Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Author Interview: Larry Sabato calls John F. Kennedy a cautious and conservative president

Larry Sabato
Last October, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia moderated a panel discussion about November 22, 1963, featuring three witnesses to that day's assassination of John F. Kennedy  and two authors of books on the topic.

Sabato and the UVA Center for Politics hosted “The Kennedy Half Century” in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom on October 14, where the panelists included Wesley Buell Frazier, a co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository; Sid Davis, a journalist for Westinghouse Broadcasting at the time who rode in the presidential motorcade's press bus; James C. Bowles, in 1963 a communications supervisor for the Dallas Police Department and later sheriff of Dallas County.

The panel also featured former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley, author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA; and Henry Hurt, author of Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.  (Coincidentally, Hurt is the father of Virginia's Fifth District congressman, Robert Hurt, whose constituency includes Charlottesville and UVA.)

After the two-hour discussion, Sabato spoke with me about his 2013 book, The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, which was published on October 15 with an eye toward attracting attention during the weeks running up to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. That book was also tied to a public-TV documentary film of the same name, which was later shown at the Virginia Film Festival and is now available on DVD.

The book, he said, “has been a five-year project,” which he undertook in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's murder.

Although people are quite interested in the assassination and its theories and counter-theories, Sabato emphasized that “two-thirds of the book is about President Kennedy's life, presidency, and then his legacy through nine successors.”

He defined “legacy” as “a kind of life after death. Kennedy's words and deeds were so powerful that his successors of both parties have used him to accomplish their own agendas, and some of them very cleverly.”

The best, he said, was Ronald Reagan, who “used Kennedy even better than Lyndon Johnson did. Johnson distorted the Kennedy legacy, certainly by the middle of his full term.”

Sabato said his aim in the book was “to focus more on President Kennedy's life than on his death” but he recognizes that “you can't understand the legacy until you understand the assassination because it created so much of the Kennedy myth.”

By way of illustration, he recounted an anecdote he discovered that “stunned” him when he came across it.

One day, Kennedy had invited a Lincoln scholar to the White House to give a lecture. He asked the historian, after the speech, whether Lincoln would be so highly regarded had he not been assassinated.

“The historian immediately answered, 'of course not' because he would have had to deal with the nitty-gritty of Reconstruction, he wouldn't have had the martyrdom conferred by assassination, and several other reasons,” Sabato explained, reporting that “Kennedy said, 'Exactly what I thought' and apparently made a comment to Jackie later on, 'well, if I'm going to die, this would be a good time.' That was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

The same principle that affected Lincoln's legacy “applies to Kennedy,” said Sabato.

“Had he actually faced the challenges of the sixties, had he lived through two full terms, for one thing, his marital infidelity could have come out. There were so many women, it's amazing that it didn't come out during his short presidency. All kinds of things could have happened.”

By Sabato's estimation, Kennedy would not “be nearly as highly regarded,” in part because “presidencies tend to deteriorate in the last two or three years of an eight-year term.” Kennedy, he said, “never had to face that and he died at a peak moment of American power, economically and militarily.”

Kennedy also would not have achieved as much of the domestic agenda that was completed by Lyndon Johnson, he said.

Although Kennedy would have beaten Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Sabato explained, it would have been by a narrower margin than Johnson's eventual victory – “55-45 instead of 61-38.”

The difference, he pointed out, was that “Kennedy was much more cautious than Johnson by nature. He would have stopped at the Civil Rights Act. I don't think he really would have pushed for the Voting Rights Act or the Open Housing Act unless he were forced to.”

In an assessment that meshes with Ira Stoll's thesis in JFK, Conservative (also published last October 15), Sabato characterized the 35th president as "cautious and conservative."

As Sabato did research for his book, including interviews with people who worked in Kennedy's administration, what struck him was “just how cautious he was. He was fiscally cautious. The only reason he was worried about his across-the-board tax cut was because it would increase the deficit. He was a budget hawk in a lot of ways.”

On foreign policy, too, he was “a hawk.”

