Saturday, December 19, 2015

New George H.W. Bush Biography on his Vice Presidency

Most of the press about the new John Meacham biography of George H.W. Bush focused on his comments about Cheney and about his son's administration (more on that in a follow-up post). But I was rather more interested in some other Vice Presidents. I was hoping for more on Bush's own time as VP and maybe for a snippet or two about Quayle. I was disappointed - but elated at the same time.

Disappointed because there was nothing much new about Bush 41's time as VP. At the same time pleased, since I have much, much more about the Bush vice presidency. Although that too is a cause of concern. In assessing a vice president's influence, the researcher is studying shadows on the walls of the cave. Was the Vice President exercising influence at all? Was an apparent case of influence really the case was it just rumor or - as likely - just something the President was going to do anyway.

The Vice President Bush in the Meacham biography (and in other sources as well) appeared constantly worried about his relationship with the President - was he really helping, what could he do better - all while also looking out for his own political future.

On the other hand, Meachem's primary unique resource was access to Bush 41 himself. When I was doing my dissertation I made inquiries about interviewing the former President. I was told that he wasn't talking to anyone but his biographer, but also that he was not such a great interview because he didn't like to dwell on the past. One can imagine that after being president - leading the country through a war AND the end of the Cold War, he wasn't inclined to spend much energy on his time to his more ambiguous time as second fiddle.

So I'm inclined to think I've got something new to put on the table - given the limited context in which the VP can operate. For a hint as to some of the stuff I found, see here.)

As for Quayle, I didn't expect much. There was an extensive footnote that stated that Bush personally wanted to push Quayle forward on some issues and thought he was doing ok - but his senior advisors resisted and sought to limit Quayle's activities. There was little talk to Quayle exercising substantial influence and this basically confirms my findings.

There is of course another angle to this. Presidents don't like being the bad guy, they usually have people around them to say no. Certainly President Bush could have pushed Quayle forward over his advisors' objections. Did he choose not to have that particular fight or did he acquiesce in a way that left him blameless? Even the most genial politicians are pretty scheming - and I don't blame them for it one bit!


So I've been reading the book idiosyncratically. First, I looked at Bush 41's time as VP, then his post-presidency, and then his time at CIA - with a quick scan for references to Quayle. Then I wrote this post.

Then I read the introduction and was vindicated! Meacham's key research sources were access to Bush himself and access to the diaries. But, Meachem notes the diaries during the vice presidency were sporadic. So I am justified in believing my findings were significant even though they were not mentioned by Meacham. Much of the vice president's influence is low-key and occurs in private meetings. The vice president does not make a habit of marching into the president's office and instructing the president on an appropriate course of action. But during lunches or "drop-ins" the vice president might mention something or have a suggestion or useful piece of information. Bush was the vice chair of the crisis management committee (the president is always chair), but Bush chaired when Reagan didn't attend. This put Bush on point at several critical junctures (such as during the Polish crisis in late 1981) where he briefed the president.

There was another interesting point in the introduction. In person George H.W. Bush was an impressive, handsome, graceful, and charming man. Everywhere he went he made deep friendships easily. But, whereas Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan's charm and presence translated out through television - Bush 41 did not extend beyond the room he was in. His athletic grace came off as awkward, his language (glib in person) came off as odd and fractured on TV. 

Finally, I did another search for more on Quayle, but alas there was nothing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

RIP Fred Thompson: Mortality and the VP

Fred Thompson was a decent man, good politician, and impressive presence. He served on the Watergate Committee, as Senator from Tennessee in real life. On the screen his resume was even more impressive, he was President, CIA Director, Admiral, and District Attorney of Manhattan.

He will be missed.

When I first saw him speak watching a GOP convention in the 1990s I was struck by his presence. I immediately thought, "He's good. He could be president."

He ran for President, briefly, in 2008 but it wasn't his moment. But that brings up another question. If he had won in 2008 and been re-elected in 2012 his Vice President would now be president. Further, with his recurrence of lymphoma he might have been incapacitated, raising some complex Constitutional problems.

This is why we have Vice Presidents.

In the chart on the left red bars depict terms that the president did not complete, while green bars depict terms in which there was a significant threat to the president's completion of the term (a serious illness, impeachment, or assassination attempt.)

The chart shows that for the last 40 years (going back to 1976) presidents have completed their terms. We had two scares (the assassination of Reagan and the Clinton impeachment) but no one actually left office early.

But in the 40 years before that (1936-1976) one president died in office, another was assassinated, while a third resigned. Further, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all faced serious health problems in office. 

In the forty years before that (1896 to 1936) one president was assassinated and another died from an illness. Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated for several months. A Constitutional crisis was averted by legerdemain on the part of the First Lady and the President's personal physician. 

And the 40 years before that (1856-1896) two Presidents were assassinated. In addition Andrew Johnson was impeached and Chester Alan Arthur was very ill in office. 

Now back to 1816-1856 two Presidents died in office from illness. 

The point of this little history lesson is that we are living in a period of robust presidential health, unprecedented since the establishment of the Republic.

We have seen extraordinary improvements in longevity and security, but Thompson's untimely passing at a relatively young 73 (of a form of cancer that is generally considered very treatable) is a reminder that, alas, we are still mortal and the end can arrive for any of us, at any time.

The vice presidency was established with this reality in mind. My focus has been on what vice presidents do in office. But its real purpose has always been to step in, if there is an emergency. We have had a vacation from this particular tragedy. But there is not guarantee that this break is permanent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bye to Biden: Farewell Joe?

I have written quite a bit about Biden. I don't necessarily agree with him on every issue, the man has his flaws. But he also seemed so human. His gaffes (which I always thought were over-played), his passion, his ready discussion of his own profound personal losses, showed that there was a real person.

The infamous incident in which he was giving a spontaneous back rub to the wife of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Biden was panned for his inappropriate behavior and taken as the quintessence of the male habit of invading women's space. I am deeply sympathetic to women's complaints about men inappropriately infesting their space. But it's not clear that is what Biden was doing. He is, by all accounts, physical with everyone he meets. Plenty of male journalists have noted that an interview with Biden can involve a great deal of direct physical contact. He is, by all accounts, a very warm ingratiating person.

The Veep

He was an interesting vice president to study. 

He was chosen to help win the election. Unlike Carter-Mondale, Clinton-Gore, or Bush-Cheney, personal affinity and credentials do not appear to have been part of the selection equation. In that sense Biden was more akin to Reagan's selection of Bush - he had to pick someone, so first do no harm. (It should be emphasized, that for all of my research on vice presidential influence - how a potential running mate can help in elections is always the TOP criteria in vice presidential select. But with some of the other candidates, personal chemistry and experience was a significant consideration.)

Still, Biden worked hard to serve the president and support. It was a challenge, first because he had little standing the President Obama and second because of the legacy of Cheney - who was seen as playing an outsized role (a bit over-stated in the opinion of yours truly) - Biden need to show that he was not over-reaching.

It is difficult to assess how much influence Biden excersized. He travelled extensively and to difficult places - he was point man on Iraq (hardly a credit to his record - but I didn't say he was a magician), among other things. He was a key interlocutor with congress. He oversaw some important domestic initiatives. 

Perhaps the most interesting role was "running interference" in the decision of how much the U.S. should commit to Afghanistan. This is a fascinating role. Vice presidents usually reserve their advice for the president so they are not publicly seen as taking sides in inter-agency squabbles. There are good reasons for this - among others no one sees the vice president disagree with the president (and be over-ruled.) It preserves an appearance of influence. But in the discussions on Afghanistan, Biden took an active role. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thought this was deeply unwise and was strongly critical of the vice president's role.

