Presidential Crises

Presidents-in-CrisisTo borrow a Monty Python trope, and now for something entirely different. Usually this blog briefly records my personal observations on current events, but this time I want to discuss those of someone else. Michael K. Bohn has written an insightful and riveting book entitled “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama.” This is a well-researched insider’s view of how Presidents deal with their inevitable crises. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in our history and how the Presidency actually operates under duress.

Mr. Bohn served as Director of the Situation Room under Ronald Reagan so he knows first-hand how this really works. And make no mistake, what we in the public see is mostly just the results not the difficult and often confusing process by which they are produced. Presidents have to make decisions in the face of conflicting advice and limited or unreliable information. Events usually don’t permit leisurely review. How each President handles this reveals a great deal about them both personally and professionally.


Every President since WWII has endured challenging crises, and of course also before then. However, Mr. Bohn confines his study to the post-war administrations. Truman had the Korean War, Eisenhower faced the 1956 Suez War and the U-2 Incident, Kennedy reaped the whirlwind of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought us close to nuclear Armageddon, and so on. No President was spared a crisis where his decisions — and his alone — were critical to our nation’s future. Nothing truly prepares one for it. Presidents must draw upon inner resources that hopefully we correctly discern when we elect them.

I want to quote a brief anecdote from the book’s introduction, not because it is representative of the contents but because it illustrates how differently things appear from the inside. These may be important events but after all these are human beings dealing with them.

None of these crises offered much more than an isolated moment or gesture that brought a smile to a participant. However, Henry Kissinger told me one of these rare incidents, which occurred late in the 1973 October War. Washington and Moscow had exchanged serious messages on the Hot Line on October 23 when Israel ignored United Nations cease-fire resolutions in an attempt to capture or neutralize the Egyptian Third Field Army on the Sinai Peninsula. Kissinger called Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz from the White House Situation Room and demanded that Dinitz urge Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to immediately stop the hostilities.

Henry momentarily lost his composure. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, “Don’t you realize how important this is?” Kissinger quietly listened to Dinitz’s deadpan reply, “Henry, my government might be more persuaded if you invoke the name of a different prophet.”

After reading this book I had two epiphanies. The first is that knowing a great deal about what transpires in world events, as I do as an avid history buff, is not enough to properly evaluate a President’s actions. It is also necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the process too. As a result I have somewhat altered my perception of more than one President. The second is that perhaps anyone who aspires to the Presidency either doesn’t understand the job or has delusions about it that should probably disqualify him. That’s something to consider as we enter the new election cycle, isn’t it?


The Left Finds a Voice

bernie-sandersBernie is in and now it gets interesting. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT) threw his hat into the race for the Presidency and instantly became the standard-bearer for the left-wing of the Democratic party. Those who have been begging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, MA) to run now have a port in the coming storm.

Many will immediately shrug this off as a quixotic venture. There are so many reasons why Bernie hasn’t the proverbial snowball’s chance that it is tempting to assume that his entry is irrelevant. He is a 73-year-old Jew, a self-described democratic-socialist, and the Senator from a negligible state. In years past, any one of these factors would have disqualified him. And he has tenuous connections with the party whose nomination he is seeking, although he does caucus with them in the Senate. He has no national presence or organization and, as far as I can tell, neither the big bank account nor deep pocket supporters that are now considered essential for a meaningful run. So why does he matter?

There are at least two reasons. Even if he doesn’t win a single primary or caucus, he will push Hillary Clinton off her current policy of avoiding controversy. The comparison alone with the outspoken Sanders will be invidious. She can’t tread so lightly anymore without appearing too light-footed to take on the job of President. For example, no longer can she dance around the issue of international trade pacts like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Secondly, Bernie will give her fits in the Democratic debates, especially if the field remains small. He is frank and speaks his mind with the determination of a New Yorker from Brooklyn, even though he long ago moved from his roots – though not dropping his distinctive accent to be sure. The debates will be at worst entertaining and at best more informative than past ones have been.

I like Bernie even though I don’t agree with some of his ideas or proposals. I am sick and tired of politicians who bend with the wind and speak in tiresome generalities. Bernie will be a breath of fresh air and for that reason alone I welcome his candidacy. As an aside, I am not influenced in this by the fact, recently discovered, that he and I were fellow students at the University of Chicago.

The Lost War on Drugs

An aspect of the topical debate about policing is the issue of zero tolerance policing. Some liberals point a finger at this as a cause of unreasonably high incarceration rates among the underprivileged, particularly blacks in inner cities. On the other hand, it is widely acknowledged that this has contributed to reducing crime, although the exact correlation and significance is disputed.

But what puzzles me is what exactly is the alternative? Five percent tolerance policing? Ten percent? Which laws should be ignored and why? Is it a function of who breaks the law? Actually, neither the concept nor its alternatives survive close examination.

More to the point, perhaps the rules should be different in the ghetto from those in more affluent areas to compensate for different life experiences. I believe that this is essentially what I hear from some advocates and politicians. But then what about the victims of crime? Who speaks for them? Lax law enforcement is a dubious remedy. If the root causes are bad laws, then face up to it and change them.

That is precisely the situation. There is one cause underlying all of this. Fix it and many of these issues will fade into insignificance. It is our drug policy. Like the Volstead Act almost a century ago, this has been a failed experiment in moral enforcement. There are good arguments for trying to limit drug usage, but indiscriminate prohibition and fierce enforcement causes at least as many ills as it cures.

Drug War QuestionZero tolerance enters into this by focusing enforcement on drug users rather than suppliers and transporters. The idea was that strict enforcement and draconian penalties would quench demand and lead to the ideal of a drug-free society. No consideration was permitted for degree of violation or the known differences among varieties of narcotic substances. It is mindless, and consideration of predictable societal impacts was entirely ignored.

Let’s face facts. We have lost this war on drugs and our casualties have been severe, most notably in the poorer neighborhoods. Let’s try more judicious controls and see if that works better. This doesn’t mean anything goes; there must be some sensible middle ground. We could hardly be worse off, or at least that is so for the currently over-criminalized segments of society.

The False Hope of Compromise

Researchers into how people organize their thoughts have discovered a strong correlation with political leaning. They use a simple test that goes as follows. Subjects are presented with three images: a scarf, a mitten, and a hand. Then they are asked which two objects are most closely related.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct modes of thought. Holistic thinking is oriented toward context, basing choices on situations and circumstances. Analytic thinking detaches objects from contexts and uses categorical rules. In this test, holistic thinkers choose the relational pairing — mittens are worn on the hand — while analytic thinkers choose the categorical pairing — the scarf and mitten are items of winter clothing. Which did you pick?

People tend to think holistically when they hold an interdependent, connected view of the self, emphasizing harmony over self-expression. Analytic thinkers believe in autonomy and self-direction, with the stress being on personal responsibility. Of course each person can and does switch between these modes of thought, although one usually dominates.

The correlation which this research has revealed is that liberals tend to think holistically while conservatives tend to be analytical. Moreover this divergence appears most strongly at the outer fringes in both groups.

This goes a long way toward explaining the different world views of each political camp and why there is constant misunderstanding between them. It is often asserted that their conflicts primarily stem from differing values, but this research seems to indicate that it is even more basic than that. It isn’t the conclusions by which they differ as much as how they reach them. They simply think differently. Both modes of thought are sound and practical, but in specific circumstances each group would believe that the other ignores realities that they find obvious.

We Agree

So, anyone expecting either convergence or compromise is unrealistic. This does happen, but in such cases each side is simply putting up with some of the other’s ill-informed beliefs for the sake of some greater good. There is actually no agreement at all. What is worse is that each such arrangement fails to build trust that might lead to further compromises.

Useless Presidential Campaigns

RUnutsIf you are not distracted by urban riots and Mideast crazies, you may have noticed that the political season is upon us. Pretty soon there will be a dozen or more Presidential hopefuls trying to grab the spotlight in the nightly news and omnipresent social media. Predictably, all will parrot familiar phrases that encapsulate their plans and platforms. But their campaign managers seem to be unfamiliar with a psychological phenomenon called semantic satiation.

This arcane term expresses a simple and well-known effect in which constant repetition of a term reduces it to meaningless jibberjabber in the ears of the listeners. Try it yourself. Say any familiar phrase over and over again quickly. Its meaning will disintegrate as you speak. The effect is supposed to be temporary, but only if the repetition stops.

So, endless repetitions of Republicans saying “no new taxes” and Democrats saying “income inequality” will shortly have no useful impact as the meaning just fades away. At least that is my prediction. What will be left of most campaign rhetoric? In most cases, certainly not concrete plans for the future by which we voters could make a sensible selection. I hope I am wrong.

Citizens United Strikes Again!


superpacWhile not yet an announced candidate for 2016, Jeb Bush is reportedly breaking new ground for how a campaign will be run. If he follows through, this will change things forever. His idea, widely reported in the press, is to delegate much of what campaign organizations traditionally do to his super PAC, Right to Rise. This will skirt very closely to the prohibition against coordination between a campaign and outside organizations, but with discipline he might pull it off.

In essence, the official campaign will concentrate on activities that require the direct participation of the candidate. Essentially anything else could be delegated, like phone banks, get out the vote operations, direct mail, TV advertising, etc. The advantage is money. The super PAC can raise unlimited cash from people, corporations, and advocacy groups, and its reporting requirements are illusory. The strictly limited campaign can then undertake activities that are less expensive. The difficulty is to avoid conflict between these parallel organizations and to present a cohesive message. However, from what I hear about the way staffing is planned, this has a real chance of succeeding. Law suits are likely but at the worst Bush can delay them in the already sluggish courts until their effects are moot.

This is the logical consequence of the Citizens United decision, which opened the spigots of unrestricted campaign money by corporations, unions, and other such associations. If it succeeds, others might try it this time but everyone will in 2020 and beyond. We will see campaigns run directly by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and the like. In a sense, this is more open and forthright than the current farcical masquerade that pretends that super PACs are independent expressions of citizen participation. But it also exposes Citizens United for what it does to our political system, and perhaps that might lead to reining it in. I hope so.

Search for Extraterrestrial Life

For decades now we have been actively searching for evidence of life not of Earthly origin. Our motivation is curiosity, both scientific and otherwise. As tools and techniques have improved, we are getting much closer to our goal, although failure to find life elsewhere would not be probative. It might mean that we aren’t looking in the right place or even that we haven’t recognized the signature of life because we are blinded by our preconceptions.

What is lagging in this effort is a serious analysis of the potential consequences of success. Scientific curiosity has ethical and practical limits. The search itself is probably harmless and is at worst a questionable investment of time and resources. But what if we find life, not just fossils of primordial life but actual living beings? It is very unlikely, some would say virtually impossible, that we would discover intelligent life where we have the current capacity to investigate. Anywhere within our solar system is within practical range, but none of the candidates seem likely habitats for evolved life. Beyond that the immensity of space and sparsity of viable habitats greatly limit feasible investigations. At best we might detect recognizable signatures of life, like the presence of free oxygen on a planet in the habitable zone. This would be intriguing but hardly definitive.

But our solar system harbors several candidates for simple life forms, most notably amongst Jupiter’s moons and even conceivably in subsurface Mars.


We could, and mostly likely will, mount unmanned probes to test these possibilities in the not too distant future. So, back to the question at hand. What if we find life? If we do, it will likely resemble familiar Earthly life in most respects. Why? Because that’s what we would be seeking. Sufficiently foreign life forms would be unrecognizable unless they walked up to our probe and knocked on its door. So, what would be likely consequences to us back on Earth?

Initially, I expect denial and outrage amongst some in the non-scientific community. Life elsewhere challenges many religious beliefs. Personally, I find that odd because surely God could create life anywhere and even divinely inspired scripture could have been deliberately tailored to the intellectual limitations of its receivers. Even for the non-religious, the existence of alien life can be frightening, even if it takes only simple forms. For one thing, we know that simple forms can evolve and that evolution may have occurred beyond our current detection capabilities. Is this a threat, if not now perhaps in the foreseeable future? A special concern is if our probe is sufficiently versatile that it can return samples to Earth for detailed investigation. Should we do this even if we can? What are the risks and are they acceptable for the benefit derived?

My point is that scientific investigation has a life of its own. Once it progresses sufficiently down a path with some evidence of success, stopping it may be very hard. So we should make a serious attempt to answer the questions now. I am no Luddite, but I do harbor concerns that we may not have yet evolved sufficiently to react sensibly to discovery of extraterrestrial life.