That was why Reagan cited Kennedy so often, Sabato said: “Because he could adapt that rhetoric to his fight against the Evil Empire.”

He recalled that JFK had criticized the Eisenhower administration for a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union that turned out to be non-existent, “which he later admitted after the election. He was the hawk” in comparison to 1960 rival Richard Nixon.

John F. Kennedy, Sabato concluded, “was a very different kind of Democrat. People have forgotten it. They've mixed him up with Bobby in the later years and then Teddy's career. Jack Kennedy was the moderate, or moderate-conservative, in the family.”

(This article is a modified version of a piece that previously appeared on Examiner.com.)

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Author Interview: Tina Towner Pender on witnessing John F. Kennedy's assassination

Tina Towner Pender
Tina Towner was the youngest person who photographed events at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, as President John F. Kennedy's motorcade drove by.

Seconds before the assassin's shots rang out, the 13-year-old Towner's home movie camera ran out of film, but she captured the President and First Lady's car just as it turned the corner from Houston Street to Elm Street.

Now Tina Towner Pender, she spoke to me at the 2013 Virginia Film Festival after a screening of a new documentary, The Kennedy Half-Century, co-produced by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. She had participated in a panel discussion along with UVA political scientist Larry Sabato and another witness to the Kennedy assassination, Wesley Buell Frazier, who on that infamous Friday was a 19-year-old co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository.

The author of a 2012 book called Tina Towner: My Story as the Youngest Photographer at the Kennedy Assassination, Pender described what happened to the short piece of movie film she took that day in Dallas.

The raw footage, she explained during the panel discussion, was processed by local law enforcement authorities, who had put out a call for any movies or still photographs that may have been taken by onlookers but had not been developed yet. Her family did not receive the reel back for several weeks.

Asked whether they thought it might have been tampered with, Pender said, “Not at the time.”

They did notice something anomalous right away, however.

The assassination footage “was on the end of a reel of home movies so we knew we were going to have to watch the whole reel,” which included, she said, her “sister going off to college,” before they got to the newsworthy section.

“When we got there, it ran out and there was no assassination film,” she explained, “and for a few seconds we thought we didn't have it, that they didn't send it back to us.” It turned out that “it had been cut from the rest of the film and it was there” on the reel but “it was just not spliced on to the end.”

About a decade later, Pender and her father took the film to a lab to be examined at the request of some investigators.

“My dad didn't let it out of our hands, so I went with him” to Jack White's lab in Fort Worth, Texas, she said.

“There were about three or four people there looking at it while I was there and they turned to me and they said, 'Did you know that there's a splice in your film?'”

Startled by the question, Pender asked them what they meant.

The technician replied that “'there's a jump in the film and there's a splice,'” and showed it to her. Just at the point where the limousine is turning the corner, “you see a jump in the film.”

That was not a surprise to her in itself, because “we knew that was there but we just figured it was some sort of a blip in the processing” but it was actually “spliced together. You could see where it was spliced and it was not using materials my dad would have [used]. It was more professionally done and it was hard to see this splice when you looked at it.”

Pender conceded that she did not know “who did that and I don't know when it was done, either,” because the film had been in the possession of law enforcement in 1963, and Life magazine had borrowed it, along with 35mm slides her father had shot, for a feature in 1967.

Later in the 1970s, Pender was questioned by investigators for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy and not the sole responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald. She said her encounter with them seemed peremptory.

The meeting was “brief,” she explained.

“They called and said they wanted me to bring them the original film and the slides that my dad took,” but in the event the investigators came to her office, where she was working.

They questioned her “for about 15 or 20 minutes – maybe 30 -- but it didn't seem like that long. The questions were not very deep or probing. It almost was like they just wanted to get it done with and take the film and leave.”

Neither Pender nor any member of her family who witnessed the assassination was called to testify before the Warren Commission, which was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the killing of John F. Kennedy.

(This article appeared in slightly different form on Examiner.com in November 2013.  Video of Tina Towner's panel discussion with Frazier and Sabato can be seen here and here.)

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Author Interview: John W. Whitehead on 'A Government of Wolves'

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John W. Whitehead
After 40 years of practicing law, Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead says he is “creeped out” by the decline in respect for civil liberties in the United States.

Whitehead, author of the 2013 book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, spoke to me last June at the Barracks Road Barnes & Noble just before delivering a talk about his fears of increasing authoritarianism in the United States.

A longtime civil-liberties attorney who once represented Paula Jones in her lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, he is also the author of The Freedom Wars, The Second American Revolution, and The Change Manifesto, in addition to a memoir, Slaying Dragons.

Whitehead offered his assessment of the 2012-13 U.S. Supreme Court term that had ended just days before our interview with a pair of rulings about gay marriage.

“One of the worst” terms ever, he said sharply.

This year, he said, the Supreme Court “basically upheld policemen taking you into custody and not giving you your Miranda warnings.” The Court also, he explained, eroded the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination because “now by being silent it's evidence of guilt.”

The Court, he added “approved the strip searching of anybody. If you're arrested now you can be strip searched by police for minor offenses like running a stop sign.”

“What I'm seeing is a very statist Supreme Court,” Whitehead explained.

“Some people say it's a right-wing Supreme Court. Well, I'm not sure it's right-wing. I put it more in the statist camp.”

He said the voting rights decision (in Shelby County v. Holder) was made “as if racism's no longer in America. Well, what I'm seeing in America is, there is a lot of racism.”

He gave the example of how “90 percent of the people who are arrested for marijuana offenses in New York City are either African-American or Hispanic but all evidence shows that whites smoke marijuana at a much higher rate than people with brown skin.”

Justices of the Supreme Court, Whitehead cautioned, are “living in an ivory tower.”

Supreme Court members are “chauffeured about in limousines and they don't know what we have to go through out here, especially if we're people of color.”

On Fourth Amendment rights, Whitehead noted that “Justice [Antonin] Scalia, whom I've been critical of in the past, and the women on the Supreme Court have been great in their dissents.”

Four instance, he said, those four justices objected “to the forced taking of DNA from people now. If you're arrested for anything, they can go into your body and take your DNA.”

The DNA decision is part of what Whitehead calls “the new movement toward bodily probing.”

He explained that, “in large cities across the country, police are stopping men on the street and doing rectum searches, sometimes causing bleeding. This is without a warrant, without arresting them.”

He gave the example of how recently in Texas, “two women were pulled over for throwing a cigarette out of a car. The policeman accused them of smoking marijuana” but when he found no cannabis in the car, “he called for back up, [who] did vaginal and rectum searches on the women without changing their gloves.”

Those Texas police officers, he said, have “been sued for a million and a half – and they should have been sued.”

Offering advice to citizens, Whitehead warned, “I just say, be alert. Let's read the Bill of Rights again. Most people don't even know what's in the Bill of Rights. It's 462 words but most people have never read it. Can you believe that? 462 words, you can read it in less than five minutes.”

Because “we're not teaching [the Constitution] in school anymore, people don't know” what it says.

“If you're stopped on the street and they want to do a really weird search on you,” Whitehead advised, “assert your Fourth Amendment rights.” The police “have to have probable cause.” Before they begin a search, he said, citizens should ask, “Am I doing something illegal, officer?”

With regard to A Government of Wolves, which was released at just about the same time that Edward Snowden's leaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) began making worldwide headlines, Whitehead said the book includes an examination of the NSA's activities.

"I started studying them in the 1980s, when some evidence came up that they were actually already doing domestic snooping, which they're not supposed to do."

The book explores "what I call the electronic concentration camp, because we're all watched now. The FBI has admitted to downloading our phone calls. This is American citizens" they are spying on "without probable cause" and without "following the Fourth Amendment."

Whitehead said he wanted to respond to the frequent question, "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then why should I worry?"

People should worry, he said, "for a couple reasons."

The first is that "in America we believe in the rule of the law. We believe in the Fourth Amendment, our Constitution, the right to free speech."

He pointed out how the Rutherford Institute had "helped servicemen who have been arrested for doing Facebook posts critical of the government."

