Sunday read: What would E. Howard Hunt think?

Image of the “three tramps” being led away after the JFK assassination. E. Howard Hunt may be the man in the hat. Or he may not.

Late last week, a former State Department employee and Trump appointee, Frederico Klein, was arrested on charges that he took part in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection and assaulted an officer. And then Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) released a 2,000-page report that noted the social media activity of GOP members of Congress between the election and the riot.

I wonder what E. Howard Hunt would think.

Hunt, famously, was the former CIA agent who got wrapped up in Watergate as one of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers,” who were tasked with stopping administration leaks but ended up planning wiretappings and the Watergate burglary itself. He was a mysterious fellow who ended up as one of the threads Woodward and Bernstein pulled on to unravel the whole scheme.

Hunt had a history well before Watergate. He’d helped bring down the government of Guatemala in 1954. He wrote dozens of spy novels, some highly praised. And he may have had knowledge of John F. Kennedy’s asssassination.

The last, from a 2007 story in Rolling Stone, is at the center of my Sunday read.

Now, I’m an agnostic on the Kennedy assassination. It’s always seemed a little odd that an eccentric figure named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK on November 22, 1963. Surely he must have been connected to something — the Mob, the CIA, Texas oilmen, maybe the whole racket. On the other hand, it’s always seemed odd that an eccentric figure named Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped kick off World War I when the archduke’s car, having avoided a thrown grenade not long before, flukily went past him as he was waiting near a delicatessen. History is full of such improbabilities.

I’m not going to get into the details of Hunt’s confession — that’s why I’m linking to Erik Hedegaard’s story. I’m not even sure I believe much of it. Hunt very well could have been one of the “three tramps” in Dallas that day (many sources say otherwise), but he also fingers Lyndon Johnson as one of the conspirators, and having read the most recent volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, I don’t buy that.

But as part of the CIA? Allen Dulles‘ CIA? The place that tried to get Fidel Castro’s cigars to explode? Which had an operative who met with Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy about their idea of smearing LSD on muckraker Jack Anderson’s steering wheel? I can see that. And Hunt himself was the kind of guy who didn’t flinch about such things.

“He was a complete self-centered WASP who saw himself as this blue blood from upstate New York,” says his son in the Rolling Stone article. ” ‘I’m better than anybody because I’m white, Protestant and went to Brown, and since I’m in the CIA, I can do anything I want.’ “

I don’t know what we’ll find out about January 6. There are many loose ends and unexplained events — Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s torn-out panic buttons, why folks are pushing off-the-wall conspiracy theories — that may lead to some dark places. Or they may lead nowhere at all. E. Howard Hunt died in 2007, so there’s no way to get his opinion on things. But he left behind some interesting stories.

You can read “The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt” here.

Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Sunday read: Passing the presidential baton

Barack and Michelle Obama and George and Laura Bush, January 20, 2009.

Joe Biden is now President-elect Joe Biden.

Between now and January 20, he has to get a new administration more or less in place, hiring hundreds of officials and generally turning the presidency into one of the nation’s biggest start-up companies.

In this, he will likely get no help from the outgoing president or his people. That’s not necessarily new in American history, though it is in recent years, when the handover between administrations has been relatively smooth.

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Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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Vote

Image from the Indianapolis Star.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

15th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

19th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

26th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

Sunday read: What it takes

Image from the Associated Press/Andrew Harnik via NBCnews.com.

I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer.

I met Cramer, a legendary journalist who died in 2013, in May 2004, when he was on a book tour for his work on the Middle East, “How Israel Lost.” If my faulty memory recalls correctly, our interview was supposed to be a brief conversation about the book, but Cramer never encountered a fellow journalist who didn’t immediately become an old friend, and he invited me to an event he was attending that evening.

Being the starstruck putz I am, I tagged along as he drank and smoked and talked and glad-handed and talked and smoked and talked some more, an entertaining companion with endless stories. At one point, I asked him who he thought would make a good president. He didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said.

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But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

The devil you know

Image from the AP via the American Prospect.

A couple days ago, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall — the man who keeps me sane — published a post, “Why Are Dems Nervous? Because They’re Dems” (paywall).

His reasons were many and familiar: Democrats are a much more diverse party, and it’s hard to hold its constituencies together. Democrats believe they don’t fight as hard as Republicans. Democrats are innately more skeptical — that is, more empirically minded and aware of weakness — than the GOP, so they worry more.

I’d add one more reason: People hate change, and Democrats are generally the party of change.

Hell, even when they’re the party of staying the same, they’re the party of change. Look at 2000, when Al Gore — almost unopposed in the primaries — was following Bill Clinton, who had presided over the best GDP growth since the Go-Go days of the 1960s. Gore’s proposals were actually fiscally conservative — remember the “lockbox”? — but claims of Democratic profligacy made headway, George W. Bush promised a tax cut, and too many people thought there was no difference between the pair.

As for 2016, there was this candidate who promised to “Make America Great Again,” so even though that sounds like change from the status quo — personified then by a Black president, a woman presidential candidate, and a woman speaker of the House — it was really sounding a retreat to a glorious, golden, manly era when everyone knew their place and Washington wasn’t a swamp. I’m thinking 1 million years B.C.

Anyway, the thing is, people will stay in bad situations because the alternative is unknown and scarier than the familiar. Hell, I consider myself a Democrat and I hate change. When my life feels stuck, I come up with Plans B, C, and Z, and tell myself that making the jump I’ll be in a better place than where I’m at. Yet even a single step in that direction feels like dragging my leg with a 50-pound anchor attached.

Right now, things are bad. People are still dying of Covid-19 — not at the rate they were a couple weeks ago, thankfully, but still at a higher rate than in most other Western countries. People are angry at police shootings and extremists with their weapons and again I want to post that “Network” speech from Howard Beale that leads up to “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” so I will.

And yet the Democrats are nervous because who knows if the polls are right and what about the swing states and he’s trying to take down the Postal Service and people are scared and, well, the president and his party are promising more of the same (and quite forcefully, too). And though more of the same sounds to me like staying in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to leave an abusive relationship.

After all, he did say “I love you.”