Monday, August 24, 2015

He only did the best he could. No man could do more - Jimmy Carter and Critical Empathy

Sick and dying the great reporter Damon Runyon covered FDR's funeral for the Hearst papers. It was one last favor Runyon could do for his patron. Once allies, Hearst and FDR had become bitter enemies. Runyon recounted a man in a top hat watching the funeral procession telling his son, "I hated him most of the 12 years he lived in this town. I mean I hated him politically. Now I wonder why. He only did the best he could. No man could do more."

Later, when the son mentions FDR's penchant for funny hats his father says, "Yes, and I used to think his head was too big for them-for any hat. I know now that was a foolish idea. Why should he have been swell headed-a great man like him? What crazy things I said about him!"

I have some definite issues with Jimmy Carter, but now is not the time to speak of them and, thinking on what Runyon wrote, they suddenly seem very small. As Carter prepares to shuffle off this mortal coil, he does so with grace - reminding us how it is that this man from such modest beginnings and with no national stature rose to the presidency.

Carter plays perhaps a larger role in my worldview than he does in U.S. history. First because my research is on the national security role of the vice president and it was Carter who pulled the vice presidency from obscurity to significance. Many things in politics are the product of major structural forces. Not this. Carter made a conscious decision to elevate and include his vice president in decision-making. If he had not made this decision, it is possible the vice president would continue to languish in relative obscurity.

Carter was also the first president I remember personally. I remember my parents (Jewish liberals) saying that they were going to vote for Ford because they weren't sure about this southern Baptist Carter. (Hearing this my younger brother came out strongly for "Four" although I tried to persuade him to vote "Five.")

I remember the inauguration, I also remember at the Pesach table the grown-ups saying, "Who is this guy?"

I was quite pleased to share what I had gleaned from my Scholastic Reader.

Then as I become more aware, there was inflation, an energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Clearly, with everything going wrong, Carter was a lousy president. To my 9 and 10 year old mind, nothing could have been more evident.

I recently listened to this terrific podcast from War on the Rocks (where, full disclosure I've been a contributor) in which a bunch of scholar/practitioners talked shop. One of the participants, Frank Gavin, mentioned how the same Best and the Brightest who made the grave strategic mis-calculations behind Vietnam also (often on the same day) were the architects of a non-proliferation regime that has, on the whole, served the United States and the world extremely well. Gavin said that decision-makers do their best with the information they have and understanding these decisions calls for "critical empathy."

For my dissertation I studied vice presidents (which is really about studying presidents) and that critical empathy began to grow. Because of Carter's role re-shaping the vice presidency, I started with him. Carter was dealt a bad hand. Sometimes he played it badly, but he also had some real achievements. Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the Panama Canal treaties were major foreign policy achievements and they relied heavily on his personal initiative. As for inflation and the energy crisis, his options were limited. In that wonderful old musical "Of Thee I Sing" which brought us the memorably forgetable Vice President Throttlebottom there is this great bit of dialogue (from memory): 
President Wintergreen: Being president is easy. If you want the stock market to go down just give a speech.
Throttlebottom: What do I do if I want the stock market to go up?
Wintergreen: Don't I wish I knew!
Carter actually did do right by the economy. He appointed Paul Volcker at Fed chair, knowing Volcker would raise interest rates and hurt Carter politically.

Carter definitely had his share of "own goals" where a chaotic process or poorly thought out initiatives hurt the administration. His efforts to emphasize human rights may not always have been wise, but it is difficult to fault them. On USSR the administration had a confused message because Carter could not bring himself to choose between the conciliatory Secretary of State and more belligerant National Security Advisor. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan however, Carter reacted firmly and appropriately.

And of course, since it is in the news, Iran. In his interview, when he was asked about his regrets, Carter answered:
I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been reelected. But that may have interfered with the foundation of The Carter Center. And if I had to choose between four more years and The Carter Center, I think I would choose The Carter Center.
It was actually a lovely answer. It showed that after the White House he continued to grow and learn. (One of the great joys of my research was interviewing people with long distinguished careers. I was most interested in their interactions with vice presidents, but hearing the long arc of their experience was so very interesting.)

But, and this is relevant to our current discussions - particularly about ISIS - but also Russia/Ukraine, Iran, you name it. Carter had no good options in Iran. War or military action would probably have resulted in the hostages being killed. Perhaps the U.S. could have sacrificed those lives n order to make a "don't mess with us" statement. But it is hard to criticize Carter for not being willing to toss away 56 lives. As for other options like counter-coups or subversion - these things all work better in the movies than in real life.

Critical empathy: I can look at Carter's decisions (and those of all of his predecessors and successors) and conclude that they were perhaps unwise, but I also understand that this is hindsight. As Runyon said of Roosevelt, "He only did the best he could. No man could do more."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bush & Blair vs Bibi & Barak: Not Best Friends

Be his friend. Be his best friend. Be the guy he turns to.
That was the advice Bill Clinton gave to Tony Blair about how to work with incoming President George W. Bush. It was interesting advice. It may not have worked for Blair. He did establish a close relationship with Bush, but it is not clear what he gained from it. Blair could occasionally moderate policies that particularly perturbed the rest of Europe. Some of Blair's pet initiatives were adopted by Washington.

It is, now that I think about it, oddly vice presidential. (Would I like to write a book on this - you bet!)

Blair, in building the "special relationship" did not seek to bargain with the president - hard-edged balancing of interests, the horse-trading that is politics and diplomacy. Instead, like a vice president, Blair sought to build a relationship, demonstrate that they were on the same side, and generally be helpful.

The strategy was that Britain could best play a role on the world stage by influencing the United States. Sort of like a Senator taking the VP slot. A Senator can do some things on their own, but there are limits. An influential vice president can do a great deal more. It is an interesting question as to whether or not it is an effective strategy. Blair got wrapped up in Iraq, tarnishing his legacy. But that was his choice, he believed in the mission himself.

He did have some achievements (detailed in the link above), and also what did he really need? Britain is a 1st world economy with extensive and well-established trade and financial inter-connections with the U.S. There may have been some areas in which the U.S. could be helpful, but Blair was hardly dependent on U.S. for his nation's economic fate. Britain also did not face any true existential security threats. On lower level issues, terrorism, intelligence sharing, and military cooperation links were well-established. Blair did get some support on some diplomatic issues, a modest win.

It was an interesting gamble, sort of the gamble a vice president makes. VPs know that serving a successful president gives them their best shot at the presidency. If Bush's foreign policy had been successful and Blair was his partner he would go down in history as a great statesman - a Churchill. Didn't work out, but you can see the strategy. (Lest all of this seem too calculated - Blair, and most VPs - are striving to do what they think is right.)

From Blair to Bibi
Israel is not Britain. They are a small country in a very bad neighborhood. There are innumerable ways in which the United States can make their life easier. Both countries have intimate, complex relations with the United States. But Britain is about a fifth the size of the U.S., whereas Israel is more like a fortieth. When the U.S. shifts Britain has a bit more ballast. Further, Israel - a pariah state whose very existence is opposed by many in its neighborhood - has a lot of stuff to worry about.

Israeli Prime Ministers have had to stand up to U.S. presidents in the past. Even during periods of strong relations (say between President Bush and PM Sharon) there could be sparks. Israel does not have the option of adopting Blair's strategy. They have real interests that need to be protected.

Some students of politics and international affairs emphasize personal relations between key players (like my dissertation). It makes for a good story, but often there are big structural factors that shape events and outcomes.

That being said, Blair's "Hug them close" strategy is not wholly without merit. When Clinton told Blair to be his successor's friend, Clinton knew the president needs friends. Knowing that conflict is likely, the prime minister should think pretty deeply about what he or she can do to make the president's life easier.

And this is where we get to Bibi. Clearly he and President Obama do not have warm relations. Obama comes in for a great deal of criticism from pro-Israel circles. Just to be clear, I am an unabashed supporter of Israel - and readily try to defend and explain her and how Israel is a strategic asset to the U.S. - but with particular sympathy for Israel's impossible political system that skews results in all sorts of ways. 

