Blind Ambition

The Book of the Week is “Blind Ambition, The White House Years” by John Dean, published in 1976.

Investigations of politicians accused of wrongdoing at the highest level of the U.S. government, are complicated, because officials must at least make a pretense of complying with due process.

There is document gathering and analysis, subpoenas that compel witnesses to testify, endless debates on various interpretations of various sources of laws pertaining to the federal government, etc.; not to mention the most important aspect of the whole kit and caboodle: public relations! Plus, nowadays, the media and social media keep the constant barrage of inane comments coming.

In fact, there ought to be a board game, “Survival Roulette” that tests players’ ability to weasel out of legal trouble through shaping public opinion using claques, flacks, sycophants and attorneys.

Of course, Survival Roulette could be tailored to the Nixon White House; it could be the Politician Edition. The game could be structured like Monopoly, with players rolling dice and moving pieces onto spaces that describe financial crimes, illegal-surveillance crimes and damage-control speeches. The most famous space could be “Go To Jail” and there could also be “Cash In Political Favors.” The ultimate winner could be Rich Little.

In the Tabloid Celebrity Edition, the object of the game is to become the ultimate winner, Marc Rich. Other players (the losers) end up as other notorious figures who face different punishment scenarios: Jimmy Hoffa, Jeffrey Epstein, O.J., Bernie Madoff, Bill Cosby and Martha Stewart. The board spaces could describe financial crimes, sex crimes, violent crimes, and social media postings.

The Teenage Edition could feature more recent celebrities– simply spreading vicious rumors about them, rather than confirmed offenses– like in the case of Dakota Fanning.

In Survival Roulette: Politician Edition, John Dean could be one of the worse losers. He was one of various attorneys and consultants who: a) aided and abetted President Richard Nixon’s nefarious attempts to wreak vengeance on his political enemies (whom Nixon believed were revolutionaries and anarchists who used dirty tricks on him in the 1968 presidential election) and b) help Nixon keep his job as president (which Nixon believed was to play God).

In the summer of 1970, Dean’s career took a leap from the Justice Department up to the President’s side, as one of his legal advisors. He thought of his new department as a law firm, so he solicited legal work in all practice areas to make it grow; it did, to five people.

Dean quickly began to feel uneasy about his new position, even though it carried luxurious perks. The White House was fraught with politically incorrect goings-on. There was friction with various federal agencies, such as the FBI.

The FBI was dominated by J. Edgar Hoover, whom it was thought, possessed the means to blackmail the administration. He supposedly had evidence that the president had ordered the secret wiretapping of both the media and leakers on his staff.

As became well known, such wiretapping turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Nixon recorded himself— every conversation he ever had in the White House! He had listening devices planted to spy on protestors against the Vietnam War, and his other political enemies, which appeared to be almost infinite in number.

Nowadays, the equivalent would be a “loose cannon” with hubris syndrome, addicted to: Tweeting / posting on Facebook but keeping a private profile / texting and emailing, who didn’t destroy his electronic devices.

In July 1971, Dean encountered his first major ethical conflict. He felt obligated to appeal to presidential aide John Ehrlichman to restrain Special Counsel Chuck Colson from orchestrating a break-in to steal Pentagon-Papers documents at the offices of the Brookings Institution. Nonetheless, Dean did sic the IRS on Brookings, and suggested that its contracts with the Nixon administration be cancelled.

Dean got so caught up in the excitement of helping the president get reelected in 1972 that he proposed expanding the collection of intelligence, which was already sizable. Yet he was also disturbed by reelection-committee director G. Gordon Liddy’s crazy plots to steal the 1972 election via burglary, spying, kidnapping, etc.

Dean attempted to remain willfully ignorant of Liddy’s actions thereafter so that he would have the defense of plausible denial in the future. However, after the Watergate break-in June 1972, he rationalized that he was protected by the attorney-client relationship and executive privilege.

One meta-illegality of the coverup of the administration’s various, serious crimes involved the distribution of hush money to hundreds of people who knew too much. By the late summer of 1972, seven individuals were found to have committed the Watergate break-in. Nixon basically said in his communications to the world that those perpetrators were the only ones responsible for that incident, which he claimed was an isolated one. Of course it wasn’t.

The president’s men held their breaths and crossed their fingers counting down to re-election day, as the White House was still the target of inquiries, and a party to legal skirmishes with the FBI, Department of Justice, Congress, the General Accounting Office and journalists. Immediately after election day, Nixon ordered a Stalin-style purge (merely job termination, actually) of all sub-Cabinet officers he had previously appointed.

