Two Glorious Failures

George and Stan were born a few months apart in 1922 only to die a few days apart some ninety years later.  Both distinguished themselves after emerging from inauspicious upbringings, George in Avon, SD and Stan in Akron, OH.  Though they were widely admired, neither grabbed the big, brass ring atop their notable achievements.  Less noteworthy were the two times they met this writer, once as their stars were on the rise and, 35 years later, when they were setting.

George McGovern was one of a half-dozen senators I interviewed in March of 1968 for my senior thesis on The Congressional Role in Determination of U.S. Policy in Indochina since 1945.  Rocked by the one-two punch in early ’68 – the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and the surprisingly strong challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary – President Lyndon Johnson was about to shock the country on the final day of March by announcing that he would not stand for reelection. 

A highly decorated WWII bomber pilot, McGovern had 35 B-24 missions under his belt when he stepped on to the Senate floor in 1963 as a freshman to question America’s role in Vietnam. He did not, however, vote along with the two sole dissenters, Morse and Gruening, against the Tonkin Bay Resolution because, he told me, he did not believe that it gave LBJ a blank check to escalate the war in Vietnam.  And he did not join Morse and others in voting to defund the war, until sponsoring such legislation in 1971. 

I asked McGovern in his Senate office on March 27, “Why do you think McCarthy took up the fight against Johnson?”

Speaking in a slow drawl flat as the High Plains, his upper lip perpetually drawn above his teeth as if wincing, McGovern recounted how the Dump Johnson organizers had first approached him after Bobby Kennedy declined to take up the challenge.  “But I didn’t think LBJ could be ousted, and I was up for re-election, so I sent them down to see Gene.”  The Minnesota Senator’s 42% showing against the sitting President’s 49.6% in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state on March12 shook things up big time.  Four days later an opportunistic RFK finally jumped into the race.    

But it proved no easy task to shake McCarthy and his dedicated supporters, like myself.  In late May, I booked out of high school for Oregon to catch McCarthy’s 44% to 38% primary win over Kennedy.  RFK was assassinated a week later right after claiming victory in California.  Even though McCarthy commanded a 39%-31% lead over Kennedy in total primary results, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with meager 2% of the votes, racked up the vast majority of delegates from non-primary states.

Two weeks before the tumultuous ’68 Chicago convention, McGovern stepped into the mix, claiming the mantle of Kennedy supporters in a last ditch effort to purportedly head off Humphrey’s nomination.  The only upshot of this move was to tick off McCarthy supporters like myself.  When he ran as the Democratic nominee against President Richard Nixon in ‘72, I expressed my on-going ire by voting for Baby Doctor Benjamin Spock.  It hardly mattered; McGovern suffered the second worst drubbing in history.

Stanford Ovshinsky, father of photovoltaic solar panels and hybrid car batteries, liked to say that “the periodic table is my tool box….  I know how to put elements together so they respond to one another to get new mechanisms, new phenomenon.  I see patterns where others see a maze.”  The 1950’s semiconductor world of crystalline structures based on a rigid latticework of atoms was counterintuitive to Ovshinsky.  He charged thin films of amorphous materials which instantaneously reconfigured into semi-crystalline forms capable of carrying significant current at a fraction of the cost of conventional semiconductors. 

I asked Ovshinsky in 1976 about a biometric device that some colleagues and I were developing for autonomic conditioning.  Employing a cholesteric rather than nematic liquid crystal of the kind more commonly used in pocket calculator displays was, indeed, the way to go he observed.  He graciously agreed to be referenced on the principle that thermotropic characteristics of liquid crystals could display actionable feedback of vasodilation/constriction in mitigating migraines. 

Our paths crossed once again in 2007 at New York Institute of Technology which presented Ovshinsky that school’s first Leadership in Sustainable Technology Award.  The genius inventor without the college degree told the collegians to “never stop going to your own school.”  Sharing knowledge was a driving impulse for Stan, and NYIT’s Solar Decathletes were at the receiving end.  Strip the carbon out of hydrocarbon, said the self-taught, practical tinkerer, and go straight to the pure hydrogen burn by developing mechanisms to first solidify then liquefy this 100% clean fuel.

