Sunday, December 29, 2013

Before the Jihad VII


Again, a poke at the world. I thought it might be time to let you in on one of the projects I have been developing on the side, this with some international implications.  Several winters ago I happened to get into a conversation before a meeting in Tampa with the speaker of the evening, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the brother of the Saudi king and for decades the Saudi chief of intelligence.  A quick, accessible, genuinely urbane gentleman in his sixties -- the prince was educated at Deerfield and Georgetown --, Prince Turki gave me his card and invited me to continue to exchange ideas with him via the internet.  Once he was back in Riyadh I followed that up, and we have since gone back and forth as several issues between our countries have surfaced.

For many years Prince Turki has functioned, mostly behind the scenes, as a principal wirepuller throughout the Middle East.  His attempts to broker and direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can easily be tracked in Steve Coll's indispensable volume Ghost Wars. With that in mind I wrote him in March of 2012 to empathize the extent of war-weariness that prevails in the United States at the moment and suggesting that "If indeed you do have a degree of contact with the Taliban leadership, now would be the time to reactivate it."

He wrote back:  "My relationship with the Taliban ended on a sour note.  They refused to hand over Bin Laden to me which let to the Kingdom suspending relations with them...I am fully retired and have no wish to have any contact with the Taliban."

We moved on.  When a New York Times interview with the prince led him to remark that the apparent withdrawal of American commitment to the region raised the possibility of a Saudi atomic bomb, I wrote him urging him to reconsider.  Atomic weapons were "yesterday's nightmare," I stressed, costly at every stage and turning their possessors into targets.  He got back within a day or two, thanking me for my commentary, which he had circulated among his brothers and which he said had had an impact.

On December 18, submitting to an interview with Steven Erlanger of  The New York Times, Prince Turki noted that "We've seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white."  He called the world's failure to stop the conflict in Syria "almost a criminal negligence."  The Saudis were turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council in protest against big-power veto power.

I tried another e-mail.  "There is a profound disconnect here," I wrote the prince.  "As the Kingdom appears to back away, policy-makers in Washington who are already troubled by the increasing presence of the jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition and alert to the profound war weariness of the American public after our expensive and feckless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They see us as increasingly isolated, again at the point of being dragged into another conflict....  There is a general feeling here  -- and one that extends across the political spectrum -- that if it is to come to boots on the ground in Syria, they ought to be Saudi boots, or Turkish boots, or Jordanian boots...we are at the end of the cycle."

I held my breath after that:  pretty direct stuff.  A reply came back.  "Mr. Hersh," the prince wrote, "Thank you.  ...a super power does not always see the others in the room.  Saudi Arabia's concerns are global....  America's unsolicited red line stand is what led not only the Kingdom , but the rest of the world to expect action.  The sudden reversal is what led to anger.  No one has asked for American boots on the ground.  What the Kingdom expects is consistency and consideration.  Raising expectations and then dashing them does not keep or win friends.

What the prince's graceful if forceful reply leaves out is that fact that Obama's threat worked:  The danger from Syria's stores of poison gas was eliminated, and without sending in the Tomahawks. The fact is, the ground in Syria is shifting.  "The hope is," I responded to Prince Turki's incisive comments, "that the current negotiations with Iran lead to at least a partial demilitarization of the region, with some diplomatic settlement in Syria.  I suspect that the fear of Al Qaeda elements will entice policymakers here to prop up Assad and stage new elections."

Not long after I wrote that I had the chance to exchange ideas with Christopher Hill, our last ambassador in Iraq.  His expectations paralleled mine.  Perhaps our most experienced diplomat in the Middle East, Hill is extremely skeptical about the consequences of the "Arab Spring" and worried about the price we will have to pay once again trapped in the region-wide Sunni-Shiite civil war. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas production is on the upswing while our consumption falls. Prince Turki no doubt has grounds to be worried.

Best to all of you for 2014.

Burton Hersh  


Monday, December 9, 2013

Dealey Plaza Revisited II


So we meet again, huddled around the lavapit.  The fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination has come and gone, but vapors continue to rise.  Let us investigate further.

One upshot that this reinvigorated national interest in JFK and the Kennedys appears to have encouraged is a movement to revise and sanitize history, to rub away elements of reality that boosters, or the family, or implicated elements of the power structure continue to find uncomfortable.  In my last blog I alluded to the insistence by Joe Kennedy's latest biographer, Professor David Nasaw, that Joe had nothing to do with the American underworld throughout his long, contentious career.  The fact is, there is a compounding record, from FBI documents to testimony by Joe's co-conspirators in the underworld to relatives of the Ambassador -- one, John Davis, refers without apology to Joe as "a bootlegger" in his important books, while another, Gore Vidal, recounts in his memoirs having walked in on Joe and Frank Costello, the boss of the New York crime families, both bollicky bareass on adjacent tables in Joe's apartment off Central Park South being ministered to by a Teamster masseur.  Gus Russo's solid books document Joe Kennedy's traffic with the Chicago Outfit virtually week to week once JFK was in play.  Hearsay, Professor Nasaw would maintain, not from authenticated documents.

When my book Bobby and J. Edgar came out I got mail from experts of every political persuasion.  Conservative Richard Whalen, whose The Founding Father stands as definitive on Joe, called it "A major contribution to the vast literature of the Kennedys.  I believe that [Hersh's] original research on [Joe Kennedy's] secret mob connections and his bootlegging career among other revelations shed important new light on this mystery-shrouded subject."  Robert Maheu, Howard Hughes' uniquely connected longtime alter ego, who reintroduced the CIA to the principal chiefs of the Mafia, wrote, "This is an amazing book.  It covers the history of the period to a depth I've never run into before."  

Before my last blog even got distributed I got a telephone call from the deeply affronted Professor Nasaw.
What seemed to offend him most was my observation that his biography was "Apparently sponsored by Jean Smith, Joe's surviving child...."  Nasaw would admit that he had been prompted to write the book by Smith, and that arrangements had been finalized by a brief talk with Ted Kennedy.  Then there had been an exchange of lawyers' papers, with the understanding that Nasaw was to receive complete access to Joe's papers in the Kennedy Library but was under no obligation to let the family vet the manuscript.  Webster's defines sponsorship as "person or agency that gives endorsement or vouches for some person or thing."  Let the reader parse the implications. Having myself had total access to Joe Kennedy's papers -- no lawyers, no pre-arrangements -- I discovered even in this well-culled archive a number of letters back and forth with everybody from well connected Mob affiliates to the senior economist on Hermann Goering's staff.  You just had to know who was who.

Another development that should prove alarming to civil libertarians is the takeover by right-wing billionaires of what had previously been comparatively free-wheeling media outlets.  For years The History Channel explored alternative versions as to what happened when JFK was shot, even featuring the recollections of a previously unknown girlfriend of Oswald's from New Orleans, with whom Oswald supposedly conducted cancer research  the summer before the shooting. Some were on target; others would be harder to substantiate.  Then Rupert Murdoch bought the outlet.  From then on -- straight Warren Commission apologia, no investigative reporting whatsoever.

More recent was a Nova segment built around the testimony of a father-son team of purported ballistics experts, Luke and Michael Haag, who claim to base their conclusions as to the validity of The Magic Bullet projection on recently developed laser and Doppler technology.  Their reading presumes that Kennedy was leaning forward when the fatal shots were fired and that he took a bullet at the base of his neck, both presumptions nullified by the Zapruder and other films of the event and the findings of Dr. Charles Cranshaw, the surgeon at Parkland Hospital who examined the stricken president immediately after he was brought in and determined that the first bullet hit him in mid-back.  The back of his head was gone, an exit wound the size of a cantaloupe. Most observers, including Kenny O'Donnell and  Dave Powers, riding in the car behind the president, saw the muzzle flash from the fence above the Grassy Knoll and watched the back of JFK's head fly off, with Jackie scrambling to grab her husband's skull and brains bouncing along the trunk of the convertible.  Both Governor Connally and his wife insisted that there were two shots from the rear, then one from the front -- a conspiracy.  When the U. S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations studied the evidence, it came to the same conclusions.