But Biden apparently did this at the president's request! In Obama's words:

Obama said that he and Biden discussed questions to pose to the military and intelligence community. “There were times where Joe would ask questions, essentially on my behalf, to give me decision-making space, to help stir up a vigorous debate. And that was invaluable both in shaping our strategy of an initial surge, to blunt Taliban momentum, but also to lay out a time frame for how long we would be there." 
It was a unique and interesting use of the vice presidency - effectively as an offensive tackle in a game of bureaucratic political football.

Other items were interesting as well. Biden's staff was closely integrated into the President's staff (maybe even more so than Cheney's) - at one point five Biden advisors were also deputy assistants to the president. Perhaps the best examplar of this rise of the VP's staff was the famous picture from the situation room watching the OBL raid unfold in which VPNSA Anthony Blinken is clearly visble.  Several Biden allies, including Tom Donilon and William Daley held key jobs in the White House. At the same time, several Biden staffers moved into comparable White House positions, including Anthony Blinken (from VPNSA to deputy NSA) and Jay Carney who first served as the VP's press secretary before taking the same role for the president.

Of course senior, experienced figures like Tom Donilon and Anthony Blinken might have had a prominent role in any Democratic administration. But still, it reinforces the role of the insider VP as a source for seasoned, insider staff.

Biden had a tough act to follow as VP. But under his stewardship, the office certainly did not return to its historic insignificance and grew in some modest, but interesting ways.

The Future
Having served the public for decades in the Senate and finally as vice president, Joe Biden can - with confidence - sit back into a comfortable retirement. Or is the vice presidency like the silver medal - the least satisfying of the winners. The bronze medalist is pleased to have won anything at all. The gold medalist is, of course, pleased. But what of the silver medalist - so close to the championship - but not the one who will be remembered.

Hopefully, Biden - who has had a life of great joy and great sorrow - will feel he has earned the right to rest comfortably on his laurels.

And yet...

We have seen both the institutionalization of the Ex-Presidency and a modest growth in the role of the ex-VP. Mondale served as Ambassador to Japan. Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize and as Oscar as a former VP,  has continued to advocate for action against climate change and has sought to reform capitalism. Cheney has also remained in the public eye.

Will Biden to work for issues he cares about? It is hard to imagine he won't. By all accounts and appearances he remains full of energy and passion. Will he establish a Biden Foundation (the initials BF have been at the start of some of his most memorable phrases) that advances middle class values and American internationalism?

It would be a fitting coda to a long and distinguished career. A great sunset on a helluva ride.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How do I loathe Trump, let me count the ways

Donald Trump offends me on multiple levels.

First, I don't like bullies. Of course bullies have followers and they can be ingratiating when they chose. They specialize in cruelty mixed with doses of kindness. As an adult I recognize that bullies usually have their own deep wounds and undoubtedly the Donald has them. Part of me pities him, but mostly I don't care.

Then there are his ridiculous qualifications. One could take a look at the Donald's career and ask just how sharp he's been. Becoming a billionaire when you start with $40 million and an in with NYC real estate is not an inordinate achievement (careful investments would have gotten him there anyway.) I can respect a billionaire - Steve Jobs did cool stuff that no one had ever done. Or how about Edison or Carnegie (who were equivalent to billionaires in their day.) The Donald built some buildings in NYC (because nothing could get built in one of the hottest real estate markets in they world without Trump), ran casinos (a trashy industry of dubious value) that failed, and now he develops golf courses. Big fucking deal!

Of course there are Trump's loathesome politics. I have a certain soft spot for Latino immigrants. Claiming the Latin American immigrants are criminals from the bottom of the barrel is just wrong. They may not have much education, but they have shown tremendous resourcefulness and are willing to take big risks to get here (like Trump's grandfather). That's exactly the kind of people we want. (And yes, they do make me think of my own great-grandparents who were wise enough to get the hell out of Russia!) From other parts of the world the U.S. consistently gets the best and brightest. Immigration is a source of strength for the United States. 

