Saturday, December 31, 2016

God in Search of Man: Experiencing Wonder in an Age of Indifference

As I sit and look out the window of my study, a blue sky beckons beyond the trees, their naked branches reaching upward as if calling to a hidden God. The green moss glides halfway up the trunk of the tallest tree in my sight and extends beyond the roof and chimney of the house upon whose land it has rooted. A still breeze causes the evergreens below to bristle. I am momentarily filled with wonder, amazed that on such a small and insignificant plot of land – a third of an acre is visible through my study window – there exists such a complex ecological oasis of life, plants, trees, dirt and grass, insects and birds, small mammals, everything existing in perfect harmony with the natural universe. A quiet peace descends over me.

With each passing year, memories of life at a younger age drift further into the distance. Some come easily. I can remember still, as a seven year-old boy, walking with my sister to the public library up the steep hill on Parry Drive in Moorestown, New Jersey, with no understanding of where life would take me, but believing even then that the world was full of wonder and fascination. I remember at age nine throwing a rubber ball against the brick chimney on the side of our house, betraying my parents’ wishes as I practiced fielding ground balls, trying desperately not to throw wildly and risk fracturing a bordering shingle. I remember as a teenager playing touch football with neighborhood friends at the ballfields of the local middle school, experiencing the freedom of the sun and fresh air on my young face as I dodged defenders and intercepted opposing passes. They are memories of an ordinary life in an ordinary town. Never certain of my purpose in life, insecure about my place in the world, and yet living each day with a profound sense of gratitude and good fortune.

As I grew older, I began to value the gift of education and thought, absorbing books and newspapers to help me better understand the world around me, its history and trends, its people and places. I pursued a career in law, created a family and developed a life, always uncertain of my destiny and conscious of my insignificance. For I am but one person among billions, living on a small planet in a vast galaxy that is, in the end, but a tiny fragment among many existing galaxies, planetary constellations, and solid masses of matter that exist beyond our present capacity to imagine and know. 

The world is at once beautiful and grand, frightening and scary, full of grace and wonder and acts of barbaric cruelty. As I continue on the journey of life, trying to do my best as a man fulfilling the roles of husband and father, citizen and co-worker, fellow traveler on the Spaceship Earth, I wonder still what it all means. And yet, I am constantly reminded of what a blessing it is to be alive, to have experienced the love I share with Andrea, to watch my children grow into kind, caring, thoughtful adults, and to be blessed with the gift of life and health in a world that does not always dispense fairly such gifts.

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Readers of this blog know that I have at times struggled with questions about God and faith and the meaning of our existence. These days, I have more questions than answers and doubt the certainty and exclusivity of much of what passes for religious doctrine. I believe the vast majority of self-identified religious people have misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the Scriptural pretexts of their own faith traditions, or are otherwise simplistic and misguided in their unquestioning acceptance or rejection of religion. But I have always believed in a God, an ultimate Creator, however irrational that may seem to some. I realize that God’s presence is impossible to prove or discern, and that, if God does exist, he or she has bestowed humanity with free will, including the freedom to protect or destroy the planet, to act with love and compassion or to inflict indescribable cruelty on our fellow human beings. Anyone who takes time to read the daily papers knows that as a species we are not faring well.

It would be easy in modern times to reject completely the notion of God, or to conclude that God’s existence is irrelevant. Life will go on as we have always known it, and we will either save the world or destroy the world without God’s involvement. Still, I refuse to conclude that God, or some form of higher power, is completely absent from our lives. I continue to believe that which I wrote in October 2009 (In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief):
. . . [W]hen I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.
Although I may not have realized it then, my notion of God’s presence as expressed above is not dissimilar from what had been expressed far more poetically and effectively by Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout the course of his life. It may be why Heschel’s writings continue to touch me, for his writings describe the ineffable and affirm the presence of God in a world in which God often appears absent.

In God in Search of Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), Heschel wrote that “awareness of the divine begins with wonder” and is “a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.” Heschel believed that a world without wonder is a world closed off to the presence of God. For it is this sense of wonder that allows us to recognize we are not alone. “You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death,” wrote Heschel. “We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.”

