Tag Archives: Richard Nixon

Nixon in the Rear-View: Three newish books offer three fresh perspectives on our 37th President

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The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority, by Pat Buchanan. New York: Crown Forum/Random House. 392 pp, illustrated.

Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth about the President, Watergate and the Pardon, by Roger Stone, with Mike Colapietro. New York; Skyhorse Publishing. 661 pp, illustrated.

Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, by Will Swift. New York: Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster. 447 pp, illustrated.

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The year 2014 was an important one for the friends, family and fans of America’s infamous 37th president, who died 20 years ago this April. August 8th marked the 40-year anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, followed by his dramatic exit from office the following day. It was the beginning of a long journey back into America’s good graces, a process that continues to this day. This country and the entire world have changed a lot since his death, and time has rendered a different judgment of Nixon than the one rendered in his lifetime, as old information combines with new developments to clarify old perceptions.

These anniversaries have triggered a small flood of Nixonalia into the marketplace, and each project wrestles with a central problem: Richard Nixon is not a man who can be spoken of objectively. The nature of his work forces all those who study it to make their own decision at so many different points. Let’s keep it real: His enemies called him “Tricky Dick”, and even his allies would concede how utterly appropriate the nickname was—more so than maybe any president since Andrew Jackson, aka “Old Hickory”. HBO released “Nixon: In His Own Words”, an excellent 75-minute mashup of audio clips and video footage spanning the scope of his career. It’s an ideal introduction to one of the great character studies of the entire 20th century.

Richard Milhous Nixon cut one of the most unique swaths through our nation’s political history, and that influence persists today, a generation after he took leave of this dimension. As President Obama lurches toward the anticlimactic end of his administration, recent scandals have proven that, despite whatever early pretensions he may have had to the legacy of JFK, history will regard him as the closest thing we’ve had to Nixon since Nixon himself—a cold-blooded pragmatist, driven by inner tensions that he can hardly articulate.

Each of the three books tends to center on specific aspects of Nixon’s story, and will be of varying appeal, depending on the reader’s views of the subject. Two of the authors can be considered partisans: Buchanan and Stone were both recruited and trained in part by Nixon himself, and both went on to work for Reagan, as well.

But just as Nixon’s worst enemies would allow for the man’s obvious ability, his key supporters will readily own up to his major flaws—and, seen in its totality, the Nixon Legacy seems like something that could have never gone any differently than it did. Although Nixon himself would later own up to his many mistakes, it is unlikely that, given the opportunity, he would have never corrected them, because Richard Nixon was, by all accounts, pathologically incapable of admitting weakness. The whole debacle involving the infamous “Nixon Tapes” is a case in point. Even as his presidency was lurching, slowly and painfully toward its inevitable conclusion, he retained the power to save his presidency by simply burning the tapes.

Of course, veteran GOP operative Roger Stone, who started working for Nixon while barely out of his teens, posits that Nixon was set up for scandal by his own underlings, through a combination of incompetence and outright corruption, and that even he may not have known exactly what was up until the end. By the time his resignation was a fait accompli, the old man (who aged prematurely, like they all do) had already pivoted into plotting his post-presidency career. Stone argues that the affable ax-man Gerald Ford was selected to replace Spiro Agnew with a mind toward the pardon that he would eventually grant the fallen Nixon; he further argues that Nixon secured that pardon essentially through blackmail—specifically, his knowledge of Ford’s crucial role in whitewashing what became the Warren Commission Report. And that is the axis around which his narrative rotates.

Only in recent years has it become common knowledge that many of the people closest to the situation—Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and even Fidel Castro—had all privately admitted extreme skepticism of the commission’s findings. Note that the latter three frequently turn up in conspiracy theories related to the real architects of the assassination; for what it’s worth, Stone fixes the blame squarely on LBJ, as he wrote in his previous book, and one may assume that his views were influenced heavily by Nixon’s own.

During his presidency, Nixon was known for making frequent references to “the Bay of Pigs situation”, particularly as the Watergate investigation began to pick up steam. Although he never spoke to the point directly, it was always widely believed that the phrase was a reference to the murder of JFK, but Stone makes this theory explicit: In his telling, Nixon as Vice-President was deputized by Eisenhower to plot the removal of Fidel Castro, in conjunction with the CIA and members of the mafia who’d been alienated by the Cuban regime. This effort, called “Operation 40”, led directly to the ridiculous failed assassination plots run by Bobby Kennedy under his brother, which then led directly to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, which many (including Stone) led directly to the tragedy in Dallas in November 1963. (Add Stone’s name, also, to the list of writers who have alleged that other assassination plots had been in the works prior to November 1963.)

What made all this relevant to Nixon’s interests is that A) JFK was, at one point, a friend of his, and, having survived attempts on his own life over the years, he was deeply disturbed by the idea of any president being killed; and B) Nixon knew that several of the people thought to be involved in the murder plot—including people like Frank Sturgis, Felix Rodriguez, Santo Trafficante, Johnny Roselli and the infamous E. Howard Hunt, who confessed membership in the conspiracy shortly before his own death—were veterans of Nixon’s Operation 40, and as such he knew he could’ve been implicated in the conspiracy himself, even though he presumably was not. The fact that Hunt and Sturgis both went on to be part of the original Watergate burglary team is a historical anomaly that, in Stone’s telling, led directly to the Plumbers’ apparent failure, and the end of their boss’ tenure.

Stone’s book “Nixon’s Secrets” is probably the most must-read of the three books. It’s loaded with insider dirt, rendered by an author whose dirty-tricks credentials are rock-solid. Stone’s book is kind of a throwback to this writer’s personal favorite Nixon book, Anthony Summers’ infamous biography The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (2000), a tome crafted and marketed as an epic takedown that, as so often with aspects of Nixon’s blowback, backfired.

