.

But every now and then…

Way back in the 1980’s, there was serious concern about the antics of the Reagan administration. I’m no fan of Reagan. Various wild eye conspiracy theories surrounded his terms, specifically in his relationships to minorities, who he pretty clearly had very little sympathy for and in fact, as Governor of California, used his strong arm stance against the ‘inner city hoodlums’ as a platform to national prominence.

However, there were rumors that the CIA invented AIDS to kill the black population. There were wild claims that the CIA funded/supported the crack epidemic, again target primarily against black people.

The CIA involved with the drug scourge of the 1980’s and 1990’s? That has to be crazy, right?

Well, let’s step back into the way back machine and talk about this.

The Reagan administration had a couple of problems. One problem was that there was a group called Hezbollah that was kidnapping Americans and holding them for hostages, sometimes for years. This was completely unacceptable to the macho posturing of Reagan; what’s up with this little collection of ragtag terrorists having the gall to hold American hostages?

The problem was that the hostages were being kept separately deep in the heart of Beirut. No westerners knew where they were. The American had no contacts within Hezbollah, so they were stymied.

However, the Hezbollah unofficial sponsor was Iran. Maybe America could somehow use Iran to assert some leverage upon their client and get the hostages freed? Unfortunately, America and Iran had no diplomatic relationship, so it was not obvious how do to this.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two was that Nicaragua was being ruled by the Sandinistas. They were a left wing government with some ties to Castro. Therefore, there was a commie government at our proverbial back door! This could not stand!

Luckily, there was another group in Honduras, called the Contras, who wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration desperately wanted to provide them money and weaponry so that the scourge of the Sandinistas could be destroyed and the Americas could be free from the threat of communism.

However, politics were murky in Central America. For the same reason as supporting the Contras, America also supported El Salvador, which was known for such lovely things as death squads and raping / murdering American nuns.

Congress, disgusted at acts such as these, passed the Boland Amendment. This Amendment explicitly disallowed spending any funds at all towards the Contras.

How to resolve these two big problems? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was some way we could solve both at the same time?

And away we go…

Iran was in the middle of an intense war with Iraq. They desperately needed military equipment. Since America had actually essentially built the Shah’s military force before he had fallen, the Iranians specifically had a need for American military equipment.

Through insanely deep back channels, America made contact with Iran. Would they be willing to purchase American military spares, and also, as a price for allowing the purchase, would they also be willing to put pressure upon Hezbollah to release hostages?

Remember, during all of this time, Reagan was boasting that he would never negotiate with kidnappers and that America had put Iran on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Well, the Iranians, as a matter of fact, were interested.  America sold some of its military spares (apparently it was considered pretty low quality stuff) to the Iranians for a huge sum of money. Apparently, at least in the beginning, in case this wasn’t crazy enough, Israel served as the middle man in this arrangement. Yes, the Israelis helped to close an arms deal with a country sworn to destroy them.

The Reagan administration then used the excess funds from this deal to fund the Contras. The fig leaf of legality here is that since this deal was run from the National Security Council (?!), that somehow the Boland Amendment did not apply. Few constitutional scholars agree.

Eventually, some hostages were freed. As more hostages were freed, additional arm sales proceeded.

So, to sum up, to free up a couple American hostages, America sold military supplies to a state sponsor of terrorism so that it could provide additional money and arms to a rebel force that it explicitly was prohibited to aid.

But wait, there’s more.

Those wonderful freedom fighters, the Contras, were part of a cocaine distribution network.

Ever in need of money, the Contras looked to establish a network in California. The CIA leaned upon the DEA to grant amnesty to Contra figures so that the network could be set up. A shadowy operative named Blandon set up a network with Freeway Rick Ross. They took the pure cocaine, converted it to the much cheaper crack, and an epidemic was born.

A journalist named Gary Webb exposed all of this. For his work, he was hounded out of his job. In fact, instead of supporting a fellow journalist, the LA Times literally hired a team of reporters, not to get to the root of all of this, but to discredit Gary Webb (and no, I’m not making this up; eventually the LA Times apologized publicly for this action).

Ultimately, Gary Webb committed suicide.

There’s some controversy in what I’ve just written, but honestly, not a lot.

A very real argument can be made that the administration of Ronald Reagan, the president that still today has a significant percentage of Americans wanting to make him the fucking fifth face on Mt Rushmore, had a huge role in causing the crack epidemic that wreaked untold havoc on an entire generation of Black Americans.

