political history

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My most memorable high school experience occurred on the first day of my senior year. I was sitting in an Advanced Placement US Government class when the teacher posed a simple question to the students. It was a question intended to set the course in motion, and get us fledgling statecraft scholars thinking.

The question was, “what is government?”

My hand was in the air before he completed the sentence. (I had prepared an answer in anticipation of the course.) Holding on to my holster full of knowledge garnered from my proudly self-described “intellectually avant-garde” internet musings, I said, “Governments (i.e., states in this case) are those organizations that have monopolized the use of force over any given geographical region.”

I then felt embarrassment as my passionate answer was struck down by laughter from the class. My teacher looked down at the floor, unsure how to respond. He had obviously never heard such an answer before, and recovered by reverting back to his conventional train of thought and answering the question as he had been conditioned to: “Governments” he said, “are simply those institutions that make policy.”

I do not remember what he said next. Though I do remember what I was thinking, or rather, what I was feeling.

And I was feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.

My teacher was wrong; the class was wrong. Indeed, I felt my answer was more than appropriate; or, at least more appropriate than the “correct” response — according to the teacher — which was simply: “Government makes policy.” This didn’t answer the underlying question about the nature of government, but specified a function of government. In fact, my teacher was failing to follow the traditional guidelines of credible civics educators around the world. My definition was not extrapolated from some strange corner of the internet, but from famous sociologist Max Weber’s book, Politics as a Vocation. In the book, Weber discussed the concept that states are no different than regular organizations — people coming together with a common goal. But what sets states apart is their assertion of a “monopoly on violence.”

RELATED: “Theories of the State” by Franz Oppenheimer

It is unclear whether that classroom incident was a failure on the part of the teacher or the course itself. However, upon examining the course syllabus (as well as the syllabus for the sister class, “AP Comparative Politics”) on the college board website, it becomes evident that there is no mention of the “definition of government” (only definitions of more basic topics such as the “study of government” and “democracy” and “federalism”), and the only mention of Max Weber is his views on bureaucracy.

In reality, the AP program was designed to give high school students a chance to earn college credits, and therefore, this was designed as a college course by college educators! Therefore, it is likely that this problem extends to entry level college civics courses. Additionally, most high school students will never take an AP government course, or any political science course for that matter. These factors contribute to a population that is ignorant about the nature of states, and their relationship to each person who is subject to the state’s monopoly power.

Thus, discussions concerning the fundamentals of governments are largely nonexistent. When the topic indeed arises among students who take a critical view, such views are stigmatized — labeled as “deviant thinking.” If we really want to allow our students to think critically about those who have authority over them, the intellectually lazy approach that is currently taken in government classes (namely, AP government courses) must end now.

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President Donald Trump’s bombshell decision to fire FBI Director James Comey late Tuesday evening sent shockwaves through Washington and the American public.

Almost as soon as the news broke, comparisons between Comey’s firing and the events leading up Watergate started pouring in.

“President Trump’s firing of Director Comey sets a deeply alarming precedent as multiple investigations into possible Trump campaign or administration collusion with Russia remain ongoing, including an FBI investigation,” Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said in a statement.

“This episode is disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal and the national turmoil that it caused.”

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that “not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened, and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken.”

But experts think that there are some ways in which Comey’s firing could be bigger than Watergate, and it hinges on Trump’s reasoning behind his decision to remove Comey.

Glenn Carle, a former CIA clandestine services officer and national security expert, said that if Trump fired Comey over his anger toward the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, that would be “catastrophic.”

“Watergate was huge, but it was based on a criminal charge. Trump firing Comey during the Russia investigation is borderline betrayal” and a critical threat to national security if it’s based on the Russia probe, Carle told Business Insider.

Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, also expressed suspicion toward Comey’s firing and said that the move on Trump’s part was an abuse of presidential power.

“We cannot tolerate this — for the president to be firing people who are investigating him and his campaign and its collusion with the Russians,” Painter told Rolling Stone.

“It’s a lot worse than Watergate,” he said. “Watergate was a third-rate burglary. It was purely domestic in nature. This situation involves Russian espionage, and we’ve got to find out who is collaborating.”

“We didn’t have to worry about treason in the Watergate situation,” Painter later told CNN.

The president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and a number of Trump administration officials have emphasised that the Russia probe had nothing to do with Trump’s decision.

Comey, they say, was fired because he mishandled the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, and that lost him the president’s confidence.

But pundits and critics, as well as sp,e members of Trump’s circle, have cast doubt on that line of reasoning and said they were troubled by the timing of Comey’s firing.

Two advisers told Politico that Trump was furious over the Russia investigation, frustrated that he wasn’t able to control the media narrative around it, and asked why it wouldn’t disappear. One adviser said that the president would occasionally scream at the television when news clips related to the probe were airing.

Fox News host Charles Krauthammer called it “implausible,” adding that “if that was so offensive to the Trump administration, what you would have done during the transition is you would have spoken to Comey and said, ‘We’re going to let you go.’”

Based on the timing of Comey’s firing, “the obvious inference seems to be that Trump is upset about the investigation,” Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and NSA, told Business Insider.

“If it turns out that the Russia thing is bigger than, or as big as people have speculated, then this is a threat to democracy,” Deitz said, adding that if more evidence emerges of Trump associates’ ties to Russia, then Comey’s firing would “certainly be bigger than Watergate.”

But if Trump’s fury at the Russia probe was a motivation behind his decision to terminate Comey, he’ll likely be disappointed.

Regardless of whether or not Comey is spearheading the FBI, the department will continue to investigate ties between Trump associates and Russia, one FBI official told the New York Times on Wednesday.

And if anything, it’s likely Comey’s firing will further energize the investigation, in the same way that Archibald Cox’s firing did during the Watergate scandal.

“There are so many people now working on this issue, and this firing is going to do nothing but encourage that,” Deitz said, and added that Comey’s firing would “barely be a blip on the radar” of career professionals investigating the president’s associates.

Comey’s dismissal will also accelerate the steady drip of sensitive information being leaked to the press, Deitz said, and there already seems to be evidence of that.

Shortly after news broke that Comey had been fired, CNN learned that a grand jury had issued subpoenas to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s associates. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Comey had asked the Department of Justice — which is led by Sessions and Rosenstein — for more resources for the Trump-Russia probe days before he was fired.

“People are going to be absolutely all over this Russia thing, just because they think nobody would do this unless there’s something really bad underneath it all,” Deitz said.
Read more at https://www.businessinsider.com/comey-trump-russia-firing-watergate-2017-5#SoS7DPrtoaiwIEAE.99

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Helping defeat Hillary Clinton is not the most successful influence operation Moscow has ever mounted against the United States. The most momentous, yes. But any covert activity that is exposed so rapidly and incites a backlash cannot be deemed an unalloyed accomplishment.

Moscow’s single most effective influence operation remains the one induced 50 years ago this month, when the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item published a front-page story on April 25, 1967, entitled “Mounting Evidence Links CIA to ‘Plot’ Probe.” It was an operation that culminated in an unimaginable achievement—inclusion in a Hollywood blockbuster by Oliver Stone that contends the CIA was instrumental in JFK’s assassination.


That probe, as every conscious American knew, was district attorney Jim Garrison’s re-investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination amid a pronounced erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report. On March 1, 1967, Garrison had ostentatiously announced the arrest of Clay Shaw, a respected businessman, and charged him with complicity in JFK’s death. It was an outlandish and baseless accusation, yet Shaw would prove far from the only victim. The miscarriage of justice that unfolded over the next two years would have vast, if largely unappreciated, consequences for America’s political culture.

It would take a separate article (or even book) to explain why Garrison ordered Clay Shaw’s arrest in the first place (and some very good ones have been written, including Patricia Lambert’s False Witness). Suffice it to say that at the time of the arrest and until later in March, Garrison’s theory of the case was that JFK’s assassination was actually a “homosexual thrill-killing.” The president had been murdered in broad daylight because he was everything the conspirators were not: “a successful, handsome, popular, wealthy, virile man.” Under this scenario, Shaw, who was gay but closeted, also went by the name of Clay Bertrand, a mysterious person linked to the assassination. “Bertrand” had supposedly tried to arrange a defense counsel for Lee Harvey Oswald during the weekend following his capture on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The Warren Commission and FBI thoroughly investigated the “Bertrand” allegation in 1964, and had concluded (correctly) that it was a fabrication concocted by a publicity-seeking New Orleans attorney named Dean Andrews. “Bertrand” was not even a real person.

Nonetheless, Shaw’s surprise arrest in 1967 naturally precipitated a media firestorm the likes of which had not been seen since the assassination itself. As reporters from near and far flocked to New Orleans—the universal reaction being that Garrison “must have something”—headlines appeared around the globe, including in Paese Sera, a small-circulation newspaper published in Rome. The story that ran in its pages on March 4, however, was unlike any other. Clay Shaw, Paese Sera alleged, had been involved in “pseudo-commercial” activities in Italy while serving on the board of the defunct Centro Mondiale Commerciale. Ostensibly devoted to making Rome a commerce hub, the CMC had actually been “a creature of the CIA… set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds [sic] for illegal political-espionage activities.”

​One axiom of successful disinformation is that context creates the illusion of what might be true. Here the plausibility of Paese Sera’s falsehood was strengthened immeasurably by a separate media firestorm that had been ignited Feb. 14. On that day, Ramparts magazine had published full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaiming that its March issue would reveal how the CIA “infiltrated and subverted” the National Student Association. Since then, media outlets had been racing to outdo the upstart Ramparts by exposing covert CIA subsidies to other organizations in the United States as well as abroad, including anti-communists in Italy. Paese Sera’s “scoop,” moreover, was built around a few undeniable facts: The CMC had existed from 1958 to 1962; Shaw had been a board member; and now he was charged with conspiracy.