That being said, I understand the opposite point of view, arguing that immigration imposes costs on our society that we cannot afford. I get the argument that we are doing a lousy job assimilating immigrants. I also get that this argument gets heated and is expressed in emotional terms. Fine. 

But Trump is just obnoxious.

We are led by very, very stupid people
But that isn't what really bothers me.

Trump announced regarding the Iran deal, "We are led by very, very stupid people."

That pissed me off. I studied political leaders. My dissertation was on the Vice President, but to a great extent this was an opportunity to look at the president and top-level decision-making in general. I did not agree with every action taken by the people I studied. But they were NOT stupid. Based on where they sat and the information they had, they made the best decision they could. 

I came away from my studies humbled.

I'm not endorsing the Iran deal, but the idea that the U.S. negotiators are simply idiots - people who have worked on non-proliferation and arms control for the bulk of their professional lives - is offensive. They weighed the situation and made a call as to the best way forward. Would Trump have magically achieved an instant, permanent freeze of Iran's nuclear program without making any concessions?

Equally ludicrious is the idea the U.S. trade negotiators just simply have no idea how to handle relations with China or Mexico. What magic concession would Trump wring from the Chinese - and concessions are not achieved for nothing. What would he give up? Perhaps Trump could get the Chinese to revalue their currency in a manner favorable to the United States. Wonderful, would he have given them a free hand in the South China Sea in exchange?

Let's pretend President Trump could wring vast concessions from Mexico or China. Then what? Such concessions might lead to huge instability. State collapse would not be out of the question, how would that serve U.S. interests?

The Republican candidates have been pretty critical of Obama. This is to be expected, and the administration has certainly had its share of missteps. But they do not call the President stupid, because - as fellow politicians - they know just how difficult all of this is. They promise to do better, of course.

Politicians have to balance a vast range of competing priorities, compromising on some while holding fast on others. I like to call it The Whole Equation (from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel). The renowned Robert Putnam, in his classic essay, Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games, puts it even better, writing:
The politics of many international negotiations can usefully be conceived as a two-level game....Each national leader appears at both boards. Across the international table sit his foreign counterparts...Around the domestic table behind him sit parliamentary figures, spokespersons for domestics agencies, representatives of key interest groups...The unusual complexity of this two-level game is that moves that are rational for a player at one board...may be impolitic for that same player at the other board....
The political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering. Any key player at the international table who is dissatisfied with the outcome may upset the game board, and conversely, any leader who fails to satisfy his fellow players at the domestic table risks being evicted from his seat. On occasion, however, clever playesr will spot a move on one board that will trigger realignments on other boards, enabing them to achieve otherwise unattainable objectives.
Scott Walker just left the race. One does not have to love or agree with Scott Walker - or think he would be a good president. But while Trump was building golf courses and getting paid to put his name on buildings other people built, Walker was balancing a whole set constituencies and priorities to make the state budget. Same with Kasich, Jeb, and the other state governors. Or how about Marco Rubio who, at 34 years old was elected Speaker of the Florida State House of Representatives - a politician's politician. Trump may call himself the master of the art of the deal, but the truth is that his deals were chump change compared to the doings of the governor of even medium-sized states. 

And as I just noted, that is minor league compared to international negotiations. But at least it is the same game.

Trump is occupying an outsized role in the campaign, but in truth he is the smallest man on the field.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

McKinley: Mountains, Molehills and a Vice Presidential Monadnock

Criticizing President Obama for renaming Mt. McKinley is a full-scale nothing burger as far as controversies go. McKinley was a decent man who tried to be a decent president, but he sure wasn't Lincoln. No one would argue he was one of the greats.

FDR claimed he faced more tough decisions in a day than McKinley faced in a week. 

Aside: It is interesting to think how far an era can reach back, or, to paraphrase William Faulkner, how far back the past is still present. McKinley was not ancient history in Roosevelt's day. The last Civil War veterans were departing the scene in the 1930s and when FDR travelled to the Hermitage he met an old woman who, as a little girl, had known former President Andrew Jackson. My own grandfather was born in 1898 so, in a small way I feel some connection to the Baltimore that H.L. Mencken called a medieval city of tiny twisting streets clogged with horse drawn carriages t

hat existed before the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. I remember as as boy old men who saw that fire when they were little boys. One day my children will tell their grand-children about their great-grandfather who was born back in 1970 - a time as remote as 1870 is to me - before the Internet was invented, when cars didn't drive themselves and ran on old dinosaurs. More significantly they will mention meeting Holocaust survivors and World War 2 veterans - my children will be the last generation to meet such people in person.

Back to McKinley: FDR's critique was not completely fair. McKinley managed a pair of major economic issues - rejecting bi-metalism and keeping the U.S. on the gold standard and a major tariff bill. He also oversaw a global war, the first stirring of American global power. He also saw some of the beginnings of the modern presidency. He had a larger staff headed by an influential Secretary, George Cortelyou, who was a predecessor to the modern chief of staff and went on to hold several cabinet positions.

Vice President Garrett Hobart
McKinley (left) and Hobart vacationing at Lake Champlain
But McKinley was close to my heart because of his Vice President. For six decades before McKinley and for almost eight afterwards, the Vice President was a figure of no consequence in administration councils. McKinley was different, he included Vice President Garrett Hobart in nearly every major decision, meeting with the Vice President frequently and assigning significant tasks. It was enough that I managed to do a case study on him for my dissertation. I won't reveal everything (I have to save something for the book). But, Hobart helped persuade McKinley to reject bimetalism and ran the campaign's east coast operation. Hobart was praised for his tact in presiding over the Senate and famously advised McKinley that he had to act against Spain after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, or the Senate would do so (McKinley was a Civil War veteran and had no desire for war). Later Hobart fired the incompetent Secretary of War. Hobart's wife also assumed the duties of lead Washington hostess when McKinley's sickly wife was unable to do so.

An editorial in The Washington Post wrote:
The Vice Presidency, under his administration, has become a place of dignity and influence.... He has become a conspicuous factor in our scheme of government. Vice Presidnets do not usually make a mark.... Mr. Hobart, however, has convinced the country of his personality and weight, and show us that the office he fills is one of possible usefulness and potency.
Now, let one thing remain clear, the vice president only matters to the extent the president allows it. Hobart was unique over the course of 150 years (between Martin Van Buren and Walter Mondale) because McKinley thought it was helpful. So in that small way, McKinley remains a lonely monadnock among generations of presidents.

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 & Barack: 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:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Presentation Slides - The Whole Equation: The Vice President as Advisor

Back in November I gave a presentation based on my dissertation at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (where I earned my PhD.)

My dissertation (see the slides here) looked at how and why the vice presidency has become influential. Ultimately, the answer is that the U.S. has elected outsider presidents who had little experience with Washington DC or international affairs. These outsiders (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Obama) all found the advice of their insider vice presidents useful.

As happens so often at the end of a writing project, rather than reaching a conclusion one is left with a question - the question one really wants to write about. That's where I am. What is this advice, this magical insider knowledge that the insider vice president can provide to the outsider president.

This presentation is my first stab at that question.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary & Hubris: A Tragedy in Email

HRC's iconic Twitter Image
In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia Clytemnestra (with her lover Aegisthus) plots to murder her husband Agamemnon when he returns home from the Trojan War. When the Great King returns homes he finds a red carpet spread before him. But only the gods are permitted to walk on crimson. Yet, the Great King, returning from a historic victory, could not allow his feet to touch mundane earth, that would be a dishonor. Agamemnon frets about this, fearing the gods will strike him down for his affront. Clytemnestra goads her husband into walking on the crimson tapestries. And the thing about Agamemnon - his hubris, his fatal flaw - is that granted a choice between surrendering honor or claiming too much, he will always choose the excess of honor. (This is the conflict that sparks the Illiad!) Of course, Clytemnestra was plotting to entangle him in this carpet and murder him.

This incident echoes down to the present day. All of us have our fatal flaws. In the Odyssey Homer gave that sage counsel of steering towards the less evil. But knowing what is our particular tendency to greater evil is tough to discern. We steer because of a lifetime of habit, of character.

I thought this applied to Dick Cheney and his penchant for secrecy. There are of course virtues to secrecy. It is not always wrong to be secretive, especially in matters of national security. But there are also times when secrecy is exactly the wrong choice. In the wake of the terrible hunting accident, when the vice president shot his friend, Cheney’s instinct was not to discuss it with the public. But there was no way in which this could have failed to be a national story. Cheney’s reticence only fueled the fire. And it contributed, was perhaps the nail in the coffin, to his once outsized role in the administration.

Now we see, with the Hillary imbroglio that she too shares this particular hubris. In a profound way it undermines her ambitions. Her primary virtue as a candidate is experience. She has been there and done that. Yet, 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.

A confession: in the late 1990s I was a Clinton-hater. I was running with a neo-con crowd and as a junior member of the conspiracy thought Iraq was a good idea. I’ve learned things since, but I can’t feel all that guilty since my policy influence was exactly nil (I can feel humbled perhaps, but not guilty). 

But, back to the Clintons.

My research on the vice presidency, in which I studied politicians and their doings, left me with a fair amount of respect for them and the tough, tough decisions they have to make. Also, the Clinton administration had its achievements. One could argue he was a great Republican president, giving us NAFTA, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. He got a good hand as president, but he also played it well.

So Hillary has been running for president since 2000, arguably earlier. She has a lot of assets as a candidate. I take experience in presidential candidates seriously and she has it in spades. We like to talk about people having good instincts on policy, but instincts only take you so far. The Presidency is a job like no other in the world. Hanging around the White House and being close to the President counts as experience. The Executive Office of the President is an extensive bureaucracy in its own right, with thousands of employees and agencies. Just figuring out where the White House stands on an issue - before getting to the inter-agency process - is a big deal. The various constituencies within the White House on an issue can easily fill a conference room. Figuring out how to make this institution, which really is the president’s steering mechanism for the ship of state, work for you is not a small problem. Presidents (including Bill Clinton) have wrestled with this problem in their early years. Hillary spent eight years in the White House watching the president closely. She’ll have a pretty good idea of how to get things done.

Presidents who want to accomplish anything significant have to work with congress. The gap between state legislatures and Capitol Hill is significant. The game is the same, but the arena gets bigger and the other players are much better. Consider, Congress has 535 members. State legislatures usually have less than 200. Assume a president or a governor has formidable powers of persuasion and, on any given issue, can usually persuade about a dozen recalcitrant members to shift their votes. In Congress that represents 2.5% of the total. In a typical state legislature (say my home state of Maryland) that would represent almost 7% of the total. A governor has a lot more options. In the past few decades we’ve been electing governors to the presidency and most have struggled with congressional relations.

Hillary spent eight years in the Senate and was, by most accounts, respected and well-liked in the Senate. She will not be flummoxed by the institutional calendar and prerogatives.

Finally, her time as Secretary of State was invaluable experience. Outsiders vastly underestimate the importance of understanding the mechanisms of foreign policy. It is fine to argue the U.S. should pursue a strategy of aligning with state X or pressuring state Y. The actually ways in which these things are done are more mysterious. There is no “pressure adversary” button on the desk in the West Wing.

Hillary, in a way no candidate since, George H.W. Bush, brings experience to the table. We wanted “no-drama” Obama but, for various reasons, didn’t exactly get that (not all of these reasons were his fault of course.) But Hillary, well, when she get up to the plate she’ll know how to hit a big-league fastball.