Heschel took the Bible seriously but not literally. He believed, as do I, that religion and science are entirely compatible, that scientific knowledge “extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.” Heschel welcomed the interplay between science and faith and acknowledged that “the sense of wonder and transcendence . . . must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate.”

As an observant Jew, Heschel believed with certainty in the existence of God. But he acknowledged that, for most of humanity and throughout most of history, God’s presence has been hidden and actively concealed. He believed, however, that if we are open to the majestic splendor of the universe and the mystery of creation, and if we are willing to look beyond our sense of self, we are capable of experiencing the reality of a transcendent God.

I recently finished reading a wonderful and insightful book by Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder of Mechon Hadar, a Jewish educational institution in New York, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Indiana University Press, 2013), Held explains that Heschel sought “to remind his readers that buried deep within them was the possibility of a wholly different orientation to the world, one rooted in wonder and amazement rather than callousness and indifference.” A sense of wonder, Held notes, was for Heschel:
…the very antithesis of “taking things for granted.” A sense of perpetual surprise yields the realization that the world as a whole, and my life within it, did not have to be. They are not brute facts but rather gifts bestowed. To cultivate a sense of wonder, then, is to instill in myself the knowledge, at once cognitive and experiential, that I am not the author of my own life or of the world that I inhabit. I am, most fundamentally, not a creator of life, but a recipient thereof.
The question for Heschel was what to do with the sense of wonder, awe, and mystery that so defines our lives. Underlying his theology was the belief that God had entered into a covenant with humanity and that, as a result, something was asked of us. As human beings, we are naturally driven to focus on our individual needs, to acquire, to enjoy, and to possess. But the spiritual side of humanity provides a “will to serve higher ends” that transcends our needs. “The grand purpose of religion,” Heschel contended, is that “man is able to surpass himself.”

Heschel feared that the collapse of wonder, from self-centeredness, greed, cynicism, or indifference, has perilous consequences for the world and for humanity. Having witnessed in his lifetime the cruelty of Auschwitz and tragedy of Hiroshima, Heschel believed that only through a moral and spiritual reawakening could the world overcome its indifference to human suffering. One need only look at what is happening in the world today, with countless acts of violence and terrorism, millions of refugees fleeing their homelands, much of the world’s population living in squalor, and a mostly indifferent world turning away in apathy, to conclude that much of the world has lost its sense of wonder and the grace that accompanies it.

As Rabbi Held notes, Heschel sought to remind the world that “we matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give.” Real freedom, according to Heschel, is found not in the power of self-assertion, but in the power to rise above it. To respond to God is to bring an end to callousness and indifference. It is why Heschel in his time spoke so powerfully against the Vietnam War, fought for the rights of Soviet Jews, opposed bigotry and prejudice, and marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King in favor of civil rights.

If Heschel were alive today, I have no doubt he would raise his voice in opposition to the world’s indifference to Syrian refugees and the destruction of Aleppo; against the rising influence of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries; and against the callousness of the world’s institutions toward the suffering of our most vulnerable populations.

As another year comes to an end and a new year is upon us, my hope for the world is that we open ourselves to the wonder of the universe, the mystery of life, and the possibility of a God that seeks human partners to spread love and compassion and defeat hatred and indifference. We must acknowledge that only humanity can pursue peace, protect the environment, and save us from ourselves. Only humanity can make a better world.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The President as Role Model: The Legacy of Barack Hussein Obama

I'm inspired by the people I meet in my travels--hearing their stories, seeing the hardships they overcome, their fundamental optimism and decency. I'm inspired by the love people have for their children. And I'm inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man. – Barack Obama
As we approach the end of Barack Obama’s tenure as the 44th President of the United States, I have reflected upon what the past eight years has meant to the United States, the world, and to me personally. I cannot speak for others, though I know there are millions of Americans who feel, as I do, deeply connected to President Obama and grateful for his leadership and the example he set in office. For many African Americans, President Obama will rightfully be a source of great pride and inspiration for generations to come. For me and many Democrats over the age of 50, Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy to inspire a poetic sense of idealism and an aspirational sense of service.

I am aware that not everyone shares my admiration and respect for this president. But even for those Americans not enamored of President Obama and who opposed his every action, I believe that history and the passage of time will solidify this president as a man of character, decency, compassion, and wisdom. For those are the traits I have witnessed since he took the oath of office on January 20, 2009.

As the leader of the free world, Obama represented everything good and decent about America. As president, he was a consistently inspiring public speaker, a thoughtful man of ideas, a serious man with a good sense of humor; an intellectual, a policy wonk, by his own admission a bit of a nerd, a techie who understood the dynamics of world economic trends and quietly led us into the digital age. He restored dignity to the nation’s highest elected office and led a scandal-free administration. He elevated our national discourse on public affairs. He maintained his composure through some extremely difficult times. And he was the coolest, hippest president ever.

His accomplishments while in office are impressive. Although he inherited one of the worst financial crises in American history, he saved the U.S. economy from a second Great Depression. He restored stability to the financial markets, pushed through a massive stimulus bill, and saved the American auto industry from collapse. He guided the nation through a massive recession and helped turn devastating and record-breaking job losses into 74 months of consecutive job growth. He achieved the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s without a resurgence of inflation. And though middle class wages remained stagnant for much of his presidency, there are today 18 million fewer people without health insurance, a much improved housing market, a downward trend in deficit spending, a booming stock market, record breaking corporate profits, and a much improved economic outlook.

He advanced civil rights for gay people by allowing gays to serve openly in the military. He was the first president to actively support marriage equality, which is now the law of the land. On matters of race, some believe Obama underplayed his hand and often ignored some of the racial wounds and divisions that continue to haunt us. But as the nation’s first black president, he has mostly led by example, through the love and respect he displays regularly for his wife and children and the diversity of his appointments to his administration. His meditation on civil rights in Selma in 2015 and his rendition of Amazing Grace at the funeral of the slain black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina, were among his best rhetorical moments. And his reflective, compassionate addresses to the nation following the tragic mass shootings in Arizona and Newtown helped soothe a grieving nation.  

He was the most environmentally conscious president in history. Through his successful negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord, in which the world’s biggest polluters, including China, agreed to take serious action against climate change, he established the United States as a world leader in defense of the planet’s future. He took bold action on fuel efficiency and planted the seeds for reduced U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. Aided by market forces, America’s dependence on foreign oil is down 60% from when he first took office. He has greatly expanded America’s use of wind and solar power, and begun to phase out our reliance on coal burning, acid-rain-causing power plants.

He advanced the cause of peaceful diplomacy while protecting American interests abroad. He ended the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and initiated the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. He gave the order that killed bin Laden. His administration’s successful negotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal and efforts to expand trade and improve relations with the countries of Asia and the Pacific, have greatly improved our standing in the world. And he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, a long overdue move with historic implications.

To be fair, Obama’s foreign policy record is not entirely rosy or error-free. His handling of the Arab Spring, his hesitancy in Libya and Syria, and his inability to make any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have been blemishes on a foreign policy that, while minimizing major blunders, has sometimes led from behind. And his expanded use of drone warfare to kill suspected terrorists abroad raises many troubling concerns under U.S. Constitutional and international law, and may have created more future terrorists than it killed. But as noted by author and former foreign correspondent James Mann, “Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time.”

Apart from the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act remains his most significant legislative achievement. For most of the 20th Century, U.S. Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton tried and failed to enact some form of national health care. Whatever the future of Obamacare, and whatever its shortcomings (and there are many), as the first president in American history to succeed in enacting a comprehensive health care law, he moved us decisively toward universal health care. It remains to be seen if Trump and the Republicans will repeal and replace Obamacare, but whatever they do, Obamacare’s key provisions – preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, allowing parents to maintain coverage for their children to age 26, the use of insurance exchanges, and expanded eligibility under Medicaid – are likely to remain.

When Obama ran for the White House, he did not want simply to be a good president, but a transformative one. Hope and change were his calling cards. He wished to fundamentally alter the way politics worked and believed he could unite a deeply divided nation. He called upon Americans to erase the false dichotomy between “red” states and “blue” states and to instead see America at its best, as a people united, a multi-cultural mosaic of races, ethnicities, and faiths bound together by one flag, one Constitution, and a sense of the common good.

Eight years later, the lack of civility in our politics and the entrenched divisions in U.S. society are among Obama’s biggest disappointments. There are global forces at work in the world today that no one person or leader can control or counteract. The resurgence of the populist right and nationalism in Europe, Latin America, and the United States are forces too large for even an aspirational leader like President Obama to overcome. I do not blame Obama for this reality. It is not his fault – division and opposition, organized Republican efforts to defeat his every achievement in the hopes of making him a “one-term president” was the clearly delineated strategy of the Republican leadership in Congress. Combined with the rise of the Tea Party and the increasingly Balkanized media in which everyone’s thought processes are reinforced and further inflamed, Obama’s vision of a “united states of America” seems na├»ve in retrospect.

But I think that history will look kindly on the Obama Era, and that many of the people who opposed him these past eight years will someday come to appreciate his seriousness of purpose and the dignified manner in which he performed the duties of his Office.

History will not record Obama as a transformative president in the same manner as Franklin Roosevelt (on the left) or Ronald Reagan (on the right); for they changed the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government and their relationship to it. But Obama’s presidency was transformative in another sense. His very presence in office for eight years and the manner in which he and his family conducted themselves were culturally transformative. Think of the millions of young Americans, children and teenagers, who came of age with a dignified, good looking, graceful black First Family in the White House. To younger Americans, who are already more open to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, and lifestyles, having a black family living in the White House was the most natural thing in the world. It is difficult to underestimate the long-term impact that will have. And Obama connected with younger people. He understood them and knew how to communicate with them; he understood their comedy and late night talk shows, their podcasts, their music, and their uses of social media.

I especially admire the heartfelt thoughtfulness displayed by Obama in one-on-one interviews. In September 2015, Obama participated in a lengthy two-part conversation with author Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books, in which they discussed religion, philosophy, literature and history. It was an extraordinarily candid and intellectual conversation not regularly witnessed from an American politician. And he has had similar conversations with a number of journalists, hosts of podcasts, and authors. He is equally adept at discussing music and sports, and he is genuinely funny. Andrea and I looked forward every year to watching (on C-SPAN no less) his appearances at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. His comedic timing and execution of a good joke is unmatched by past American presidents.

I am deeply concerned that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House risks undoing many of President Obama’s accomplishments and much of his legacy. It is difficult to imagine a more radical shift in direction than Barack Obama to Donald Trump. For those on the Left who bemoaned Obama’s shortcomings, his failure to close Guantanamo or to seriously address rising income inequality, the next four years will make you wish for Obama’s pragmatic liberalism. For those on the Right who value character and dignified behavior in our public officials, you should already be missing the current President, who for eight years has been a model of dignity, an exemplary father and husband, a role model for our youth and a source of inspiration for anyone willing to listen.

Someday we will look back on the Obama years and recall a president who acted with grace and poise in extremely difficult circumstances, who withstood insults and disrespect, and was opposed and ridiculed by the opposition and in the right-wing and conservative press (and by certain segments of the left), and handled all of it with extraordinary composure and goodwill. I will miss President Obama in the White House, not simply because he was a good president whom I trusted to act in America’s best interests, but also because he inspired me to be a better citizen, a better man and a better father, and because he made me feel good about America.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. – President Barack Obama—September 6, 2012

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

America Takes a Step Back: Where Do We Go From Here?

It has taken me more than a week to process that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. I never really believed it would happen. Like most of the mainstream press, the academics, the pollsters, the political establishments of both major parties, I watched with increasing shock and despair on election night, as first Florida and North Carolina, and then Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, tilted in favor of Trump. When I finally accepted that Trump was likely to win – sometime around midnight – I felt deep despair, as if a large weight had descended into the pit of my gut. For the first time in my life, I was forced to acknowledge that I know not my own country.

In hindsight, there are many reasons for Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss: Her message and appeal failed to capture the trust and enthusiasm of the white working class communities in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, including many of the same communities that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Clinton lacked charisma and her speeches failed to inspire. Her campaign forever played defense and did not invoke a sense of higher purpose. Americans wanted “change” – whatever that means – and she represented the status quo. Trump promised to shake things up and was, like it or not, the “change” candidate. The Latino surge didn’t quite happen. African Americans did not turn out in the numbers we had hoped. More than half of white women voted for Trump. Most disappointingly, 60 million Americans willingly overlooked Trump’s express appeals to bigotry and prejudice, xenophobia and fear, misogyny and hate, and voted for him nonetheless.

Although Clinton is ultimately responsible for her loss, FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the email investigation unfairly and improperly impacted the election. His extraneous comments during a press conference in July, when he announced the FBI’s decision not to pursue a criminal case, were inappropriate. And his ill-advised letter to Congress eleven days before the election, which led most people to think the FBI had found new evidence of wrongdoing, predictably halted Clinton’s momentum. When he announced eight days later that the FBI had discovered nothing new and there remained insufficient evidence of illegality, it was too late and the damage was done. As a former federal prosecutor, I will never understand Comey’s motives or why he thought he was exempt from Department of Justice policy that prohibits comment on pending or concluded investigations. We may never really know its full impact, but the FBI’s interference with the American electoral process was irresponsible and inexcusable.

The media, and particularly cable news, also failed at its job in 2016. The single biggest factor in this election was the media’s embrace of celebrity culture and its thirst for ratings at the expense of fairness and truth. Almost every day for the past year, and sometimes several times a day, the cable news networks covered entire Trump rallies while offering little in the way of critical analysis or fact checking. And while the cable channels bequeathed to Trump nearly $3 billion of free air time, there was typically no similarly unabridged coverage of his opponents.

For all of the attention placed on Clinton’s emails, where were the stories and investigations into the hundreds of past and pending lawsuits against Trump, many for racial and gender discrimination, fraud, and unethical business practices? Why did the press fail to highlight and question Trump about his flagrant lies and distortions that left me speechless on a daily basis? His childish insults and tweets, his crowd-pleasing mocking of reporters and protesters, his supporters’ chants of “lock her up” and other hate-filled rhetoric, were frightening and un-American. And yet, the press routinely dismissed these plentiful horrors merely as "Trump being Trump."

But I do not wish to dwell on the negativity of this election other than to note that the Trump campaign was a low point in American electoral history. I am shell-shocked and disappointed with the outcome, but I accept the results. Although Clinton won the popular vote, we elect our president through the Electoral College, and Trump won according to the rules as they presently exist. He is legitimately the President elect.

Although I understand the frustrations and despair of the many protesters marching and chanting against Trump in some of our cities, I hope that will soon stop. Among the most offensive aspects of the last eight years were conservative attacks on the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency, including the birther movement, fomented by Mr. Trump and magnified by such alt-right news outlets as under the guidance of Trump’s campaign manager, and now chief strategist, Steve Bannon. I will not soon forget these thinly-veiled racist attacks on our nation’s first African American president. It is also wrong, however, to exclaim that Trump is “Not My President” for this slogan protests not his policies but the legitimacy of the election. Organize the opposition, fight implementation of Trump’s policies after he takes office, hold his feet to the fire and pressure the Republican Congress, but don’t delegitimize the nation’s institutions of democracy.

So where do we go from here? 

First, we need to give Trump a chance at governing. He will not take the oath of office until January 20, 2017. Let’s see who he picks to fill his Cabinet seats. Let’s give him an opportunity to moderate his extreme and irresponsible campaign “promises” such as building a wall (okay, maybe not a wall, he says now, but at least a fence), repealing the Affordable Care Act (he apparently likes its main provisions and now only wants to amend it), deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants (he has largely backed off of this one as well), and putting Hillary Clinton in jail (following her “gracious” concession, he seems to have lost his vindictive, banana republic instincts). Of course, we must watch his every move, because what he says one day means nothing a day later.