​In three weeks Garrison had the Italian newspaper clipping in hand. Overnight the DA dispensed with his “thrill-killing” theory and persuaded himself that because he had inadvertently nabbed an important “company man,” the CIA was implicated in the assassination. “Garrison now is hot on the CIA angle,” wrote Richard Billings in his diary on April 3; Billings was a Life magazine editor given privileged access to the investigation in return for what was expected to be a blockbuster cover story. Or as Garrison himself recalled years later, “I didn’t know exactly how Shaw was involved. But with Shaw I grabbed a toehold on the conspiracy. I wasn’t about to let go because of the technicalities.”

Garrison didn’t know that Paese Sera belonged to a select group of allegedly non-communist periodicals used to propagate disinformation, rather than have these stories originate in Communist Party organs. Paese Sera’s long-suspected role in Moscow’s active measures was confirmed beyond any doubt in 1999, when historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrohkin published The Sword and the Shield, a history of the KGB that is a treasure trove of disclosures about Soviet clandestine and subversive activities during the cold war.

Now it happened to be true that from 1948 to 1956, Shaw, like hundreds of other American businessmen, had volunteered economic information to the CIA’s Domestic Contact Service, routinely gathered during his frequent trips abroad, mostly to Latin America. Shaw’s insights, however, were no more than what could be gleaned from a close reading of The Wall Street Journal, and he was never a covert operative. His relationship with the agency ended before the CMC was even founded, and that trade promotion organization was never a CIA front.

The Italian defense, interior, and foreign affairs ministries thus denied Paese Sera’s supposed scoop, while the Rome Daily American observed that “the only thing the Communist-leaning Paese Sera forgot to throw [into its snow job] was the kitchen sink.” Still, throughout March and into April the story promptly gained traction in the left-wing French, Italian, Greek, and Canadian press. Moscow’s Pravda picked up the story too, publishing it under the simple headline, “Clay Shaw of the CIA.”

In the United States there was almost no coverage at all. This dearth was a problem for a DA whose modus operandi required a steady drumbeat of positive publicity. Garrison himself dared not bring up the allegation openly, as he later explained to Bertrand Russell, the famed British philosopher, who was also an avid JFK conspiracy theorist. Doing so might hand skeptics in the media the ammunition to destroy his already-controversial probe. So Garrison leaked.

On April 25, the New Orleans States-Item published its copyrighted story, reporting that Shaw, still the only person indicted, had been linked to the CIA “by an influential Italian newspaper.” It took more than 20 column inches before Paese Sera (routinely labeled “crypto-Communist” by the State Department) was described as “leftist in its political leanings.” The Associated Press picked up the States-Item scoop for distribution on its national wire, and the story was reprinted, in varying lengths, in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

Having laid the groundwork, Garrison now unleashed a barrage of accusations, one more sensational and jaw-dropping than the next. The CIA had commanded Lee Harvey Oswald; the CIA had shielded the real assassins; the CIA had deceived the Warren Commission and hid evidence with the FBI’s connivance—no, the CIA had deceived the FBI too! As with Senator Joe McCarthy, the legitimacy conferred by public office gave Garrison a license for audacious mendacity. Except now the zeitgeist wasn’t that Communists were under every bed—the CIA was. One Bourbon Street store that catered to the tourist trade tweaked Garrison by publishing a mock newspaper headlined: DA STOPS CIA IN USA TAKEOVER. Elsewhere in the United States, though, where DAs were taken more seriously, the cumulative impact of Garrison’s charges was dramatic. This was the moment in time when Garrison ushered in a paradigm shift over the assassination.

As the DA’s “bizarre and unsubstantiated” campaign to implicate the CIA reached a fever pitch in early June, an internal agency memo observed that Garrison had “attacked [the] CIA more vehemently, viciously and mendaciously than has any other American official or private citizen whose comments have come to our attention. In fact, he [has] outstripped the foreign Communist press, which is now quoting him delightedly.” Garrison’s lean good looks camouflaged a cunning demagogue, who challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy, asserting that “what happened… in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état… instigated and planned… by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”

The toxic brew of a domestic demagogue mixed with dezinformatsiya was a KGB dream come true: an elected U.S. official was affirming what Moscow had been saying for years about America’s corrupt political system and its military-industrial complex. In the space of a few months, Garrison legitimated the fable that the CIA was complicit in President Kennedy’s assassination and that American democracy itself was an illusion.

Clay Shaw’s trial finally commenced in January 1969. Despite two years of allegations and a promise of testimony that would “rock the nation,” Garrison’s case was remarkably unchanged from the loopy account presented at Shaw’s preliminary hearing. The prosecution failed to produce a scintilla of CIA involvement, and jurors eventually rendered a unanimous verdict of “not guilty” after deliberating 54 minutes.

Afterward, Garrison insisted that the actual legal results did not make his investigation any less valid. The centrality of the Paese Sera revelation to the DA’s theory about CIA involvement became a sacred, inner secret known only to Garrison and closest associates. In this scenario, Garrison was the martyr, victimized (ironically) by the vast but hidden power of “the company” and its “disinformation machinery.” Whether Moscow ever recognized the impact of Paese Sera’s falsehood on the New Orleans district attorney contemporaneously is unknown. What is certain is that the KGB did not rest on its laurels. For the balance of the cold war, efforts to expose the ostensible role of the “American special services” in the Kennedy assassination remained a staple of Moscow’s active measures—to the point where the KGB “could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of [Moscow’s] conspiracy theory… than accepted the main findings of the Warren Commission,” as Andrew and Mitrokhin wrote.

​In 1988, Garrison published a memoir and made explicit the connection between his grand conspiracy and Paese Sera. No one noticed, the Shaw prosecution having long been dismissed as a legal farce. But then Garrison’s publisher thrust a copy of the memoir into the hands of Oliver Stone during an international film festival in Havana. That encounter led to Paese Sera’s disinformation becoming the centerpiece of a Hollywood blockbuster. At the 88-minute mark of Stone’s JFK, Garrison (portrayed by Kevin Costner) confronts Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) with a newspaper article in Italian supposedly exposing Shaw’s work as a CIA operative. This clash never occurred in real life, of course, but Stone was intent on conveying the truth about the wellspring for Garrison’s ultimate conspiracy theory. “Mr. Shaw,” the script reads, “this is an Italian newspaper article saying you were a member of the Board of Centro Mondo [sic] Commerciale in Italy, that this company was a creature of the CIA… ”

Garrison’s real legacy was not his investigation, but the public memory of his lurid allegations, recycled and amplified by Oliver Stone. More than 25 years after its premiere, JFK is the way most Americans now learn about one of the most traumatic events in their recent history. And according to one historian who admires Stone, JFK has probably “had a greater impact on public opinion than any other work of art in American history.” Indeed, the movie remains a great source of pride for Stone, if not his masterpiece. Allegedly, the film exposed a fascist-led coup that “hit the central nerve core of the establishment,” and has “held up very well over time,” the director contended recently at the Lucca Film Festival in April, 2017.

​Even allowing for hyperbole, that is why a fantasy concocted by an Italian newspaper that trafficked in disinformation remains Moscow’s single most successful influence operation.

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1. The Iron Lady never backed down.

Not true. Her genius was her gift for choosing her battles wisely and avoiding those she couldn’t win. In 1981, for example, the National Union of Mineworkers — Britain’s most powerful union — threatened to strike.

Despite urgent warnings from her advisers, Thatcher had made no preparations to withstand a conflict with the miners, and she capitulated immediately to their demands. She spent the next three years preparing to take them on: Her government stockpiled coal, devised schemes to smuggle strategic chemicals into power stations, changed the trade union laws and infiltrated MI5 spies into the miners’ inner circle.

When another strike loomed in 1984, she was ready. Previous mining strikes had ended after only weeks. Not this one. Over the course of a year, as Britain waited to see who would break first, Thatcher proceeded to crush the strike with a brutal, calculating ruthlessness that stunned the public. Neither labor nor the unions ever recovered.

2. Thatcher was prim, dowdy and moralistic.

Not at all. As a number of her colleagues told me, she has a ribald sense of humor and was quite unconcerned when her ministers got themselves into sordid adultery flaps. One of her civil servants, for example, remembered desperately trying to finesse a compromise between Thatcher and her chancellor, the Cabinet minister responsible for the economy, during a dispute over the budget.

His delicate diplomacy was upended when Thatcher came back to No. 10 Downing St. from the House of Commons, apparently quite drunk, and discovered her chancellor holding a secret strategy meeting. She strode in uninvited, kicked off her shoes, tucked her heels under herself and declared, “Well, gentlemen, let’s just settle this now, shall we?”

She “held court like a queen bee,” the civil servant said — and thus was it settled in her favor. Afterward, the others could be heard muttering among themselves, “Phwoar, wasn’t she sexy tonight?”

French President Francois Mitterand is said to have famously called her Brigitte Bardot with Caligula’s eyes.

3. She was against European unification.

Yes, she is known as the great Euro-skeptic. But the peculiar truth is that for most of her career, she was a passionate advocate of European unification. In 1975, she led the Tory faction of the “Vote Yes” campaign in a referendum to determine whether Britain should stay in the Common Market, the precursor to the modern European Union.

The Single European Act of 1986, which revised the Treaty of Rome to expand the power of the European Economic Community, as the Common Market was then known, was her initiative.

Thatcher was an ardent Europhile, in fact, until the issue of the single currency came up. That, she believed, would require one European economic policy, leaving Britain without access to the key economic instruments of a sovereign government.