Still, I stand by my statement that most conspiracies are usually the act of stupid people blindly trying to discover a way through an unimaginably complex problem.

But Jesus Fucking Christ, don’t be throwing out that tin foil hat quite yet.

 

My Shakespearean Kicks Your Shakespearean’s Ass

This is actually a tragic tale, but regardless, I find it amusing.

In the early to mid 19th century, American theater was dominated by British actors. Especially in the 1840’s, which was a period of American / British conflict, this did not sit well.

The leading Shakespearean actor of the time was a Brit named William Charles Macready. He was known for his sensitive, finely crafted roles. In America, this was much appreciated by the finer sort, otherwise known as the Upper ten thousand.

On the American side was Edwin Forrest. He was a large, brawny man who gave overwrought performances full of physicality. At one point, Forrest toured England by following Macready around performing the same roles to prove he was the superior actor. At one show, while Macready was performing Hamlet, Forrest stood and hissed him.

It probably goes without saying that the mudsills and greasy mechanics of America preferred Forrest.

So, there you have it, the sensitive, effeminate British actor competing against the uncouth, virile American actor. I guess that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

Macready tours America. He gives a performance of Macbeth, at Astor Place, a theater located dangerously close to the border between the New York gentility and the New York unwashed masses (close to the Bowery). Some of the unwashed managed to sneak in and pelt him with fruit, rotten eggs, and if reports are true, half of a sheep carcass, amid catcalls and cries of “down with the codfish aristocracy”! Macready finished the play performing pantomime since he could not be heard over the shouting.

He is convinced to give it another try. Ten thousand people surround the theater.  Again he is pelted down, shouted down, and has to finish in pantomime. He sneaks out of the theater in disguise.

Outside, the city militia has gathered. The crowd jostles the militia. Do you see where this is headed? The militia threatens the crowd. The militia fires into the air. When that fails, the militia fires point blank into the crowd. Ultimately, around 25 people are killed and over 100 people are injured.

Now, there are obviously deeper issues here. This was a time of deep divide between “the classes and the masses”. New York City was divided by class, and Astor Place was provocatively located near the masses. This also was a time of intense anti-British resentment.

But still…can you imagine a violent, deadly riot today caused by dueling Shakespearean actors? This makes the whole East Coast – West Coast Hip Hop rivalry seem almost quaint.

An Unfortunate Foursome

I’ve just finished writing up my thoughts after watching Lincoln. This led me to a post I did several years ago.  Here goes…

April 14th, 1865, believe it or not, the Lincolns were having trouble setting up a double date.

They were planning on seeing a play at Ford Theater as a nice little getaway from that little thing called the Civil War.  Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered his army of Northern Virginia.  There were some other significant Confederate armies still out in the field but the war was effectively over and Mary was wanting to enjoy a night out.

Originally, the Lincolns invited the Grants.  The Grants accepted but then decided to leave town.  Other people were asked but all had excuses.  Finally, Henry Rathbone and his fiance, Clara Harris, were invited.  They were thrilled with the invitation and eagerly accepted.

Of course, everyone knows what happened.  The foursome went to the play.  John Wilkes Booth sneaked into their box and shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, slashed Henry Rathbone on the arm, and made his escape (well, at least for twelve days until he gets shot in the head (nearly in the same location that he shot Abe) by Boston Corbett (an interesting character himself who earlier self castrated himself over a woman) while trapped in a burning barn).

A lot of people know about Mary Lincoln.  After the deaths of her beloved child, Willie, during the Civil War, the assassination of her husband Abe before her very eyes (in fact, while they were holding hands), and another child, Tad, after the Civil War, left her unhinged with grief.  She acted erratically enough that her remaining son, Robert, had her committed.  After only a couple of months, she got her release and ended up living the rest of her life quietly with her sister.

What about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris?  They ended up getting married.  They had three children.  He was named a consular to Germany.  They moved to Hanover.  One night, in 1883, near Christmas, amid signs of deteriorating mental illness, Henry stabbed and shot Clara dead, tried to kill their children, and tried to kill himself.  He recovered, but spent the rest of him life in an asylum in Germany.  He died in 1911.

So, let’s keep score.  Four people were in the box that fateful night.  Two ended up being murdered and two ended up spending time in an insane asylum, one of whom spent nearly thirty years in one. Not a fortunate foursome.

Survival is the Mother of Invention

220px-curta_-_national_museum_of_computing

My dad was an electrical engineer at The Boeing Company. He died when I was growing up, so I actually don’t know exactly what he did, but I believe that he worked on space solar panels.

