Still more J. Edgar snapshots, including in the White House, 1930s-1970s.

Posing at New York City dog show with contestant.  (No, it’s not his own, though he had dogs most of his life.)
Showing Shirley Temple a comparison microscope in the FBI lab.
A few White House photos:

Standing with John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

Confiding with Richard M. Nixon.

Standing behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt (at desk).

Standing behind John F. Kennedy (at desk) and Bobby Kennedy (standing).

Receiving an award from Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Notice Richard Nixon, as VP, standing behind Ike’s shoulder.

AIRPORT SECURITY: How did we create this paranoid mess?

Security at Denver International Airport — a giant empire of bureaucratic overkill?    

Flying from Washington, D.C., to Albany, NY, a few weeks ago for July 4th, I could not help but be reminded of the monstrosity we have made of airport security in this country. 

This simple one-hour, non-stop flight turned into a multi-hour affair each direction.  Going north, the security screeners stopped the long line and made me pass multiple times through the metal detector before discovering my cough drops had foil inside the paper wrapper.  Going south, it was a cemamic coffee mug — a gift my sister made — that set off the machines.  Coming home from a vacation last winter, they stopped me to confiscate a plastic bottle of listerine and a jar of pineapple marmalade (both slightly over 3 ounces).  Then there was the day last February I flew on a business trip wearing a metal ankle brace (I had twisted it in a clumsy running accident) and, as a result, got the full crotch patdown.

Airport metal detector, 1973.

 But the July 4th trip reminded me of something:  It has now been 38 years (January 1973) since anyone in America has enjoyed the simple pleasure of walking onto a commercial airline flight without being searched by a metal detector.  I am old enough to remember what that was like.  As a result, I have always considered airport searches strange and intrusive, ever since the first time I walked through one of those contraptions at the Albany, New York, airport in 1973 flying off to law school.  

But anyone born since 1973 (or anyone too young back then to remember) has never known anything else their entire lives.  To them, airport searches are simply part of the world.  Water runs downhill.  TVs change channels by remote control.  And obviously you walk through a metal detector to get on a plane.  

I see this as a big deal change in America — the way we think about our personal freedoms.  Does anyone still remember the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution?  In case you forgot, here’s what it says:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,  supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.”  

Today, we are all criminal suspects —  just because we show up at an airport.  Probable cause?  How silly.  How Twentieth Century !!

How this started:

It wasn’t always this way.  Before 1973, the big threat to jet airplanes came from hijackers — someone rushing into the airplane’s cockpit, pulling out a gun, and telling the pilot “Take this plane to Cuba.”  These were rare, about five per year, until the late 1960s when a spate of publicity made hijacking fashionable. The numbers suddenly jumped to 38 and 82 hijackings in 1968 and 1969. (And yes, some of these hijackings were actually ordered by the CIA as a covert weapon against Fidel Castro.)  

In late 1972, the Federal Aviation Admnistration decided to crack down on hijackers by requiring all airlines to start screening passengers and carry-on bags starting January 1973 — one of the later signature acts of then-President Richard M. Nixon.     It mostly worked at first.  There was a rush to produce thousands of new metal detectors to handle the traffic, but the basic screening remained a small inconvenience.  Hijackings dropped off, the Cold War ended, and the world seemed safe.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001.  All nineteen of the September 11 terrorists had managed to trick the airport security system that day, sneaking box-cutters and other weapons past the screeners to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Not only did this reveal how weak the system was, but it showed just how crazy the bad guys had become.  No longer were we up against hijackers seeking asylum in Cuba.   Now, we were up against suicide bombers . 

How we use technology today in the TSA state.

Immediately, the system tightened.  Airline cockpit doors were ordered locked.  On flights into Washington, DC, passengers were barred from using the bathrooms during the last half hour.  Airport searches became major league, and passengers were ordered to start arriving two hours early before a flight to reach their gate on time.

Since then, each new incident has brought new rules.  After the shoe bomber, they made everyone take off their shoes.  After the shampoo bombers, they barred anyone from carrying liquids or gels over three ounces onto a plane, and required the smaller bottles be placed in separate clear plastic bags for inspection.  After the underwear bomber, they began the crotch patdowns and the scanners to see through clothes. 

Today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which operates the system in airports across the country, is a $6.8 billion bureaucracy with 45,000 screeners, 1,500 inspectors, and 430 canine teams.  Add the private contractors, the hi-tech x-rays, scanners, and gun-powder sensors, and the police and military backups, and the taxpayer tab runs into tens of billions of dollars.  Then add all the lost time — the hundreds of millions of hours Americans spend each year waiting on line or milling around airports, a direct drain on the economy.  One study even found that between 2001 and 2003, airport security resulted in 2,300 traffic deaths from people rushing to airports to stand in security lines.

Security?  Or bureaucratic overkill?

Don’t get me wrong:  Terrorism is real, and letting a fanatic take control of a jet plane full of fuel and innocent passengers is unacceptable.  We need airport security screening, and we need to do it in smart and effective ways.  As for the TSA screeners, they are clearly good guys, doing tough jobs under high stress and almost always doing them well.  They keep us safe, they deter killers, and we all owe them a big thank you.

But this is still no excuse for the crazy mess we have allowed to evolve in the USA.  The cost — in money, time, and personal rights — is out of control.  There has to be a better way to police the sky against fanatics and psychopaths. 

Message from over-38 year-olds to under-38 year-olds:   It doesn’t have to be this way.

The next presidential one-termer: Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter answering questions as president.  

[Clirk here for (a) part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft and (b) part II, on the ninth one-termer, Herbert Hoover.]

Remember all the good feelings of optiimism and relief in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president of the USA.  (You guys not born yet, trust me on this.)   

After the house-of-horrors presidency of “Tricky Dick” Richard M. Nixon – his enemies list, spying on his own staff, wiretaps of news reporters, his “plumbers unit,” IRS audits of political enemies, plus Vietnam, the Cambodia invasion, the shootings at Kent State, and all the lying and deceit of Watergate that finally did him in (I won’t pretend to be neutral about RMN) — after all that, Jimmy Carter seemed a breath of fresh air, even after the interlude of Gerald Ford’s relatively calm brief presidency.  

Honest Jimmy, he came across as down-home and normal, truthful, grounded, at ease with his wife and cute little daughter, a peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and Navy submariner, willing to get out of his car and walk on his own two feet during his inaugural parade.  Carter was an “outsider” –a one-term governor from Plains, Georgia, with no taint of Washington experience.  He promised to deliver “a government as good and honest and decent and compassionate … as its people.”  And he said “I will never lie to you.”

Sound slightly arrogant?  Slightly smug?  Like an accident waiting to happen?  By 1980,barely three years later, Carter’s popularity had plummeted, his poll numbers at around 20 percent — close to Richard Nixon’s own lowest point during Watergate.  

[Full disclosure: At the time, in the late 1970s, I was a young staff lawyer for Republican Senator Chuck Percy (R-Ill.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee — scene of much Carter-era action — so I had a nice ring-side seat.]

To his credit, Carter compiled a pretty nice legislative record.  He won major deregulations of the airlines, trucking, and natural gas prices, created the Energy and Education Departments, took major energy conservation steps and pushed through the Alaska Lands Act and bans on ocean dumping and strip mining.  He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, and won a treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama (still a sore point with conservatives).  

This was all good.  Put it on the plus side of the ledger.  Now for the rest ….

So what was the accident waiting to happen? 

Almost from the start, things under Carter seemed chaotic, out-of control.  In his first year as president, Carter’s team stumbled into a first-rate scandal that forced the resignation of Carter’s long-time crony and OMB Director, Bert Lance.  After that, a veritable cascade of toubless followed —   

  • First, the economy sank into a swamp of high inflation, high interest rates, sagging markets, and low growth — a new phenomenon called Carter “stagflation.”  Rubbing sand in the wound were repeated hikes in the price of oil (gasoline) dictated by the OPEC cartel of Arab countries.  Then, in late 1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, cornered the silver market, driving prices of silver and gold to historic highs before crashing in early 1980.  No, the economic mess wasn’t all Carter’s fault.  And to his credit, his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker had plans to fix it.  But there’s more;
  • Then, as things kept going wrong, Carter decided to closet himself for a week-long, high-profile secret enclave at Camp David after which he (a) first conducted a purge of his staff, sacking five cabinet secretaries, and (b) then followed it with a national televised speech in which he decried the country’s “crisis of the spirit” – known to posterity as the “malaise” speech; 
  • Then, in late 1979, militants in Iran seized the US embassy there and held 52 American hostages for what would be 444 days.  Carter ordered a military rescue (causing his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign in protest) which failed because of a helicopter crash that, costing the lives of eight servicemen;
  • Then came the late-1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, causing Carter to (a) cancel US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (pissing off sports fans all across America) and (b)  embargo grain shipments to Russia (causing US grain prices to tank, pissing off farmers all across America); 

  • Then, finally, just when he needed friends the most, came a revolt from within his own Democratic Party as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) decided to challenge Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination.  Carter beat him (he was, after all, an incumbent president), but only after an ugly fight.

By 1980 when the ran for re-eleciton, Jimmy Carter seemed reduced to one last voter appeal:  That as bad as things might be under his own leadership, his opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, was worse — too inexperienced, too right wing, too extreme.  Voters didn’t buy it.  When Reagan and Carter debated face to face, Reagan came across as calm and reasonable.  He won by a landslide.

(Carter managed to bungle even the debates.  When third-party candidate John Anderson asked to participate, Reagan agreed and Carter refused.  The debate when ahead with just Reagan and Anderson, and Carter’s glaring absence make him again look petty and insecure.)

Lesson for Obama:

How to avoid being like Jimmy Carter?  Obama, let’s start with this:  Please do not start thinking that you are smarter than everyone else.  The minute you do, you’re lost. 

Here was Carter’s trap:  Being an “outsider” and painting yourself as “better than” Washington might make you popular in the short run, even win an election or two.  But those same Washington “insiders” – most just as honest, decent, and civic-minded as you — are the very people whose help you need to accomplish your goals, and whose friendship you need when things get tough.   Living in a White House cacoon surrounded by old friends from back home does little good when issues get complicated.

Yes, partisanship today is out of conttrol.  But the golden rule of Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunket from 1905 still holds today::  “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….”

Jimmy Carter is celebrated today as an admirable former President.  Since leaving the White House, he and his Carter Center have helped sooth dozens of world crises, wining him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. This, of course, very nice.  But for now,  the key fact about Carter is this: 1980 Electoral Votes- Ronald Reagan, 489; Carter, 49. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 22.)

Next up, the final one-term president: George H. W. Bush.

J. Edgar Hoover

In honor of the new movie
Public Enemies starring JohnnyDepp and based on the terrific book by Bryan Burrough, here is my favorite picture of that tough, gruff, civil-liberties-stomping autocratic crime-fighter J. Edgar Hoover.

The dark side: Hoover would grow up to be Director for Life of the FBI, holding the job for 48 years under nine presidents (Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon) from 1924 till his death in 1972. Hoover would use his secret FBI files to blackmail presidents, senators, and movie stars, and felt no scruples conducting sabotage, black bag jobs, or secret wiretaps against any person or group he considered “subversive.” By the 1960s, this included mostly civil rights leaders and anti-Viet Nam War dissenters.

Earlier, he aided Senator Joe McCarthy on his anti-Communist witch hunts. He remains one of the most-hated figures in American history.

On the good side, he used his organizational brilliance in the 1930s to build the then-disfunctional Bureau into a modern professional force with scientific methods, a national academy and lab, a Most Wanted List, finger print files, and a strict agent code of conduct. At his peak, he made the G-Man brand so popular that it was tougher to be accepted as a rookie FBI agent than it was to get into an Ivy League college.

How did he get this way? Here, we see young J. Edgar as a shockingly-normal boy playing with his bike. Hoover grew up in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C., son of a lifelong government clerk, youngest of four siblings, spoiled, his mother’s favorite. He was smart, eager, sang in a church choir, carried groceries for old ladies, and was the star of his high school track, debate, and cadet teams. His classmates elected him their valedictorian. He worked his way through Law School and graduated in 1917 as America entered World War I.

What changed him from this normal, smart, eager child of the Jazz Age into the corrupt autocrat of later years was the question behind my own book Young J. Edgar, which tells the story of Hoover’s first big assignment in the 1919 Justice Depatment, running the notorious anti-Communist crackdown known as the Palmer Raids.

In between, though, he brought in John Dillinger, the bank robber– played by Johnny Depp in the new movie. Enjoy.

C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

Woodrow Wilson, 1916.

Yesterday, C-SPAN finally issued the full results of its 2009 Presidential Survey by some 150 historians. Here’s the link to the full C-SPAN group results. As you know, I had the honor to participate and, for comparison. Here’s the link to my own entry.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I saw the final C-SPAN list, I eagerly put their’s and mine side by side, just to see how I stacked up. What I saw was a profile of my own prejudice staring back at me. Here’s a sample:

Let’s start with the top ten. We agreed on the top four (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts), though in slightly different order. But after that, we parted ways.

For instance, the C-SPAN group ranked both Woodrow Wilson and JFK in the top ten, at #9 and #6 respectively. I couldn’t disagree more. I rated Wilson far lower, at #16, his dismal records on civil rights, wartime dissent, and the post-war Red Scare, as well as his failure to win acceptance of the Versailles treaty, all counting as significant demerits. Similarly, I rated JFK far lower at #17. Yes, he inspired the country, but his sparse legislative record hardly earned him a spot in the top tier. Yes, for glamour, celebrity, and style, JFK wins hands down. But is that really how we rate Presidents? Perhaps had he lived….

As for the bottom ten, I broke from the group on two notables. First, I included Richard Nixon at #36. The C-SPAN group rated him much higher, at #27. I admit to prejudice on this one: Living through the Vietnam War at draftable age could not help but affect my attitude toward Nixon. But even putting that aside, Congress had good reasons for impeaching Nixon in 1974. His temperament — seen in his enemies list, wiretaps on his own staff, and conspiracies galore — was perhaps the worst of any President, and it overshadowed any positive accomplishment.

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

So that’s my first take on the final, official C-SPAN list, and I look forward to debating these points on many more Presidents Days to come. Hope you have a happy one –KenA

Why rank Gerald Ford so high?

So, literally minutes after I posted my c-span presidental rankings last week (see Jan. 18, below), two friends shot back the question: Why Gerald Ford? How on earth did he deserve such a high rank?
How did Gerald Ford break into the top 10?” wrote my legal colleague David Durkin. “You’re not a ‘great President’ simply for not repeating the abuse of power that led to your immediate predecessor’s eventual ouster.”
“How did Gerry Ford crack the top ten?” echoed Jim Hershberg, author of the terrific biography of Harvard nuclear bomb-meister James B. Conant, who added “(Love it that you rated him higher than RR.)
What’s the story with Gerry Ford? Wasn’t he just a dupe, a dope, a boob, a joke on Saturday Night Live, that creep who pardoned Richard Nixon? Wasn’t he the bumbling guy portrayed by SNL’s Chevy Chase? The mediocrity chosen as VP by a cynical Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate as a stop-gap against impeachment, that the country would consider Ford not up to the job?
Yes, it’s true, most historians rate him lower than I do. The c-span 1999 poll rated him #23, and other recent polls rate him #27 or #28. Obviousy, I see it differenlty.
I have always admired Gerald Ford. Its no mystery to me why Gerald Ford’s friends and neighbors in Michigan elected him to Congress thirteen times before Nixon tapped him in 1973 to replace bribe-taking VP Spiro Agnew, who had recently been forced to resign. Nixon knew the Democratic-majority Congress would confirm Ford, even on being nominated by a widely-hated scoudrel like himself. (The Senate cofirmation vote was 92-3; the House 387-35.) Everyone liked Gerry Ford, even if they hated Nixon.
Why? There are times in our history when something simple and basic like being a normal, level-headed, tolerant, self-effacing, non-paranoid human being counts for plenty. By 1974, after almost ten years of LBJ and Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate, the Credibility Gap, the flood of arrogance, lies, and deceit from Washington, the simple disarming honesty of Gerald Ford suddenly in the White House was a profound statement, a remarkable breath of fresh air.
Gerald Ford was nobody’s fool. He could take a ribbing from Chevy Chase and laugh at himself, but that was no sign of weakness. Ford was a Yale-trained lawyer, a World War II Navy combat veteran, and a college football standout at Michigan.
Ford had a deliberate goal as President of re-unifying the country after Vietnam and Watergate. Yes, he pardoned Nixon, but he also offered amnesty to Vietnam draft resisters. He twice avoided re-engaging the country in Southeast Asian wars, both in 1975, first when Cambodian forces seized the US merchant ship Mayaguez, then again when North Vietnam launched its final assault on Saigon.
Today we appreciate the danger of deficits and wasteful Federal spending; Gerald Ford issued 66 presidential vetoes, mostly of Appropriations Bills, and made all but twelve stick. Today we lament a Republican Party cow-towing to the Ideological Right; Gerald Ford stood squarely with moderates, nominating as his own VP not Ronald Reagan, but rather Reagan’s nemesis, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Today we cringe at how Presidents and candidates too-often treat their families as stage props; Ford gave us his wife Betty, a dancer, free thinker, and outspoken feminist, not shy talking about her human foibles.
All in all, a pretty good legacy. “I’m not a Lincoln, I’m just a Ford,” Ford himself quipped at one point. There are times when a Ford is exactly the right thing. That’s why I rated him #10.