In a country that glorifies gangsters and anti-heroes of all stripes, it makes perfect sense that Richard Nixon is arguably more popular now that he was at any point in his life, and his fan-base is built heavily around people who weren’t even alive during his presidency. Their views of that era are colored by their living memory of all the (for lack of a better word) shenanigans that have transpired in the 40 years since Nixon’s resignation: the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan getting shot, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky, the Drug War, the Patriot Act, two attacks on the World Trade Center, two Iraq wars and countless skirmishes and incidents elsewhere, leading up to things like the NSA and TSA today. It is frankly hypocritical for Americans to pretend that the 1970s elite consensus regarding Nixon remains valid in today’s world, given the men we elected to succeed him as president. At least half of those six may have eclipsed Nixon, in terms of pure ruthlessness, and maybe all of them.

For today’s GOP to attack President Obama for using Nixonian tactics—which he does, no doubt—creates the kind of bitter, cynical historical irony that only Nixon could appreciate. And when one considers that the three most successful presidents since Nixon (Reagan, Clinton, Obama), all basically came up from nothing, with fathers who were either absent or insufficient, and all grew up with chips on their shoulders that they carried into the White House with them, along with the attendant defense mechanisms, creating a psychological component that directly influenced their own presidencies (for better or for worse) it could well be argued that we are still living in the Age of Nixon, because they all worked variations on a theme that he established in the larger narrative of the presidency as an institution. The only difference between he and them is that (as every Nixon scholar seems to agree) Nixon was never able to check his darker impulses, which eventually consumed him. But then again, Nixon never had Nixon’s example to draw upon.

As time has passed, and the principals on all sides have grown older, passed on and left their (always selective) memories behind, Nixon’s controversial run has come to be seen in a broader context. This process was initiated by Nixon himself during the David Frost interviews in 1977, his Oxford Union gig in 1978 and the publication of his memoirs that same year. While Nixon did not invent the concept of “revisionist history”, he was without question the all-time master of its use in American politics, and the broader culture. It’s hard to think of another public figure in our nation’s history whose posthumous reputation is more different than their reputation in life, and certainly not in a positive way. Again, this was probably Nixon’s plan all along. Only he could have understood what honest observers would now concede: that the historical value of keeping the White House Tapes would transcend the disastrous short-term effect that it had on his presidency.

Even after he resigned he left behind the framework for what would become a winning coalition for Reagan and Bush that later gave his party 12 more years of power—or 20, if one counts George W. Bush, a very different type of Republican, no doubt. Buchanan’s book goes into great detail on the process of triangulating between two parties that were both in transitional phases; he shows how, at all points in the 1960s, Nixon was working toward an end-game that most of his peers were unable to figure out until it was basically over. Nixon was consistently ahead of the curve when it came to almost everything, except his own career; he consistently sacrificed his short-term interests in favor of long-term legacy concerns, culminating with the fateful and fatal decision not to destroy his tapes, and it’s only now, long after his death, that we can appreciate that calculation

Time has leveled a sort of equilibrium to Nixon’s legacy, in that casual observers will remember him mostly for perceived misdeeds that history has given context to, in not exactly validation. On matters like Alger Hiss, the escalation of war in Indochina, the Pentagon Papers and even the Oval Office tapes themselves, time has led more people to believe Nixon simply made the least-disastrous choice in a number of lose-lose situations that were often not of his doing.

The present era of global chaos makes some nostalgic for the man who engaged Communists in China and Russia, reached out to Arab moderates while strengthening America’s relationship with Israel and managed to pass a wave of progressive social policies while ratcheting up the war on drugs. Nixon had a special kind of hustle that we will likely never see again on any level of the business, and that in my opinion is to our permanent disadvantage.

Hillary Clinton (who might not have met her husband, at least not have met her husband, had the two young rising Democratic stars not shared a common enemy in Nixon, but that’s another story) once defined the difference between politicians and statesmen thusly: A politician thinks of the next election, while a statesman thinks of the next generation. Nixon was both, in spades, but 40 years after his final disgrace, more and more Americans are coming to recognize that his disgrace was not really not that disgraceful after all.

Swift notes that Pat Nixon always suspected that her husband’s undoing may have related to willful shenanigans by members of the Watergate burglary team acting at cross-purposes—a hypothesis that Stone makes extensive effort to verify in Nixon’s Secrets. He implicates Alexander Butterfield, who installed Nixon’s taping system and then revealed its existence to Congress—unprovoked, in his telling—while also calling out the incompetence of key functionaries like Bob Haldeman, John Erlichmann and John Mitchell, who were all key to Nixon’s political rebirth but whose personal flaws contributed to their boss’ undoing, and their own eventual imprisonment.

Stone reserves special venom for John Dean, whom he places at the center of a conspiracy to undermine the president for self-serving ends, and whose own multiple versions of the story are painstaking elucidated. Their feud has only burned hotter since the book’s release; it would make an interesting debate. Stone also hits Alexander Haig, while alleging that he was among the sources for former Navy intelligence operative Bob Woodward, whose seminal reporting on the scandal was, in Stone’s telling, largely specious, if not transparently false. He flatly rejects the idea of Mark Felt being Deep Throat, suggesting the character was merely a composite of several people.

Stone has obviously given a lot of thought to Watergate and related matters, and his views are useful addendums to the established narrative. (Stone and Dean had a brief, but vitriolic verbal battle at the Austin Book Festival; their dispute may ultimately have to be settled in court.) Stone’s next book, due later this year, focuses on the Clintons, and promises to be potentially even more explosive than Nixon’s Secrets. And with a potential run for US Senate in the works for 2016, with Hillary Clinton seeking the presidency in the same year, there is no reason for him to hold anything back, and no reason to think he’d even consider it. Because, after all, he is a Nixon man.

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Sherman Skolnick book review (2004)

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Ahead of the Parade: a Who’s Who of Treason and High Crimes—Exclusive Details of Fraud & Corruption of the Monopoly Press, the Banks, the Bench and the Bar, & the Secret Political Police, by Sherman H. Skolnick. Tempe, AZ: Dandelion Books, 2003. 315 pp.

Sherman Skolnick is probably best-known as the founder of Citizens’ Committee to Clean Up the Courts, founded in 1963 to conjure up concepts of corruption and criminality that could be used as political leverage against judges and lawyers. While many of his targets would dispute his version of events then and now, it can’t be denied that more judges and lawyers have gone to jail because of his efforts than any journalist or politician who immediately comes to mind. I could not imagine what price Skolnick has paid to pursue his particular line of dialogue with history, nor, perhaps, what price has been paid to him. I do know, however, that he’s almost 80 years old and knows enough HTML to get a book deal.

His take on politics is less reliable, as demonstrated in his book Ahead of the Parade. It’s technically his second book, but The Secret History of Airplane Sabotage (1973), which examined in excruciating detail the crash of United Airlines 553 at Chicago’s Midway Airport in December, 1972, never actually made it through the first printing—perhaps because he concluded that the crash occurred at the request of Richard Nixon, the master of dirty tricks, who wanted to silence the wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt; she died alongside a US congressman and a CBS News reporter.

So he could be viewed as credible on the subject of judicial affairs, especially in his hometown of Chicago, a tough place to come up doing that kind of work today, more so especially if crippled by childhood polio. Apparently Skolnick’s parents appealed to FDR to personally intervene in obtaining hard-to-find medical care, and he did, even having the boy out to visit with him in Hot Springs, where he made available some of the “alternative therapies” developed for the (usually) sitting President. In later years Skolnick would accuse FDR of complicity inPearl Harborand the squandering of US gold reserves, though he remains fond of the old autocrat. More recent Presidents get harsher treatment, and W is depicted as fundamentally illegitimate.

The challenge here is to describe Skolnick without using the phrase “conspiracy theory,” which isolates the reviewer from heat associated with the author’s arguments but is nonetheless prejudicial. Where once the phrase enjoyed a certain cachet, just a few years ago, in the years since the most flamboyantly destructive conspiracy in modern history was executed by associates of Osama bin Laden the phrase has been used to slur a lot of content that is verifiably true. The liberation of Iraq, for example, was widely and vociferously opposed on the basis of arguments since proven correct, even endorsed by those who argued most stridently for war—and apostates before and since have to worry about being labeled as “conspiracy theorists” by professional conspirators.

Skolnick’s writing style has real old-school punch, like a cross between William S. Burroughs and Walter Winchell. It would be fun to read on almost any subject, but that his chosen field is sabotage and dirty tricks is just delightful! His skolnicksreport.com is loaded with what is, at the very worst, the very best political satire available in English, and at best the finest conspiracy theory this side of Lyndon LaRouche. Until a better phrase comes along, it will have to be called that, though doing so begs the question of whether it is possible for conspiracy theory to ever be true. Having written more about Mr. Skolnick than any other living journalist, and being reasonably educated in many of the matters that come up in his work, I would say: Yes. Conspiracy theory permutates from game theory, and is a fundamental component of political science as an art form.

A number of individuals and organizations come under suspicion within this framework, including the CIA, FBI, MI-6, Mossad, McDonald’s Federal Reserve, Bank of America, Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, CREEP, BCCI, Jesse Jackson, Marc Rich, Rahm Emanuel, Timothy McVeigh, Saddam Hussein, Al Gore, Gore Vidal, and “William Rockefeller Clinton” (don’t ask). All the great dynasties are here: Rothschild, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Windsor (whose matriarch is Queen of England) and five different men spanning three generations of the Bush family, including the current “occupant and resident” of the White House. Now, even those of us who doubt that China uses Wal-Mart’s transportation channels to move drugs into the US and pays law enforcement to look the other way, or that JFK was supposed to be killed at a Chicago Bears game a month before Dallas, can marvel at the audacity with which Skolnick hammers out his theses.

If a fifth of Skolnick’s reports on national and international politics were ever proven true, the shock would reverberate across the world. A fun mind-game to play when reading Ahead of the Parade is to assume that, amidst all the questionable content, there is one line in it that is absolutely true—but which line?

A large portion of the book is devoted to theIllinoisjudicial scene—namely, the details of a lawsuit that sought to overturn copyright protection for Coca-Cola. He writes of judgeships and media anchor-spots being purchased, and of secret courts that do the elite’s bidding behind the scenes. Unless one has a passion for jurisprudence (or lack thereof), or like collecting dirt on one of the world’s most successful brand names, the reader will skip through much of this material for the meat—the dirty deeds of our nation’s elite. Bush, Clinton, Gore, the Pope, the Queen of England, the Rockefellers, Jesse Jackson, Marc Rich, Chandra Levy, even Simon Wiesenthal—very few escape his poison pen, and those who do are excoriated repeatedly on the website.

The visual of an 80 year-old man speaking quite sincerely about how the Pope has killed people to keep up margins in the soybean trade, or how Al Gore was nearly killed twice by air power in the week before JFK, Jr. died in similar fashion (which he has done at length on his cable access show, “Broadsides”), is plenty amusing, like a senile relative rewriting history. But there is a method to his madness, which centers on dissolving the reflexive belief that it is possible to exert real power in this nation while also holding true to professed morality. In that sense, Ahead of the Parade could be viewed as the sequel to the late William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse (1991), that classic of conspiracy theory that reads as more legit with each passing year.