Trump seems already to be learning what President Obama and Secretary Clinton already know, that governing a country as large and complex as the United States is hard. As President, he will be forced to understand and balance enormous international and diplomatic pressures, intense national security concerns and foreign entanglements, and conflicting domestic political interests. The federal bureaucracy is vast and complex and does a lot of really important things, from protecting our homeland to inspecting our food supply, to keep this country running smoothly. The Affordable Care Act may require modification, but as Trump has already discovered, there are many aspects of the law that Americans want and need. You cannot simply cut off the health care coverage of 20 million people and go back to the way things were without causing extreme hardship and devastation. Unilaterally revoking treaties and trade deals will not only endanger international relations, but will cause massive disruption to our economy. Being Commander-in-Chief is not as easy as it looks, even for a guy who built a few hotels and thinks he knows more than the Generals.

Second, the Democratic Party must find a way to better understand and appeal to the working classes of all races and ethnicities. We used to be the party of working men and women. Although I personally believe Democratic policies are much better for working families than Republican policies, the Democrats need to shake its image as the party of upper crust "elites". We must recognize that at least some of Trump’s support in this election was motivated, not by bigotry and xenophobia, but by legitimate anxieties about the American economy and concern for the future. Yes, Trump exploited these anxieties and inflamed them through racially-tinged and nationalistic fear-mongering, but for millions of rank-and-file union members, low-wage workers, farmers, and small business owners, the anxieties caused by an ever changing economy and globalization are real and legitimate.

Third, we must closely scrutinize Trump’s choice for the vacant Supreme Court seat. This one was not supposed to be his choice. This one was President Obama's to fill. For nine months the Republicans refused to hold even a hearing on the nomination of Merrick Garland, a distinguished and respected jurist with indisputable qualifications. Democrats should filibuster whomever Trump chooses and not back down unless Trump nominates a consensus moderate in much the same way President Obama nominated one in Garland. On most matters I want the Democrats to be the adults in the room and to not play games with American democracy or damage American interests as Republicans have so frequently done the past eight years. But on this issue, we should give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

Finally, we must remain active and engaged, especially in this perilous moment of history. We must not allow America to fall victim to the rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia that has befallen much of Europe. Trump’s authoritarian instincts must be unequivocally resisted. Attempts to restrict our civil liberties, to turn away from our moral and historic obligation as a welcoming nation to refugees and persecuted immigrants, to discriminate against religious minorities or to foment fear and hatred against whole classes of people, must be fought with every non-violent tool in our democratic arsenal.

“The worst thing that can happen in a democracy - as well as in an individual's life,” says Hillary Clinton, “is to become cynical about the future and lose hope.” It is good advice, for Democrats and all Americans, as we attempt to make sense of the Trump years.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Lessons of October 1962: Why Trump Must Be Defeated

History gives us the tools to analyze and assess current events with a proper degree of perspective. The study of history reveals lessons learned from past mistakes and the factors that influenced past successes. The knowledge of history helps us make sense of new threats, the impact of foreign conflicts on our national interests, and the political and social controversies which affect the long-term direction of the nation. The wisdom of history helps us better judge those who would seek to become the next President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces.

The noise of our current election process, the incessant barrage of daily and hourly media stories, accusations and counter-accusations, and the incessant and indiscrete use of Twitter and social media can overwhelm even the most serious political junkie and overshadow what is truly at stake in this election.  This will be the tenth presidential election in which I will have cast a vote in my lifetime, but this is the first time I have genuinely feared for the country and the world should the wrong candidate win.

Although our individual vote may feel insignificant, cumulatively our votes have serious consequences. Whom we elect or refrain from electing impacts the country for years to come – in the conduct of our foreign policy and the nature and extent of our military engagements abroad, in lifetime nominations to the Supreme Court and federal bench, and in the tone of our civic life at home. The election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 resulted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a war Gore opposed from the start and which became the worst foreign policy blunder in a half century. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 over Jimmy Carter negatively influenced how Americans viewed the federal government and the meaning of public service. But though I strongly opposed Reagan and, later, George W. Bush, and though I disagreed passionately with many of their policies, I never doubted that they acted in good faith and pursued actions and policies they believed were in the best interests of the United States. This election is different. If Donald Trump is elected President, our country is in grave peril. We need only look to history to understand why this is so.