In October 1997, then-Labor Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that the Treasury would set five tests to ascertain whether the economic case for joining the euro had been made. Thatcher might as well have written the test. The case was never made. History has obviously proved her right.

4. No one would meddle with Britain if she were still in power.

It is often said that if only Margaret Thatcher were in power, Britain wouldn’t be in this mess — “this mess” being whatever has just gone wrong. When the British Embassy in Iran was stormed recently, many in the British media rushed to insist that this would never have happened if Thatcher were in charge. GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann have invoked her legacy to imply their ferocity when asked how they would formulate policy toward Iran.

But in 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter asked Thatcher for “the strongest possible remonstration or action” to pressure Iran, asking Britain to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country. Thatcher responded that she did not believe it “wise to make a political point of any reduction, partly because we doubt whether the Iranians would be much impressed and partly because of the risk of retaliatory action against those remaining.”

In 1984, Moammar Gadhafi loyalists opened fire on demonstrators from the second floor of the Libyan Embassy in London, killing a young British policewoman. The shooters were permitted to leave the country. They were not arrested and tried, despite howls of outrage from the British media.

Why not? Because Thatcher feared reprisals against British citizens in Libya. This is precisely the sort of thing that would never happen if Thatcher were still in power, except that in this case, Thatcher was in power.

5. “Thatcherism” caused the global financial crisis.

This is among the most muddled ideas about Thatcher. It is true that failure of regulation was a significant factor in the 2008 financial collapse and it is true that Thatcher promoted deregulation. As leader of the Opposition, she once interrupted a droning speech by a fellow Tory about the “middle path” the party must follow.

She extracted a copy of free-market thinker Friedrich von Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” from her briefcase, held it up before the audience, then slammed it on the table. “This,” she said, “is what we believe!”

But the deregulation she pursued had nothing to do with the lack of oversight that contributed to the meltdown on Wall Street. Before Thatcher, commissions of civil servants decided, for example, what sorts of cars Britons should drive.

That was the kind of regulation she ended. She was a passionate proponent of regulation that makes free markets function properly — otherwise known as the rule of law in a democracy.

Thatcher supported stringent bank regulation. Consider the 1986 Financial Services Act which, contrary to its reputation, closed loopholes in investor protection laws, boosted the enforcement power of regulators, and applied the same investor protection standards to a broad range of securities and investment activities.

Thatcher stood for thrift, sound money and balanced budgets, powered by private enterprise. The uncontrolled explosion of debt in Western economies that followed her time in power would have appalled her.

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Unbeknownst to the man soon to become the 9th President of the United States was that a “curse” was rumored to have been placed on the occupants of the White House, beginning with Harrison.  Whether it was truly an “Indian curse” placed on Harrison and his successors by Tecumseh (sometimes attributed to his brother, Tenskwatawa) or simply a superstition that was somehow realized, the “curse” lasted for 140 years and, even then, almost claimed another victim, which makes it an extraordinarily odd historical coincidence.  The “curse” is simple:  beginning with Harrison’s election in 1840, every President elected in a year ending in “0” would die in office.  This prophecy indeed began with Harrison in 1840, and continued to come to fruition every 20 years until the late-20th century, as you will see.

1840:  William Henry Harrison
To this day, William Henry Harrison is still the second-oldest man ever elected to the Presidency.  When he took office on March 4, 1841, he was 68 years old and suffering from a bad cold.  Frigid temperatures on Inauguration Day kept the audience in front of the Capitol small, but the new President gave the longest Inaugural Address in history, a massive 8500-word-long speech that took over 90 minutes to deliver – and that was AFTER noted orator Daniel Webster took some scissors to it.  Harrison also decided to give the speech without wearing a hat or an overcoat, and the cold, wet weather left the new President damp and shivering.  Exactly one month later – on April 4, 1841 – William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, the first President to die in office and the first victim of his old nemesis Tecumseh’s curse.

1860:  Abraham Lincoln
Originally elected in 1860, Lincoln guided the nation through the devastating Civil War, was re-elected in 1864, and finally brought the war to a close in April 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9.  Five days later, Lincoln told his wife Mary during a carriage ride that, for the first time, he felt that the war was truly over.  With his spirits finally rising, Lincoln took Mary to the theater that night to watch famous actress Laura Keene perform in “Our American Cousin”.  During the play, another famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, shot Lincoln, 56, in the back of the head, and Tecumseh’s Curse claimed another victim the next morning, April 15, 1865.

1880:  James A. Garfield
James Garfield was a rising star in American politics in 1880.  A brigadier general in the Civil War, at one point during 1880 he was simultaneously a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives, Senator-elect from Ohio, and President-elect of the United States.  Garfield never took his Senate seat, of course, deciding to accept the Presidency instead and was inaugurated in March 1881.  Just four months later, President Garfield was fighting for his life after being shot in a Washington, D.C. train station.  He hung on for 80 days, but infections caused by the poking and prodding of doctors and their unsterilized instruments weakened his 49-year-old heart and killed him on September 19th on the Jersey Shore where he was seeking the fresh air of the ocean.