Those men, he said, "are asserting their rights, by the way, and that's good to see."

A second reason people should worry, Whitehead continued, is "the militarization of the police is a very scary thing. Eighty thousand SWAT team raids occur across the United States annually, up 30,000 from ten years ago. These are black-armed troopers going through doors of people's homes for something like an ounce of marijuana."

As a response to those who say "we have nothing to hide," he mentioned how he cites attorney Harvey Silverglate's book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, in his own book.

"That's a great book," he said, in part because it demonstrates "the over-criminalization of America."

Citing examples from the Rutherford Institute's portfolio, Whitehead explained that he and his colleagues have "defended people who want to sell goat – no, excuse me, not sell, but give -- goat cheese away to their friends. These are farmers" who have been prosecuted for trading in foods unapproved by the government.

In another case, he said, "we defended a lady down in Arizona who, on Saturday mornings, would go to the grocery stores and get all their unused food. She had one little bookcase she'd set on her driveway for her neighbors" where they could select food items for themselves.

Some of those people, he said, "didn't have jobs" and had trouble making ends meet, yet "the police came out and tried to stop that. We threatened to sue and the police backed off but, believe it or not, they actually did surveillance on [that woman] for a couple weeks, watching her and filming her, with her little bookcase at the end of the driveway for poor people."

That's the kind of thing, Whitehead said scornfully, that "we're seeing all over the country."

(A shorter version of this interview previously appeared on Examiner.com. Video of John Whitehead's remarks following the interview are available to see on YouTube.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Author Interview: Evan Thomas discusses his Eisenhower biography, 'Ike's Bluff'

Evan Thomas
Speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville last March 22, veteran journalist Evan Thomas said of President Barack Obama, “he can seem a little cocky, and a little peevish at times, a little put-upon, like he's doing us a favor being president.”

Thomas was drawing a distinction between Obama and Dwight Eisenhower, the subject of Thomas's most recent book, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, which was released in paperback in September.

In an interview after his presentation, Thomas -- who also wrote biographies of John Paul Jones and Robert F. Kennedy -- explained his remarks to me.

Obama, he said, is “part of his culture,” because “cockiness and a sort of in-your-face trash talking is really part of our culture, so Obama's not distinctive in that way.”

By contrast, he continued, “Eisenhower came from an earlier time and he cared more about modesty and not showing off.” He understood that “people who are arrogant are really pretty insecure” and he was also “incredibly patient.”

Eisenhower was able to get a lot done, Thomas explained, because he was “able to sublimate and swallow his own ego.”

That said, Thomas noted, “Eisenhower had a huge ego but he worked harder at concealing it. He said he got ahead by concealing his intelligence and ambition.”

The two presidents differed in their engagement with the news media, as well.

“Eisenhower was good at keeping secrets. He liked to take the long view” Thomas said, but added that “he was pretty available to the press. He met the press a lot more than Obama does. He had press conferences every two weeks.”

Journalists in the 1950s “were pretty cozy with power in those days. They're a little more standoffish today but they also get less access,” he explained.

Today's “White House is pretty walled-off now,” Thomas said. “It's pretty hard to get access” from members of the Obama administration.

Thomas also drew a distinction between Eisenhower and another president, Teddy Roosevelt, who is admired by President Obama and also is the subject of one of Thomas's books.

Roosevelt, he said, “was an amateur who wanted to be a warrior.”

He quit his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join the Rough Riders. “He had to be shot at. He was very explicit about it. He wasn't pretending otherwise,” said Thomas.

By contrast, Eisenhower was “a grand strategist” who had “seen the ugliness of war, who'd had to send thousands of men to their deaths and bomb cities and he was just damned if he was going to get the United States into a war.”

That quality was what sparked Thomas's interest in writing Ike's Bluff in the first place.

“I was intrigued about Eisenhower as the great warrior who wanted to stay out of war,” he explained. Eisenhower helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II “and then as president was determined to keep the United States out of war, and that interested me.”

