Friday, October 27, 2017

Too Many Secrets

Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave lasted 1,036 days. For the children in school on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was stunning in a way nothing has been since.

On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the trigger-man. What made him do it is still being questioned.

Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”

Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

The cynicism spawned by the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination has tinted everything baby boomers have seen since that November. Everything.

However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks. After he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why they did it. In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses, hither and yon, for a myriad of reasons. On the other hand, I’m not saying there was no conspiracy that led up to the murder of President Kennedy.

We don't know and now it appears we'll never know. The much-ballyhooed release of assassination-related papers with secrets that have been locked away from public scrutiny for over 50 years has been put on hold ... until April, 2018. Good luck.  

For this piece I’m skipping past the argument over whether Oswald acted alone. Not going to speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksman who ever lived. The point to this screed is that the secrecy that rushed in to obscure what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that we need to recognize, so we can learn from it today.

Tomorrow we ought to do something about it. Official secrets open doors to conspiracy theories. Withholding the truth invites liars to fill the void with what serves their agenda. 

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings. Was its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims, great sleuthing?

Or was it an unbelievable reach?


In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Two months after that assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.

Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely disbelieved, too. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. More importantly, even if more sunlight into those probes failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.

Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth, and nothing-but-the-truth. Too often it seems to have been decided on high that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were all children.

Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well. Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. In the 1960s the public expected its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets.

At long last, it took the rudest of revelations to snap many Americans out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
  • The My Lai Massacre horrors.
  • The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
  • The Watergate Scandal hearings.
  • The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
  • The bogus justification for invading Iraq. 
As those events paraded by, America steadily morphed into a nation of cynics. Now, those of us who recognize the damage that's been done by official lies know better. We know we were wrong to ever have accepted such skullduggery in the name of keeping America safe.

Today, to trust official conclusions, we need to see into the investigations. That means more public hearings. In the age of Trumpism, for democracy to have a chance of working properly, we need to know whose money is behind this or that politician. We, the people, can’t allow the fundraising and sausage-making to continue to be done in the dark.

Moreover, in 2017, Americans have no privacy. Our government(s) and plenty of large corporations already know mostly all they want to know about us. They monitor our moves as a matter of course. With calls for more security getting louder that's not going to change. Still, don't we need more scrutiny of our elected leaders' moves?


In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.
Fifty-four years after the murder that we baby boomers can still feel in our guts, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels. Sunlight could discourage more of the same. Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: 
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Single bullet theory, you say?

Great name for a band.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wake up, Democrats!

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
You'd think that after Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat in 2016, owing in some part to a lack of support by disaffected Democrats, that in Virginia we wouldn't have many good Democrats threatening to turn their backs on the campaign of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam … simply because they can't agree with him on every issue.

Wake up, Democrats!

Without the possibility of facing a Northam veto the trendy Republicans in the General Assembly will stampede to the right. The far right. Even the alt-right.

An Ed Gillespie victory on November 7 would stoke President Donald Trump's momentum and embolden his obnoxious fans. Yes, picture Trump's most obstreperous devotees even more emboldened than they are now.


When Northam talks about Confederate monuments he should avoid sounding like just another guy jumping on a bandwagon. There's probably no smart reason for any Democratic candidates in 2017 to make the suddenly-complicated Confederate memorials issue central to their campaign. Right now, it cuts in too many different directions.

For Northam, saying he'd personally rather see Confederate memorials displayed in museums or other special places that provide context is smart. It avoids striking an angry pose. Adding that the decisions about such matters should probably be made at the local level sounds plain and reasonable.

Note: I'd love to see a citywide referendum in Richmond on whether or not to 86 the Jefferson Davis memorial on Monument Avenue. It's a graffiti magnet and that's not likely to stop.

Furthermore, Northam should say it's not a governor's place to tell any Virginians what they ought to think of the monuments, but it is a governor's duty to facilitate the airing out of the genuine history that surrounds those artifacts. 


Democratic candidates in Virginia and elsewhere need to avoid using too many national talking points, crafted by flacks who listened with one ear to focus groups. Such rhetoric/copy sounds so processed and boring in 2017. Each campaign needs to be tailor-made to its district or state. Yes, it's more work. Don't be lazy.

Democrats, in general, should not take on the white supremacists as their national enemy, Candidates should fight each campaign for it own issues. No doubt, that will sometimes entail denouncing an opponent as an alt-right tool. 

If it's true, say it. However, to take on the whole movement as an opponent, head-on, promotes what is still a fringe phenomenon that's trying to grow itself. Why help it? Better to let surrogates and pundits address the puny but blustery alt-right movement directly.

Note: When I say “puny” I don't mean the white nationalists, et al, aren't dangerous. They are.


The Democratic Party ought to be the party that says it's OK for NFL players to take a knee during the pre-game National Anthem. It should be the party that says the players' cause is righteous – not intended to be disrespectful to the military, etc. Good Democrats ought to affirm that the gesture itself is about calling for justice. On top of that it does no harm ... unless you're looking to take offense.

That said, the Democratic Party cannot be the party that says every player must take a knee. It can't be the party that condemns people who object to the taking-a-knee gesture. The folks who don't support the protesting players are just as entitled to speak out as anyone else.

Fighting Trumpism with ideology is a mistake. Democrats should be about seeing through the fog of propaganda – seeing reality, seeing the truth. 

Democratic candidates should promise that a properly-run government will be careful with its words and its deeds, that such a government will live up to its promises. Democrats ought to pledge to work for social justice and the commonweal.

Going forward, for Democrats to win more elections they must stop insulting everyone who won't identify as a liberal, or a progressive. Face it, we are living in post-ideology times. What we need in 2017 is an honest, competent government. In anxious times, we need calmness.


Over the last few years trust in America's institutions seems to have been withering at an alarming rate, which has stimulated a thirst for authenticity. Memorably, the cover of the April 3, 2017, issue of TIME posed the question: “Is truth dead?”

TIME's question seemed to be about current events. We were just ten weeks into the Trump presidency; the question seemed to have been prompted in great part by the fake news charges and controversies that had been orbiting around President Donald Trump's campaign and then his White House.

My best effort to answer the question on that TIME cover references a 45-year-old gangster flick. Like the bullet-riddled Vito Corleone (as played by Marlon Brando), the gravely injured Truth is sleeping fretfully in a private hospital room. Alone.

Mysteriously, Truth's guards have gone missing ... uh-oh.

Wake up, Democrats. Truth needs to be protected, right now.


Bottom line: Ralph Northam should take advantage of each and every opportunity to remind the voters that he will never be Donald Trump's houseboy... 

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