The most obvious lesson to be taken from Skolnick’s opus is that most if not all the major global powers have people hard at work on behalf of their interests right here in America. Another lesson would be that bribery is a very specific art form, the mastery of which can greatly relieve the pressures of an aggressive life. I doubt that anyone would seriously question such notions anymore, but it was flatly dismissed as late as the Enron collapse in summer 2001, which to outsiders looked much like a controlled implosion done for the benefit of shadowy forces, and whose perpetrators escaped justice by throwing money at our government.

If this book has any real flaw, other than the questionability of its content, it is that the book could never come close to the sheer vicious joy of the website. A better idea would have been for Skolnick to anthologize his infamous “Overthrow of the American Republic” (OOTAR) series, now numbering 66 parts. But that would be too easy. There is something clearly quixotic about Skolnick’s quest to piss of the entire Western ruling structure, so to see a book under his name at all is pretty heartening for those Americans who truly value our (current) freedom of speech.

The distinct possibility that our country, for better or worse, has already been sold out from under us to people whose identities we won’t know until it’s too late has not been articulated in this way since William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg got really deep in the early 1970s, and I would hazard to guess that they would enjoy Skolnick, in moderation. If nothing is true unless you see it with your own eyes, then most of what we know to exist really doesn’t, which is an infinitely more frightening prospect than if everything was true. As the recently pardoned Lenny Bruce once said “Chicago is so corrupt, it’s thrilling.” Indeed.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; December 13, 2004

*Note: Sherman Skolnick died in 2002, but his website remains intact.

Book Review: Donald Rumsfeld, “Known and Unknown”

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Known and Unknown, by Donald H. Rumsfeld. New York: Sentinel/Penguin. 791pp.

The recent death of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden brings to an end one of the most tragic and angst-ridden chapters of American history. His attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which came after nearly a decade of smaller, targeted attacks on military and diplomatic outposts across the world, changed the entire world forever, in ways we are only now beginning to truly appreciate. One man who narrowly cheated death on September 11, 2001 was one Donald Henry Rumsfeld, Jr., who was then just eight months into his first term as Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. Now, almost a decade later, Rumsfeld has offered his insider view of the War on Terror that began in earnest that day, plus 40 years of political history preceding it.

Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown, is easily one of the best-written, most engaging and entertaining such book this reviewer has ever read, and certainly the only one of any substance yet to emerge from any member of the infamous Bush/Cheney administration. For younger readers, Rumsfeld’s debut on the national scene can be traced to his joining that administration in late-2000. Having served in private life for over 20 years by that point, with brief, sporadic forays into advisory roles in government, he was almost a blank slate for an entire generation of political observers.

Of course, as his book makes clear (in consistently modest terms and measured tones), Rummy was no rookie. Indeed, among American statesmen he’s one of the most seasoned and skillful operators alive today. The background and experience that Bush 43 tapped into for reorganizing the Pentagon is elucidated in scrupulous detail in what may be one of the most thoroughly-documented “current affairs” books in recent memory. Known and Unknown was prepared by a staff of at least 26 people over the course of four years, yet throughout it maintains a single distinctive narrative voice.

His brevity can be disarming at some points, compared to the exhaustive detail he provides at others. He breezes through a fascinating early history: his birth in Chicago, 1932; concise-yet-captivating portraits of his parents, including a father who packed on pounds to qualify for WWII service; early flirtations with jazz trumpet; becoming a champion wrestler at Princeton, a Naval aviator; marriage and children almost qualifying for the 1956 Olympic team in wrestling, before a blown-out shoulder forced him to restrict his grappling activities to smoke-filled rooms in Washington.

By page 64, Rumsfeld has become one of the youngest congressmen in history, elected at age 29 in 1962, his only prior political experience being a brief stint working for two other congressmen shortly after graduation. His first act in Congress—actually before he was even sworn in—was to help unseat a ranking Republican, installing in his place a man whose paths would cross with Rumsfeld repeatedly over the next 20 years: Gerald Ford. Indeed, their career paths proved almost telepathic; as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld would help inaugurate the USS Gerald R. Ford, which occurred right near the end of the former President’s life.

Rumsfeld emerges in these pages as one of the premier talent-scouts of his time. He was brought into the White House by Richard Nixon, who had a similar gift. Among those he helped bring into public life were future SecDef Frank Carlucci, future New Jersey governor Christie Todd-Whitman and future Senator Bill Bradley, who became the recipient of a campaign contribution from Rumsfeld during his Democratic nomination fight against Al Gore in 2000. (It speaks to the man’s mental agility that he could write a check to Bradley’s primary bid while making clear his commitment to beating him in the general election.) At the top of the list, of course, is one Richard Bruce Cheney, who was rejected in his first job interview for Rumsfeld but went on to become his most trusted deputy and a lifelong friend. With an almost paternalistic eye, Rumsfeld does more to humanize Cheney is this book than probably every (non-related) person in the world, combined. He even taught Rummy’s oldest daughter to drive!

Incidentally, Rumsfeld inadvertently helped set off the sequence of events that would lead to the legendary meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley. They met inLas Vegas, backstage after a concert where Rumsfeld and his wife had been surprised with front-row tickets by (believe it or not) their good friend Sammy Davis, Jr., who’d bonded with Rumsfeld over a shared commitment to minority outreach in the Nixon years. It’s the kind of thing that seems to only happen to Don Rumsfeld, and often.

Rumsfeld is perhaps at his best while writing about those crucible years that formed his vision of government and many of his key alliances—those tumultuous eight years he served during the administrations of Nixon and Gerald Ford. His appraisal of Nixon’s talents is tempered by Rumsfeld’s early assessment of the vulnerabilities that would eventually destroy his presidency; he plays a similar (though more sympathetic) role in regard to Nixon’s successor, of whom the worst that can be said is that he failed to do a job that was probably impossible, to begin with.

Rumsfeld served Ford in several capacities: chief of transition, Chief of Staff, and the youngest SecDef ever. But he prefers to characterize his job as “Javelin Catcher”. He spends much time documenting internal disputes, both of policy and procedure, with the great Henry Kissinger and the not-so-great Nelson Rockefeller; the latter, he calls “the most difficult personal relationship I experienced in all of my years in the executive branch of the federal government”, which is saying a lot.

Rumsfeld was present on each of the three occasions within a six-week span in which Ford, by all rights should have died. The gun jammed when Squeaky Fromme tried to shoot him, but Sara Jane Moore’s bullet flew from 40 feet right between the heads of Ford and Rumsfeld. A month later, Ford’s motorcade was caught in a chain-reaction that saw his limo hit three times within seconds, each time throwing passengers around in a cab without their seat-belts. Conspiracy theorists have often attributed these incidents to Rockefeller’s thwarted presidential aspirations, but Rumsfeld keeps it classy and avoids making insinuations that, had he made them, would have carried some weight. (He also glosses over the experience of being nearly killed in a rocket attack on the ambassador’s residence in Beirut, in that pivotal year of 1983.)

Rumsfeld appears to have a special skill for seeing the roots of a person’s undoing months or years before they do. Hindsight is 20/20, but the record indicates his thoughts were made clear early on, whether it’s LBJ’s slippery conduct in Southeast Asia, the Watergate cover-up, the personnel issues that would undermine Ford’s effectiveness, or Jimmy Carter’s weakness in countering Soviet aggression.

Rumsfeld’s wilderness years were profitable, with eight served as the CEO of G.D. Searle & Co., where he presided over a five-fold increase in the stock price, brought dry aspartame to market as “Equal” after five years of FDA regulatory limbo, then spun off its liquid form as NutraSweet and inked an exclusive deal to supply it as the key ingredient in Diet Pepsi. He increased Searle’s stock price and annual earnings fivefold, and earned a reputation as one of the country’s toughest and most effective corporate executives at the peak of the CEO cult. In 1990, he became CEO of General Instrument Corporation, a company that, by his telling, would have introduced high-definition television (HDTV) a full decade earlier than it finally was, had they not been held back by government interference.

Given the years of simmering animosity between Rumsfeld and Poppy Bush, Rumsfeld’s selection as Secretary of Defense—which made him not only the youngest person to hold that spot, but also the oldest—was the first clear sign that Dubya planned to pursuing a much different course of leadership than his patrician, pragmatic father. It comes off as an almost Oedipal move, albeit the right one. While serving under Ford, Rumsfeld had initiated the system of Pentagon tours that now edify thousands every year; he literally opened the building up for the public.

Rumsfeld is a gifted wordsmith, as contemporary audiences are now fully aware; he is the only Cabinet official to ever have his words published in verse-form. He has a real knack for turning the perfect phrase, for saying things that capture the moment or the subject spot-on. For example, his description of Bill Clinton: “An intelligent man with excellent political instincts,Clintonhad a talent for locking you in his gaze and saying insightful things you were interested in hearing.”

The years encompassing the George HW Bush and Clinton years are glossed over in about five pages. More time is given to the tragic Presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose victory over Ford sent Rumsfeld into the business world, but that is only to give a fuller accounting of Carter’s many shortcomings. Rumsfeld is quick to repeatedly distinguish between a leader’s personal style and their professional capabilities—a refreshing change in this era, where the two are often viewed as one and the same.

Rumsfeld’s recollections of 9/11 and its aftermath as reflected in US foreign policy begin on page 331, in Chapter 25 (“The Agony of Surprise”), and continues for the remaining 400 pages of the text. This is the meat of the book, and it is quite the stuff for chewing on, like the finest homemade jerky. His viewpoints contribute mightily to the historical record of that day, and reveal how fortuitous it was to have had him in service at such an important time. For example, he clarifies the issue of whether orders had been given to military jets to shoot down hijacked aircraft; they had, by Cheney at Bush’s command. Rumsfeld pressed to ensure clarity of those orders,

The counter-terror strategy essentially coalesced around him that day. He went to CIA chief George Tenet for actionable intelligence, and counseled the President on the words he used to explain the situation to the people; he notes repeatedly his disdain at the terrorists being characterized as “cowards”. He also pressed immediately for real action not just to punish the perpetrators, but to actively deter others from following their path.

The battle, for him, began before the attacks themselves. Rumsfeld had correctly presaged these issues during his time as Reagan’sMiddle Eastenvoy. He’d just finished briefing congressional leaders on the growing terror threat minutes before the Pentagon itself was hit. He watched the second plane hit shortly after they left, the soon felt a jolt that exposed the business at-hand straightaway.

Rumsfeld remained in the building most of the day, against the wishes of others who thought it unsafe; the idea that one of the most impregnable structures ever build would be considered then unsafe speaks to the magnitude of the event. He notes that the part of the Pentagon hit was half-empty for renovations and had just had reinforcements installed, saving many lives there. More ominously, he also mentions that had the plane stayed higher, flying over the center to hit the older, more crowded opposite side, most of the Pentagon command structure would have been killed instantly, including himself. It almost makes you wonder if that had been the attackers’ intent.

The book begins with the thing for which, despite all else, Rumsfeld is most likely to be remembered for: his unfortunate photo-op with Saddam Hussein in 1983, a picture that has been cited as proof for countless conspiracy theories, some of which may be true. Rumsfeld situates the infamous handshake photo within the broader context of America’s delicate and largely disastrous balancing act in the Middle East during that era, a dynamic that came to head with the truck-bombing that killed 241 Marines a few weeks earlier. He makes a key assertion that Osama bin Laden’s plan to destroy the towers was inspired by that attack, and that he began planning it much earlier than previously thought. It appears that he and Rumsfeld were the only ones on earth who read the tea-leaves inBeirut. In 1990, Saddam’s invasion ofKuwaitoccasioned the formal split of mujahidin forces from their enablers inWashington, locking bin Laden onto the jihadist track.