But, who is the big power and who is the lesser power here?

Israeli leaders ask a lot of the United States - but how often does an Israeli leader call the president with a solution to a problem? Everyone in the world wants something from the president, not so many think about what the president could use. Did Bibi think about how to help President Obama? How hard did Bibi work to ensure that the President didn't absolutely dread their meetings and calls?

I think the record shows how that has gone.

Some tensions between the U.S. and Israel are inevitable. It is the nature of the beast and Israeli leaders sometimes need to stand up to the president. But trying to be the president's friend is a good strategy for any world leader, a way of building capital when conflicts arise.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

FORWARD to Veeptopus

So the book is here VEEPTOPUS: VICE PRESIDENTS WITH OCTOPUSES ON THEIR HEADS, and it is spectacular! It is also SOLD OUT!

You can still get a Jon Crow original print of a vice president with an octopus on his (and perhaps one day soon, her) head. And you should.

I gave my dad a Spiro Agnew for Father's Day and can't wait to put up my print of my namesake (Aaron Burr - who may have inadverdantly inspired me to get into this business) on my wall.

Maybe Aaron Burr isn't for you? How about Elbridge Gerry (he didn't do much as VP, but he gave us the term gerry-mander.)
 Maybe VPs with cephalopods aren't your thing? How about Taft with a badger?

I have long been a supporter of the entire Veeptopus enterprise. So much so that I contributed a forward to the book. I've written (ok co-authored) three books. So I'm an author. But Forwards are written by august persona, leaders. The opportunity to lend gravitas to this worthy project was an opportunity I could not miss.

So, here is how I introduced this important (and beautiful) volume:
By placing octopi on the heads of vice presidents and creating Veeptopus, Jonathan Crow has a done a great service to American democracy.

The renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington once observed, “Comedy depends on incongruity” and that American humor is born of the incongruity between American ideals and American reality. Prominent but powerless, the veep embodies incongruity.

The annals of the vice presidency include many formerly prominent politicians, reduced to historical footnotes by their office.

Perhaps the archetypal denizen of the nation’s second highest office was the fictional Alexander Throttlebottom of the 1931 George S. Kaufman musical Of Thee I Sing. Throttlebottom could only get into the White House by joining the White House tour. The tour guide fails to recognize him and is surprised at how much Throttlebottom knows about the vice president. Throttlebottom explains that the vice president is nice enough, but no one wants to get to know him. “What’s wrong with him?” the tour guide asks. Throttlebottom replies, “There’s nothing wrong with him. Just vice-president.”

In recent years, the office has changed. In fact, after the Cheney vice presidency scholars and pundits worried about unchecked vice presidential power. An exaggeration perhaps, nonetheless, having spent the better part of a decade studying them I can state that the individuals only a heartbeat away from the presidency are Throttlebottoms no more.

So be grateful for Veeptopus in which Jonathan Crow restores some of the incongruity inherent in the vice presidency, providing a much needed antidote to the growing seriousness about our nation’s second highest office.

Aaron Mannes, PhD
A blog about the vice presidency

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Regular Joe: Politicians are People

Over the past week we have been reminded, quite sharply, that there is a caricature of Vice President Biden and there is an actual human being. A long-time Senator and now Vice President, Biden has been greatly blessed. But he has also suffered enormously. In 1972, days after being elected to the Senate his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident. Now, he has lost his son Beau, who died of brain cancer at age 46. (We'll leave aside the far, far smaller disappointment of not reaching the White House on his own.)

This is something no one, ever, should have to experience.

Biden is loquacious and perhaps at times his tongue moved faster than his thoughts (your humble blogger also suffers from this malady.) Because he is less disciplined than most other politicians he has acquired a reputation. As always, The Onion leads the way, depicting Biden as a sort of metal-head/Easy Rider/good-timing guy. But even in more serious papers, he is seen as our national mad uncle.

I've always thought this was overplayed. First, just the strange lens through which we view our politicians in general. Allow me to quote the poli-sci classic Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway on the 2000 election:
Al Gore… who had developed this annoying, condescending manner of speech that made him sound, when he spoke to us, as though he were addressing a herd of unusually stupid sheep…. George W. Bush… who often sounded as though he had the brain of a sheep…. Here’s the thing: I have actually spent time in social settings with both Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m not saying I got to know them well, but I will say that Gore seemed more natural in person and Bush seemed smarter. They were nothing like the two over programmed androids I saw debating each other on TV, both of them desperately trying to get all their memorized sound bites in.
I've also discussed this in direct reference to Biden, writing in the much mourned Politico Arena:
Considering the amount politicians are required to speak, it is astounding that there aren't far more verbal missteps by politicians. 
True, Biden appears more prone to these gaffes then others, but this is relative. In his 2008 debate with Palin, Biden handled himself masterfully - demonstrating that he was a seasoned, experienced figure - without appearing to bully Palin.
It is a guarantee that every candidate on both tickets will make verbal miscues. Sometimes these mistakes end up shaping a public image as in the unfortunate cases of Sen. Dole in 1976 or Quayle in 1988. Because Biden has a reputation for them, in a sense he is insulated from their fallout. 
Personally, I've always thought Biden's loquacious honesty worked for him - the apparent lack of artifice being the greatest artifice of all.

No one can listen to his heartfelt and honest remarks (drawn from his own deep well of feeling) about loss to TAPS The Military Survivor Network and not be touched. It is a stark reminder that, whatever one thinks of Joe Biden, there is a real person there who loves, hurts, and feels like the rest of us. Dare we consider that all of our politicians - who we primarily see as caricatures of one sort or another (robotic Hillary, dumb Rick Perry etc.) are real people. They - like the rest of us - do the best they can with whatever talents they've been given to wrestle with whatever shadows plague them.

Many say profoundly obnoxious things. In some cases they believe them, in others they mispoke. I know I have mispoken many times and said hurtful things. I have believed and articulated things that, in retrospect, are ludicrious. Most of us have.

Some of our politicians are deeply cynical people who are little more than animated ambition. (I believe these are fewer than popular opinion would have it, but such people exist. Maybe I'm an idealist - but I find almost everyone I meet has a certain spark of passion, a personality.) But if these ambitious automatons exisit, they are worthy of pity - for no matter how far or high they rise politics does not in the end feed the soul. Being in the grip of whatever compulsions drive them cancels any joy in their achievements.


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Clinton Foundation & the Institutionalized ex-Presidency?

Newspaper front-pages have featured the doings of the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former President and a current candidate for President. The reports (see here and here) raise important questions about whether foreign entities were purchasing access and influence by giving donations to the foundation and paying huge speaking fees to President Clinton. In at least one case, the donors had interests which the Secretary of State (that is now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) had oversight.

The first question is whether or not there is a scandal here? I don't really know. This kind of thing is tough to prove and frankly murky. Having gone through the 1990s as a Clinton-hater, I've come around. I am relatively forgiving of complex rich guy stuff. Really rich people are often involved in complex ambiguous stuff - unless they are pretty directly killing and hurting people I am pretty forgiving. Further, I DO NOT believe that the Clintons would blithely toss away U.S. national security. I do think the Clintons could be a bit smarter and maybe less avaricious about their cashing in on the presidency which brings up...

The second question is whether or not there is going to be political fall-out. For that, see my thoughts on Hillary's email imbroglio and multiply. Here's a key excerpt:

...having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions....
This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"
But the third question is the one I really want to talk about, which is the institutionalization of the ex-presidency. Clinton, as a young president has already been out of office for 15 years and could easily be on the national scene for another 15 or more (he's not quite 70 and shows no signs of slowing down.) He can raise a LOT of money in that time (he already has.) Besides his wife, his daughter is now involved. So we could have a foundation with a billion dollar endowment and deep political connections. In effect a family influence business that will never go away. This is new.

One component of studying the vice presidency was the institutional changes to the office. First, the VP needed to acquire the institutional tools (staff and access) to effectively advise the president. But, probably under Gore, this expanded to not merely the vice president as a key advisor but the Office of the the Vice President and player in the broader policy process.