The Haags would maintain that the bullet from Oswald's old mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle "came out" of JFK and "started tumbling...and that's how it hit Connally...these are not really tough shots."  Oswald. they claim, was a crack shot and could have hit these moving targets several hundred feet away, through heavy foliage.  The fact was, Oswald was a limited shooter -- he barely qualified on the range as a Marine, a "marksman," and hadn't been practicing regularly.  Marine sharpshooters were unable to duplicate these "not really tough shots," and in their laboratories FBI technicians were unable to get Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano to fire.

What is most notable about this "expert testimony" is that it appeared on Nova at all.  Perhaps there is something of an explanation in the fact that David Koch, bankroller of hard-right causes across the board, is now a principal underwriter of the PBS series.  Another -- of three -- is the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation.  In America these days, our history is apparently turning into what Big Money decides it is.

Keep those Christmas lights on!

Burton Hersh


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dealey Plaza Revisited


Yes, yes, I know.  It has been too long a wait between blogs, my flock is parched for spiritual relief, the worry is universal that the well might have gone dry.  Be not afraid.  More opinions, more shafts of insight are on the way.  In the end even the most ardent are likely to feel thoroughly shafted.

Partly the problem has been the maddening internet, where the infatuated elves can't leave well enough alone. Partly it has been the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination.  I have been doing a fair amount of speaking, for the media and a number of groups, so you have been a little neglected, oh my faithful brethren.

But here we are.  I realize that I have growled and thrown my weight around on this subject before, but what with all the adulation the Kennedy era seems to have pulled in around us this week we are probably overdue for another look, a consideration of what really happened, and when, and why.

In a piece that appeared a week ago, November 17, in The Tampa Bay Times, I attempted to deal with several books that have appeared lately on the subject.  I brushed off Bill O'Reilly's featherweight bestseller Killing Kennedy as an atrociously researched puff piece.  Of more concern is the recently published biography by David Nasaw, The Patriarch.  Apparently sponsored by Jean Smith, Joe's surviving child, the author alleges that Joe had nothing to do with organized crime, that whatever people thought was based on gossip among mobsters.  Apart from my exhaustively footnoted biography, Bobby and J. Edgar, virtually every recent work of substance on the Kennedys has detailed -- and substantiated -- Joe's business, political and recreational involvement with organized crime throughout his fascinating career.  Others have now come forward -- Christopher Buckley, among many -- so this naive whitewash of reality probably won't stand up.

More than this sort of truckling misrepresentation of the family's history, another kind of opportunism threatens to corrupt our reading of our own past.  There is a rash of Kennedy conspiracy books out right now that amount to sand in the eyes of those who have long doubted the conclusions of the Warren Commission and have done courageous and important work to get at the facts.  One author maintains Kennedy's Secret Service driver turned and shot him dead.  Another book pins it all on Lyndon Johnson, with little solid evidence.  What all these works accomplish is to discredit the efforts of several generations of genuine investigative reporters who have tracked down the details over the decades and come up with proof of a comprehensive conspiracy, involving many individuals, in and out of government.  The public understands this. In the e-book edition of Bobby and J. Edgar that just came out with Basic Books I have laid out the many important facts that have surfaced recently.

Our history is what we were.  Our respect for its authenticity will determine what we are becoming.  The truth, as they say, is what sets us free.

A happy Thanksgiving to all of you,

Burton Hersh

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Return of Mother Russia


October is coming on, and it is time to overload the long-suffering old Mercedes wagon and hightail it for Florida.  A few words about the latest stages of the jihad.

On September 12, 2013, when it looked as if President Obama had red-lined himself into a corner by pledging to send  a barrage of Tomahawk missiles into Syria no matter what anybody --i.e., most responsible Americans -- wanted, deliverance came from an unexpected quarter.  President Vladimir Putin of Russia published a piece in the op-ed section of The New York Times in which he -- quite reasonably, it seemed to me -- dealt with the quandary into which we had backed ourselves.  He did maintain that Bashar Assad had not deployed those sarin-loaded missiles into the Damascus suburbs, and could not resist a poke at American "exceptionalism."   "When we ask for the Lord's blessing, we must not forget that God created us equal," Putin concluded.

Editorial response here was outraged, with a self-righteous John McCain railing on television about hypocrisy and ex-KGB thugs and by God we were exceptional.  In fact, as things appear to be working out, Syria is already in the process of being delivered of its gas and the shaky Obama presidency might yet survive with its reputation intact.

I haven't visited Russia recently, but in 1997 I was a member of a group of intelligence journalists and retired CIA operatives who were invited to spend a week in Moscow.  At vodka-fueled dinners with KGB veterans every night and days prowling the reaches of  Stalin's covert-warfare establishment, our Cold-War education was deepened.  I well remember the blood-soaked walls and overhead manacles of the Lubyanka basement.  Our hosts made it plain that times were hard, and any money we might find it in our hearts to spare....

Russia under Boris Yeltsin was tumbling into the chaos of the unrestricted free market.  Gangster capitalism was on the loose.  Oligarchs were grabbing off the oil resources.  We stayed at the Radison Hotel that overlooked the Kiev railroad station.  Long lines of old women in babushkas with tin cups were there night and day, begging for rubles from travelers. At the piano bar of the hotel somebody was playing jazz.  A small man sat in a club chair and was overhung by a couple of gorillas in long, black leather coats, both with Kalachnikovs slung from their elbows.  The small man, somebody told me, was the owner.  He had once had an American backer.After the Radison started to do business the American had appeared and demanded his cut.  The gorillas had cornered him and blown him all over the ceiling of the elegant Kiev Metro station.

Everybody was not happy.  My friend Thomas Powers introduced me to the editor of Izvestia, once a foremost journal of Marxist thought.  A reflective fellow, the editor saw nothing good in Russia's fall from Communism.  The whole country was a grab-it-in-the-dark party.  Once the week was over I took an overnight train, the legendary Krasnaya Zemlya -- the Red Arrow -- to St Petersburg. All night my fellow passengers kept banging on my compartment door, demanding in broken English to be allowed to see me, they had something I might like to consider....  Fortunately, I held out.

Everything was for sale.  In Saint Petersburg I was met by a tall, blonde woman in her forties who would cart me around for two days, with a lot of time at the Hermitage.  Afterwards she took me to my plane.  Stepping onto the tarmac, I pressed a fifty-dollar tip into her hand.  She looked astonished.  "And I didn't even have to sleep with you," she muttered, with evident relief.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is certainly no paradise.  But Putin has introduced a measure of shabby stability that appears to be enough for now.  Russia -- and America -- could be confronting worse.

Burton Hersh

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Publishing Has Cratered


Labor Day weekend, the long summer wanes.  Time, perhaps, to suspend my recent geopolitical rants and let things get personal. 

Of recent months I have been foraging for an agent -- the right agent -- to identify the right editor at the right book house to bring out a pair of sexy, electrifying novels I recently finished.  The response has been predictable.  Why not a proposal for another nonfiction work in the subject area -- politics, the intelligence community -- where my previous books have built my reputation, attracted a stubborn following?  Then, drafting in the wake of such a placement, perhaps a morsel or two of fiction might be slipped in sideways.  "...given the tough climate in general and the tougher climate for fiction in particular, editors look at sales histories" primarily, as one agent wrote me recently.

Demoralized as the survivors in publishing remain, I can't help concluding that they are dealing with the collapsing sales like a demoralized army stampeded into retreat -- by cutting their losses and permitting the slaughter to continue.  I wrote the agent back, pretty much as follows:.  "Nothing is going to rescue publishing," I opened, "from the economic sinkhole into which it is disappearing until everybody involved begins to understand how senseless and slack and self-destuctive the mentality of most people still left in the trade has become.  I've been writing and publishing books with major publishers since the sixtes; until recently they sold reasonably well -- certainly into five figures -- and built a solid following.

"What has obviously happened is that everybody on the commercial side of  publishing -- publishers, editors, agents, publicists -- has come to regard a manuscript as one more low grade commercial product they can process with whatever is left of their desultory staffs.  Few editors in the book houses have the interest or energy these days to read any material they are purportedly considering.  They want synopses, on-line attachments, which they can effortlessly delete before making the commitment of time and attention any serious book by a talented author deserves. It's all about categories -- how many copies did the last book sell, is the book pre-sold because some film star or controversial politician has his name on the cover.  The recent fiasco with Arnold Schwarzenegger's ghosted memoirs -- insiders tell me got a better than eight-million-dollar advance, and sold a handful of copies -- indicates why the editorial budgets of the major houses are vaporizing, and why there is little or nothing left to publish work of real literary promise."

The longstanding presumption that one of the  primary responsibilities of a senior editor is to identify raw talent and convince his bosses to support it through book after book until enough of the reading public catches on and the writer turns into an important asset to the book house seems to have disappeared.  What has replaced it is the impulse to cannibalize another publisher and lure away a "name" writer -- very often somebody on his creative death bed -- or some outside celebrity with a lot of name recognition and very little else. Ghosted books, churned out on minimal advances, bloat the sagging market. Readers are catching on, and sales figures show that.

Everybody involved appears to have forgotten is that publishing is a collaborative venture and a calling of the heart.  It is about a lot more than numbers. Ultimately, when a book by a writer of genuine talent appears, it is up to the publisher, his editor, his staff, the agent, to invest enough time and money and connections in the work to give it a chance to surface, to catch the eye of the public and build up momentum.  The climate is "tough for fiction" because the deadbeats around the surviving publishing houses have no historical memory to suggest  to them what their predecessors did to improve the climate.  What publishers today seem to want exclusively is a sure thing, something prepackaged, no risk or dedication or time or effort expected.  Gutlessness -- and laziness -- sweep the industry.

People in publishing tell me selling books is hard.  It was always hard.  Publishers of talent and imagination equivalent to that of the best of their writers brought it off.  When such people return, and understand what their part of the process requires, literary America will return.  Millions of restless readers wait.

Imagination and hard work create industries.  When the interns and hangers-on along publishers' row start geting paid, perhaps motivations will improve. 

Enough sermonizing.  I feel better, even if you don't.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Before the Jihad VI


The rains are over, and the blistering heat has lifted from these friendly mountains.  Was climate change yesterday's delusion?  One might hope so, but....

Last week an alert went out to many of our embassies and consulates in the Near East.  Al Qaeda had been overheard on a conference call. The threat is getting worse, Senator McCain assures the Sunday audience.

Sometimes it's a good idea to run back over the history, especially the incidents we've tended to bury like road kill because they looked so unsightly.  Best to start with 1945, when F.D.R. and Ibn Saud agreed to trade the sweet Arabian oil beheath the Saudi sands for Pentagon protection.  American drillers moved in, and whenever the shadow of nationalization fell across business as usual -- Iranian moves by Mossadegh to recover ownership of the country's resources from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, predecessor of B.P. -- Westerners stepped in to turn that around, in this case Kermit Roosevelt of the fledgling CIA operating by British blueprints.  In time the Ayatollahs recovered ownership in 1989.  See my treatment in The Old Boys.

Early in the eighties, when a cataclysmic war broke out between Iran and Iraq, we had not forgotten.  Behind the scenes we backed Saddam Hussein, once a CIA protege, providing intelligence and arms.  Donald Rumsfeld was photographed regularly during his profitable     visits to Baghdad, uninterested, apparently, in Saddam's willingness to gas thousands of Kurds.  Weapons of mass destruction wasn't that important an issue during the Reagan years.

The crunch came during the nineties during the runup to Desert Storm.  Saddam, who maintained that the Kuwaitis were slant-drilling into the vast oil reservoirs beneath the South Iraqui oil fields, sat down with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, and posed the question, between allies, as to whether America would have any objection to a Saudi military action to take out the Kuwaiti drilling sites.  Glaspie didn't see any problem.  Saddam invaded; the first Bush administration brought down Desert Storm and left Iraq with much of its infrastructure destroyed and the Kurdish north of the country essentially autonomous, under CIA protection.

The second Bush administration came into office determined to finish what the first Bush administration had started.  All that oil! The pretext would be the threat to the West of purported weapons of mass destruction.  Saddam -- who had hit Israel with Scud missiles during Desert Storm and seemingly attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush -- was supposedly a threat, despite clear evidence from U.N. inspectors that Iraq had been cleaned out militarily by saturation bombing.  Meanwhile, after 9/11 a few detachments of CIA special operations troops moved into post-Soviet Afghanistan and appeared to take things over.

The Arabs were evidently easy targets.  We had soon captured Baghdad and in the process stirred to life a region-wide religious war that erupted as the Arab Spring and at this moment is convulsing Syria and Egypt. Time to look elsewhere.  Lacking a coherent energy policy, we have started to place our bets on tar-sands technology and fracking, both likely to poison the aquifers and release enough methane into the atmosphere to kill us off before climate change can fry us.  We are an inventive civilization.

Enjoy these last, balmy summer days.

Burton Hersh    

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Before the Jihad V


We exchange again.  Another fortnight of irregularities  -- problems with a vintage computer in The Mother Ship, our sprawling farmhouse built originally on this New Hampshire crossroads by an avowed Abolitionist in 1837 and updated every half-century or so, whether the ancient relic needed it or not.

Further musings about where and how we ought to involve ourselves in the chaos of the Middle East.  No doubt we'd better step back and size up what the Arab Spring has turned itself into.  The shift is becoming tectonic, the enormous subcultural plates -- Shia versus Sunni, traditional versus modern -- are heaving up one country after another, grinding on one another and producing political chaos.

For years a very prominent Pakistani diplomat, Jamsheed Marker, a pal of Musharrev and at one time Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, lived part of every year in St. Petersburg.  He became a friend.  The descendant of an old and wealthy Zoroastrian family, Marker confided to me once that these upheavals in the Muslim world seemed to be endemic.  Fanaticism took hold; from what he could tell it took some time -- seven years was typical -- before the fever passed and what could be regarded as normalcy returned.  The populations throughout the Middle East were not conditioned to anything like democracy, and some form of responsible autocracy appeared to work best.  Himself a deft negotiator -- he worked out the terms that finally ended the bloodbath in East Timor and created the resulting state -- Marker was a gifted and insightful analyst.

The upheavals in Syria and Egypt today certainly tend to bear Marker out.  In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood -- Morsi -- interpreted its victory at the polls as a mandate to bulldoze the judiciary, convulse the economy, force its radical Islamic precepts on the contemporary half of the citizenry.  Millions took to the streets and the country's wary military brought down a coup, a Putsch.  In Egypt the outcome is likely to be the return, without Mubarak, to what Sukarno liked to refer to as a "guided democracy," the sort of government our CIA ushered in to dump King Farouk during the fifties which led to the Nasser takeover.