On October 16, 1962, U.S. intelligence officials informed President John F. Kennedy that a U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba had photographed the installation of intermediate-range nuclear missiles by Soviet military personnel. For months it had been rumored that the Soviet Union was engaged in military activities in Cuba, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. Now there was solid proof. The implications were unmistakable. The missiles, if allowed to remain, would provide the Soviet Union with nuclear first-strike capability against the United States and its allies in the Western Hemisphere.

The pressures immediately confronting the 45 year-old president for a pre-emptive, offensive military response were intense. Almost all of Kennedy’s military and security advisers – the high-ranking generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of Kennedy’s Cabinet, and key members of Congress – advocated an immediate and forceful response. Kennedy was told he had no choice but to bomb the Cuban missile sites before they became operational. As Ted Sorenson recounts in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins 2008), the solution sounded simple: “U.S. bombers could swoop in, eliminate the sites, and fly away, leaving the problem swiftly, magically ended. But further questions – JFK always had further questions – proved that solution illusory.” Kennedy’s questions revealed that the Air Force could only be certain of eliminating 60 to 90 percent of the missiles. What would happen when one of the remaining Soviet nuclear missiles was used to retaliate against the United States? Kennedy also learned that to restore order after the U.S. bombing campaign would require a full U.S. invasion of Cuba, likely resulting in the loss of 10,000 American lives “more or less” according to the Joint Chiefs.

Kennedy, to his everlasting credit, resisted this advice. He had discovered eighteen months earlier, during the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the generals had their own biases, did not have all the answers, and were sometimes wrong. There had to be a better approach, one less likely to lead to all-out war. Kennedy favored a naval blockade to prevent more shipments of Soviet weaponry while he explored a diplomatic solution. But the generals argued that only air strikes could remove the missiles quickly and that the Soviet Union’s actions required a strong and unequivocal response. Merely imposing a blockade would make Kennedy and the United States look weak and permit the Soviets to think they could have their way in the future. General Curtis LeMay, who oversaw the massive firebombing campaign of Japanese cities during World War II, criticized the blockade as “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”

A few days into the crisis, Kennedy sought the advice of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, considered a wise man of American foreign policy and an expert on Soviet motives and conduct. But Acheson agreed with the generals that the United States should bomb the missile sites. When Kennedy asked Acheson how the Soviets would respond, Acheson predicted they would bomb U.S. missile sites in Turkey. Of course, this would require the United States to honor its NATO commitments and bomb Soviet missile sites in Russia. When Kennedy asked how the Soviets would react to that, according to Sorenson, “[Acheson] paused and replied, ‘by then, we hope cooler heads will prevail.’”

Thankfully, Kennedy was consistently cool and level headed from the start. He resisted the overwhelming pressures for war. He sought instead to find a way for the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba without losing face. An air strike or invasion was easily the more popular course of action, but Kennedy favored a blockade while pursuing secret diplomatic back channels because he thought these actions more likely to lead to a peaceful outcome. He was right. Kennedy’s courage to trust his own instincts over that of his hawkish advisers – most of whom were older and more experienced than he – saved the world from possible nuclear annihilation.

It is hard to imagine today just how close to nuclear war we came during those tense days in October 1962. As Sorenson retells it, “The discovery that the Soviet Union had secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba tested JFK’s wisdom, courage, and leadership as no president since Lincoln and FDR had been tested. No other test so starkly put at stake, depending on the president’s choices, the survival of our country.” Kennedy’s decision to pursue a more nuanced path, one involving skillful diplomacy and which risked cries of appeasement and weakness, demonstrated true presidential courage and judgment. Had Kennedy succumbed to the immense pressures and demands for an immediate air strike and invasion – and really, who could have blamed him given the nature and intensity of the crisis and the “advice” he received from such distinguished military and security experts – it would almost certainly have precipitated a nuclear assault on the United States. This would have led inevitably and rapidly to an all-out nuclear exchange, potentially rendering much of the world uninhabitable for centuries to come.