All political memoirs are highly subjective, necessarily so, but Rumsfeld shows a real rigor for self-assessment, which he’s raised to a high art. He’s as quick to point out his own mistakes as he is others, while carefully avoiding the temptation to present all choices through the prism of hindsight. He is especially vivid in recapitulating the hard decisions involved in the planning an execution of policy in post-warAfghanistan and Iraq. People like Condi Rice, Colin Powell and Paul Bremer are singled out for their role in blocking what Rumsfeld saw as his productive suggestions regarding the need to put a more obvious Iraqi face on the occupation, an error that he asserts led directly to the rise of a brutal insurgency that took years to neutralize.

A 70 year-old man pulling 12-hour days, seven days a week for almost six years doing some of the most mentally and emotionally challenging work possible is not there to play games. Beneath the smiles and grandfatherly charm is martial discipline and cold steel—Hattori Hanso meets Don Draper. Quite appropriately for the memoir of the greatest Secretary of Defense ever, this book makes a handy weapon; interrogators need never reach for a phone book again. Not only does it contain 52 pages of footnotes, 84 illustrations and over 1,400 footnotes (not to mention two pages just for deciphering the alphabet soup of acronyms referenced in the text), but the author stocked Rumsfeld.com with more supplementary material gleaned from exhaustively-compiled records.

Rumsfeld personally “consulted with” at least 73 of his colleagues, including 21 military officers and such luminaries as Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, John Negroponte, George Shultz and Paul Wolfowitz. It’s almost like he expected major scrutiny of his every word and, in the spirit of his former bosses, made his best effort as preemption. He takes clear pleasure in countering perceptions of certain people and situations. This is the work of a man used to working 15-hours days at a stand-up desk. Now, with a major component of the War on Terror now officially over, Rumsfeld’s recollections of the beginning are even more compelling.

www.rumsfeld.com

sheltonhull@gmail.com; May 2, 2011

“Time Out”@50: the Liberal-Conservative Legacy of Dave Brubeck

Standard

Dave Brubeck’s 1959 album Time Out is one of the landmark recordings in jazz history. For that reason alone, the 50th anniversary of its release merits celebration. But, on a larger scale, Time Out represents a major development within American culture, one that was crucial to inducing the seismic shifts to occur in our country during the tumultuous 1960s that followed. While it is likely that such shifts would have occurred anyway, with or without Brubeck’s contributions, a strong case can be made that his group, and its most important work, helped accelerate progress on several fronts, advancing the cause of racial harmony while opening the door for later musical innovations.

It is further worth noting that Brubeck’s achievements represent, to a surprising degree, a triumph of conservative values: faith, family, hard work and self-reliance. His ideological compass has always remained pointed toward the California ranchlands of his youth—the kind of environment that was later famously embraced by President Reagan, who fully understood the symbolic value of his years of public brush-clearing and horse-riding. Reagan’s retreats to the ranch implied a desire to escape the Beltway’s rarefied air and reorient himself to the pioneer spirit which drove America’s development in its first century of existence. The simple beauty of such areas communicates an austere dignity that would surely impart perspective on the serious issues all Presidents must grapple with, and so it is make perfect sense that men as different in personality as George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt would embrace them.

For most of his early life—from childhood, through his years in the US Army and as a music student at Oberlin College—Brubeck existed firmly within the Tradition. Had he not caught the jazz bug early on, he might have ended up as a concert pianist working with symphony orchestras, or a composer of string quartets. He did eventually do a lot of work in these areas, but it was the worldwide acclaim earned as a jazzman that gave him the freedom to expand his musical horizons. Indeed, if his legacy could be summed up in one word, despite all his formalistic trappings, it would be “freedom”.

This legacy of freedom is being celebrated by Columbia Records, which recently reissued Time Out in a special three-disc package, on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the album’s original release. Suffice to say that, if you have never heard this music, then you owe yourself the pleasure of doing so; likewise, people for whom this music is old hat will still find value in its enhanced sound quality and the wealth of bonus material, including photos, performance footage and eight songs recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival between 1961-64. The highlight is an interactive tutorial in which Brubeck, now 89 years old, talks viewers through the melodies as he plays them.

The point of Time Out was to break out of the creative restrictions imposed on the jazz musician by strict adherence to the steady 4/4 beat that had characterized jazz since it first emerged from turn-of-century New Orleans. For the first 30 years of recorded jazz, that beat was maintained by the bass drum, replicating its role in the standard marching band, whose cadences and instrumentation were the basis of jazz early bands. Drummers of the 1940s New York scene, led by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, shifted the burden of time-keeping from bass drum to the ride cymbal, which opened up the sound and set the standard for what modern jazz would sound like. (The upright bass, adapted from symphonic orchestras, evolved to replace the tuba as a rhythm instrument early on, and typically reinforced the 4/4 beat; its time-keeping role expanded in modern jazz, as the drummers went further beyond the beat, leaving its reiteration to the bassist.) By the early 1950s, all instrumentalists had unprecedented creative freedom in jazz, and the race to find the next great innovation was as competitive as the Space Race.

The introduction of long-playing (LP) records in 1948 quadrupled the amount of time available on an individual record, opened up song structures and brought a vaster range of material to the marketplace. Traditional American musical forms—jazz, blues, gospel, folk—predominated; rock was growing commercially, but did not become a creative force to rival the others until 1964.

The singer Ian Svenonius noted years back that the largest jazz groups are only a quarter the size of symphony orchestras, which are roughly 100 people; Swing Era bands could be half that size, while modern jazz groups of the ‘40s and beyond are usually between three and six people. Today, many artists do huge business as solo acts. Prince, for example, played all 27 instruments on his debut album and for years only used his bands for performances. Computers allow many pop singers and rappers to make albums without using any actual instruments at all.

