Tag Archives: George H.W. Bush

Tantalizing Look

Garry Wills, Outside Looking In:

Adventures of an Observer

Outside-Looking-in-Wills-Garry

       Garry Wills has always been a fascinating yet little known figure for me.  His writing is breathtakingly wide-ranging, from themes on antiquity and the Bible to modern American politics and presidents.  I have enjoyed some but not all of his writing — much is quite abstract and way over my head.  I knew that Wills was a strong Catholic whose Catholicism has influenced his world view and his writings.  I also knew that he had an early stint at William F. Buckley’s National Review, America’s foremost conservative publication, yet today is closely associated with the liberal and progressive point of view.  These factors make Wills a figure I was eager to learn more about.

       “Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer” fulfills that learning function only partially, leaving much of the Garry Wills story tantalizingly untold.  Wills describes himself as both “incurably Catholic” (p.6) and also highly conventional,  “incurably . . . square — middle class, never bohemian or avant-garde” (p.6).  As someone “so colorless,” Wills indicates, “I am not interesting in myself, but I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive” (p.7).   Wills’ book, a series of short vignettes about his experiences and the people he has met, seeks to share what he has been able to observe, looking in from the outside.

       Wills’ introduction, entitled “A Bookworm’s Confession,” is about as close as he comes to autobiography.  Here, Wills describes his early upbringing, which centered, to his father’s chagrin, around books and his affinity for reading.  When he was in grade school, his father promised him money if he could go a week without reading.  Wills accepted his father’s offer, then “used the money to buy a new book” (p.3).  As a teenager, Wills was sneaking away to read books in the way many of his age were sneaking away to smoke cigarettes.  In boarding school, he read in the john at night, the “only place where lights were kept on” (p.3).  While working in a clothing store, he read Shakespeare in the warehouse during his breaks.

       Wills’ first and second substantive chapters are about the Civil Rights campaigns in the early 1960s and the death of Martin Luther King.  There is a chapter on Studs Turkel, one of Wills’ favorites; another on Wills’ mercurial father, Jack.  Wills also enjoys films and there is a chapter entitled simply “Movies.”  Wills’ story about how he met his wife Natalie is practically the stuff of a detective novel.  Wills explains with much gusto how he tracked down an erudite flight attendant he had met by chance on a plane trip.  He is still married to this woman some 50 years later and, as he tells it, she is not only his spouse but also his intellectual alter ego.

       Wills traveled with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and came close enough to see Nixon’s “omnidirectional mistrust” which would later “blossom into the break-ins and spying that brought Nixon down” (p.106).  Wills also traveled with the Carter campaign in 1976.  He was impressed with the way the deeply religious candidate kept his religion out of his campaign.  “So far from injecting religion into politics, Carter had the historical Baptist belief in a separation of church and state” (p.111-12).  He further considers Carter to have had the “most successful ex-presidency of all time” (p.113-114), becoming a “voice of conscience in all nations, not just in ours” (p.114).

       When Wills interviewed President George H.W. Bush, the subject naturally turned to books.  Bush indicated that he had been particularly impressed with Catcher in the Rye while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy.  Wills notes in his book – but presumably not to the President – that Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, whereas Bush had graduated from Exeter in 1942.  “He was so devoid of personal reading memories,” Wills writes, that he “must have remembered his sons’ talk of the novel when they were in prep school” (p.142).

       Wills met Bill Clinton when the man from Hope was first running for president and Wills was working on an analysis of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.  Wills interviewed Clinton and asked the candidate what book had made the greatest impression on him.  Aware of Wills’ Saint Augustine project, Clinton predictably came up with a title designed to curry Wills’ favor, Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations.  After his election, a cheap paperback of the Mediations came out with a banner indicating it was the newly elected President’s favorite book.  Wills saw immediately the irony in Clinton’s choice of an ascetical treatise that severely “condemns any yielding to sexual indulgence” (p.120).

       William Buckley is the subject of Wills’ penultimate chapter.  But, in a broader sense, Buckley is a dominating presence throughout this book.   Wills was on a flight to attend a Buckley party when he met his wife, for example.  Buckley was a formative mentor for Wills, a warm but mischievous fellow, capable of much kindness.  Wills speculates that Buckley was drawn to him because of his Catholicism – Buckley too was “incurably Catholic” (p.153).  Early in his National Review stint, Wills became Buckley’s informal advisor on Catholic matters.

       In 1957, Buckley published a much-maligned editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he defended segregation because whites were the “advanced race” and the “claims of civilization superseded those of universal suffrage” (p.157).  Wills argued vehemently with Buckley on these positions and Buckley’s biographer credits Wills with convincing Buckley to moderate his views and distance himself and the National Review from Southern segregationists.  But, Wills argues, Buckley also put distance between his brand of conservatism and the “anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand [and] . . . the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons” (p.158-59).  In each of these cases, “some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to The National Review, but Bill stood his ground” (p.159).  In Wills’ view, one of Buckley’s most significant contributions to American conservatism was to elevate the discourse in American politics, “making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives” (p.159).

       Wills and Buckley were estranged for more than 30 years, driven apart by the “convulsions of the sixties and their aftermath” (p.164).  Wills became a vehement critic of the Vietnam War, whereas Buckley maintained his hard-line support for the American war effort.  The final break between the two men came when Buckley refused to publish an essay in the National Review in which Wills argued that there was “no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam.”  As a consequence, over the next 30 years, “communication between us was at first minimal, and then non-existent “ (p.164).  For a while, the Review ran a “Wills Watch” documenting Wills’ liberal heresies.  There was some reconnection and reconciliation between the two men in the years immediately preceding Buckley’s death in 2008, although Wills does not recount any meeting.

       While the episodes in this book provide some insight into one of America’s most versatile and formidable contemporary thinkers, readers like me who want to see up close the inner Wills will find the book only partially satisfying.  We remain thoroughly unconvinced by his self-description as “uninteresting” and can only hope that at some subsequent time he will open a little wider the window into his prodigious mind.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

December 16, 2012

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, Soviet Union