Syria is more interesting.  Right now we have an open Shiite-Sunni civil war tearing the place apart.  Behind the Assad regime is Iran and Russia,
with effective elements of Hezbollah -- the Shia militants who blew up our Marine barracks in Beirut during the Reagan presidency and threaten Israel now with thousands of rockets -- starting to turn the fighting in Assad's favor.  Most effective on the rebel side are the al Nusra brigades, an arm of al Qaeda, itself the outgrowth of the mujahedin guerilla campaign we sponsored to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan when Bill Casey was CIA director -- Charlie Wilson's War.

Now, the ground having shifted utterly, strategic masterminds like Senator McCain keep pushing Obama to back these freedom-loving rebels, institute a no-fly-zone -- an expensive and difficult feat, requiring saturation bombing of airfields, heavy costs, and a huge commitment of vulnerable Western aircraft -- to back the anti-Assad forces.  For what, to entrench Al Qaeda in Syria?  They will no doubt dominate Afghanistan within a year or so in any case.  Do we want to invite two al Qaeda-controlled states into existence?

One recent development that ought to send up some kind of a flare is the outright public opposition by Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian entity that governs Gaza, to the rebels in Syria.  There are times in any Great Power's strategizing when it becomes apparent that own purposes are best served by permitting elements antagonistic to its own interests to have it out.  Let's you and him fight.  This is a cold-blooded, realist's approach, but it is clearly one that President Obama -- and the Israelis -- appear to understand.  Befuddled by so many decades of American "exceptionalism," too many decrepid, aging Cold Warriors and too many greedy corporate spokesmen in the West are eager to resupply yet another bloodbath.  As throughout our wasting, ill-fated march into Iraq, the facts on the ground speak for themselves.

This is not isolationism.  This is well-informed common sense.

Cheers.  Enjoy August.

Burton Hersh


Monday, July 15, 2013

Before the Jihad

Countrycommandos, Again, something of a delay. By spring this year the shingles on the Mother Ship were shearing off with every ice storm. This meant a new roof, with three layers of shingle, down to the ancient green hexagonals, landing for several weeks on the surrounding lawns and fields. Almost under control at this point. Memories of my trip across Turkey in the fifties kept recurring after the last blog. Turkey is a venerable crossroads of civilization; Istanbul itself has nourished thousands of years of civilization, including -- as Constantinople -- an era as the Alternate Papacy. The Turks are traditionally hard-bitten -- their performance with UN Forces during the Korean War left our commanders breathless. Islamic but oriented toward contemporary political thinking, NATO members, the Turks function as a kind of bridge between Europe and the faction-ridden Middle East. Many of the Ben-Gurion generation of Israeli founders picked up their law degrees in Istanbul. Throughout most of Israel's besieged existence Turkey has been a closet ally. Turkey came to mind recently at a small dinner party in Florida with a couple of retired, high-level State Department professionals. Syria came up -- should we get involved in the rebellion? These were seasoned policy-makers; they both came down hard: No! Even among the Cold-War generation, conditioned to alarm bells around the world, enough U.S. Excepionalism is enough. "The Turks are sitting right along the Syrian border, refugees are pouring in, they have some of the best military in the world and even the Islamist general elected president of Turkey is obviously hesitant. Uneasy as his government remains about the Kurds in Turkey, why would he add the Kurds in Syria to his sleepless nights? Why should we?" Perhaps we can learn. For all our claims to sophistication we are still meat-eating primates, easily tricked into picking up our clubs and storming across the river to commit genocide against the next village. If anybody doubts this, review the vote in the Senate in 2003 approving the resolution to invade Iraq. The WMD evidence was clear, and still Senators Kerry, Clinton and Biden went along with this march into quicksand. Even Ted Kennedy -- I had a hand in his decision -- wavered before he cast what he later called the best vote of his life and opposed the invasion. This would become important for his legacy -- see my book Edward Kennedy -- An Intimate Biography. Thoughts in a torrid July. Burton Hersh

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Before the Jihad II


We are there.  The ancient red Mercedes made the trip -- again.  Time to go after all those cowering hearts and minds it is our mission to awaken.  The following might well leave certain of you queasy, so jump off the dynamite wagon now before we skirt the cliffs.

These reflections grew out of another of those toxic sendalongs my cousin in Chicago makes sure I see.  Pushes the right buttons -- I suspect retirement has aroused his demonic side

This beauty is attrubuted to Don Cherry, a Canadian hockey commentator for CBC television.  Somebody apparently called in and asked what Cherry thought about torture of suspected terrorists.

"If hooking up one terrorist prisoner's testicles to a car battery to get the truth out of the lying "LITTLE =/+&*" will save just one life, then I have only three things to say:  "Red is positive, black is negative, and make sure his nuts are wet."

I took the bait.  "With contacts like yours, who needs shingles?" I wrote my cousin.  "Have you ever had your nuts wired up?  I came very close in western Turkey once, and it is reasonable to believe I wouldn't have appreciated it.  My CIA and FBI friends tell me that torture is the worst way available to elicit good intelligence.  The victim will tell you anything to make it stop, and send you on a wild goose chase while the threatened atrocity comes down.  What works is to win the prisoner over -- the right cell mate is often effective -- and keep him talking.  Hatred chokes off disclosure."

With a book in mind to follow up on my study of the early CIA, The Old Boys, I have been reading my way through contemporary intelligence literature.  Much concerns, inevitably, our conduct during the "War on Terror," which is our government's euphemism for its campaign against Muslim extremism.  President Obama, with his genius for walking gracefully on both sides of the street, often simultaneously, seems to have closed down the worldwide rendition parlors, to which the Bush administration consigned prisoners it intended to charm into disclosures with thumb screws, but pumped up the drone attacks.  The claim is made that every victim is meticulously identified, the moment is selected when a minimum of "collateral damage" might result, and pooh-bahs in the administration as high as Obama himself must sign off.

The fact is, under this president hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of "targeted killings" have been authorized  and executed.  The residual CIA and the burgeoning Joint Special Operations Command vie for assassination privileges.  What is becoming apparent, even to such professional hardasses as Generals McRaven and McCrystal, is that each of these murders is engendering perhaps hundreds of Al Qaeda recruits, given the character of Arab society.

Unlike us, atomized as we have become, the Mohammedan world is still largely organized into tribes, clans.  You kill a favored nephew, you take us all on, and all can number into the thousands.  Such computer-friendly techniques as "signature strikes" -- based sometimes on the presence of a group of young men algorithm programs have suggested might possibly be unfriendly and now known to be gathering in some marketplace in Waziristan -- have resulted in casualties high enough to inflame a village.  We have become radical Islam's best recruiters. Bin Laden's strategy was simple -- stir The Great Satan up, and he will bring on war.

All this is expecially true where many of those fighting are mercenaries, not subject to any nation's laws or the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  In his important book Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill points out that during Desert Storm one in sixty participants were mercenaries.  During the Iraq occupation one in three were "contractors," a frequently lawless, brutal bunch, at home in Abu Ghraib, many roustabouts from death squads from El Salvador and Chile to South Africa.  The population rose against us.

Torture really doesn't work on either a national or a personal level.  Don Cherry should go soak his head -- or his nuts -- and then reexamine his position.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Before the Jihad


Again, again.  It has been several weeks, and it will be several weeks, since we are on the brink of our semiannual Drang nach Norden, up to our ancestral fortification in hardcore New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die!").  Packing the elderly Mercedes.

This dispatch was triggered by one of those send-arounds the politically or culturally motivated release on their acquaintanceships, with instructions to forward to ten or twenty like-minded friends.  A cousin of mine, a devoted and very capable fellow, put me on the distribution list.

The title on the circular was:  "CAN MUSLIMS BE GOOD AMERICANS/CANADIANS?"  The answer was, resoundingly, NO!  Because -- I am selecting a number of the source's one-line responses at random -- "Geographically--no...Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five times a day....  Socially-- no.  Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews....  Politically --no... Because he must submit to the mullahs (spiritual leaders) who teach annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great Satan.  Domestically -- no...Because he is instructed to marry four Women and beat his wife when she disobeys him.  Intellectually -- no, Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt."