Traditional European and early American music is labeled with the catch-all term of “classical” largely because of our nation’s record stores. It doesn’t seem to rankle so badly as certain artists who reject the idea of “jazz” as an organizational concept, maybe because the LP ensured that such music would remain in circulation as the country went more toward smaller (and logistically cheaper) groups. Most Americans today would know nothing of classical music if not for LPs and their CD reissues, particularly of the versions recorded in the 1950s and ‘60s. Likewise, although one can see top-notch jazz music anywhere in the world most nights, the closest that most jazz fans can usually get to experiencing serious big-band stuff is CD, or the occasional festival.

Brubeck, who studied with Darius Milhaud at Oberlin, did the industry a favor by wearing his classical affinities on his cuff-linked sleeve. His grounding in that tradition was the impetus to bust out of the 4/4. Max Roach had recorded an entire album, Jazz In ¾ Time, in 1957, and several songs on Time Out are rooted in ¾, as well as the standard 4/4. “Three to Get Ready” is in 3/4 and 4/4. “Kathy’s Waltz” starts in 4/4, then goes into 3/8, while “Blue Rondo ala Turk” starts in 9/8, with Desmond’s solo in 4/4.

Other tracks switch-up the rhythms more explicitly. “Everybody’s Jumpin’” and “Pick Up Sticks” are in 6/4. “Take Five” stays in 5/4 over its five-plus minutes, with Morello’s drum solo the definitive explication of that beat. “Strange Meadowlark” opens with a Brubeck solo running over two minutes with no set time whatsoever—a nod, perhaps, to the nascent free-jazz scene, or to Lennie Tristano, whose solo recordings “Spontaneous Combustion”, “Requiem” and “Turkish Mambo” anticipated much of this.

Take Five has no shortage of highlights, staring with “Take Five”, which is simply one of the greatest songs ever recorded. A masterpiece of dramatic tension, it was an instant classic when released as a single, becoming the first million-seller in jazz history; the album itself would soon follow. To this day, media references “Take Five” to invoke feelings of class and sophistication; it was famously used to launch Infiniti automobiles in America, with cool narration by British actor Jonathan Pryce.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet functioned as a unified whole, working together 16 years, yet each member has distinguished himself as a master of his own instrument. Bassist Eugene Wright is easily overlooked, as he played with little flash and almost no solos, but a close listen reveals how crucial his work was. He kept the group’s forward-reaching sound rooted in the fundamentals, which he learned from the best in hot spots like Kansas City and his native Chicago. Together, Wright and drummer Joe Morello comprised one of the all-time greatest rhythmic tandems, easily ranking up there with such towering twins as Walter Page and Jo Jones (Count Basie); Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer (Duke Ellington); Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (Miles) Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones (Coltrane); Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins (Coleman); Mingus and Dannie Richmond; Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian (Bill Evans).

Naturally, a record built around rhythmic complexity puts special pressure on the drummer, and Morello attained legend status with his work on Time Out. His brush-work on “Everybody’s Jumpin’” anchors a brilliant piece that holds up just fine against its adjacents. “Take Five” is one of the rare examples of a major pop hit built around a drum solo; the other notable case would be “Sing Sing Sing”, an epochal Swing Era anthem by Benny Goodman (and a star-making vehicle for drummer Gene Krupa), recorded in 1937. Like Desmond’s earlier on the same track, musicians and students know their solos better than some know their best friends.

As for the leader himself, Brubeck’s playing is spare but efficient, each note pressed for maximum resonance. His solo on “Kathy’s Waltz” is strictly old-school, with hints of Ragtime, while those on “Three to Get Ready” and “Everybody’s Jumpin’” sound downright modernistic, with overt references to future label-mate Monk.

Ultimately, the real star of the album is alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (1924-1977), a fellow Californian whose musical partnership with Brubeck lasted over 30 years. His sound, which typically enters after a few bars’ introduction by Brubeck, dominates the quartet’s output. Desmond is often dismissed by purists for a coolness of tone that can sometimes border on the antiseptic, but the quiet intensity of his playing can be lost on ears trained to listen for strain, sweat and other signifiers of serious effect. If Desmond’s style sounds effortless, it is only because of rigorous practice. After his death, the author of “Take Five” left his split of royalties to the American Red Cross, which receives annual royalties in the low six figures.

1959 was a year of explosive growth in jazz, and Time Out was just one of at least three major events that year. Columbia also issued Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue, which marked the emergence of a new approach to harmony based on modal scales; this gave the soloist—Davis himself, most notably, as well as collaborator Bill Evans—access to unprecedented emotional range, a major factor in the current perception of jazz as a “romantic” music. Due to the constant reissues over the decades, the prevalence of bootlegging and the pervasiveness of digital downloading, it may be impossible to determine which of these is, in fact, the most successful jazz album of all time; yet both helped shift the business model firmly toward the LP, which had only been around for about a decade at that point.

John Coltrane, who spent five years in Davis’ group, played on Kind of Blue, but his sideman work was soon eclipsed by the Atlantic Records release Giant Steps. After years of rigorous experimentation, 1959 saw the emergence of Coltrane’s mature sound, and he would go on to be, arguably, the last true giant of jazz music, a figure whose very name still inspires devotion that borders on the religious, over 40 years after his death. On the surface, it would be impossible to find two more different men, in terms of tone, technique and temperament, than Coltrane and Paul Desmond—but at the intersection of their styles, as heard on these three albums, one hears the future.

1959 also included major works by Ornette Coleman, who along with Coltrane helped bring Free Jazz to fruition, and Charles Mingus, who recorded three brilliant albums for Atlantic that year. Max Roach had already been first to record pianoless groups, and among the first to openly lobby for civil rights through his music; and Thelonious Monk, whose rhythmic and harmonic innovations made him, in essence, the father of modern jazz. The fact that all these men, with volatile personalities and deep-set musical tastes, all gave respect to Brubeck speaks to his chops and credibility.