Based on the historical record, I believe we are alive today in no small measure because, for thirteen days in October more than a half-century ago, JFK exercised all of the attributes we most want and need in a president – judgment, courage, and moral fortitude. Kennedy combined a healthy skepticism for quick and easy military solutions with a concern for innocent lives. He listened patiently to his advisers, sought a wide spectrum of views, and reflected before acting. And he recognized, as Commander-in-Chief, that every decision has consequences.

I shudder to think what may have happened had Kennedy’s wisdom and patience not prevailed in October 1962, or if someone with less judgment on issues of war and peace – LBJ or Nixon, possibly, or God forbid, a man like Donald Trump. “In the eyes of history,” wrote Sorenson, “our greatest presidents have proved their qualities of greatness when confronted by great challenges.” We peacefully prevailed in October 1962 because, under the leadership of a wise and informed president, “we acted with vigilance, patience, and restraint.”

Although the precise circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis will not likely reoccur, some other crisis or series of crises almost certainly will confront our next President – an act of terrorism on U.S. soil or a military or security mishap in the Persian Gulf. Who do we trust with that responsibility? Which candidate has the capacity for thoughtful analysis? Who is more likely to exercise "vigilance, patience, and restraint" when the heat is on? Who do we trust to maintain responsible custody and control of the nuclear codes? Who can responsibly guide the nation through a major crisis?

The prospect of Donald Trump in the oval office under any of these scenarios is terrifying. Trump lacks even the most rudimentary knowledge of world affairs.  He does not understand the Constitution or the day-to-day workings of government. He shows contempt for American institutions and American democracy. By all accounts, he does not read books or engage in serious study. He appears to have no capacity for self-reflection or informed analysis. He listens to no one and never, ever, admits that he made a mistake. He becomes easily unhinged, impulsively making outlandish statements disconnected from facts at the slightest provocation. He is emotionally immature, a boorish narcissist who seems incapable of empathy or compassion. He is the single most unqualified presidential candidate in American history, which is why he is opposed by every living U.S. president, Republican or Democrat.

I have not always agreed with Hillary Clinton on every policy issue, and I am at times frustrated by her lack of transparency and politically-motivated shifts on issues like TPP and free trade. But I greatly admire and respect her intelligence and work ethic. And there is no one at present more qualified to be our next President. Hillary has the experience, knowledge, and seriousness to be president. She has demonstrated a willingness to listen, analyze, and consider the consequences of presidential decisions. She remains calm under pressure, is deeply prepared, and has an impressive command of foreign and domestic policy.

Hillary lacks JFK's charisma and is not a “perfect” candidate. But she has spent her life engaged in matters of policy, in working to improve the lives of women and children, in forging meaningful compromise with her political opponents. For the past fifteen years, Trump consistently insulted women, self-inflated his insatiable ego with buildings bearing his name, and produced shallow, gimmicky television shows. During that same time, Hillary served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as Secretary of State; and she advocated for human rights abroad while protecting U.S. interests in every hemisphere. Before that, Hillary worked to improve the lives of women and children and had a front row seat at the highest levels of state and national government. There is simply no contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the race for president. Yet we have endured false equivalencies and thin polling margins throughout this election season. We are living in dangerous times. There can be little doubt our vote in 2016 is as critical as in 1960 to ensure our existence as a country and as a world.

In June 1963, several months after the missile crisis ended and the Soviets had dismantled and withdrawn their offensive weapons from Cuba, Kennedy gave a profoundly important and thoughtful speech at American University in which he argued for a limited nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy recognized that, as the leader of the free world, his words mattered to friend and foe alike, more than many Americans understand. Our allies and enemies listen carefully to the president’s words. This was especially true of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. In this speech, President Kennedy acknowledged our common humanity and set the tone for mutual cooperation and respect:
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
It is not simply that Donald Trump is a highly flawed man. Kennedy and many other U.S. presidents were flawed men. But presidential character and judgment, the moral fortitude we need when the tests of history arise, have nothing to do with personal shortcomings. It has to do with experience, intelligence, discernment – qualities that cannot be taught, or learned on the run, but require a lifetime of study and a willingness to engage in critical self-reflection. Even great presidents make mistakes. But the only people we should ever entrust with the solemn obligations and responsibilities of the presidency are men and women of good will. Donald Trump is not that person.