1900:  William McKinley
Like Garfield, William McKinley was a decorated Union soldier from Ohio and in 1896 he was elected President, defeating William Jennings Bryan.  Four years later, he destroyed Bryan once again and was re-elected.  McKinley was an enormously popular President and an extraordinarily kind-hearted man who wore a carnation in his lapel so that he had something to give to people.  In September 1901, the President was shot by an anarchist as he shook hands at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition.  Thinking of others, as always, the wounded President first implored that the arresting officers be sure not to hurt the man who had just shot him.  Then he asked that the news of his shooting be broken to his epileptic, semi-invalid wife as carefully as possible.  McKinley lingered for eight days, once again hindered by medical practices of the era, and died, aged 58, on September 14, 1901 – the fourth victim of Tecumseh’s Curse.

1920:  Warren G. Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding looked like a President and spoke like a President, but as he often said himself, he had no business living in the White House.  Widely considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, Harding’s Administration was plagued by corruption, although Harding wasn’t involved in it.  Harding was involved in several extramarital affairs, however, including one that resulted in an illegitimate daughter and trysts in a closet near the Oval Office.  Depressed by his administration’s many problems, Harding grumbled that he wished his ship would sink in the summer of 1923 when he became the first President to visit Alaska.  Continuing to tour the West Coast, the 56-year-old Harding was ailing from food poisoning and died in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel on August 2nd of either a stroke or a heart attack.  The exact cause of death is unknown because the First Lady refused to allow an autopsy – an action which resulted in many rumors that she had poisoned her husband to protect him from possible impeachment.  It didn’t help her cause when she spent the night before the funeral sitting next to her husband’s open casket in the East Room of the White House while saying, “No one can hurt you now, Warren.”  Harding was the fourth victim of Tecumseh’s Curse to be shipped back to Ohio for burial, preceded by all of the other victims other than Lincoln who was buried in Illinois.

By now, Tecumseh’s Curse was no longer a secret.  Every twenty years since William Henry Harrison’s election in 1840, a President had died.  In fact, only one President besides those elected in years ending in “0” had died in office – Zachary Taylor, who died of cholera in July 1850.  Every other death in office or assassination was coincidentally struck down each and every President elected in the years covered by Tecumseh’s Curse.  In 1934, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not published a story noting the coincidence of the 20-year-intervals between Presidential deaths and listed the the years that they had occurred along with an ominous “1940: ???”.  After the election of 1940 was decided, the cycle continued and Tecumseh’s Curse remained unbroken.

1940:  Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President longer than anyone in American history ever was and will ever be (unless someone decides to ignore the Constitution).  In 1940, Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term and as the United States fought a World War from both oceans, he won his fourth term in 1944.  The Roosevelt of 1944, however, was a weary, sick man.  Even today, we can see how quickly the Presidency visibly ages the occupants of the Oval Office.  FDR was President for twelve years – twelve years which included crises such as the Great Depression and World War II.  When he was re-elected in 1944, he dumped eccentric Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman and likely knew that he wouldn’t survive his fourth term.  On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt was posing for a portrait while resting at his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia.  The President was joined by the woman painting the portrait, one of his cousins, and his mistress, Lucy Rutherfurd, and startled the women when he held his hand to his head and said, “I have a terrific headache” before slumping over.  Shortly afterward, he was dead, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63.  Mussolini died 16 days later, Hitler died 18 days later, and Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered less than a month after President Roosevelt was buried at his home in New York.

1960:  John F. Kennedy
The first President born in the 20th century wasn’t able to escape Tecumseh’s 120-year-old curse.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest President elected to office (Theodore Roosevelt was a few months younger when he succeeded the assassinated President McKinley in 1901) and the youngest President to die in office.  Just 46 years old, JFK was brutally assassinated in front of the world while sitting next to his wife during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.  Kennedy’s assassination launched numerous investigations, scores of conspiracy theories, and approximately 85% of the History Channel’s regular broadcast lineup.  It also finally brought an end to the cycle of Presidents dying every twenty years that had started with “Old Tippecanoe” back in 1840.


In 1980, the 20-year-curse was a big enough issue that incumbent President Jimmy Carter was asked by a voter in Ohio whether he was worried about the odd coincidence as he ran for re-election.  Carter responded that, “I’m not afraid.  If I knew it was going to happen, I would go ahead and be President and do the best I could (until) the last day I could”.  Carter didn’t have any reason to be afraid; he was not re-elected in 1980, losing in a landslide to former California Governor Ronald Reagan.  Reagan was the oldest President in history when he was inaugurated on January 20, 1981.  At 69 years old, he was almost a full year older than the first victim of Tecumseh’s Curse, “Old Tippecanoe” himself, and Reagan turned 70 less than three weeks after the inauguration.

On March 30, 1981, Reagan very nearly became the eighth victim of the curse when he was seriously wounded during a shooting in Washington, D.C.  Reagan’s wounds, in fact, were much more severe than those suffered by President Garfield a hundred years earlier and President McKinley eighty years earlier.  Reagan, however, was saved by modern medical practices – most significantly from the absence of unsterilized fingers and medical instruments being jabbed into his wound by a wide variety of doctors and medics.  Reagan recovered and served his full eight year term, retiring in 1989, and, to further prove that the cycle was broken, was the longest-living President in history (since surpassed by Gerald Ford) when he died in 2004 at the age of 93.

Was it really a curse?  Well, since Tecumseh died almost 25 years before William Henry Harrison decided to run for President, it would have been an amazingly precise guess that the General would someday make it to the White House.  I’m not the type of guy who believes in “curses” anyway, but the coincidence of the 20-year-intervals between Presidents dying in office is striking, and the near-miss of Reagan in 1980 just adds to the intrigue.  President George W. Bush, elected in 2000 (well…kind of), made it through his two terms safely, so whatever the cause of the cycle, it is definitely over now.  All I know is that, coincidence or not, I’m not messing with Tecumseh.

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he title of the book—Conserving America?—tells us much of what we need to know about Deneen’s thesis. For much of conservative intellectual history in the United States the question of whether or not America should or could be conserved was beyond dispute, and, for the most part, it remains so. This conservation typically takes the form of conservative intellectuals fighting for the preservation of the principles of the Declaration and Constitution against those who seek, to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI, to read those documents through a hermeneutic of rupture. Interestingly, Deneen argues in the book that if America is to be conserved it will not be through the promotion of conservative principles but in a rejection of those principles. Deneen believes that the philosophy, a Hobbesian and Lockean form of liberalism, upon which the United States was founded, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Deneen has become, over the course of his long career, one of the nation’s sharpest critics, arguing that America’s founding principles are at their root progressive and at odds with the national self-image preferred by conservatives. Conserving America? is composed of twelve chapters taken mainly from speeches and lectures on subjects ranging from whether in fact America has a conservative tradition (according to Deneen, no) to what will happen when American liberalism possibly falls apart.

Deneen argues that the “Enlightenment and liberal philosophies that informed the American founding posited the existence of radically autonomous human beings in the state of nature, rights bearing creatures who consent to the creation of a government which exists to secure those rights.” But the truth, according to Deneen, is just the opposite. This radical autonomy and the state of nature exist only in theory and it is government that is put to the task of making that theory come into existence.

Deneen further argues that our electoral choices are in fact false choices and that there is a “consistent and ongoing continuity in the basic trajectory of modern liberal democracy both at home and abroad” regardless of whether the political left or the political right is in power. This trajectory results in the concentration of power in the hands of a global aristocracy that controls more and more wealth—an aristocracy that moves “continuously back and forth between public and private positions, controlling the major institutions of modern society.”

Deneen argues that the political left is the greatest beneficiary of this arrangement though they remain silent, or even at times, blissfully unaware of liberalism’s beneficence and focus their attention on identity and sexual politics. The political right, on the other hand, “promises to shore up traditional family values while supporting a borderless and dislocating economic system that destabilizes family life especially among those who do not ascend to the global elite, those outside the elite circles who exhibit devastating levels of familial and community disintegration.” For Deneen, conservatism cannot do both and indeed, its support of a limitless globalism destroys any real basis for a conservative polity.

While Deneen discusses the problems and shortcomings of the political left in the book, it is his critique of the political right that is most interesting. American conservatives would do well to take Deneen’s critique seriously even if they find they cannot fully embrace it. His critique of the destabilizing nature of capitalism is important and that critique should find ears after an election cycle that in many ways hinged on the “forgotten man,” an election cycle during which a major conservative magazine published an article arguing that communities that have been ravaged by capitalist creative destruction in some sense deserve to die, and that the poor people living in them need, more than anything, a U-Haul.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further in that he recognizes that capitalism makes it difficult to have a common good toward which a society can work. Because capitalism is based on the idea that each person working toward his or her own self-interest will benefit society as a whole, it results only in something that resembles cooperation rather than actual cooperation, much less working toward a common good that benefits the whole. This might be okay, argues Deneen following Tocqueville, if not for the fact that the “language of self-interest would [over time] exert a formative influence upon democratic man’s self-understanding” causing him to lose sight of communal responsibility and the common good. The language of self-interest is also deceptive in that “in thinking solely of our own advancement and accumulation, we deceive ourselves in thinking we are wholly self-sufficient and that our success has come solely through our own efforts.” Both of these effects of the reliance on self-interest to direct society result in the breakdown of conscious cooperation and therefore become corrosive to society.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism is instructive but at times it falls prey to what might be called a boutique mentality. For Deneen the ideal community looks something like Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In one of his more well-known essays, Deneen sees George Bailey as almost as much a villain as Mr. Potter, for it is Bailey who brings urban sprawl to Bedford Falls, in the form of affordable housing. Deneen sees in Bailey not a hero but an agent of destruction: “George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment. To re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.”

Deneen argues that a community like Bailey Park cannot sustain trust and community in the same way as Bedford Falls. Deneen sees Bailey Park as the gateway to an America “wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs.” It’s a long list of wrongs to load on the back of George Bailey. Where should the people who moved to Bailey Park live? They can’t afford to live in Bedford Falls unless Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further than it seems. Deneen is not altogether wrong about suburban life or urban sprawl, but it’s not clear what a realistic alternative would be without a massive re-appropriation of wealth. Moreover, conservatives have long admired this movie for its opposition, in the form of George Bailey, to a rapacious capitalism: the movie’s alternative view of Bedford Falls had the rapacious banker Potter prevailed is even less attractive. The challenge to Deneen is to demonstrate that there is some path that avoids both forms of consumerism and community-erasing that the movie presents.

Another theme worth grappling with is Deneen’s argument that American conservatism is not at all conservative. Deneen argues that the two main commitments of mainstream American conservatism have been the “strenuous defense of a relatively unregulated market and the insistence upon a strong military posture that extended American power into every corner of the world, often explicitly in defense of promoting universalized liberal democracy …” Neither, he says, supports the local and humane scale of community necessary for the common good and political liberty.

This effectively argues that conservatism’s main goals have been to promote liberalism. In appropriating the tools of liberalism, Deneen argues, conservatism was wildly successful, but its success did away with conservative ways of life like family farming and family-owned businesses. Deneen further argues that conservative promotion of economic and cultural globalization and conservative commitments to the “abstractions of the markets and the abstractions of national allegiance” destroyed the local forms of American life that had sustained distinctive communities across America.

So what is the way forward? Deneen sees the collapse of liberalism as possible even though in his estimation nearly every human institution has been formed to enact and perpetuate liberalism. What reason is there for hope in the face of these odds? Deneen believes that as liberalism becomes more itself, it will become harder to explain its “endemic failures [massive income inequality, the breakdown of community, etc.] as merely accidental or unintended.” Deneen is not overly optimistic on this score. He explains that as the failures of liberalism come out, many proposed alternatives will be even worse and so it is our responsibility to defeat these alternatives and propose in their place something better.

The book’s concluding chapter is titled “After Liberalism,” a deliberate homage to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Deneen acknowledges that many of the alternatives to liberalism on the world stage are not comforting, but he urges us to actively hope for the end of liberalism and that it might be a “fourth sailing—after antiquity, after Christianity, after liberalism into a post liberal and hopeful future.”

If we are to have any hope for this future after liberalism, conservatives will need to take seriously the challenges thinkers like Deneen put forth. The effects of liberalism and the free market on community must not be dismissed as intractable or their possible alternatives as unrealistic. Conservatives would also be remiss if Deneen’s critique of the deleterious effects of, especially the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, as applied through constitutionalism, are not adequately addressed. If conservatives fail to address these problems seriously it will be due to a failure of imagination. In fact it can be said, based on Deneen’s argument, that the only way to achieve the stated goals of conservatism, is to stop being “conservative.”  

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I’m a big fan of Murray Rothbard and have read pretty much everything that he wrote, which was a lot as he was a prodigious author. I came across this article which for the most part was very flattering, but contained these two criticisms.

Unfortunately, Rothbard also sidesteps some difficult problems. The primary argument for having a state at all is that the state can overcome the public goods/free rider problem, while private entrepreneurs cannot. Rather than addressing this argument, Rothbard effectively denies the problem exists, which is no answer at all and certainly does nothing to assuage the doubts of critics. Similarly, in response to the challenge that his proposed private protective agencies would fight among themselves and oppress people, he simply asserts this would be too costly for them and they’d realize peaceful cooperation and trade are more profitable.

Well, no. One could use this logic to “prove” that Al Capone would never order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of the North Side gang, or that Hitler would never invade Poland. There’s nothing special about whether we call an organization a “state” or not that changes the benefit-cost analyses of the leaders in these matters. Perhaps it’s possible that under certain circumstances an anarchic society could be peaceful and stable, but Rothbard simply ignored the most difficult problems for his theory.

That, to me, illustrates Rothbard’s primary flaw. It seems to me that for him, no argument is too shallow so long as it leads him to a libertarian conclusion. His dedication to liberty is admirable, but as the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat warned, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” In my view, by not taking arguments for a minimal state sufficiently seriously, Rothbard ends up deceiving himself and supposing that the case for his anarcho-capitalism is airtight. I think it is not, and there are other examples of this sort of error in Rothbard’s economic, political, and historical writing.[3]

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