And on in this vein, ending with the admonition: "THE Armed Forces WANT THIS EMAIL TO ROLL ALL OVER THE U.S. & CANADA.  Please don't delete this until you send it on."

I wrote my cousin immediately:  "I don't know where you picked up this drivel, but it is historically inaccurate and philosophically toxic.  For a thousand years, when Europe was confining Jews in ghettos and worse, the Muslim world, from Cordova to Alexandria, was supporting and encouraging its Jewish and Christian communities and permitting Jews to flourish and survive the Crusaders and the Inquisitors who were attempting to destroy them.  My own personal acquaintance includes a prominent imam and a member of the Saudi royal family; when I was young I hitchhiked all over much of the Arab world, from Istanbul to North Africa, and several times my life was saved by kindly, well disposed natives.  Any responsible reading of the Koran reduces the statements you are propagating to gibberish.  Like Christinaity, Islam is a direct outgrowth of Jewish thought -- take a look at Leviticus if you have any doubt of this.  Both the Jewish and Christian  bibles are holy books within Islam.  All three Abrahamic religions share the same patriarch, the same spiritual roots.

Don't spread this poison.  You are much too civilized to lead people to believe you are an ignorant hate-monger."

The whole exchange jogged some memories.  There was that unforgetable incident in a lamplit alley in the Cahsbah in Tangier, when -- I was in my early twenties, and cheaper and even less likely to show signs of common sense than today -- a big Moorish bouncer with a knife attempted to collect the bar bill for a B-girl I had engaged in casual conversation.  Ugly, almost suicidal

There was the morning, early, when I was sleeping steerage, on the deck of a Greek freighter bound for Crete among a crowd of Muslim peasants crossing from the Piraeus for Ramadan -- I remember how loud the poultry, trussed upside down, was clucking -- and a little Greek sailor decided to pull the plug out of my air mattress.  I never have thought very clearly before breakfast.  Deeply irritated, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and grabbed the sailor by the seat of the pants and heaved him over the rail.  Other members of the crew charged me,  the surrounding Muslim passengers swarmed to my defense, and a brawl broke out.

By then I was waking up.  I didn't like the odds, so I pulled my stuff together and climbed up onto the upper deck and watched the melee below.  After a few minutes I felt something tugging my sleeve.  It was the little Greek sailor, who had climbed the rigging and pulled himself aboard.  Smiling, we watched the mob below fighting over our honor.

It was a different world; Americans throughout the Mid-East were respected, even venerated.  Our wars of overseas empire really hadn't begun.  If we really want to figure out why we are feared and detested in so much of the Arab world these days, perhaps we had better look beyond the Koran, or at least read it intelligently.

Next time from The Granite State,

Burton Hersh


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Giving It Away III


For lo, another dance around the Maypole.  I'm hoping to round off my commentary on what is changing in our society, too fast and in a highly destructive direction.

The hope and expectation -- Wall Street is huffing and puffing -- is that a conciliatory Fed and traditional economic cycles are pulling us out of what is referred to as "the worst recession since the depression."  I hope so, Lord knows I hope so.  Printing trillions of dollars and pouring them into federal bonds has supposedly raised the water-line enough so we can float back out to sea.  Our huge international corporations are electric with "productivity," which means finding ways to manufacture and distribute goods and services cheaper and without the labor costs heretofore associated with middle-class capitalism.  Profits are way up.

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan grabbed off the Democratic nomination for president by decrying the willingness of the Republicans to nail up the country on a "Cross of Gold." Gold meant the gold standard, the sine qua non to the plutocrats of his day.  This reverence for gold in our time equates to productivity.  The productivity we celebrate has been accomplished by a variety of methods -- off-shoring, automation, the dizzying and frequently dangerous rush into computerization of vital functions from financial bookkeeping to national defense.  Money is being saved.  But employment stays down, union wages are a memory, and millions and millions of competent people here are working for wages below what it takes to pay the bills.

Various remedies present themselves:  In China, where Apple I-phones are assembled, the workers reportedly line up every afternoon once their shift is completed for the oppportunity to climb the ladder at the back of the towering building and throw themselves off, one of the few corporate perks.  Options for the increasingly desperate middle class here are not a lot more attractive. The thousands who slave for minimum wage at McDonalds are routinely dependent on food stamps, which translates nicely onto the corporation's bottom line.  American taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald's worldwide expansion.

In America the arts have always been the canary in the coal mine, to coin a phrase, and surviving writers and painters and actors and film-makers are now wading around ankle-deep in dead canaries.  I hear it everywhere.  One friend, a seasoned director of movies for TV, tells me that the $120,000 he got to take on a film has now been cut back to $10,000.  He can expect to absorb the expenses.  Another friend with a worldwide reputation as a photographer of the great tells me that The New York Times, which once routinely sent him $250 to run one of his photos, now remits $2.50.  I'm told things are no better in the music business.

And writing?  I tried to suggest in a recent blog what sort of contracts writers -- myself included -- are expected to submit to.  When Poland was under the heel of the Soviets I visited a couple of times.  What the Soviets had not looted was given over to conditions that approached slave labor.  I heard the same joke several times.  A Red Army officer approaches a local workman.  "Give me your watch," the officer demands, "and I'll tell you the time."

Surviving publishers -- and, I am told, a number of agents, who seem to get quite upset when their charges hesitate to turn over years of work for next to nothing, forget the residuals -- appear to be reconciled to living off the land.  Work is so hard to sell that whoever is left is out there is cannibalizing the remains.  Books are increasingly being written on a "work for hire" basis -- a small guarantee out front, no secondary rights retained, a year's work pounded out in a couple of months, a rushed literary product that is effectively unreadable, little or no marketing effort, and the result all but disappearing on publication day. 

Here we have "productivity," the soulless exploitation of talent and resources, everything calculated toward the bottom line.   Is this the culture we make so many sacrifices to protect?  Perhaps we should reconsider.

If we still can.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Giving it Away II


I hope at least one of my recent offerings has left you somewhat bent out of shape.  Flexibility is important for those on the straight and narrow.

Evidence of the extent to which practitioners of any of the arts now find themselves on their own continues to compile.  A page-1 piece in the April 17 New York Times points up how widespread self-publishing is becoming among even celebrity authors.  David Mamet expects to put out his next fiction himself, since "as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity."

I doubt that this is a breakthrough Mr. Mamet sought. For the mid-list -- i.e. "serious" -- writer, the sort of support most publishers currently offer, combined with startling contracts that effectively confiscate many or most established subsidiary rights, has thrown the writing community back a couple of hundred years.  Thoreau and Whitman put out their own masterpieces. Perhaps we are returning to our roots.

Prospects continue to deteriorate.  Many years ago, when our children were young, I took them back to my boyhood neighborhood in Minneapolis to show them the Minnehaha Falls.  It had been a spring and summer of drought; the Minnehaha creek that fed the waterfall had pretty much dried up.  Below the Falls were small, shallow pools in which whatever carp and bluegills had survived were fanning back and forth, listlessly.  Youngsters from the neighborhood, mostly black youngsters from the nearby tenements and a handful of Chippewas, had waded in among the sluggish surviving fish and were stabbing them with glee and flipping them onto the mud of the banks with sharp sticks.  This was a scenario Longfellow missed.