As the palace intrigue continued into late 1972, Dean, through his own research, learned that he himself could be criminally liable for obstruction of justice. He would inevitably be forced to choose between betraying his colleagues (who hadn’t been all that friendly to him) or perjuring himself to save others insofar as it helped save his own hide.

A true “prisoner’s dilemma” existed among the several indicted bad actors. No one would receive immunity for tattling on the others, but no one knew of any deals made with prosecutors except their own.

Dean wrote of early spring of 1973: “He [Nixon] is posturing himself, I thought– always placing his own role in an innocuous perspective and seeking my agreement… The White House was taking advantage of its power, and betting that millions of people did not wish to believe a man who called the president a liar.”

Read the book to learn the details.

The Code

The Book of the Week is “The Code, The Evolution of Secrecy From Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography” by Simon Singh, published in 1999. This book described a few different contexts in which communications needed to be deciphered or kept secret– in war, in determining whether to execute a queen, in learning about life in ancient Egypt and Greece, and in electronic exchanges to prevent theft of identity or assets, or maintain privacy.

The author related not only the details of how the WWII Allies were able to outwit the Germans by learning what they were doing, but also every last technical detail of the code-breaking, which is brain-breaking for most laypeople. But not for cryptography hobbyists.

Anyway, beginning in the early 1930’s for about eight years, a German intelligence agent sold information on his country’s secret communications operations, to a French intelligence agent. The French couldn’t have been bothered with such time-consuming, labor-intensive work that would allow them to intercept encoded military messages to and from Germans.

However, Poland was interested. The French turned it over to the Poles because the latter felt vulnerable to invasion from both sides, from the Soviets and Germans. Fortunately, Poland had a long standing-agreement with France to share such information.

Also, fortunately, the Poles’ lead cryptographer was a genius. But it took even him a year to compile a catalogue of alphabet-letter chain lengths in order to be able to decipher the Germans’ daily messages, whose code was different every day.

In 1938, the Germans added two more scramblers to their existing three, which made code-breaking by foreign intelligence agents, very nearly impossible. So in the summer of 1939, the Poles sent their deciphering equipment to Great Britain, which took over the spying operation.

In early September 1939, the Government Code and Cypher School in Britain hired its own genius, Alan Turing. He invented a setup of structures in which the completing of an electrical circuit would be indicated by a lit bulb when a code was broken. Construction of the contraptions of the top secret operation was completed by summer 1940, but the code-breaking was still agonizingly slow.

Different German contingents, such as the North Africa campaign, the army in Europe, the Luftwaffe, and the navy each had different codes. The navy’s was the hardest to break. But the work was worth doing because it significantly shortened the war by informing the British what the Germans were going to do next.

The Allies’ knowledge of German messages was especially helpful in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was instrumental in the Pacific Theater at Midway– in killing a powerful Japanese admiral in the Solomon Islands.

Eventually, 420 Native Americans of the Navajo tribe conveyed messages on behalf of, and to and from the Americans, because their language was indecipherable to the Japanese.

At this book’s writing, “Diffie, Hellman and Merkle [Americans] have become world famous cryptographers who [allegedly] invented the concept of public-key cryptography while Rivest, Shamir and Adelman [also Americans] have been credited with developing RSA [in 1977], the most beautiful implementation of public-key cryptography.”

However, three different British men conceived of the concept first– by early 1974. They were sworn to secrecy, as it was part of a classified military operation, and computing at the time wasn’t powerful enough to implement their concept. Being Americans, the aforementioned latter trio patented their method, and in 1996, sold their company for $200 million.

Interesting factoids: Cryptanalysts are in greater demand than ever before. The U.S. National Security Agency is still the world’s largest employer of mathematicians.

At this book’s writing, quantum cryptography was the wave of the future in cybersecurity, because it would be absolutely unbreakable. It would use either photon transmission or fiber-optics. The message sender and receiver could see whether there was an interloper because the messages would be altered. A card game– Hanabi– has since been invented, that uses the logic that allows communicators to decipher one another’s messages, while preventing third parties from doing so.

Read the book to learn about Philip Zimmermann (someone whom the National Security Agency viewed as a troublemaker), and the whole kit and caboodle on how codes were historically made and broken, and how messages can be kept secure. Six ways to Sunday.

Just the Funny Parts – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club” by Nell Scovell, published in 2018.

Born in Boston, MA in November 1960, Scovell was the third of five siblings. She became a comedy writer, producer and director in Hollywood.

Scovell wrote of the many issues female writers face in the writers’ room, and in higher-level positions, if they achieve the great feat of actually getting hired in the entertainment industry. For, gender discrimination still persists. Females are still conditioned by society to feel as though the employers are doing them a favor for giving them a job, rather than feeling they deserve it on the merits.

