Deep Sea Ocean Divers — A Story

One of my history obsessions is with old deep sea ocean divers. Back in the 1800s, these hard-hat daredevils were pushing the limits of science and adventure to a shocking extent. Today, they are almost totally forgotten — a crime.
Here’s a piece I wrote for American Heritage Invention and Technology on one diver’s near-fatal descent in 1886 on a shipwreck called The Oregon out in the Atlantic Ocean some 20 miles south of Fire Island, New York. It was over 110 feet deep in cold water with rough seas and blinding-bad visibility. Yet he did it with a copper helmet, rubber air-hose supplied by a hand-cranked pump, no lights, no gloves, and almost no scientific understanding of “the bends” or decompression. Just plenty of raw nerve.
Here’s the link. Hope you enjoy it:

LA Times Book Fair

Yes, in case you thought you saw me in the crowd, I was out in California last weekend for the LA Times book festival, and it was a treat. I spoke on a panel titled “Biography: Infamous Lives,” where I delivered one of my typical spell-binding, clever, insightful orations about young J. Edgar Hoover for a packed room of 300+ people. Joining me on the panel were Nancy Isenberg (Aaron Burr) and Michael Neufeld (Werner Von Braun), and moderator Scott Berg.  Any of you lucky enough to watch C-SPAN BookTV that day saw it live.

It was a fun trip. The LA Times festival draws a huge crowd to the UCLA campus, with plenty of atmosphere, dozens of interesting, esoteric booths, and a taste of Hollywood. While there, I also did an interview with Blogger Paul Huebl (“Crime, Guns, and Videotape”) which he posted on Google Video.  Check it out below.  Enjoy.


Dinner on Capitol Hill

So tonight I had a wonderful wiener schnitzel for dinner at the Cafe Berlin, a terrific German restaurant on Capitol Hill in Washinton, D.C., while trading gossip with a friend about the latest back-room maneuverings over the Farm Bill while sipping a very dry riesling from Alsace. Talk has it that the Farm Bill, a fascinatingly-complex legislative behemoth spending billions of dollars over ten years that has been stuck for months in House-Senate negotiations, is now likely to pass some time in March.

I just thought you might like to know. All the best. –KenA

Thanks to The Democratic Daily, June 24

Are you still being followed by the teenage FBI?

Posted by SteveAudio
June 24th, 2007 @ 2:31 am

Howie Klein of Blue America sent me this book:

So Angie’s back on the Blue America list and I hope you’ll join me in donating some money to her campaign. We’re not going to find a better candidate, not anywhere, to help us reclaim our country. Avalon Books sent us a box of the just-released YOUNG J. EDGAR: HOOVER, THE RED SCARE, AND THE ASSAULT ON CIVIL LIBERTIES. Each book has been autographed by author Ken Ackerman and it sells in stores for $28.95. Every Angie donation for $30 or more gets a Blue America thank you with a book (until the box is empty.) Add a cent to your donation if you don’t want the book. One more thing, Jacquie is already planning out an aggressive paid-media strategy for CO-04 in ‘08, so if you want to stick some dough in the Blue America PAC, please don’t be shy.

I’ve read the first chapter, and it’s already got me hooked. Why would a book about J. Edgar be fascinating all these years later? Here’s a quote from the book:

But back in 1919, just four years earlier, it had all made perfect sense-the Red Scare, the Raids, the fear. Most thinking, informed Americans agreed. World War I had ended, but the country was still fighting, against anarchists and communists at home just as surely as it had fought the Kaiser’s Germany in Europe the year before. American soldiers still faced bullets on Russian soil in 1919, and Bolshevism was sweeping the world. Anarchists had exploded bombs in American streets, and people had been killed. Radicals had infiltrated labor unions and threatened to topple major industries. The country demanded safety and someone had to act.
A. Mitchell Palmer and his team had taken responsibility. Had there been excesses? Certainly. But that didn’t change the fact. The principal fact was the bombs, and the danger of more bombs, and the duty to protect Americans. Everything else took a back seat.

The parallels to today’s Global War on Whatever We Define As Terror are pretty obvious. Americans, in an understandable yet selfishly shallow way, excuse many sorts of bad behavior when they feel threatened, and the Right today does all it can to give a megaphone to threats real and imagined.
The book’s author, Kenneth Ackerman, said this in an editorial in my hometown LATimes:

Yet when Hoover showed up for his first day of work at the Department of Justice in June 1917, he was a bright 22-year-old, just out of law school. He still had boyish good looks and was cocky and driven. The country had just entered World War I, and Hoover had avoided the wartime draft. Instead, he was ready to help win the war at home, to save the country from spies and subversives.
What changed this young eager beaver into the crass, cynical tyrant of later years?
The fact is, Hoover learned his attitudes and worldview from teachers at the Justice Department during his early years there, when the country was going through a period much like today’s war on terror.

Indeed. Here’s Kenneth Ackerman’s website:

2 Responses to “Are you still being followed by the teenage FBI?”

  1. Pamela Leavey Says:
    June 24th, 2007 at 11:06 am Steve
    I just got an email the other day about reviewing this and I’m waiting for a copy to arrive. I’m reading David Talbot’s “Brothers” which includes a lot of stuff about Hoover, the FBI and the CIA. There’s a lot of similarites between then and now in “Brothers” as well. History is said to repeat itself. Sadly.
  2. Darrell Prows Says:
    June 24th, 2007 at 2:58 pm The human race is afflicted with a particularly virulent form of the authoritarian gene. It expresses itself in an overriding need to push other people around. My shorthand for the syndrome is “Military Mentality”. Not everyone who has the jobs (military, police, prisons) has the gene, but pretty much everyone with the gene has one of the jobs.
    The Founders were insightful enough to try to neutraize this by putting civilians in charge of the military. As for the rest, what we really need to do to protect ourselves is to not criminalize anything unless there is a real strong reason for doing so. Instead, we have a set of rules and regulations in our society so gargantuan that each of is almost guaranteed to violate something almost every day.
    From that is where people like J. Edgar get their power.

What does history say about George Bush, Alberto Gonzalez, and the eight fired Prosecutors? Just ask Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding.

So, armed with my cup of Starbucks (shade-grown Mexican), let me start off this new Blog by jumping straight into the middle of the today’s big hullabaloo: the storm over Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and his firing of eight federal prosecutors under circumstances that suggest political coercion. Yes, federal prosecutors serve at the much-cited “pleasure” of the President, but tampering with the wheels of justice for political ends can be unethical at best and criminal at worst. And Gonzalez has already been caught making several public misstatements on the affair. Hence the big controversy.

Does history give us any useful guide for judging this episode? News commentators have been pointing all week to the numbers of federal prosecutors fired by various prior presidents over the years, the fact that Clinton and Reagan both fired the whole bunch of them at the beginnings of their respective terms, so on. But this misses the point. Nobody has ever argued that an administration does not have the right to make room for new political appointees by dropping some of the old ones. The concern, rather, is that someone in the Justice Department or White House might have been trying deliberately to influence the outcome of specific pending cases – to put people in jail, have them indicted, or protect lawbreakers from prosecution – based on politics. That’s where things get sticky.

Perhaps the starkest example comes from President Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Nixon’s case of tampering with a federal prosecutor was a blockbuster – known ever since as the Saturday Night Massacre. His target was Archibald Cox, the bowtie-wearing Harvard law professor and former Solicitor General who had been appointed by Nixon’s own Justice Department as a Special Prosecutor for the Watergate case in May 1973. When Cox decided to ignore the president’s objections and insisted on trying to get his hands on important evidence in the case, specifically recordings of relevant Oval Office conversations that Nixon had secretly taped, Nixon decided to give him the boot. On October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, as did his deputy Attorney General William Ruckleshaus, both of whom resigned rather than carry out the order. That left Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department, to do the deed.

Cox, too, technically served at the “pleasure” of the president; his independence was based solely on assurances given by Richardson. Still, when Nixon acted to break those asurances, the conflict was so apparent and the public’s reaction so hostile that Congress in 1978 passed a permanent law authorizing Independent Counsels on an ongoing basis in politically charged cases – a step intended to block future presidents from firing federal prosecutors in these situations. Neither side liked the result; Republicans complained about independent counsel aimed against them, such as Lawrence Walsh and his eight-year pursuit of the Iran-Contra scandal, just as Democrats complained about Kenneth Starr and his pursuit of the Whitewater-Monica-gate affair. Nobody shed any years when the permanent law expired in 1999.

Another case of political manipulation in Federal prosecutions goes back to the Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s. Warren G. Harding was president then and Harry Daugherty, his Attorney General, presided over a Justice Department riddled with corruption unmatched either before or since – bribes, kickbacks, extortion, blackmail, you name it. When two United States Senators, Montana Democrats Thomas Walsh and Burton Wheeler, got wind of the scandals and threatened to investigate, Daugherty sent agents from the Department’s Bureau of Investigation (led by its then 27 year-old Deputy Director J. Edgar Hoover) to investigate the Senators, shadowing them and their families, wiretapping their phones, pilfering their offices, and tampering with their mail. They convinced a Grand Jury in Montana to indict Senator Wheeler for influence peddling, a charge later found to be baseless both by a Montana jury and a Senate investigating panel. When the truth finally came out, Daugherty and his circle were history, and Daugherty himself avoided prison only by the grace of hung juries in two separate criminal trials.

All of which brings us back to George W. Bush and his Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez.

Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre and Harry Daugherty’s harrassment of Senators Walsh and Wheeler were extreme cases. Nobody suggests, based on the facts revealed so far, that the firings of the eight federal prosecutors rise to the eggregious levels of these benchmarks. Still, they make a point. If evidence ultimately shows that the firings were part of a system designed to pressure federal prosecutors into twisting the outcome of particular cases, to shield friends from prosecution, use grand juries to settle political scores, or to create phony issues in hotly-contested political elections, then all bets are off. The history gives us some clear lessons to keep in mind: First, federal prosecutors might serve at the “pleasure” of the president, but, pleasure or not, there are lines of ethics, propriety, and law that a president may not cross. Second, in the end, the truth always comes out. You can count on it. And finally, the Washington classic: it’s not the crime, but the coverup that gets you in trouble.

Welcome to my Blog

Well, I’ve finally taken the plunge and started a blog. Friends have been telling me for months to try it, and I’ve always refused, thinking I was too old, too technologically backward, too boring, too disorganized, or too pressed for time to do it right. And I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself all over the Internet by doing it badly.

But here I am, armed with a cup of coffee to give it a try.

First, an introduction. My name is Ken Ackerman (that’s me looking back at you from the snapshot), I live just outside Washington, D.C. and you can learn almost anything else about me on my websight (also a new item of the past few days) at Why all these new things suddenly in my life at this moment? The answer is largely self-serving. Among other things, I write books, non-fiction histories, complex epics about forgetten times in America like the Gilded Age or World War I, and I happen to have a new one coming out in May. It’s called YOUNG J. EDGAR: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, and (to be very mercinary about it) here’s a link to the page where you can pre-order up a copy if you’d like http://

The book tells the story of the notorious 1919-1920 Palmer raids, a civil liberties travesty in which some 10,000 Americans, mostly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, were rounded up by the Justice Department, crammed into overcrowded makeshift prisons for weeks or months, cut off from lawyers and families, often roughed up and rushed through sham hearings, and then almost every one of them released with no charges ever brought. The reason — much like today — was a war on terror. The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, like most other Americans at the time, feared that the country stood on the brink of a commmunist-led uprising, sparked by a wave of anarchist bombings in April and May 1919. One bomb in particular on June 2, 1919, exploded in Palmer’s own home near Dupont Ciircle in Washington, D.C., almost killing Palmer, his wife, and his daughter who were in their bedrooms.

To lead the crackdown, Palmer choose the brightest young man in his office, a 24 year-old upstart named J. Edgar Hoover who would later rise to fame as director of the FBI for five decades. For Hoover, leading the Palmer raids was a coming-of-age adventure that shaped his life. I tell the story as much as possible through his eyes, but I also feature the handful of admirable people who had the backbone to oppose Hoover and Palmer at the height of the crisis, including lawyers like Clarence Darrow (of Scopes monkey trial fame) and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and radicals like Emma Goldman.

How do the Palmer raids of 1919 compare with George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” today? Which was worse, then or now? That’s one of the things I’ll talk about on this Blog, and I hope you’ll chime in as well. I’ll give you a hint: There’s no simple answer. Real life doesn’t work that way.

So that’s who I am and that’s what I’m doing. When you have a chance, please come by and have a cup of coffee with me and tell me what you think. I’ll do the same.

Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA