Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

New proof how J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan stirred up violence in 1960s Berkeley


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A review of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

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We’ve known for some time that the FBI and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial administration were involved in the sometimes-violent conflicts that roiled Berkeley in the 60s. What we didn’t know — or, at least, what I didn’t know — was that J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to the boiling point again and again. Seth Rosenfeld’s exhaustively researched recent book, Subversives, documents this story in often minute detail yet manages to keep it eminently readable.

Anyone who lived through those times as a sentient adult will surely remember some of the seminal events: the protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960, lodged in memory through the iconic footage of students being fire-hosed down the steps of San Francisco City Hall; the 1964 Free Speech Movement that pushed the University of California at Berkeley into the forefront of student protest, brought Mario Savio to prominence, and began to change public attitudes about the police; the 1965 Vietnam Day Teach-In that fastened students’ attention on the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam and initiated the public’s disillusionment with the U.S. government; and the violent clash over People’s Park in 1969, which led to the death of young James Rector and confirmed in so many minds the view that law enforcement officials were out of control.

Subversives breaks new ground in several ways because of Rosenfeld’s dogged, three-decade pursuit of classified government files that cast new light on the events themselves as well as the major players whose decisions drove them. The author keeps the story from getting out of hand by maintaining a tight focus on Hoover, Reagan, Savio, and UC Berkeley President Clark Kerr.

In Subversives, Rosenfeld relates the roles (hitherto largely undocumented) of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan in these familiar events, demonstrating the ruthlessness with which both men pursued “Communists” and their lack of respect for the truth. We see Hoover aggressively pushing his agents to seek out embarrassing personal details — largely rumors — about Mario Savio, Clark Kerr, and their collaborators, illegally passing the information along to Right Wing publications, and later citing it as documented truth in reports to the President and to the public. We see Reagan eagerly seeking out the FBI to inform on his rivals in Hollywood and secretly naming names behind closed doors with HUAC, destroying the careers of talented actors, directors, and writers because he disagreed with their political beliefs. From a vantage-point of half a century, both men appear to be thoroughly unscrupulous and careless about the sometimes tragic consequences of the action they directed from their privileged positions.

Seth Rosenfeld, a winner of the coveted George Polk Award and now a staff member of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, was previously an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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The ugly U.S. war with Iran, past, present, and future


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A review of The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

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If you were among those who sighed with relief when Barack Obama was reelected because you’d been concerned that a Republican administration would invade Iran, David Crist has news for you. In fact, The Twilight War is full of surprises, even for one who stays relatively well informed about world affairs. The underlying message — the meta-message, if you’ll permit that conceit — is that what we normally consume on a daily basis as “news” is an awkward mixture of critical opinion, wishful thinking, rumor, partisan posturing, self-serving news leaks, and a smattering of hard information.

When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. There was even one heart-stopping incident during the Reagan Administration when a rogue, high-ranking U.S. Admiral conspired with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to invade Iran with massive force — and, apparently, was ordered to pull back from the brink largely because the Administration was consumed with covering up the President’s active role in the Iran-Contra affair.

The 2004 Presidential election campaign brought into the spotlight the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been photographed shaking hands with Saddam. Then we learned, some of us for the first time, that the U.S. had supplied weapons and munitions to Iraq. However, what went largely unreported was the extent to which the U.S. military built up its forces in the Persian Gulf to prevent Iran from flanking Iraq or widening the war to the Gulf Arab states, provided combat intelligence that helped Iraq turn back Iranian advances, and even intervened with force on Iraq’s side from time to time.

It was this history — combined with an understanding of the neoconservative design on the region — that led the Iranian leadership to conclude in 2003 that the U.S. invasion of Iraq presaged an imminent attack on Iran itself. The Ayatollah Khamenei and his minions were so frightened of this prospect that they used every backchannel available to them to attempt to get the U.S. to the negotiating table, where they were prepared to arrive at a grand solution to the differences between the two countries. Are you surprised to learn that the Bush Administration flatly rejected the overtures?

In other words, this has been a nail-biting relationship. Even worse, the outlook today doesn’t look any brighter than it ever has.

Author David Crist is a military historian for the U.S. Government, a reserve Marine Corps colonel, and the son of one of the early four-star commanders of CENTCOM, which was created in the 1980s to coordinate U.S. military affairs involving Iran and the Middle East. Given this pedigree, it’s not unfair to wonder whether Crist himself is guilty of some of the same sins I attributed earlier to the news media. Clearly, he’s extremely well informed and had access to military and government archives that  might well be closed to other writers. However, a little poking around on the Web reveals that Crist got at least a few of his facts wrong, and in some places his interpretation of events has clearly been colored by his official associations.

The Twilight War is an especially dense work. The hardcover edition runs to 656 pages, but it reads as though it’s a thousand, largely because Crist (military historian to the core) seems to include a capsule biography of every other officer and combatant engaged in every firefight he reports. Like the epic dramas of Cecil B. DeMille, The Twilight War has a cast of thousands. All in all though, this is a revealing and important book, well worth reading, even if that means slogging through the mud.

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Here’s proof that Republicans can tell funny stories

A review of The White House Mess, by Christopher Buckley

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Christopher Buckley is a very funny man. I know this not just because I’ve read a few of his books, which generally “kept me in stitches” (whatever that means), but also because I actually spent much of an evening with him a few weeks ago. He’d come to Berkeley to do a “reading” from his newest book, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, and somehow I’d been invited to introduce him to the audience of about 150 people who were there to hear him. I managed to coax out two or maybe three laughs during my introduction and the questions I later posed. He elicited — oh, maybe 600. Because this was no “reading.” Like the consummate pro he is, he didn’t actually read from the book. He simply talked extemporaneously and, later, answered questions from the audience. The man is an accomplished stand-up comedian.

The White House Mess was written and published during the Reagan Administration, after (or perhaps during) Buckley’s turn as chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush. The book masquerades as a White House memoir — a send-up of life inside the White House that focuses on the travails of the First Famly and on the high stakes feuds among their staff. The plot revolves around an old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist coup in Bermuda, the First Son’s missing hamster, a young First Lady who aches to become a Hollywood star again, a parody of a weak-kneed and wholly unsuited Democratic President, and a collection of snobs, misfits, and alcoholics who, somehow, manage to hold down jobs in the White House. Oh, and by the way: the title refers to the dining facilities, which are called the “mess” because they’re run by the Navy.

If the foregoing paragraph hints that The White House Mess is a parody of Democratic politics, consider that hint confirmed here. Buckley, son of William F. Buckley, Jr., of National Review fame, is indeed a Republican (even though he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008).They Eat Puppies, Buckley’s latest novel, was hysterically funny. (You can read my review of it here.) The White House Mess was his first. The fact that I did NOT find it hysterically funny but only occasionally so is no doubt the result of Buckley’s writing having matured as a writer from 1986, when Mess was published, to 2012, when Puppies saw the light of day. It’s also true, of course, that the latest book dealt with fresh material that reflected today’s reality, while the earliest one deals with a time that many readers could view only as ancient history. And, of course, I’m a Democrat.

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Filed under Humor, Trade Fiction

The New Jim Crow: One of the most important books published in English so far this century

A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

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These are facts:

  • The number of Americans with criminal records is approximately 65 million.
  • The highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White.
  • The percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%.
  • The total number of Americans now in prisons and jails or on probation or parole is 7.4 million.
  • The greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton.

How many of those facts were you aware of before reading this post?

If you can honestly say you knew them all, go to the head of the class. If you’re like me, however, chances are you found at least some of them to be surprising — despite the fact that I think of myself as generally well informed. And if you now read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, you’ll come across a never-ending list of surprises about our country’s vaunted criminal justice system.

For example, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” (OK, this is one I already knew. But it never ceases to shock me.) In this extraordinary book, Prof. Alexander explains how this came about largely as a result of the so-called War on Drugs; how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of nonrecognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; how the system of arrests, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing really works now; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ourselves. The New Jim Crow is one of the most important books published in the English language in a great many years, because it dispels so many of our cherished illusions and takes no prisoners in naming those responsible or in proposing remedies.

For starters, “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.” The number of prisoners of African-American and Latino descent is wildly out of proportion to their share of the general population, and the War on Drugs accounts for the lion’s share of the difference. Despite the fact that the incidence of drug use and drug sales are about the same among whites as they are among people of color, “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”

Alexander demonstrates, step by careful step, how this happened, starting in 1982 with Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the War on Drugs. First, legislation proposed and passed by the same politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who opposed the civil rights movement) elevated drug offenses far above their previous levels — beginning three years before the introduction of crack cocaine and a nationwide increase in drug use. Next, state and local police have been granted significant financial incentives to arrest large numbers of drug users (not, as TV and film presentations might suggest, “drug kingpins”) and insulated from charges of racism in targeting drug use in inner cities rather than in neighborhoods largely populated by whites. Prosecutors as well as police have been given free rein by a series of Supreme Court decisions to operate as they will, in the absence of any legal representation for the accused, and to justify their actions (such as excluding blacks or Latinos from juries or overcharging to force plea-bargain confessions) using even completely absurd or “silly” reasons. (Don’t believe this? Read the book!) “Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining.” Those few who do go on trial frequently face all-white juries and sentencing rules hemmed in by federal legislation that requires judges to impose the harshest possible sentences — even a life sentence for a first-time offense!

Simply possessing modest amounts of marijuana has turned millions of Americans into felons serving years in federal penitentiaries, barred for life from voting or serving on juries, shamed by their families, forced to pay fees for their own parole or probation (including drug tests), excluded from public housing, and discriminated against by most employers. Is it any wonder so many return to prison?

Alexander’s thesis is brutally simple: “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” And we all pay the price.

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