Thursday, July 9, 2009

J. Edgar Hoover

In honor of the new movie
Public Enemies starring JohnnyDepp and based on the terrific book by Bryan Burrough, here is my favorite picture of that tough, gruff, civil-liberties-stomping autocratic crime-fighter J. Edgar Hoover.

The dark side: Hoover would grow up to be Director for Life of the FBI, holding the job for 48 years under nine presidents (Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon) from 1924 till his death in 1972. Hoover would use his secret FBI files to blackmail presidents, senators, and movie stars, and felt no scruples conducting sabotage, black bag jobs, or secret wiretaps against any person or group he considered "subversive." By the 1960s, this included mostly civil rights leaders and anti-Viet Nam War dissenters.

Earlier, he aided Senator Joe McCarthy on his anti-Communist witch hunts. He remains one of the most-hated figures in American history.

On the good side, he used his organizational brilliance in the 1930s to build the then-disfunctional Bureau into a modern professional force with scientific methods, a national academy and lab, a Most Wanted List, finger print files, and a strict agent code of conduct. At his peak, he made the G-Man brand so popular that it was tougher to be accepted as a rookie FBI agent than it was to get into an Ivy League college.

How did he get this way? Here, we see young J. Edgar as a shockingly-normal boy playing with his bike. Hoover grew up in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C., son of a lifelong government clerk, youngest of four siblings, spoiled, his mother's favorite. He was smart, eager, sang in a church choir, carried groceries for old ladies, and was the star of his high school track, debate, and cadet teams. His classmates elected him their valedictorian. He worked his way through Law School and graduated in 1917 as America entered World War I.

What changed him from this normal, smart, eager child of the Jazz Age into the corrupt autocrat of later years was the question behind my own book Young J. Edgar, which tells the story of Hoover's first big assignment in the 1919 Justice Depatment, running the notorious anti-Communist crackdown known as the Palmer Raids.

In between, though, he brought in John Dillinger, the bank robber-- played by Johnny Depp in the new movie. Enjoy.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Re: Michael Jackson -- Enough!


Ken to news media: Enough with the Michael Jackson coverage eclipsing every single other news event in the world. It's been eight solid days of nothing else.
He simply is --

  • NOT THAT IMPORTANT and
  • NOT THAT INTERESTING.

You are exploiting him just like everyone else!

Stop it!!! Thanks. --KenA

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Al Franken makes it 60. But do Senate Super-Majorities Matter?

Sort of.

Democrats today are celebrating Al Franken's long-awaited victory as Minnesota's newest United States Senator. The cheers are not just for him. With Franken, Democrats will now number 58 in the Senate. This, along with two friendly Independents, will give them enough seats and potential votes - 60 - to block Republican filibusters and really control the Chamber.
That's real power. And it sounds great.
But don't believe it.
Over the years, we've had plenty of Congresses with large, lopsided partisan majorities. Some did great things. Others failed miserably. What mattered wasn't the size of the Majority, but whether it reflected a true national consensus, and whether it did its job.
The Scorecard on Cloture
First, the raw numbers.
The US Senate has always loved filibusters. Up until 1919, there was no way to stop a single Senator from talking his heart out and endlessly delaying a bill, thus killing it. Cloture, as adopted in 1919, allowed a majority of Senators to end debate, but only if they could muster a two-thirds vote. This was rare. From 1919 until 1970, Senators invoked Cloture only 8 times. Filibuster reigned supreme.
Then, in 1975, the Senate lowered its Cloture target to three-fifths, or 60 votes. Since then, cloture has been invokes literally hundreds of times, including 61 successful clotures during the 110th Congress (2006-7) alone.
During this post-1975 period, the only time either Democrats or Republicans had "filibuster-proof" majorities (60 or mote) was the four years 1975-1979: the Gerald Fold and Jimmy Carter era. During those four years, Senate leaders filed 62 cloture motions, voted on cloture 40 times, won on 20, and lost on 20. Not much to brag about. [Click here to see year-by-year votes for the enitre priod 1919-2009.]
The Biggest Majorities
This isn't to say that big Senate majorities can't produce terrific progress, clearing logjams for needed change. Three times in American history, we have seen large, sustained Super-Majorities in the U.S. Senate that made a difference:
  • Civil War and Reconstruciton Era (1861-1875), when Republicans held overwhelming majorities, peaking in 1869 at 61-11 (equivalent to an 85-15 margin today);
  • The FDR "New Deal" era and World War II (1933-1947), when Democrats held the whip hand by as much as 75-17 in 1937; and
  • From 1959 through 1969, when Democrats consistently held margins above 60 seats, reaching 68 in 1966, the New Frontier and Great Society years. [Click here for the full list of party breakdowns, 1855-2009.]
These were creative periods with capable presidents (Licoln, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson) and national direction. They produced groundbreaking innovations. Arguably, the lower standard allowed some sloppy legislation and bad policy choices, but at least they managed to make decisions in times of crisis. Where they made bad ones, they were accountable.
And today?
Al Franken's 60th vote will matter only if Democrats -- Obama included -- use it wisely and skillfully. Their majority is fragile. But on any Senate vote, there are moderate Republicans to woo for every conservative Democrat lost. Is the country united behind fundamental change? What say you, Obama?
That's politics at the highest level. Now we'll see if they are up to it.