Not everyone was so smitten with Ovshinsky.  In one of its characteristic hatchet jobs, Forbes called him “the puppetmaster of this long-running farce” whose company, Energy Conversion Devices, “may deserve a place in the Guinness Book of World Records” for losing money in 36 of its 40 publicly-traded years.  Never mind all the joint ventures with the likes of GM, Intel, Chevron and Canon licensing many of his 400 U.S. and 800 international patents which generated hundreds of millions; Ovshinsky never really saw cash infusions as anything more than a lifeline for compelling science.  Just months before his passing, Stan Ovshinsky’s company filed for bankruptcy after over a half-century of innovation that enriched the rest of us. 

George McGovern wasn’t much of a businessman either.  After my family and I crisscrossed Big Sky country back in ’03, we stopped in at McGovern’s in the Bitter Root Valley.  Nominally a bookstore, it was really more of an archival homage to his public service .  Lunching at a nearby pub, I asked George about his bed & breakfast which went belly-up, but I didn’t ask him to compare and contrast with running the United States of America.   I did ask how a non-combatant like Nixon got away with tarring a war hero like McGovern with chicken feathers. 

“The problem with guys like Nixon and Reagan and Bush is they got it wrong,” George responded.  “They are soft-minded and tough-hearted when you need to be the other way around.”

From Watergate to Occupy Wall Street

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

This column appears in the March 22nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

“It’s a mess.” This was the sentiment offered by Bob Woodward at a Hofstra University luncheon on Tuesday when asked to describe the current political environment. After his flight was delayed by fog in New York for the better part of the morning, Woodward was late in joining the other half of the famous Woodward and Bernstein duo at the podium in the University Club. The hour prior to his arrival was the Carl Bernstein show as he regaled the packed room of attendees with stories of their travails in journalism during a road show marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate affair.

The luncheon was part of a series of high-profile political events Hofstra is hosting for the student body, as well as the greater Long Island community, culminating in the second presidential debate to be held there this fall. For his part, Bernstein was also chagrined at the state of politics today and his anecdotes were didactic in this regard. He broke through the haze of mythology that over time has shrouded the Watergate story and boiled it down to the simple premise that no one is above the law and the entire system of democracy must function properly in order for this notion to be upheld. It was the latter sentiment that hung in the air like the fog that had held Woodward at bay on the tarmac for hours.

Time has benefitted both men by allowing them to evaluate Watergate through the backward lens of history. Stepping away from their youthful selves (they were in their late twenties when they broke the story that catapulted them to the top of their newspaper careers), they even reevaluated some of their own beliefs such as the pardoning of Richard Nixon by his VP/successor Gerald Ford, a move that arguably cost him the election to Jimmy Carter. Bernstein recalled telephoning Woodward early that morning in 1974, saying “the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” What he once viewed as ignominious Bernstein now considers magnanimous as Ford believed this was the best way to heal the nation from its “long nightmare,” no matter the consequences to his presidency.

Subtle reflections and anecdotes aside, the afternoon offered a glimpse into the thoughts of two devout Washington insiders who have witnessed a sea change in American politics. To be clear, these are not two old curmudgeons touting the “things ain’t what they used to be” line. They deftly fielded questions about new media and the surge of information as well as our ability to process the constant onslaught of news and commentary today. And while they were genuinely hopeful that their efforts four decades ago could be replicated by today’s reporters, they were less sanguine about whether the political climate existed to allow journalism to flourish and find its natural audience.

The men who brought down one of the most toxic administrations in American history were lamenting the toxic state of today’s political environment. That’s pretty terrible.

Bernstein spoke eloquently about the support their reporting received from The Washington Post but was careful to point out that the entire democratic machine had to function properly at every stage of the investigation in order to yield the historic results that it did. From the judicial system that forced President Nixon to hand over his personal tapes to the legislative branch that carried the articles of impeachment against the president, to the protection afforded the journalists in shielding their sources, democracy in all of its glory won the day. But Bernstein argued that it was the people who ultimately played the most critical role in judging the Nixon presidency as even staunch supporters of Nixon and the Republican Party were open enough to review the facts before them and draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately, partisanship among the elected and the electorate was cast aside for the greater good.

Bernstein went on to argue that money has corrupted the political system beyond recognition. He excoriated the Citizen’s United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals in campaigns. Furthermore, he believes the glut and immediacy of information has had the unintended consequence of allowing people to reinforce existing beliefs rather than exposing them to new ideas or multiple sides of a story.
The rancor that exists in Washington is a reflection of this phenomenon, and it has created a vicious cycle of partisanship with politicians pandering to the most extreme elements of our society. It’s mob rule. As to how the system could be fixed, no solutions were offered by either man. Perhaps this is because there are none.

The system is broken and I believe it to be irreparable. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier to build anew than to salvage a diseased and crumbling infrastructure. I’m not being pessimistic here, either. To the contrary, I’m fairly optimistic about our chances because I believe the foundation and principles that have guided us to this point are strong enough to endure the collapse and rebirth of a functioning and more equitable system no matter how painful the process may be. This hope derives from the fact that the older generations are the ones who are fixed in their ways and reinforce their existing belief systems no matter how dangerous or antiquated they are. And quite frankly, the answer to this is rather simple math: They have far less time left on the planet than we do.

It’s true that they have hoarded the world’s money and resources and polluted the Earth. It’s also true that they have left those in my generation and younger to foot the bill for their greed and consumption. They have “engineered” our food and contaminated our water and established a culture of pharmaceutical addiction. They’ve started wars around the globe in the pursuit of oil by blaming bogeymen while selling themselves as false prophets.

Now they have a credibility problem because we no longer believe. And as sure as these are the truths they bequeath to us, so too is the truth that they will all soon be dead. Even the good ones like Woodward and Bernstein cannot escape the inevitable. We can take solace, however, that although we must someday lose them, so too will we rid ourselves of people like the Koch Brothers. Death is funny that way; forever indiscriminate.

The youth of today, such as those in the Occupy movement, are wide awake and watching. Six months ago I didn’t believe this to be the case, but it’s real. So to you, Mr. Bernstein, I offer my thanks and some comfort as you and your venerable collaborator enter the winter of your lives. Your wisdom and work have better prepared us for the long, difficult task ahead.

That 70’s Show

There is no shortage
 of theories as to why Americans are finding themselves staring 
helplessly at rising gas prices, but few of them are real. In fact, much 
of the prevailing wisdom offered by television pundits is false.

He was a relative unknown when he campaigned for president of an America 
that was worn down from foreign intervention, a sick economy and
 Republican rule. His outsider status brought with him a new brand of
 hope that the media devoured allowing his star to rise quickly and shine
 brightly. Upon taking the presidency, however, the beleaguered economy
 stubbornly refused to show signs of life, energy prices rose to 
troubling levels and the Middle East began to spin wildly out of
 control. Things were so bad he even had to step in and bail out an
American car company with government funds.

After only three years, it was all over but for the counting. His star
 faded quickly as the once-media darling became anathema to an
 increasingly conservative American public that spent the last year of 
his term looking for a new “Mr. Right” in every sense.

Such was the fate of Jimmy Carter, who never had a shot at re-election;
 and a good argument can be made that Barack Obama will suffer the same 
fate under nearly identical circumstances.

There is so much involved in the making and unmaking of a president that
 it’s unfair to boil a career down to only a few factors. But in Jimmy
 Carter’s case I believe it is fair to say that three primary issues were
 the undoing of his presidency: the hostage crisis in Iran, stagflation
 and fuel prices at the pump.

Iran wasn’t a military crisis as much as it was an embarrassment to the
United States, though talk of a nuclear Iran was percolating even then.
 Prior meddling in the Middle East came back to haunt us in a situation 
we couldn’t control, with Carter ill-equipped to handle the predicament
 of Americans held hostage in Tehran. Rising oil prices—the result of the 
Iranian revolution in 1979 and the panic that ensued in the trading
 markets—brought about a second shortage within a decade and with it 
hysteria and inflation. This upward pressure from fuel prices in an
 already inflationary environment spurred the Federal Reserve to begin
 chasing inflation with high interest rates.

In his book Currency Wars, James Rickards addresses the impact of 
American monetary policy on the global economy and cites the “50 percent 
decline in the purchasing power of the dollar from 1977 to 1981.” He
 goes on to depict “a world gone mad,” noting that, “A new term, 
’stagflation,’ was used to describe the unprecedented combination of 
high inflation and stagnation happening in the United States.” 
Most people recall the moment when interest rates reached as high as 20 
percent during this period and point to it as the height of insanity
 during the Carter years. In actuality then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker 
under Ronald Reagan did this as a one-time shock to the system.  It was
 done in conjunction with vigorous tax cuts to spark consumer spending, a 
tightening of the monetary policy to strengthen the dollar and the
 latent effect of increased oil production, both domestic and abroad.
 With the exception of the tax cuts, these policies and factors would 
likely have occurred anyway as Volcker was a Carter appointee and it was
 Carter who loosened the valve on domestic oil production. Furthermore,
 Reagan would go on to reverse many of these initial tax cuts in a way 
that would make conservatives and Tea Party activists blush today.
 Either way, Jimmy Carter was a victim of pitiful economic circumstances 
that will forever be his legacy in the White House.

Rickards draws some comparisons between the ’70s and today, most notably
 deriding Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s actions of Quantitative 
Easing, a fancy name for printing money—the same currency devaluation
 scheme employed by Nixon—calling them “runaway fiscal and monetary 
policies, which were flooding the world with dollars and causing global
 inflation in food and energy prices.”

This is an interesting point to hang on for a bit. There is no shortage
 of theories as to why Americans are finding themselves staring 
helplessly at rising gas prices, but few of them are real. In fact, much 
of the prevailing wisdom offered by television pundits is false. It’s
 not Obama’s refusal to “drill baby drill” or increased demand from 
China. It’s not Libya or Iran, either. It’s the abundance of liquidity 
in the markets matched with the ability of investment banks, hedge funds
 and oil companies to trade energy futures on commodities exchanges
 without any limits or transparency. And this is the result of 30 years
of deregulation beginning with Carter and continuing through Obama.

Before the commodities exchanges were deregulated there were few safe 
places to “park” excess capital during volatile periods. Today these
 exchanges are the perfect shelters for investors with excess liquidity
 because many of them are allowed to stand on all sides of the 
transaction. An investor such as an investment bank or an oil company 
can be the buyer, seller, broker and manufacturer, and can therefore
more easily predict the future behavior of pricing by both forecasting 
the future price of a commodity it owns while moving the market with
 enormous capital infusions. It’s more than the ultimate hedge. It’s a
 scam.

With a crisis brewing in Iran, the markets and pundits are once again in 
a tizzy, and consumers are bracing for the worst. This brings us to what 
might be the nail in Barack Obama’s coffin: inflation.
 When fuel prices rise, even for a brief period, it shows up within
 months in our food and other consumables. It’s a necessary evil in the
 production of nearly everything we consume on the planet, which is why
 it’s so utterly dangerous to leave the process of trading energy futures 
unregulated. Oil doesn’t have to reach $200 per barrel to destroy any
 hope of economic recovery and, worse, force mass starvation around the
 globe.

If the price is sustained at $100-plus per barrel without relief
 while we continue to suppress interest rates and flood the market with
 the dollar, Bernanke and Co. will have difficulty stemming the natural
 tide of inflation as it works its way around the globe in the things we
 buy and the food we eat.
 Bernanke’s announcement that the Fed will continue to artificially 
suppress interest rates through 2014 and the government’s steadfast
 refusal to implement any reasonable regulation in the markets is a 
self-fulfilling prophecy as investors continue to seek safe harbor for
 their funds in the only market they have any ability to control. This
 will prevent any crash in oil prices that would naturally occur, as we
 witnessed in 2008 when oil hit $147 per barrel then plummeted shortly
 thereafter.

Further fracture in relations with Iran and high oil prices 
will also crush any hopes the European Union has of recovery. And with 
the determined stance that austerity is the EU’s chosen path to
 prosperity, the United States faces the additional problem of having its 
No. 1 consumer of U.S. exports absolutely cash-strapped and constricting
 even further.
 Barack Obama’s re-election hopes are really a matter of timing more than 
anything because the conclusions above are simply common sense and
 arithmetic.

Any chance he had to calm this gathering storm has already
 passed, leaving him at the mercy of the global markets, which are
 teetering on a gigantic bubble. His oratory and confidence are outgunned
 by a conservative media machine pouring on the pressure by falsely 
blaming his energy policy for high oil prices and stoking the fire with
 Iran, thus creating all the necessary traps for his demise. Even if he 
were able to truly force real change in the oversight of the financial
 markets, it would spook Wall Street and could incite panic. And any 
attempt to quiet the saber-rattling between Washington and Tehran would
 make him appear weak compared to a bloodthirsty slate of GOP opponents.

Obama’s only option is to pray the storm doesn’t touch down between now
 and Nov. 6. If it does, instead of occupying the White House in January, 
he’ll be building houses with Jimmy Carter, while Mitt Romney tries to 
figure out where to park all of Anne’s Cadillacs.

Doth We Protest Too Little?

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”

On the very day alt-press publisher, Jed Morey, was covering “Occupy Wall Street” insurgents in lower Manhattan, I was taking a meet at a major bank nearby.  While an early morning text from Jed alerted me to the “Anonymous” event, the bank folks were alerting me to potential traffic jams engendered by the 66th convening of the UN General Assembly.  The NYPD so effectively contained and marginalized the protests that I had to wait on YouTube coverage to check it out.  Just as well.  Reminding the “99%” that they’re being had by the privileged 1% is a sharp message, but the rag-tag brigade from Liberty Square crying for attention aren’t the most effective messengers. (At Right – Mark Rudd, leading the takeover of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in 1968)

My forbearers have long challenged authority and questioned conventional wisdom.  Back in 1954, with impending defeat of the French at the hands of the Viet Minh, my grandfather, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army, wrote, “It seems highly doubtful whether U.S. intervention would ever be able to hold Indochina.”  As he was born in western Sumatra, he had a better handle on Southeast Asia than most Americans and passed that understanding along to his off-spring. 

So it was in 1965, at age fifteen, I found myself at my first Vietnam rally in the old Madison Square Garden.  Among the keynoters, were famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock, Coretta Scott King and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of only two members of Congress to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which Lyndon Johnson used as a blank check to escalate the conflict.  Bayard Rustin, who had organized the landmark Civil Rights march on Washington in ’63, challenged the Garden crowd of 18,000: “We must stop meeting indoors and go out into the streets.” 

A few thousand of us took up the challenge and started wending our way from 50th & 8th down through the Theatre District and over to the UN.  Filing across seedy 42nd Street in the dark of night, big, beefy red-neck types yelled, “Commies, love it or leave it!”  My 5’3” mother was accompanying me and, with a mouth that made truckers blush, dished dirtier than she got, scaring the be-Jesus out me and the red-necks too, it seemed.  It hardened me for events to come. 

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”  Participants were definitely hairier than earlier peaceniks, but the DC police remained chilled, in stark contrast to the Chicago police riot at the Democratic convention the year before.

The following year I moved from protest to an “environmental teach-in,” helping to organize the first Earth Week.  We drew support from across the board with some sixty corporate sponsors such as GE, Rohm&Hass, Scott Paper and Bell Tel.  At the feel-good culmination in Phillie’s Fairmont Park, Senator Ed Muskie, sponsor of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 delivered the keynote and the cast of “Hair” sang “Hello Carbon Monoxide.”  By the end of the year, Richard Nixon, perhaps as a tactical diversion from other deeds, created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Right now, if you go around the country,” Tom Steyer said upon receiving the 2011 Rage for Justice Award, “the fight is about the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment.”  Rage for Justice Award is not brought to us by the Day of Rage folks who Occupied Wall Street but from Consumer Watchdog who “expose rip-offs and injustice.”  And Tom Steyer is not your usual activist, but a billionaire hedge fund manager.  He received the award in recognition of facing down the gas-producing Koch brothers and their Texas oil brethren who attempted, in 2010, with Proposition 23, to overturn AB 32 that has turned California into the beacon of the clean energy economy.

“They we’re in a situation where they [Koch bros] were going to make a bet about protecting their bottom line,” Steyer said.  “So it was always a risk/reward bet the way businesses work.  So if they started to get behind that meant that the risks were higher and the reward less likely to pursue the fight.  So that, in a funny way, it’s like being in a fight with a bully.  You know that if you can ever get him scared, he’ll quit.

 “We view the environmental fight as something where the message is really important and the messenger is really important.  We believe that if people are going to understand it, they are not only going to have to hear something true, they’re going to have hear it from someone they trust.”

In the battle against Prop 23, Steyer was aligned with former Marine captain George Schultz who held four cabinet posts under Nixon and Reagan.  In the posturing over tax misrepresentation, Obama finally invoked Warren Buffet’s year-old call to tax the very rich.  While guerilla street theater can be tippingly pointed, establishment messengers of principle will likely gain far more traction in today’s America.  Which is why this 60s organizer found himself at a big bank during the Occupation of Wall Street looking for ways to make energy efficiency pencil out.