Brubeck is rightfully lionized by the left for his role in helping to shape a world defined by JFK’s “New Frontier” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. In generational terms, the Baby Boomers’ collective self-definition is rooted in the 1960s, for better and for worse, and jazz artists like Brubeck, Coltrane and Davis are thus regarded almost as highly as the rock bands that would ultimately dominate the American music scene.

 The primary beneficiary of the commercial growth of jazz music was the African-American community, which got its first taste of the free market and was soon able to alter the widespread perceptions of the white majority, and ultimately obliterate many vestiges of racial prejudice in this country. Jazz was the wedge that forced integration; as more and more of the top draws—Goodman, Krupa, Artie Shaw—integrated, and others insisted on playing for integrated audiences, bigotry took a backseat to box-office. By the time of Time Out, integrated bands weren’t exactly commonplace in the US, but they were hardly unusual. Norman Granz’ “Jazz At the Philharmonic”, for example, toured the country with all-stars of all races.

The other major beneficiary of jazz music’s global presence was the United States government, which quickly recognized the value of a uniquely American cultural export. Brubeck, who served briefly under Patton in the Army, would become a front-line soldier in a war of ideas, spreading his vision of musical and personal freedom around the world, often directly in collaboration with the State Department.

The arrival of Louis Armstrong in Europe in 1927 basically introduced jazz to the world; a handful of devoted critics and musicians had imported stacks of jazz records from New York for distribution in London and Paris. By the time Duke Ellington’s band made the same trip, in 1932, jazz had become its own cottage industry, with magazine and radio shows catering to the market, as well as the first generation of European jazz musicians. For the first time, America had a cultural product to compete with Europe, and in this realm we remained well ahead.

The assault on jazz by totalitarian regimes—first the Nazis, then the Soviet Union—only enhanced its appeal to youth across Europe, many of whom risked death to continue playing such music. By this point, the old world had produced its own masters like guitarist Django Reinhardt, while American musicians like Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet had emigrated (not unlike the Japanese who brought judo to the west). World War II brought hundreds of current and future jazzmen into Europe and Asia, either as combat troops or in some musical capacity. The music of the war years deserves its own category in the lineage, but by decade’s end American jazz had become the new music of choice not only throughout Europe, but also in Japan.

Like rock and rap, which came along later, jazz began as an indigenous form of expression within the minority community, then “crossed-over” to become the primary vehicle of white rebellion—a means of drawing cultural lines between generations. Jazz was viciously attacked by the mainstream in the 1920s and ‘30s; such criticisms read now as time-capsule pieces of hyperbolic calumny. By the 1950s, the US State Department saw fit to give jazz its ultimate stamp of legitimacy by backing some leading musicians on international tours conceived as propaganda for post-war America. It was a textbook example of how “soft power” worked in the nascent Cold War.

Penny Von Eschen’s excellent 2002 book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press) offers a definitive look at the program, organized in 1955 by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and US Rep Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), whose district encompassed the epicenter of modern jazz. Dizzy Gillespie’s second great big band took the first trip in March 1956, covering parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. According to the program’s website: “In 1956, 1960 and 1961, Louis Armstrong [toured] Ghana (then the British Gold Coast), Congo, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, and the United Arab Republic. In 1963, 1970 and 1972, Duke Ellington toured the Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, and Africa.”

These musicians and others—including Carter, Coleman, Davis, Goodman, Mingus, Charlie Byrd, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Quincy Jones, Roland Kirk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughn and Randy Weston—traveled to the far corners of the musical world before the program ended in 1978. Many such areas were suspicious of western interests, and sometimes openly hostile. George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, was enlisted for logistical support. Brubeck was, of course, a major attraction.

In 1958, his quartet toured Sweden, Turkey, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Brubeck’s gigs in Poland that year, repeated in 1970, are considered key moments in the spreading of jazz into the Soviet Bloc. Cadres devoted to “improvised music” began sprouting in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and Hungary soon after, while at least one major group (the Ganelin Trio) made great jazz in Russia itself. He and Armstrong later collaborated on The Real Ambassadors, a musical and recording based on their experiences, in 1961-62.

The musicians and artists in Eastern Europe (with support from sympathetic parties in the west) drove the engine of progress away from Communism and became totems in the way Charlie Parker was for the Beatniks, or Coltrane was for the Black Power movement. Their records were being smuggled into the West long before the Iron Curtain finally fell, at which point those scenes exploded into the creative powerhouses they are today. When Brubeck and other older jazzmen appear in Europe today, they are held to a similar status as their own native masters.

Japan got its introduction to jazz from occupying American soldiers, and has never lost its taste. As domestic sales of jazz records slumped hard in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Japanese (typically) provided a vital commercial lifeline, helping to keep it vital long enough for the resurgence driven by CD technology. CDs, of course, were invented by the Japanese, while companies like JVC, Polygram and especially Sony bought up all the major jazz catalogs (Verve, Mercury, Blue Note/Capitol, Columbia) to be reissued in their new format. Every American who values their native culture owes a debt of thanks to those Japanese who rescued all that music from likely extinction.

Leading the way among the reissues that began flooding the market, well past the point of cultural saturation, were Columbia’s valedictorians from the class on ’59, Kind of Blue and Time Out, each of which has been re-released in increasingly completist form at least a half-dozen times (including box sets), while their lead singles, “So What” and “Take Five” have become standards. Both retain almost all of its original freshness and potency, despite three generations of innovation that followed its release. In the case of Time Out, time itself has only burnished the luster of an album dismissed by many top critics upon its release; very few would bother to raise any objection now.

sdh666@hotmail.com

October 9, 2009