I'm seeing the same sort of the with the ex-presidency. The the terrific fun book The Presidents Club, we see how former and current occupants of the Oval Office work together. Hoover and Truman became friends and Hoover took on some critical tasks (such as food relief after World War II or running the Hoover Commission on reforming government) to help out Truman. Certainly, ex-presidents never wanted for opportunities to share their views with the public or those in power. Nixon was particularly adept at clawing his way back into the public eye.

In the federally mandated Presidential Libraries, ex-Presidents have acquired a modest institutional base. The Kennedy Library has been particularly notable in keeping the memory of Camelot alive. A few presidents have established institutes to carry on their worldview, most notably the Hoover Institute at Stanford and the Carter Center in Atlanta.

But Clinton has built a far greater institutional base and, in placing his daughter at the head, has established a fiefdom. Will George W. Bush (the same age as Clinton) or Barak Obama (who will in his mid-50s when he leaves office) follow suit? They may not have the fund-raising prower of Clinton - but they won't be slouches.

These institutions will be able to fund research, award scholarships, pursue policy initiatives and a host of other things that will both burnish the reputations of their founders and pursue the founders' agendas far into the future.

And of course, with the institutionalized ex-presidency, can an institutionalized ex-vice presidency be far behind? The high-profile post-VP roles of Gore and Cheney suggest not...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Can Obama Break the 2nd Term Scandal Curse?

From Eisenhower on, every two-term president has had a White House scandal in the 2nd term. Not a policy failure, but a weird personnel/legal issue boil up out of the White House itself.

Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams resigned in 1958 after it was discovered that he had taken gifts from and made calls to the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission about Boston textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine.

Nixon of course had Watergate. Reagan had Iran-Contra. Clinton had the Lewinsky imbroglio and George W. Bush had the Scooter Libby crisis. All of these scandals involved White House personnel acting badly in ways that touched on the president himself while in office.

White House scandals, like, Tolstoy's unhappy families, are unique. The Eisenhower scandal was about money, while Nixon was about power. Clinton's scandal was more "ahem" personal - the oldest foible in the book. Reagan's scandal was about conducting an alternate foreign policy. The Bush 43 contretemps (it seems to me at least) had a whiff of revenge - the sense that someone should pay somehow for getting the U.S. into the Iraq War. It is tough to see a common pattern. Sometimes staffers went a bit too far interpreting the president's instructions (that's a charitable understanding of Watergate and Iran-Contra.) In other cases, specific individuals just, well, got up to stuff they shouldn't have.

So no pattern suggests itself with these scandals. No generalizations present themselves, just that after about six years something is going to come up/go wrong.

So far, Obama has not had such a scandal and the clock is ticking. Of course breaking this pattern, just as Reagan broke the 20 year curse (every president elected in an 0 year had died in office starting with William Henry Harrison in 1841 and extending to JFK in 1963) would be a great thing.

I know partisans on the other side will insist that Obama has escaped scandal due to media bias or no one looking hard enough. But, while the Obama White House is undoubtedly up to stuff (politics is a rough business after all) when a real White House scandal comes stuff really will stick.

Of course, maybe something will boil up. But Obama has had pretty strong chiefs of staff in Rahm Emmanuel and Denis McDonough. While Obama has been criticized for surrounding himself with loyalists and cosseting himself in a tight inner circle - one advantage of this is discipline. Unfortunately there is little suggest that this discipline has resulted in good policy.

Another lesson worth noting.

Monday, March 16, 2015

VP Imagery

So I'm trying to update the site, move things around and (within my limited capabilities) make it pretty. The new image at the top is the VP's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Building next door to the White House. The picture is from the George W. Bush White House, when the office was being renovated (seems appropriate for this blog.)

When done up, the office is gorgeous, as this pic from Washingtonian Magazine shows.

But, as readers of this blog surely know, this beautiful office is rarely used because the VP spends his time in the West Wing - where the action is!

Speaking of great VP images, I have recently come upon Veeptopus, drawn by the intrepid Jonathan Crow. I could tell you about it, but a picture says a thousand words. So here: