Monday, January 31, 2011

A good moment to recall Egypt's President Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat, President of Egypt (1970-1981)
 As Egypt, the oldest, largest (79 million people), and arguably most important country in the Middle East, navigates its way through a dangerous, exhilarating week of protest against its 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, and we in the West ponder nervously what might come should Mubarak go, this is a useful time to remember Anwar el Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat was one of the original circle of army officers that toppled the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk in 1952, establishing modern Egypt and ending British dominance in the country.  He became Egypt's third president on the death of his mentor, Egypt's second president, Abdel Gamal Nasser, in 1970.

A graduate of Egypt's Royal Military Academy, Sadat is remembered in the West primarily for three events that highlighted his term:
  • War with Israel:   On October 6 1973, he ordered Egypt's army to launch a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  Sadat's army penetrated Israel's Bar Lev line, crossed the Suez Canal, and penetrated 15 kilometers into the Sinai Peninsula before Israel could launch a counter-strike, itself crossing the Suez to encircle parts of the Egyptian Army.  The result was stalemate, viewed in Egypt as victory, restoring national honor after its defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. 

  • Peace with Israel:  Sadat then made peace.  Late in 1977, he dramatically offered personally to visit Jerusalem to jump-start talks.  The result was the 1978 Camp David Accords, negotiated with Israel's Menachem Begin with help from US President Jimmy Carter.  Egypt became the first front-line Arab state to sign a treaty with Israel, which has held for over 30 years.  Sadat himself won the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Begin) for his effort, but was vilified in much of the Arab world and Egypt itself was temporarily expelled from the Arab League;

    Assassination of President Sadat, 1981.
  • Death by Assassination:  Finally, in September 1981, Sadat, warned about growing criticism and conspiracy threats, ordered a crackdown on political enemies. His police rounded up some 1,500 critics: Islamists, Christian clerics, and academics and intellectuals of every stripe.  The next month, on September 6, as Sadat sat reviewing a military parade, a small band of dissident officers attacked with grenades and gunfire, killing Sadat and eleven others.  Two of the assassins were killed on the spot, and over 300 Islamic radicals were indicted to stand trial, including future al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman el-Zawahiri.
It is now thirty years since these events, and during that entire time Egypt has had just one ruler, President Hosni Mubarak.  Uner Mubarak, Egypt has remained stable politically (and cooperative with the US on key foreign policy initiatives) but at the cost of economic stagnation and political repression.  The resulting wide anger against him is visible in the huge protests this week.  All the world wonders - If Mubarak falls, what will follow?

This brings me back to Anwar El Sadat.  Sadat was controversial, loved and hated, and certainly had flaws by any view.  Still, as a leader, be carried himself with dignity,  moderation, and competence.  At home, he instituted pluralist politics and economic reforms, and had the backbone to take bold stands. He expelled Soviet military advisers in order to make his army more independent, then proved its worth in the Yom Kippur War.   Globally, he reached out to all sides, East and West, making his country a top payer on the world stage.

The fact is, over the centuries, Egypt, with its ancient culture, diverse population, and deep-rooted institutions, has produced many capable leaders, and today's Egyptian army -- by all accounts trusted by the people -- appears an incubator of new talent.  Hopefully, in days and weeks to come, Egypt will struggle through its current turmoil and emerge a stronger, happier, freer place.  Rather than fear the likely change, we in the West can take confidence that this is the same country that elevated to its top position someone of the caliber of Anwar El Sadat.  Hopefully, there are others waiting in the wings.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Guest Blogger: James J. Patterson celebrates Thomas Paine, American founding troublemaker - "Citizen Paine Heads for the Colonies"

Thomas Paine, drawn by Roger Davidson, from The New Humanist, June 2009. Click here.  
London, 1774.   An interpretation.

Thomas Paine, 37 years old, was in trouble. He was in a boatload of trouble. He had written a pamphlet (surprise, surprise) criticizing the Crown's excise tax collecting system, and guess what - it wasn’t well received. He asked his friends what in the world he was going to do and to a man they said something like, “I don’t know what you should do, but try and stay the hell away from me!”

In London, a scientist friend and member of the Excise Board said, “I can’t help you either but perhaps you should go see a man from the American Colonies living here, maybe he can suggest something. oh yeah, and don’t call me, I’ll call you!”

Scholarship is iffy about where and how Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin actually met. Howard Fast, in his wonderful novel and stage play, Citizen Tom Paine, suggested they met in Franklin’s office. But hey, Fast was under investigation by Senator Joe McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee, and may have been loath to suggest the obvious, that they met in a pub. At least that’s where I put them first shaking hands.
Ben Franklkn, seen here playing his
invention, the glass harmonica.. 

In any event, the conversation between Franklin and Paine was a short one.

Franklin: I know you, you're Tom Paine, I read your pamphlet on the tax. Nice job, on the pamphlet, I mean. I’m a bit of a printer myself.

Paine: Thanks, but I think I may be in a bit of a pickle.

Franklin: Well if you’re referring to your future here in England, I feel it’s safe to say - you don’t have one.

 Paine: WTF am I gonna do?

Franklin: Well, you can stay here and spend the rest of your now very short life in irons, sick, diseased, and starving to death, or maybe they’ll just lop off your head. But the King usually likes to set an example with his felons, heretics, and seditious types, such as yourself, so he’ll probably let his boys have some fun with you first. Disembowelment is all the rage. I understand the Royal Carver is pretty handy w a rusty blade.

Paine: I was really hoping for something a little more, upbeat.

Franklin: Well, in that case, here, I’ll write you a couple of letters of introduction. I’ll say you’re a good printer and not bad with a turn of phrase or some such. But you’ll have to cross the pond to Philadelphia for them to do you any good.

Paine: Awesome! I can’t wait to get my ass out of England!

#       #       #

What Happened Next: Tom Paine In Philadelphia, 1774-1776

When Thomas Paine's boat docked in Philly from England late in 1774, he tumbled down the gangplank sick as a dog. A few weeks later he was up and running. He had contacted a few folks recommended by his new pal Ben Franklin, back in England, and was slowly getting the lay of the land. One of his first impressions in his new hometown was, to him, absolutely astonishing! He noticed that in the local pubs, magistrates and bankers, tradesmen and laborers, and even leather and feather clad natives, were gathering under one roof to break bread, quaff tasty beverages, and gab about the events of the day! To you this may not seem much to write home about, but in the world from which Tom Paine had just landed it was nothing short of world shaking! Different classes of people gathering under one roof? Sharing opinions? Where Paine came from, you could fuggeddabouddit!

The next thing he noticed, once his ear adjusted to the lively texture of the lingo, was that the chatter in the pubs had changed from the chest-beating bombast of the "Shot heard 'round the world" in Lexington & Concord to a more plaintive, "Oh, holy crap, Batman! WTF are we gonna do? We just shot and killed some soldiers from the most powerful nation on earth! What are we going to say when they get here? Tell 'em we're sorry? Pay for some extra stamps?" Worried that this new idea of appeasing the Crown might actually be getting some traction, he went home and sat down to write.

Listen, he said, (I'm paraphrasing here) you people don't know who you're dealing with! You're real proud about asserting your independence and shooting a few red coats, but get it through your heads! The British army and navy are on their way, and instead of wondering what your going to say when they get here, you should be thinking very very seriously about how you're going to protect yourselves! Further, Paine used the occasion to administer a minor lesson in contemporary economics. The British Empire, he informed his readers, was broke. Its vast army and navy were costing much more than the empire was bringing in. The taxes and profits from trade with their colonies weren't keeping up with their military machine.  What the British war machine requires isn't your taxes, nor your loyalty, nor the value of your trade. What it requires now is PLUNDER! 

The British GOADED you into firing the first shot! They've been trying to drag you into a fight all along! And once you spilled their blood, they now feel justified to come and put you down once and for all, to rob you of everything you've got! 

Is there a modern term for the syndrome of a child repeating the sins of his or her parents? Think of Paine's observation of the British goading the colonies into a fight when you revisit our own more recent history: The Gulf Of Tonkin, the WMD, the Battleship Maine, and the Spanish American War...

NEXT: America is Born!     --  STAY TUNED.....

Thomas Paine celebrates his 271st birthday on Saturday, January 29.  Think something radical in his honor.  For more on Paine, click here for "Freedom's Foghorn" by Roger Davidson.   And if you have not read Paine's book Common Sense, read it now !!!!!   Get a free copy from our friends at TheCapitol.Net at

James J. Patterson, author of Bermuda Shorts and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishing, describes himself this way: "I'm the man the first ten amendments to the American Constitution were intended to protect.  I've read them, memorized a few even, and I can tell you, until further notice, I'm watching my back."  Read the Bill of Rights.  Visit him at

Roger Davidson, creator of the striking drawing of Paine at the top, is a British illustrator and artist living in Canada.  Visit him at

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thank you, Jacques Cousteau.

It was just 67 years ago, in 1943, that young French Navy captain Jacques Yves Cousteau, working with an industrial engineer named Emile Gagnon, combined a primitive steel high-pressure air tank with a regulator adapted from airplane engines to create the Aqualung, the first Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA).   Cousteau's invention marked a milestone in human history, and prompted for him a lifelong effort to popularize and protect the underwater realm through film, exploration, and his Cousteau Society.

The Blue Hole, seen from the air amid Lighthouse Reef, Belize.
One of the places Cousteau and his Calypso crew discovered and filmed in the 1970s was an obscure geologic wonder in the Caribbean Sea near tiny Belize (then British Honduras) called the Blue Hole.

Surrounded by extremely shallow water amid an atoll called Lighthouse Reef, the Blue Hole -- a vertical cylinder about 1000 feet across -- drops straight down at least 500 feet and, beneath its silt floor, probably several hundred feet more.  Created when dinosaurs still walked on dry land, the Blue Hole began as a cave in which forests of enormous stalactites and stalagmites -- literally 50 feet long and ten feet around -- formed over millions of years.  Then came ice ages and rising sea levels that finally caused the ceiling to collapse.

Today, entering the Blue Hole, a diver follows sheer rock walls down the first 100 feet before entering a chamber that expands outward beneath vaulted ceilings.  Here, swimming amid the ancient rock formations, one can peer out into the vast semi-darkness and see five different species of sharks circling endlessly.  Looking down, the bare walls extend only into darkness.

This past week, on a vacation in Belize, I has the chance to strap on a scuba tank and dive the Blue Hope myself for the first time.  I have been a sport diver since the early 1980s, but have never seen anything quite so awesome and humbling.  Adrenaline runs thick and bottom times go fast at depths of 140 feet.   (A quick plug for the fine local dive operation, Amigos Del Mar, in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize, that took us there.)

This summer, on Viral History, I will introduce you to some of my favorite ocean pioneers from the pre-scuba era who paved the way during the 1800s for Cousteau, Gagnon, and their milestone.  There's nothing better than a good sea story.   For now, I simply say thank you, Jacques Cousteau, for making the beauty, grandeur, and mystery of the ocean accessible, even to amateurs like me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest Blogger: Amy Schapiro on the 89th birthday of civil rights hero Nicholas Katzenbach.

Katzenbach confronting Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace outside the University of Alabama, 1963.  
In the last half of the twentieth century, the United States was transformed by many conflicts. None caused more public outcry than the struggles of the civil rights movement here at home and the bloodshed a world away in Vietnam. One man deeply entwined with both struggles, but often overlooked by history, is Nicholas Katzenbach, who celebrates his 89th birthday today.

For decades the image of this tall, balding government official confronting Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama has come to symbolize the lengths to which Washington would go to desegregate America’s educational institutions.  Katzenbach, then Deputy Attorney General, was dispatched to Alabama by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to challenge the segregationist governor over the integration of the state university.

Nicholas Katzenbach in 1968.

In the midst of a media storm, Katzenbach stood his ground, ensuring that James Hood and Vivian Malone, two African-American students seeking entrance into this historically white university, were registered.

Among the throngs who watched this encounter unfold was a 12-year-old boy. As he later said, “1963 was a good year, the Dodgers beat the Yankees. I was 12, I was becoming aware of a lot going on, and seeing Katzenbach with Wallace sparked my interest.”

“I remember wondering who is a Deputy Attorney General (DAG) and looked it up in the encyclopedia to find out. I’m not sure if I found it there, but I remember learning that the DAG was essentially the Vice President of the Department of Justice.” Thirty years later that boy, Eric Holder,  became Deputy Attorney General. Today he serves as the first African American Attorney General in American history.  Little could Eric Holder have known then that he would assume the same positions as Katzenbach, both as DAG and later Attorney General, or that Vivian Malone, one of the two students who integrated the University of Alabama, would be his future sister-in-law.

Katzenbach’s focus as both Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General was on passage of civil rights legislation and its enforcement. Without enforcement, the law would be hollow. Katzenbach was the rare person who was trusted by both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, it was Katzenbach who succeeded Kennedy as Johnson’s Attorney General. Although RFK and LBJ despised each other, they both, at different times, came to rely on Katzenbach to advise, shape, and move legislation forward.

When Katzenbach was not putting out fires in the field, he was busy navigating the legislative minefield and the pressure of civil rights activists to secure the codification of equal rights for all Americans.
 As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., and his great strides in changing the fabric of our society, let's also remember Nicholas Katzenbach who today, January 17, celebrates his 89th birthday. 

Happy Birthday.

Amy Schapiro is writing a biography of Nicholas Katzenbach entitled, Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach to be published by the University of Alabama.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Coming in February: For Obama, how NOT to be a one term president.

President Barack Obama: Comeback Kid, or starting the long slide down?

Here at Viral History, President's Day is an obsession.  It lasts all month !!!

First, we'll have a surprise Guest Blogger to celebrate Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday.  Don't miss it.  Mark your calendar for February 11.  (Click here.)
One-termer Rutherford Hayes.  Don't be like him.

Then, all month, we'll  look at Role Models for Barack Obama to Avoid: six one-term presidents and the blunders that cost them the White House.
Two years into his term, having survived a self-described "shellacking" in mid-term elections, Obama  stands at a cross
 roads.  He can build on his success in the recent lame duck Congress and good reviews of his Arizona speech to make himself a new "comback kid."  Or he can continue a long slide into decline. 

How to avoid the latter?  Each of the six presidents listed below shared with Obama the same initial flurry of public good will.  Each, when elected, came respected as a talented, well-intentioned, high-toned man with good pedigree and high expectations.   

Yet, within four years, each managed to fumble the ball: 

  • John Quincy Adams (1825-1829);
  • Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881);
  • William Howard Taft (1909-1913);  (Click here for the first three.)
  • Herbert Hoover (1929-1933);  
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-1981); and
  • George H. W. Bush (1989-1993).

In February, we will present snapshots of these six (in fact, all eleven one-term losers) to see what went wrong and what Obama could learn.   

All that, plus plenty of faces, cartoons, and the usual fare.  Hope to see you here.  We value your clicks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Politics: On Obama's budget battle, advice from Machiavelli.

Nicolo Machiavelli, the original "budget hawk," author of The Prince.
Here's some quick advice for President Barack Obama, from someone who knows  politics--

For Obama, the new year 2011 promises a specular early fight with newly-swaggering Republicans on Capitol Hill over US government spending.  As soon as early March (when the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and government-funding Continuing Resolution both expire), Obama will face ultimatums from Republicans demanding massive, perhaps draconian budget cuts, backed by threats to shut down the government, default on US bonds, or worse.   If Obama gives in, liberals will hate him.  If he refuses, the country could suffer.

What should a President do -- or a Prince -- faced by such blackmail?

This issue of government spending is old -- very, very, very old.  Two thousand years ago, Emperors in ancient Rome curried favor with the mob by serving them bread and a circus.  Government-funded "social safety nets" are a 20th century invention, but even in 15th century Italy, local kings and warlords agonized over whether to shower their people with bribes and gifts to make themselves popular, or to pinch their pennies for a rainy day.

Nicolo Machiavelli, the great political maven, spoke directly to this point in his classic portrait of 1520s Italian hard-ball politics, The Prince.  To Machiavelli, to answer was clear: pinch your pennies:  
  • "[A] prince thus inclined [to spend lavishly on his subjects] will consume in such acts all his property, and will be compelled in the end, if he wish to maintain the name of liberal, to unduly weigh down his people, and tax them, and do everything he can to get money."

Sound familiar?  Generous spending, leading to expectations for more spending, leading to high taxes, leading to resentments all around?

  • "This will soon make him odious to his subjects, and becoming poor he will be little valued by any one."

Better to be a miser.

To Machiavelli, rather than spend his Kingdom into poverty, a Prince was better off to be a miser.  Not only was it cheaper, but it will actually made him more popular:

  • "[A] prince... if he is wise he ought not to fear the reputation of being mean.  In this end, people would respect him....   [F]or in time he will come to be more considered than if liberal, seeing that with his economy his revenues are enough, that he can defend himself against all attacks, and is able to engage in enterprises without burdening his people.... [H]e exercises liberality towards all from whom he does not take, who are numberless, and meanness towards those to whom he does not give, who are few."

And today? 

Barack Obama's 21st century post-industrial America is a far cry from Machiavelli's pre-Enlightenment cloak-and-dagger Renaissance Italy.  Governments today no longer stand aside and let people sink in bad economies.  Still, the point remains:  What would Machiavelli do, confronted by Republicans today demanding budget cuts?  What would he advise Obama?

Certainly, he'd tell Obama to never show weakness -- always dangerous then and now.  But I think he'd also tell him this:  Seize the budget-cutting mantle for yourself.  Steal the Republican's issue, put your own stamp on addressing out-of-control spending, and take credit.  Be more like the miserly Prince (or at least a 21st century progressive version thereof), popular and rich at the same time.

Click here to see Machiavelli's full chapter on the issue.  It's a good quick read.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Politics: Congress' game of Budget Chicken. Does it matter? Yes!!!

Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich before closing the government in 1995.
Remember how they played "chicken" back in the 1950s?  Two guys in hot-rod cars drove toward a cliff.  The first to jump out was Chicken.  His friends all laughed.  Click here to see how it played out in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause.   Notice how the winner got to celebrate by being killed while his friends drank beer.  

James Dean with Corey Allen before
Allen drives off a cliff in Rebel Without a Cause.

What a perfect game for politicians: pointless, self-destructive, with big headlines.  Not surprisingly, playing chicken with American finance has become a favorite sport of the US Congress.  And  2011 seems destined for a spectacular crash, with a choice of two on-rushing cliffs to drive off:

  • First, on March 4, the Continuing Resolution (CR), the law that funds most of the US federal government, expires.  This is no accident: Republicans last December insisted on the short fuse. Unless the CR is extended or replaced, the government must shut down that day.  

  • Second, in late March, the Debt Ceiling, which limits the total amount of money the Federal Treasury can borrow -- set last year at $14.3 trillion -- is scheduled to be reached.  Since Treasury borrowing is needed not just to fund the government but also to replace expiring bonds and pay interest, failure to raise the ceiling could cause the US government to default on its bills.  
Government shut downs?  Defaults?   The last time Washington shut down was in 1995 when then-House Speaker Newt Ginrgich insisted then-President Bill Clinton accept a list of spending cuts, which Clinton refused.   For a full week as the polticians jockeyed, offices closed, benefit checks froze, and national parks and monuments went dark.  The public cringed at the whole futile exercise.  As for defaulting on bonds, the US government has never done this in its entire 213-year history (with a partial exception in 1933 when FDR eliminated the "gold clause" in US obligations, allowing debt paid in paper currency.( Click here to see Alex Pollock's take on this from the American Spectator. )

US "full faith and credit" -- its commitment to pay bills -- is enshrined in the Constitution as the basis of our national ability to borrow.  It is as close to sacrosanct as anything in finance, and the only thing that separates us from Greece and Ireland in the eyes of lenders.

So why are Congressmen and Senators -- particularly Republicans of the Tea Party stripe -- threatening once again today to play chicken with America's global fiscal standing by refusing the raise the debt ceiling or extend the CR?   Is it really just simple, self-serving, annoying politics-as-usual?   

Take a look at this chart:  It shows the US national debt since 1940, in constant dollars.  Notice the explosions starting in 1980 (Reagan tax cuts), in 2002 (Bush tax cuts plus two wars), and the near-vertical climb since 2007 (Wall Street financial melt-down).  Today, US debt is nearly 80 percent of our gross domestic product.   Almost nodoby disagrees that, unless reversed soon and sharply, this trend threatens to swamp our economy, our national security, and our future. 

For years,  politicians have gabbed about cutting the debt, but almost never do anything about it.  Just last month, President Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell negotiated a tax cut deal increasing the debt by a projected $900 billion in two years, while solemnly promising to "get serious" about the debt "next year."  The fact is, nothing can be done to save money in Washington -- not spending cuts, not taxes increases -- unless some politician on one side or the other agrees to surrender. 

He or she has to agree to jump out of his car and be called "chicken."  And unless the car is careening toward a cliff, nobody will jump.

This is why, as much as I hate to admit it, the Tea Party crowd has a point.  IF the goal really is to force Washington to do something serious about the debt, then playing chicken with the CR and Debt Ceiling is a bold way to do it.  Presumably, the Republicans will refuse to relent until Obama agrees to big spending cuts. And then, their egos protected, a few of them will jump from the car and let everyone avoid the crash.

If Obama refuses, the government will close or default on its bonds.  Or, if Obama reciprocates, using the Tea Party gambit as an excuse to put forward his own set of perhaps-more-reasonable cuts and modest revenue enhancers, all sides could walk away with a victory.

This is a dangerous game.  Remember James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.  His rival, Corey Allen, got his sleeve jammed in the car door and, as a result, when he needed to jump, he couldn't.  Off the cliff he flew.  So too could Obama or the Tea Party if they play this wrong, and the big loser will be the US economy.  Knowing when to jump, when to refuse, and how to open the door, are key.

Have we really come to this?  I've given up on trying to find the adults.  Let's just hope the children don't burn down the house.