Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nasty politics past

Last Saturday, New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera published an argument that demonstrated a degree of historical ignorance that makes me wonder how the "paper of record" can employ the guy. According to Nocera, all was peace and flowers between the two political parties in Congress until the 1987 confirmation hearings for Robert Bork, one of Ronald Reagan's nominees for the Supreme Court. That grilling, which ended in Bork's rejection by the Senate, Nocera names as the root grievance that explains Republican filibusters and delegitimization of every effort by any Democrat to do anything for the country ever since.

The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork ... The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

Plueeze ... acrimonious politics didn't begin in 1987.

Any doubts about that would be dispelled by even a cursory glance at, for example, the politics of the early 1950s. In that time, Republicans painted Democrats and anyone else who disagreed with them, often falsely and gleefully, as dangerous disloyal agents of Communist Russia. One of the stories of that witch hunt is at the core of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Oppenheimer was a brilliant student of physics, an engaging instructor of physicists at Berkeley and Cal Tech, then director of the Los Alamos project to develop the A-Bomb during World War II. After the war he remained the country's most famous scientist and expressed (quite muted) qualms about the emerging policy of mutually assured destruction by thermo-nuclear stand-off embraced by the Washington "security" establishment of his day. His political enemies dug up his leftish political commitments of the 1930s; he apparently had thought unions, care for anti-fascist refugees, and racial equality were good patriotic ideas, at least for awhile. This was enough to get him branded "a pink" and, after kangaroo court proceedings, to remove his security clearance, driving him out of political discourse.

American Prometheus is a long book and for my tastes expends far too many words on the minutiae of the charges against Oppenheimer. At this remove, the ins and outs of who met with who, when, and who told what FBI agent bent on getting a conviction what, just don't matter much. Oppenheimer comes across as a man too immobilized by ambiguities to survive bureaucratic trench warfare over policy. He nonetheless hoped his intellectual eminence would protect him in the crunch. It didn't -- politics turns not so much on being right as on assembling enough force, within civilized rules, to make right reality. There are democratic ways to make those fights; Oppenheimer was out of his element and, as this biography suggests, perhaps tempermentally out of any element.

Oppenheimer's nemesis in his loyalty hearing was Lewis Strauss, a Republican hawk then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Democrats took revenge on Strauss in 1957 when President Eisenhower tried to appoint him Commerce secretary; the Senate rejected the nomination.

The one figure among the many luminaries in Oppenheimer's circle who stands out as wise and measured was Albert Einstein. This refugee from German Nazism was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton where Oppenheimer was director at the time of his hearing. They were not close, but there was mutual respect between the two physicists. Like Oppenheimer, he feared that the destructive power that their scientific discoveries had made possible might destroy the civilization they both valued and had fought to preserve. But unlike Oppenheimer, Einstein refused to be intimidated and, if that disqualified him for influence, accepted that he had done his best. McCarthyism -- the whole apparatus of "security" inquisitions -- reminded him of the Nazis. Asked about Oppenheimer's trial before a loyalty board, he answered

"The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn't love him -- the United States government. . . . The problem was simple: All Oppenheimer needed to do was go to Washington, tell the officials that they were fools, and then go home."


Maybe that's what Nocera thinks Bork should have done: go to the Senate, tell the Judiciary Committee they were fools, and then go home. Actually he did do something rather like that; at least he certainly came off as an arrogant legal know-it-all. By a quirk of my employment in 1987, I was able to listen to radio broadcasts of the Bork hearings in their entirety. They were a fascinating schooling in the law -- and politics. I emerged very glad that Bork wasn't confirmed; he stood for warping law away from equalizing the chances of the poor and the excluded and toward the service to the rich and comfortable. Not my kind. I don't think there was anything wrong in letting the country in on what he stood for; momentarily, a majority of us didn't want that. Too bad if Republicans and Nocera nurse a grudge.

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