He was an engineer in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Obviously (or maybe not obviously if you’re young enough), desktop electronic calculators did not exist then. It was all hand calculations and slide rules. I remember that his slide rule was one of his prized possessions. He kept it in a special case and everything.

And his Curta. I don’t know how many people know about these amazing machines. It is, at least on the surface, a very simple device. It has a series of switches on the sides and what appears to be a grinder on top.

With this device, you can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, squares, cubes, percentages, sine/cosine values, and probably many other things that smart engineers have figured out.

It does this via purely mechanical means. You can see images of its internal parts online. It’s truly mindbogglingly complex and precise.

I remember when my dad showed me how to use it (yeah, it’s not really in any shape intuitive). I was able to master addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Remember, this was before electronic calculators, so even though non-intuitive, it was still a remarkably efficient / accurate machine.

Even after the invention of electronic calculators, it was still in use. The original electronic calculators were somewhat unreliable in unstable environments, so pilots and rally car racers were still using it even after the electronic calculators became available. In fact, I remember my mom, who, let’s face facts, does not embrace new technology easily, was still using the Curta to help balance her checkbooks well in to the 1990’s.

All that is very interesting to me, but nowhere near the most interesting part.

The inventor, Curt Herzstark, was working on it during the 1930’s in Austria. He had to stop working on it to support the Nazi war effort. Due to the fact that he had a Jewish father, he was detained by the Nazis and ultimately was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. At some point, one of the department heads heard about Herzstark’s ideas and told him to design it so that it could be presented to Hitler as a gift upon the successful completion of the war.

Herzstark saw it as an opportunity to stay alive, so while at Buchenwald, he diligently worked on finalizing his design. In fact, he was so close to completion that, after the camp was liberated, he only made a few final tweaks to the design before he turned it over to be manufactured.

I still have my dad’s Curta. It’s well over 40 years old. And yes, it still works like a champ. It truly is an amazing machine.

And all because a concentration camp department head wanted one of his prisoners to create a gift to Hitler.

Cupidity or Stupidity?

A month or two ago, I saw The Big Short. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  As I was watching it, I flashed back to two books: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Sorkin, and a book that I read many years ago, The Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart.  They’re both about Wall Street excesses.  However, they have different themes.

The Den of Thieves is about the high finance, junk bond, LBO days of the mid-80’s.  The poster boys of this era were the firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert and Michael Milken.

What was shocking about this book was the simple amorality of all of the players, best typified by Ivan Boesky’s Greed is Good speech to the graduating class at Stanford (I might be wrong in my history, but if I recollect he was arrested shortly after that speech).

It wasn’t even subtle.  Ivan Boesky had a bagman that delivered briefcases of money to some of the various players.  The bagman himself always took a little off the top of the delivery, so the recipients learned to inflate the sums requested so that they could get the amount that they wanted.  Dennis Levine got caught as he was making all of his inside trades because the bank that he was working for started illegally shadowing his trades.  On top of that, the broker that the bank used to make their illegal trades was himself shadowing their trades.  Eventually all of this illicit traffic got the SEC’s attention.  They investigated and eventually unspooled all of these threads.

These were people who knew the difference between right and wrong and consciously chose wrong just for the sole purpose of greed.  I mean, when you receive a suitcase full of money, that’s a pretty solid cue that probably what you’re doing is not kosher.

Too Big to Fail is the story of the Wall street collapse of 2008.  Here again are similar types of players.  They are, almost to a man (and yes, to a very large extent, nearly all men), driven to succeed and become fabulously, occasionally ostentatiously, rich.  The difference here is that you do not get a sense of evil.  What you get is a sense of incompetence.  Not that these people were complete idiots, but they just did not really understand what they were doing.

A brief aside…there is one theory that this is what happened to Joseph Jett.  He was a rising star at Kidder Peabody in the mid 1990’s.  He was a moderately successful trader who for a time became a huge star.  He was making Peabody Kidder tons of money.  When you factor in that he was just about the only African-American trader to be found on Wall Street, he became huge and in two years went from making $50,000 a year to something over $9,000,000.

However, at one point his trades were researched carefully, and although I can’t even pretend to understand exactly what happened, it turned out that all of his trades were being falsely reported as profits.  Peabody Kidder claimed that Jett exploited a vulnerability in their internal systems and claimed that he defrauded them.  He put up a vigorous defense and was acquitted by the SEC. To this day, Jett probably thinks he was a genius trader.  He literally did not understand the trades that he was making.