So all of that being said, Hillary’s email “issue” fundamentally raises questions about whether she’s learned anything!

Let’s be charitable.  At her big press conference, her answer was that simply she wanted to carry one device for all her emails (this response has it’s own problems - namely a certain level of arrogance). Let’s assume that Hillary is not conspiring to keep information from the public and that she honestly thought conducting official business over a jury-rigged personal network based on a server in her house was the least bad solution to these problems. 

Anyway, the federal archiving regulations were ambiguous in 2009 when she took office. State’s IT is pretty rickety and believed to be insecure. So, this made sense at the time. (Could she have changed in 2011 when the White House issued a new policy - well, yeah - but let’s say it wasn’t her top priority.)

Let’s not question motivations. I DON’T think there is anything to Benghazi as a scandal. They may have bobbled the ball, but it was a tough play. The Clinton Foundation is up to stuff, undoubtedly, but I sort of assume that they have some shady donors. Lots of prestigious universities and foundations take money from checkered sources seeking to burnish their reputation.

But the fact that she chose this solution shows very poor judgment in two critical areas.

First, Hillary’s email problem is a counter-intelligence nightmare. My buddy BJ Tucker, a brilliant guy all-round but with real expertise on CI, wrote to me:
CI personnel, if they are involved, would look to have the email servers undergo a forensic examination to look for intrusions, anomalies, etc. I suspect that would find a few because the State Department itself came under several cyber attacks – some of which are ongoing. Data was exfiltrated from State and its possible that an email floating in the archive would have her personal address on it. Once a foreign intelligence service, or a freelance hacker, had that they could use the email headers to track it down. I’m betting that how Guccifer found this email address in the first place. If a few reporters can figure this out, then we have to suspect the likelihood that a nation state did as well. This leads into the content of the emails. In the classified world we have a problem with aggregation. Aggregation occurs when someone marries seemingly disparate unclassified information into one document and inadvertently creating something that is classified. Happens quite frequently, but its become more of a problem in the cyber age. It’s possible that some of the emails contained sensitive information, and someone with access to the archive could start putting things together. Hopefully anything that has been pilfered – if anything was – is now outdated. Another thing to consider is that State has access to several different classified systems with email capabilities for program compartmentalization. Again, it’s not uncommon for users to get confused and share classified information on the wrong system, or worse put it on an unclassified system. This is something else that would be looked at. 
So first, it was just bad security. Did no one tell her this?

But the bigger issue is how someone with her savvy and experience could make such a mistake.

Hillary spent the better part of a decade going back and forth with independent prosecutors over documents and tangling with “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” So knowing that there is this vast conspiracy on the hunt for her mis-doings she developed a email system practically designed to make them apoplectic with outrage and suspicion.

Well, haters gonna hate. Maybe Hillary, knowing how many were salivating to impugn her, was actually baiting them. This would rally her supporters closer and - by focusing on this on the campaign trial - save her from actually having to talk about issues. Understand, once you start talking policy some people will be happy, but some will not. If you can be ambiguous about your policy and let people see in you what they want, you are in a great position on the campaign trail.

If it’s a wonderful strategy. But I’m not sure it will work. The whole point of an experienced president, a steady hand on the wheel, is to not have endless pointless mini-crises, that devour the President's energy and get in the way of actual work. Richard Neustadt called them “piglets” as opposed to the massive policy failure of the Bay of Pigs. If Hillary, with her vast experience and time in office can’t avoid “stepping in it” on this relatively minor issue, do we really want four years of this?

Roughly 47% of the electorate will go for Hillary no matter what and 47% to the other candidate. The election will come down to a relatively small number of people in key swing states. They are not wise Solons, recognizing their critical role as the ultimate decides of our great democracy. They are the least informed voters (welcome to democracy.) They will vote based on general impressions and this email issue reinforces the most negative impressions of Hillary. 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?"