Publishing has devolved into pretty much the same scene.  The banks of American Letters are strewn with what was once the talent of several generations.  Terms -- take it or leave it -- that until recently would have been regarded in the industry as as beneath contempt are thrown out there without apology.  Horrible work-for-hire contracts that leave any writer who hopes to eat regularly sure to go hungry before he grinds out the manuscript he had just taken on. Novels from which the film rights, and the foreign rights, and even the right to introduce the same characters in a subsequent book are scarfed up by the publisher.  Marketing -- publicity budgets, and often enough well-connected publicists themselves -- represent costs the publisher has largely sloughed off, leaving contact with the media to unpaid interns. Advances are token, if they are offered at all.  Any hope of future royalties are eaten alive by legalistic gobbledegook.

Agents, desperate for fifteen percent of something, appear to have gone along.  A few years ago, when a non-fiction book of mine turned out to do some business, two film producers turned up and tried to option the screen rights.  One spelled it out:  three thousand dollars for five years, serious money if and when a studio came forward and committed to the picture.  The producer had nothing more than several cut-rate biker movies to his credit, and my book dealt with politics at the presidential level.  I had thoughts of writing a screen play myself.  The option offer was minimal, but my agent felt this could work out, so I told him to go ahead and put the deal together.

The producer got back:  He had been thinking, and the best he could do was a fifteen-hundred-dollar offer to pick up the option.  I said no.  If this was the way the producer intended to do business, how could we depend on anything he passed along to us if there ever really was a sale?

My agent was upset.  He cut me loose.  The way he sized things up, fifteen percent of something, however token, was better than nothing, and I was acting like a sorehead..  My feeling was, why give something inherently valuable away?  Furthermore, the holder of the option was likely to resell it at a profit, and who could tell what scavenger was next in line?

So people in our trade are selling one another out all up and down the feeding chain.  It may be that the internet, so costly to so many of us, will become our salvation.

Interesting times, at least for the survivors.

More next time around,

Burton Hersh 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Giving It Away


Perhaps a bit late again.  Life intervened, especially a rocky week with a flu-like cold.  Back at it now.

The burden of my comment this week -- don't groan! -- is close and dangerous to my heart:  the state of professional writing in America.  Perusing a recent  -- March 18 -- New Yorker I came across a Talk of the Town piece by Adam Gopnik.  Philip Roth is now eighty and appears to have decided to stop using his brain, and his home town of Newark gave him a celebration.  Roth's has been a long run of important literary accomplishment.  He deserves his party.

Halfway into his piece, Gopnik observes that "Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer's occupation itself.  The future of writing in America -- or, at least, the future of making a living by writing -- seems in doubt as rarely before.  Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches.  It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

If anything, Gopnik underestimates the enormity of the predicament.  This has been coming on for a long, long time.  I made a living -- most of the way, a good living -- writing professionally starting in the middle sixties.  Even then there was a tendency, and even in the choicest markets, to reduce the writer of talent to a morsel, to attempt to flavor him up a little and then let the institution consume him.
I remember two long afternoons closeted with William Shawn, the reigning troll of serious magazine journalism and at the time the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, while he worked me over in his winsome and indirect way in an effort to get me to sign on to the magazine's bondage system -- I would attempt pieces for the magazine, its staff of editors -- each with a different colored pencil -- would mark up whatever I produced, and after the results had been processed to everybody's satisfaction the piece would go into the magazine's inventory, to be recalled -- possibly -- for some future publication.  I would not be permitted to offer it elsewhere.  While putting in this open-ended apprenticeship I would have access to a draw account of $10,000 annually, enought to live modestly on in the Manhattan of the time. 

Without agreeing,  I tried one piece for the magazine, entitled "In Quest of Squalor."  I followed a group of lady commissars visiting from the Soviet Union all over town and did a rather tongue-in-cheek sketch about their repeated disappointment at not finding capitalism the wreckage they thought it was. The piece didn't make the cut; Shawn's assistant, Patricia Nosher, wasn't amused. So that was that.

I moved on.  As early as my senior year in college I had signed on with an excellent literary agent -- Curtis Brown -- and in time a piece I tried on spec got bought by Ski Magazine, where the acute editor, John Fry, signed me up for a series of features.  All expenses paid, several thousand dollars each.  Then I ran into the editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, at a cocktail party in Greenwich Village and he asked me to stop by and talk.  My first treatment of the then-fledgling senator Edward Kennedy -- which the magazine ultimately anthologized -- was the result.   Esquire was hot -- major writers from Tom Wolfe to Norman Mailer were confirming their reputations there -- and my career was off and running.

I'm attempting to make several points here.  Even in those days, editors were looking to get a writer on the cheap.  Lock him or her up.  But there were also visionaries running the important publications who understood that they had to assist, encourage -- pay! -- talented people coming up, not muscle and confine them.  Literature in America flourished.  A significant career -- usually on the mid-list -- remained possible, although, more and more, academia was tempting away talent.

And now?  In literary terms, we are living in Dresden on the morning after.  Adam Gopnik should only know.  Gopnik to the contrary, everybody can't write, with or without a computer.  Real talent is very rare, our survival as a civilization depends on people who know the difference, and once we parch out completely it will be like sacrificing rainfall -- the end of the experiment.

Next time I'll be more explicit.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Banking on America


A change of pace.  Senate hearings last week into the investigation by Senator Carl Levin into the $6.2 billion-dollar bumble by J.P. Morgan Chase when its English office -- the London Whale --decided to speculate in derivatives behind the backs of federal regulators.  The scandal points up how far our major banks have wandered back into the inviting swamp we innocent taxpayers assumed we had left behind after TARP and the passage of the Dodd-Frank legislation.

Newspaper coverage suggests that even now, after all the mayhem, the Morgan bank is servicing well over a trillion dollars-worth of derivatives and credit default swaps.  One insider familiar with the boardroom at J.P. Morgan remarked that even the glib Jamie Dimon, the chairman, doesn't really understand how the treacherous market for derivatives and credit default swaps actually works, or what the risks are.  I know I don't.  I suspect that prayer is routinely substituted for judgement once the bets go down.

All this might be of slight -- academic -- interest were it not for the suspicion that the deadlocked Congress and the banking lobbyists have moved in and paralyzed banking in America altogether.  The specific regulatory apparatus that Dodd-Frank was supposed to impose on the too-big-to-fail banks has not been incorporated into the law yet, presumably not an accident.  The artificially low -- barely discernible -- rates the Federal Reserve System has perpetuated and made available to the banks make it easy for big-league bankers to borrow for almost nothing and immediately turn the money around and buy government instruments that pay them several points more than their borrowing costs.  Why involve the citizens?

Nothing in the TARP legislation seems to prohibit the banking system from feasting on its own tail forever while ignoring the desperate need for secure loans small businesses all over the country are experiencing if they are to expand and hire more people.  Since most of the jobs in America are provided by smaller companies, mandating that the banks loosen up and lend out a substantial percentage of their capital to these secondary enterprises would without question help greatly in addressing the "jobs problem" the Republicans keep talking about but slide away from dealing with by legislatively pushing their contributors in the banking community to loosen up and lend a lot more broadly.  The Democrats aren't much better. Not to mention the Federal Reserve System.

I was reminded recently of how all this affects folks on the street like me when I tried to remortgage a property I own in which one of my children lives.  The place cost $340,000 and the principal has been paid down to $260,000.  It is now appraised at $290,000.  I wanted to remortgage the $260,000 at current rates.   I went to a local bank at which I have taken out, and paid off, two mortgages over several decades.  My credit rating is perfect.

The bank was willing.  All I would be expected to do was put $300,000 in a frozen escrow account in the bank, drawing essentially no interest, and leave it there while the new mortgage was in force.  Then I could get a $260,000 mortgage, at a high rate.  My $300,000 would be released to me at the expiration of the new mortgage.

Inexplicably, I turned my friendly neighborhood banker down.  I had a problem with the terms. Today, throughout America, there are probably millions of homeowners and small businessmen and young entrepreneurs eager to bankroll a startup who find themselves locked out of the system, competing with the federal government for the capital they have to have to survive.  Both political parties appear to be beholden to Big Finance in America; Congress is unlikely to act.  The way to salvation is unmistakable, if unlikely.