A similar thing writ large seemed to have occurred all over Wall Street up to 2007 or 2008.  The Wall Street people thought that they had figured out a way to eliminate risk.  They came up with a scheme to group mortgages by the thousands and then slice them up and group them as investment funds.  It worked perfectly because after all, everyone makes their house payments, right?

The problem became of course that everyone wanted a piece of the action.  Therefore, there became a huge incentive to create more mortgages just so that they could be aggregated and sliced up. Of course, the people making the loans promptly just re-sold them so that the funds could be created.  Since they had effectively no risk, the loan originators could and did make crazy loans on crazy terms with virtually no paperwork involved.

All of the crazy loans were packaged up with all of the normal loans and then sliced up.  When the economy slowed down, people couldn’t make their crazy loan payments.  With the economy in bad shape, people couldn’t sell their homes either.  Therefore, they couldn’t make their loan payments.  These funds in turn that were accumulation of these loans couldn’t themselves make their payments, which were based upon receiving mortgage payments.

Since the bad loans were sliced and diced and split into all kinds of different funds, no one could tell which funds were good and which were bad.  When that happens, there is no way to determine the fair market price of a fund.  And when that happens, capitalism stops working because there become a whole lot of sellers and zero buyers.  Since companies don’t know which other companies have toxic loans on their books, not only will they not buy another firm’s funds, they won’t even lend each other money because, without valid valuations, no one knows who will be able to pay their bills.  Since pretty much all companies need very short term loans to make payroll and pay suppliers, quite literally the capitalist system was in danger of collapsing.  When you read about it, it’s actually fucking scary how close we came to bartering for goats in the town square (I’m only partially kidding here).

The Wall Street geniuses thought that they had invented a new way of doing business that was completely risk free.  What they did not understand until far too late was that what they created was something that disseminated risk throughout the entire system to such an extent that effectively risk became invisible.

In hindsight, all of these seems obvious.  I’m not an economist but even I can understand how this is really a horrible idea.  However, the fact is that there are several people in the book, very successful people, people with 30 years of experience of business, CEO’s, who simply didn’t get it.  They were insanely over-leveraged in horrible business dealings but did not understand it.  Some were willful.  All Wall Street firms have Chief Risk Officers, but in at least one case the Chief Risk Officer was explicitly not invited to executive committee meetings in which such items were discussed.  Some of these people came of age during the 70’s and the 80’s, when trading was much simpler.  They never learned the new ways of doing business and never really showed any inclination to learn.  As long as the money wheel was turning, why bother?

So, my question to you is…with due apologies to Tom Wolfe, would you rather your Masters of the Universe be evil or ignorant?

How to Win a War While Wearing a Frocked Wig

In the election of 1800, there was a fight for the soul of the country.  Was it going to be won by the Federalists, led by John Adams, or by the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson? Of course, Jefferson won.

Adams decided to give the country one last full kiss on the lips with tongue of Federalism before he checked out.  In his lame duck last days, he appointed a number of Federalist judges to new posts, much to the fury of the Democratic-Republicans.

However, not all got in under the wire.  One, in particular, William Marbury, did not get delivered his appropriate documents before the Adams administration was run out of town. When the new administration came in, Secretary of State James Madison refused to deliver them.  In true American fashion, Marbury sued to get seated. Thus ensued the court case, Marbury v. Madison, one of the most famous court cases in US history.

John Marshall, the supreme court justice, was in a pickle. He was an ardent Federalist, so his natural inclination was to support Marbury.

However, he was also a pragmatist.  After 12 years of government, the US Supreme Court still was defining its position in relationship to the executive branch and the legislative branch. The court could not make laws nor execute laws.  It had no army or navy at its disposal. What was its relevance?

At this juncture in US history, if the court ruled against the government and forced it to seat Marbury, there was a very real possibly that Jefferson would have told it to go pound sand and ignore it, which would have rendered the Supreme Court totally irrelevant.

So, Marshall went crafty.  He first of all refused to seat Marbury on pure technical grounds, so there was no need to risk having the government override him.  He then went on and said that even though in this case, the court is not compelling the government to seat him, it had the authority to do so.  It had the authority to review all laws passed by the legislature, and if any of those are found to be in violation of the constitution, that it could over-rule it.  It was the final arbiter on what was and was not constitutional.

Although the Jefferson administration disagreed with the logic, ultimately since they obeyed it, the legal precedent of judicial review was established.  While it drives many people crazy (right of privacy…where the fuck does the phrase right of privacy appear in the constitution?), it is still in place.  Obviously, the US Supreme Court is still…um…supremely relevant today.

A classic case of how lose a battle but win a war.

Person of the Century

Re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s Secret Parts of Fortune, I’d like to nominate as Person of the 20th Century…Kim Philby. In a previous post, I mentioned him briefly when I discussed James Jesus Angleton, a fascinating and controversial figure from the CIA.

He’s probably the most famous double agent in history, ultimately fleeing the West to the Soviet Union and living there until his death.

But Person of the Century?  Hear me out…

During WWII, Churchill gave Philby’s briefings the highest priority.  He was about the only double agent that Stalin actually trusted and who valued his reports.  In Portugal, he was running a team of Nazi double agents so successfully that the disinformation that they put out was immediately routed to Hitler himself, who personally reviewed them and gave them great weight. Yes, he simultaneously had the ear of Stalin, Churchill, and Hitler.

While he was in Portugal during the war, he had a protege there, by name of Graham Greene (yes, the famous English author).  Philby was promoted to head of counter-intelligence.  Greene was offered Philby’s job, but not only did he decline it, but he accepted a transfer to another division.

There is suspicion that Green had begun to become suspicious of Philby’s activities and took the transfer to get away from him.  Later he wrote the screenplay for the movie ‘The Third Man’, a movie about Harry Lime, an immoral character playing a complex political game.  Philby’s real first name is Harold (as in Harry; interestingly enough, his nickname comes from Kipling’s Kim, a novel about spying / politics in Central Asia; was his destiny marked from an early point?).

The Third Man has made many all-time best movie lists.  Did Philby inspire one of the recognized best movies of all time?

Even more bizarrely, when he started coming under suspicion of being a double agent, he was actually accused of being The Third Man (after Burgess and Maclean were previously discovered to be spies).

Was he accused of being the fictional person that he in fact inspired?

In the previous post, I mentioned that the discovery of Philby being a double agent so un-nerved Angleton that he embarked on a paranoid mission that ultimately ended up virtually destroying an entire generation of CIA leadership.

In reaction to Angleton’s obsession, the CIA over-reacted and dramatically down-scaled their counter-espionage efforts.  This willful ignorance led to the rise of Aldrich Ames, who managed to feed intelligence to the Soviet Union for close to 10 years, shutting down several spy rings and causing at least 10 known deaths.

For a crucial period in the 80’s, the United States did not recruit any additional Soviet assets because they knew that they were somehow compromised.  During this same time, they were so reluctant to do counter-espionage efforts that it took them nearly a decade to discover Ames, a known alcoholic whose monthly credit card bills alone exceeded his pay-check. The action and reaction to Philby’s betrayal hurt the CIA for decades.

Did Philby’s defection trigger a chain of events that ultimately led to a paralyzed CIA that harbored a Soviet spy?

The KGB never did trust Philby after he defected.  He expected to be treated like a hero of the people, but, especially for the first couple of years, he was basically a prisoner.  On top of that, he was shocked at what he saw.  He was still living under the 1930’s idea of socialism that had originally seduced him into betraying his country.

The land of Stalinism, and later Brezhnev, horrified him.  The lack of freedom.  The pervasive fear.  He hated it.  As much as he could, he railed against it and possibly even helped to change it.

There’s a theory that, as Gorbachev began to implement Glasnost, that Philby served some kind of back door role to the Thatcher government, encouraging them to take it at face value and to lend their support to it.

Did Philby, who did so much to extend the Cold War, work to end it?

And, oh yeah, in the 30’s, he went to Spain.  He originally went there on behalf of his actual leftist beliefs, to embark upon a plot to assassinate Franco.  While there, he began to build up his counter-identity as a right wing acolyte.  He was so successful at it that he ended up getting the highest order of merit, presented by Franco himself.

So, yes, in the Spanish Civil War, he managed to start the war plotting to kill a dictator and ended the war by being rewarded by said dictator.

Kim Philby, Person of the 20th Century.

 

How Cletus Saved Civilization

The year is 334 BC.

Alexander had become King of Macedon just two years previous (so he wasn’t quite ‘The Great’ yet) after his father Philip had been assassinated.  He’s 22 years old.

He’s just crossed over into Asia to begin his reign of conquest. It’s the battle of Granicus. Alexander’s Macedonians are facing off against Persians.

Alexander, being 22 and wanting to prove himself, decides to go off immediately into battle.  The Macedonians charge.  The Persians retreat, seemingly in disorder.

Seeing the battle turn, Alexander impetuously charges into the fray, leaving his guards behind.  The Persian retreat was a ruse. They turn, counterattack and have Alexander surrounded.

Alexander is dealt a stunning blow to his head.  As he lays on the ground, dazed and helpless, a Persian named Spithridates charges up to him and and raises his battleaxe to deal Alexander the death blow.

At the last moment, one of Alexander’s guards comes out of nowhere and chops off Spithridates arm.  Alexander recovers his senses and is led to safety.

The Macedonians end up routing the Persians, leading the way for Alexander’s further conquests.

What if the guard was just a few seconds late?  What if Alexander dies at the age of 22?

He doesn’t conquer Egypt.  He doesn’t conquer Persia.  He doesn’t invade India. The political and philosophical ideas of Greece are not exported.  They die a quiet death in Greece.  Plato and Socrates remain unknown.  The experiment of democracy is never again repeated.

Perhaps Persia and not Rome ultimately ends up being the empire the bestrides the earth. The world could easily have been fundamentally different. Who was this fast acting guardsman?  His name was…Cletus (OK, Cleitus, but close enough).

So, next time you see the Simpson’s redneck, Cletus Spuckler, or think of the stereotypical Cletus the slack-jawed yokel, remember that in that name is the distant rumblings of the man that saved civilization.

Oh yeah…How did Cletus get thanked for his service?  Years later, in a drunken brawl, Alexander runs him through with a spear and kills him.

Such is the way of the Cletus.

Pornography and the Supreme Court

Some years ago, I read the Brethren, by Bob Woodward. It was an inside look at the Supreme Court for a certain number of years between the late 60’s to the early 70’s.  It was published sometime in the 70’s.  At the time it was controversial because the Supreme Court was very secretive.  It was considered quite a journalist coup for Woodward to have gotten such inside access.

One of the fascinating things discussed was pornography.  At the time, the Supremes were grappling with what to do with pornographic movies.  Local communities were trying to outlaw pornography while the pornographers were claiming free speech.  At one point, the judicial standard was that it had to have some positive effect.  Pornographers promptly started doing things like prefacing hard-core sex movies with Shakespearean actors reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy and things like that.

It got to the point where the Supremes became arbiters of what was pornographic and not.  They’d have regular screenings (I believe in the basement of the courthouse) where they’d view movies and decide whether or not they fit the legal definition of pornography.

Some justices, like William Brennan, were free speech advocates, so they wouldn’t bother to attend because they knew that they would uphold the movie as free speech.  Other justices, like Byron ‘Whizzer’ White, had strict criteria for what was pornography or not (for instance, Whizzer considered an erect penis to be pornographic while a limp penis not).  Therefore, such justices had to show up to the viewing with their checklist to determine what was pornographic.

And then there was Thurgood Marshall.  He was a giant of the Civil Rights era.  I believe that he was the first African-American to argue before the Supreme Court.  He was a leader throughout the battle.  He was the first African-American Supreme Court justice.  There are schools named for him throughout the country (there is a Thurgood Marshall elementary school in Seattle).

He was definitely a liberal free speech advocate, so he always was going to uphold the movies to be free speech.  Yet, there he was at every viewing, usually with popcorn and making ribald comments the whole time.  He was basically just there for the porn.

He was a justice for a long time.  In his later years, he declined in health, but still served as a justice.  If I recollect correctly, he was diabetic or something like that and ended up having a leg amputated.  He either died as a justice or retired just prior to his death.  Regardless, when his seat became vacant, the African-American community rose and demanded that another African-American be appointed to replace him.  They called it the ‘Black’ seat.  There was some precedent for this.  For a while there was what was called the ‘Jewish’ seat on the Supreme Court, populated by people like Felix Frankfurter.

The president at the time was George H.W. Bush.  I personally thought that H.W. was a pretty competent president, but no one has ever claimed that he was a friend of the liberal cause.  He said, hey, you want an African-American justice?  Well, here you go, Clarence Thomas….Bam!

Clarence Thomas, even in those days was known to be against affirmative action and other causes that the African-American community at large still passionately believed in.  They were kind of stuck.  What were they going to say?  Thomas was the wrong kind of black?  Perhaps a lesson was learned regarding the importance of belief over skin color.

During Thomas’ confirmation hearings, he was almost derailed by the testimony of Anita Hill, who among other things claimed that Thomas…wait for it…here it comes…spent a highly inappropriate amount of time and in very specific detail discussing…pornography.

And the circle of life continues…

For those fools out there who don’t believe in God, here is proof that there is order in the universe.