(Video of Evan Thomas' remarks at the Virginia Festival of the Book is available here and here; an audio recording of our interview is available as a podcast through Bearing Drift.  An earlier version of this article appeared on Examiner.com.)

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Author Interview: Jonathan Rauch on his reissued 'Kindly Inquisitors'

Jonathan Rauch
Twenty years after it was first published, a new, expanded edition of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought is now available as an ebook, with an ink-and-paper edition coming out in March 2014.

Jonathan Rauch, the author of Kindly Inquisitors and other books (including Demosclerosis and his 2013 memoir, Denial: My 25 Years without a Soul), spoke to me recently following a panel at the Cato Institute, in which he discussed his book and what has happened with regard to free speech and censorship in the last two decades with Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign.

After the panel, Rauch explained what inspired him to write the book in the first place.

When, in the late 1980s, “Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses and received a fatwa (essentially a death sentence) from Ayatollah Khomeini,” he said, “I thought that the West did not know how to respond to that. It could defend the laws of free speech but it wasn't defending the ideas of free speech. People were saying things like, 'Well, a death sentence on Rushdie is certainly offensive and wrong but Rushdie himself was offensive to Muslims,' and so forth. And I realized that a lot of people didn't understand why we have this idea of letting people say offensive stuff.”

One of the concepts Rauch introduces in Kindly Inquisitors is what he calls “liberal science.”

He explained that “most discussions of free thought and speech start and end with the U.S Constitution” but he tries “to go a little deeper and look at society's method for producing knowledge and adjudicating disputes about fact, which is in some ways the most important thing we do” – for instance, disagreements about whether Christianity or Islam is “the right religion.”

Historically, he said, the method of “settling disputes like that was war.”

By contrast, “liberal science substitutes an open-ended, rule-based, social process in which everybody throws out ideas all the time and we subject them to criticism. We kill our hypotheses rather than each other. This turns out both to be spectacularly good at mobilizing intellectual talent to find and promote good ideas and spectacularly good at defusing what otherwise would be political, often violent, conflicts.”

Liberal science, he said, is the term he coined “for the whole intellectual network we have that seeks truth in Western liberal cultures.”

He compares it to two other major social institutions for “allocating resources and adjudicating social conflicts.”

In economics, he said, “market systems are in the business of allocating resources and they use open-ended rules of exchange to do that.”

In politics, he noted, “democracies are in the business of allocating coercive political power and they use the exchange of votes and compromise to do that.”

Parallel to those two systems, he added, “liberal science is in the business of adjudicating questions about who's right and wrong and they use the exchange of criticism.”

These three systems, Rauch explained, “all have in common that it shouldn't matter who you are. Anyone can participate, there's no special authority, and no one gets the final say. No one can stand outside the system and say, 'Here's the final result.'”

The result is “always subject to change. It's a big rolling social consensus.”

Since Kindly Inquisitors was first published in 1993, there has been a major, positive change in the intellectual environment, Rauch said.

“In the last twenty years there's been a retreat by active ideologues who favored censorship and speech controls,” he said. Those views have “been replaced with a more refined case that focuses more specifically on how minorities can be hurt when hate speech rises to a certain level of prevalence in society. It's called the 'hostile environment doctrine.'”

In preparing the new edition of his book, Rauch “decided to take a really hard look at that because I think it's right now the biggest and most serious challenge to people like me who advocate very robust freedom of speech.”

He wanted to find out, “from a minority point of view, which is better: a wide open system where people are free to say hateful things about me and often do, or a more controlled system where you've got some people in charge trying to protect me from that?”

His conclusion, “based on the history of the last twenty years for gay rights” is that “there's no contest. We're much better off as minorities when our speech and the other side's speech are [both] protected because we win those arguments, and we're worse off when that process is interfered with.”

The expanded edition of Kindly Inquisitors includes a new foreword by syndicated columnist George F. Will and a new afterword by Jonathan Rauch. It is available now in both Nook and Kindle formats and a print version will be released next year by the University of Chicago Press.

(An earlier version of this interview appeared on Examiner.com.  A complete audio recording is available as a podcast through Bearing Drift.)