Occupy Wall Street had a point to make.  Occupy Main Street is overdue.  Petite Bourgeoisie of the World, Arise!

Happy St. Patrick's Day,

Burton Hersh


Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Price of American Exceptionalism


Another week, another diatribe.  Even I think that it is time to leave Joe Kennedy in peace and shift gears.  A few reflections:

The debate rages as to whether we should intervene directly in Syria.  At least supply the rebels with air cover, weaponry, perhaps a no-fly zone.  It seems we continue to be afflicted with historical amnesia.  The panic after 9/11, followed by our misbegotten invasion of Iraq, compounded with the fallout after the Arab Spring, seems to have shaken us up too profoundly to think straight.  The notion that whatever happens anywhere, any crisis, any collapse of government or famine or outbreak of AIDS is somehow not merely within our power to ameliorate but our ultimate responsibility, whatever the costs--  this presumption appears to have entrenched itself among leaders of both our poitical parties.  Like the Old-Testament God, we stand above history, above accountability, above any serious concern about exhausting our resources. We are extraordinary, the spear carriers of American Exceptionalism.

George Washington, leaving office, advised us above all to abhor foreign entanglements.  We were a provincial country then, without either the corrupting pressures or the colossal commercial opportunities that present themselves every day as our international corporations infiltrate society after society.  Increasingly, not only our State Department but also our swollen military and intelligence bureaucracies have turned into sinister presences, mechanisms of enforcement, throughout much of the Second and Third World.  The Islamic suicide bomber is convinced that merely to abide the American occupiers is to doom his own culture.  Better for the individual to blow himself up if that means the tribe or clan might make it through.

We've seen this play itself out in Viet Nam, in Iraq, this winter in the aimless, depleting collapse of authority in Afghanistan.  We intend to leave soon; after perhaps a season or two of civil war -- like the mayhem portending in Iraq -- Afghanistan will revert to the underlying tribal barbarism indigenous to its culture; a generation of American contractors and arms merchants will load up their bank accounts.  Our compounding national debt will continue to threaten to bankrupt our future.

How all this hubris feels on the ground as it is playing itself out comes through on every page of Dexter Filkins' inspired sequence of vignettes in his 2008 memoir The Forever War.   I have met Filkins a few times.  Softspoken and approachable in person, this ex-reporter for The New York Times -- now on staff with The New Yorker -- conveys better than anybody I have read virtually every aspect of these feckless twin wars of ours.  From fighting through the alleys of Falluja, while around him Marine youngsters were getting their faces filleted by grenades, to a diplomatic trip to Tehran with the suave, double-dealing Ahmad Chalabi as he engineers his private accommodation with President Ahmadinejad -- so much is caught on Filkins' pages, the horror and the destroyed hopes and ultimately the cynicism of our suicidal adventures in oil politics.

We are a great nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition.  But we are finite, vulnerable, not exceptions in the long run and currently losing ground.  We are as subject any other people to our human limitations. Our founding fathers understood this.  Will we catch on in time?

For what it's worth.  Enjoy this winter weekend.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy V


February opens.  Leaves have started dropping around the live oaks.  The earth creaks on its axis.

I am especially appreciative of the responses I keep gettting, even the occasional challenges.  One friend wrote back recently:  "Your quest for truth and attention to myth-busting detail are very refreshing.  Being something of a contrarian myself, your point of view is very refreshing to read."

Obviously, I liked that.  My one hesitation centered on the word "contrarian."  The truth is, it has never been my intention to pound away on the conventional interpretation of any public event except where a constant barrage of new evidence makes such a reading more and more incomprehensible. In time the accumulation of detail and fresh information erodes the established version.  For example, by now even such a spokesman for the Kennedy family as Robert Kennedy, Jr. has come forward to the press and conceded that he -- and, more surprising, his father before him -- had come to believe that there were several gunmen in Dealey Plazy -- i.e., there was a conspiracy, as I projected in detail in Bobby and J. Edgar. Increasingly, the ragged defenders of the Warren Commission Report are coming through in the media as the badly confused "contrarians," and the much-maligned "conspiracy theorists" are increasingly regarded as the repositories of well-substantiated facts.  Our day is coming, shortly.  See the new Preface to Bobby and J. Edgar in the edition to be published by Basic Books in the fall.

Even more interesting are the current attempts to revise history, to clean it up.  I have dealt in some detail with the effort by David Nasaw in his new biography of Joe Kennedy, The Patriarch, to discredit earlier biographers like myself when we insist that both reliable testimony and official documents repeatedly establish the facts that Kennedy was not only a bootlegger early in his career but maintained an umbilical relationship with top Mob figures throughout his working life.

A number of hard-core liberals can't deal with that, while others, reviewing Bobby and J. Edgar, seem to have a hard time accepting my presentation of Hoover as much more than a cross-dressing monster preoccupied with hounding progressives.  When I pointed out that Hoover probably saved FDR's regime from a hard-right putsch and -- as Morris Dees makes clear in his autobiography -- broke up the Ku Klux Klan, one half-baked reviewer accused me of going "soft on Hoover."  Another contrarian exhibition, a violation of the standard left-wing cliches.  Can't I get anything right?

I found myself skeptical as I was reading Nasaw's biography of Kennedy of the one fault of character Nasaw has been ready to admit:  Joe's alleged anti-Semitism.  The truth is, it would be hard to find a major public figure, especially in Joe Kennedy's generation, whose life was more tangled up with Jewish colleagues, patrons, and, especially toward the end, very close friends.  The financier was heard to boil over regularly with anti-Semitic bromides.  But from his early days dodging the draft as a ship-builder, when he prevailed on Honey Fitz to set him up with Bernard Baruch, the head of Woodrow Wilson's War Production Board, to his sponsorship of the Yiddish-speaking studio heads at Harvard, to his key business collaboration with David Sarnoff, to his deep, autumnal friendship with Carroll Rosenbloom -- many of Kennedy's closest and most durable associations were with Jews.  Arthur Krock, the doyen of The New York Times, was Kennedy's intimate literary collaborator.  They wrote an unpublished book together about Joe's ambassadorship to Great Britain, which I have read.

Simultaneously -- when he became vociferous about the way the Jews had supposedly driven America into war against the Nazis, or out-foxed him in a business deal, or weren't lining up fast enough behind JFK -- Joe gave a lot of offense.  Rose later confided to one of her secretaries that she regarded her husband's tirades against World Jewry as indicative of an oncoming instability.  The next day he would be ranting about joining a synagogue because the Cardinals were also holding back when it came to supporting Jack, or playing golf at his Palm Beach country club -- he was the only non-Jew -- or helping organize an interfaith meeting between prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders to improve fellowship.  Nasaw seems to have missed almost all of that.

So, am I a contrarian because I got into the complex and ambivalent way Joe Kennedy seemed to deal with Jews?  Confused by too many facts, was I insensitive to the prevailing cliche?  Read Bobby and J. Edgar and find out.

Meanwhile, persevere.  The light will continue breaking in the East.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy IV


Two weeks, the heart of winter, a siege of the flu -- so epidemic, so unwelcome.  OK now, back in action.

It is probably worthwhile to insert here part of a recent e-mail exchange with Steve Sewall, a Chicago teacher and political activist who is  -- like me -- especially concerned with the media pressure these days to sugarcoat our history.  Steve indicated that "I too resist conspiracies for the very reasons you do and yet, like you, find myself hard pressed not to arrive at the very conclusions you do."

I had written him:  "I've never been much of a conspiracy theorist, preferring to derive my conclusions from the evidence.  But I am now hard pressed not to concede that there is a kind of agreement at work out there in most of the establishment publications and the ever more conglomerated book houses and periodicals to rework history, avoid the hard, internally coherent facts that keep forcing themselves through into any reasonable interpretation of events and substitute a kind of incoherent revisionism, a bland, adoring, heavily censored treatment of the primary figures and their accomplishments and limitations utterly unrelated to the reality of events.  We appear to be sliding into some kind of intellectual totalitarianism in which speech will remain free as long as it conforms with the accepted -- i.e., bought and paid-for -- wisdom of the establishment.  Anybody's hope for tenure or the more respected prizes seems to depend on falling in line.

"I suspect that this process may have begun with the propaganda campaign that led to JFK's presidency.  Joe Kennedy's money produced a series of pumped-up and highly selective treatments of the emerging JFK, which even the harder heads in the Kennedy braintrust -- Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Goodwin, etc., both friends of mine -- felt obliged to reflect in their post-administration writings.  The Right was so merciless, and the best of the Kennedy administration's accomplishments were so tenuous, that much of the truth fell victim.  Now, retroactively, we have the utter, shameless revisionism of Nasaw's cliche-riddent apologia, obviously intended to play to a Camelot-smitten reading audience a long way from able to deal with reality.

"One of my regrets here is that Nasaw's travesty only delays the major, incisive, reality-embracing treatment of Joe Kennedy's life for which we have been waiting.  As I attempted to suggest in my three-quarters portrait of the founder in Bobby and J Edgar, Joe was a fascinating player in his time, a driven, ulcer-ridden self-promoter with an astonishing ability to shoulder his way into the center of events.  Harry Truman and Sam Giancana, the ramrod of the Chicago Mob with whom Joe did so much business, summed it up in the same sentence:  'Joe Kennedy is the greatest crook in America.'  To disavow the subterranean level of Kennedy's accomplishments is to miss entirely what happened and why.

"In his office Ted kept a full-length photograph of his father.  The middle-aged Joe Kennedy was standing on a street corner, the collar of his trenchcoat up and his snap-brimmed hat pulled down. This was an operative accomplishing his purposes behind the scenes.  I asked Teddy about the picture once.  'Well,' the senator said, and stopped to consider his words, 'Dad was a fellow--   Dad knew a lot of people.  He had lot of friends, many of whom we knew very little about.'  In time I discovered that Ted was a bit disingenuous.  In West Virginia in 1960 and on other occasions Teddy had been forced to step in and help out a few of these mysterious friends.  But the point was made."

The problem with tracts like Nasaw's version of Joe Kennedy's life is that it has been scrubbed so clean nothing human can survive on its surface.  Typical is Nasaw's treatment of Kennedy's notorious womanizing.  Although Nasaw is willing to admit, obliquely, that Joe did have his women and that Gloria Swanson served while she was useful as Joe's "mistress," the specifics keep getting smudged.  Referring to the visit of Swanson and her husband Henri to the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Nasaw writes that "In handwritten notes for her autobiography, Swanson would later claim that while members of Kennedy's entourage took Henri fishing, she and Joe had sex for the first time."  Such private notes, the squeamish Nasaw implies, might or might not reflect reality.  But in her best-selling autobiography itself, Swanson on Swanson, Gloria is a lot more unequivocal -- Kennedy was on her that day "like a roped horse," followed by a premature ejaculation.

My point here is not so much to showcase Joe Kennedy's free-wheeling sex life as to suggest the role Kennedy's conquests played during his rise.  Swanson was Kennedy's ticket into big-star movie-making.  More venturesome biographers than Nasaw have tracked Kennedy's many bed-partners, from Missy LeHand, FDR's durable summer wife, to Clare Booth Luce, the eminent playwright and wife of the most powerful media mogul of the age, perhaps the foremost -- and best paid, by Joe himself  --propagandist by the later fifties for the emerging John F. Kennedy.  The pious Rose Kennedy was uncomfortable enough about Joe's sexual foragings to leave him at one point and return home only when Honey Fitz threw her out and Rose had to bite her lip and crawl back to active motherhood.  She would gradually come to understand that the privileges she craved depended to some extent on Joe's glandular versatility.

As Bobby and J. Edgar specifies in meticulously sourced detail, all this as well is part of the history of the Kennedys.  To leave the human moments out is to desecrate our history.

Stay warm,

Burton Hersh   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy III


Into 2013.  Survived the Mayan apocalypse.  Anticipating spiritual rejuvenation.

For several weeks now I have been gnawing away at the recently published biography of Joe Kennedy by David Nasaw and basing my observations entirely on the reviews I've run across.  But now I have the book,  I've combed it out pretty well.  I hope my comments are more specifically on point.

First : this is a big book -- 868 pages -- with very small print.  With that much room to run the knowledgeable reader might hope for new information, fresh insights, an expanded sense of this dynamic if compromised paterfamilias.  Sadly, what Nasaw has produced reads like a poorly thought through campaign biography, steering around anything really controversial, anything that might help us understand the accomplishments and miseries of Kennedy's blighted family.  Even the earliest serious treatments of Joe Kennedy's life -- by James MacGregor Burns, by Richard Whalen, by Lawrence Leamer -- went farther, dug deeper and a lot more honestly than this.  It is as if -- from the grave, through his descendants -- Joe Kennedy is still campaigning for respectability.

This book is essentially a paste-up, a sequence of letters and documents culled from research libraries and devoted to bringing alive again a man who never was.  Virtually nothing hands on, no original interviews or breakthrough revelations to give this endless narrative some purpose.  Nasaw dismisses rumors of Kennedy's bootlegging as having originated in "unsubstantiated, usually off-the-cuff remarks" by "Mob figures not particularly known for their truth telling."  By so doing, Nasaw ignores a vast body of evidence pulled together by real researchers and writers like Gus Russo and Kennedy relatives John Davis and Gore Vidal and many others as well as solid, carefully vetted work by Sam Giancana's descendants.  FBI files on Johnny Rosselli and Kennedy himself, which I have copied and sourced in Bobby and J. Edgar, nail all this down.

Nasaw evades dealing with this preponderance of evidence by the -- to me -- unique device of replacing what in most historical works is labeled, simply, "Bibliography," with what he calls "Bibliography of Works Cited."  That way whatever he does not choose to recognize ceases to exist, my own book definitely.  Historically important incidents, like Joe Kennedy's telephone manipulations from poolside on Marion Davies' estate to push Lyndon Johnson onto the ticket with JFK against the preferences of both Jack and Bobby, go completely unremarked.

Nasaw sidesteps Joe Kennedy's physical decline, his prostectomy at 68, and his heartbreaking eight-year involvement with Janet Des Rosiers -- brilliantly reported by Leamer but sloughed off by Nasaw, who refers obliquely to Janet as somebody who "would later claim to have been his mistress since around 1948."  There is the occasional oblique reference to Kennedy's "girls" from time to time;  Nasaw lets that go most of the time, womanizing doesn't seem to have any place in what its publisher bills as Nasaw's "definitive" biography.

Even the quotes are doctored.  When Pat Jackson, a liberal, prepared a statement during the 1960 campaign for Jack to read opposing Joe McCarthy, James McGregor Burns is quoted in Nasaw's book, "..Joseph Kennedy sprang to his feet with such force that he upset a small table in front of him.... 'You and your friends are trying to ruin my son's career!'"  Actually, Burns quoted Kennedy as having said "You and your Sheeny friends are trying to ruin my son's career."  Nasaw left Sheeny out.  The surviving Kennedys probably wouldn't have liked a quote that pungent.

One point reviewers made was that Nasaw did face up to Joe's anti-Semitic outbursts.  But even that was much more complicated than Nasaw is willing to admit.

Next time.

Burton Hersh