Scovell– by writing an article that prompted truly important discussions on daytime talk shows– made Americans more aware of the fact that for decades, the late-night talk shows had been hiring practically all male writers. She herself had written for Late Show with David Letterman and felt “awkward, confused and demorazlied” due to the male-dominated work environment. She quit of her own accord after a short time.

Scovell said, “But in the real world, awareness more often leads to defensiveness which leads to excuses… you must also be aware that your knee-jerk defensiveness is part of the problem.” Simply saying, “Some of my best friends are female” doesn’t get them equal treatment in the workplace. Which should spark a discussion of gender-related issues of the impeachment brouhaha presently plaguing the U.S. government and the U.S. propaganda community. Which sometimes are the same thing.

First of all, Nancy Pelosi, a female, is the point person for the House of Representatives in connection with the impeachment vote. The way she is portrayed in the media and social media is crucially important to how the public views the whole story, and public opinion can have a tremendous influence on Congress’ activities.

A male Speaker would set a completely different tone– not necessarily intentionally, but simply due to subconscious conditioning by American society. Psychological research has shown that both females and males perceive females in a negative light, but perceive males in a positive light– when asked to comment on a hypothetical someone in a leadership position, having been told the leader’s gender.

As is well known, in 1998, former president Bill Clinton had an impeachment proceeding launched against him for lying under oath about his salacious activities in the Oval Office. That was a male-on-male attack borne of political vengeance. If females had been in the mix (in a major way, leadership-wise), there would have been a different dynamic.

Interestingly, Trump has nicknamed Pelosi, “Nervous Nancy” for a reason. He is trying to razz her to put her at a psychological disadvantage. One of Scovell’s male coworkers said something like that to Scovell when she worked for Letterman, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On another topic, perhaps there is an algorithm for the bad behavior of U.S. presidents. Clinton copied his hero, JFK, who was rumored to have had similar liaisons about thirty-seven years earlier. Trump copied his hero, Ronald Reagan, who was engaged in non-standard foreign policy activities, about thirty-seven years ago.

There must have been some Congress members in Clinton’s administration who fondly remembered JFK. There must be some Congress members in Trump’s administration who fondly remember Reagan. However, the two presidents’ legal situations are a generation apart– have different political, cultural and social backdrops, and have very different sets of facts.

Comparing the troubles of the current American leader with other past leaders isn’t exactly on-point, either. The older generation has seen political turmoil before, so “Have you no decency left” and “I am not a crook” are cliches.

If one is considering emotionally troubling historical events on a continuum pursuant to preventable deaths on one end, and celebrity dramas on the other, the present doesn’t seem so bad.

Younger Americans have no understanding of the Vietnam Era or the genocidal episodes of the 1940’s and 1990’s (!), but they are bombarded with world-shaking “news.” OMG: Elton John was allegedly a witness to Royal-Family child abuse, and Taylor Swift’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was challenging for her.

Right now the political climate is kind of like before the third act of an old-school Broadway play– the audience needs a breather. It is sick of the whole thing. It needs a period of quiet to regroup and assess the situation.

Nevertheless, when the media claims that Pelosi is actually going to resolve the situation, females in the media ought to remind females in Congress not to be intimidated by the males who have conditioned them to be so, and give Trump a nickname.

Anyway, read the book to learn of Scovell’s career ups and downs.

Believer

The Book of the Week is “Believer, My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod, published in 2015. This book is mostly about Axelrod’s role as a political campaign consultant and close aide to Barack Obama.

Born in February 1955 in New York City, the author became passionate about politics at the age of five, when his nanny took him to a political rally for JFK. At nine, he volunteered to assist with RFK’s New York State Senate run.

Axelrod began a career in journalism, covering politics for a number of years. His mother’s cousin introduced him to powerful political figures in Washington, D.C. This gave Axelrod a leg up in co-founding a political consulting firm located in major American cities, serving various mayoral candidates.

In addition to having friendly contacts of all stripes, the best and brightest consultants ought to be extremely well-read in history, politics, psychology, law and economics. Life-experience and cynicism, too, can help with opposition-intelligence and creative messaging.

During the last days of the presidential election in 2008, “[vice-presidential candidate– thought by many to be the presidential candidate– Sarah] Palin ramped up the ferocity of her attacks, to the delight of angry throngs who streamed to greet her… some chanted vile epithets about [presidential candidate Barack] Obama… resented taxes, reviled gun control and eagerly parroted right-wing tripe questioning whether Obama was even a citizen…”

In 2016, it was deja vu all over again, with Donald Trump’s copying Sarah Palin in his targeting and messaging. Trump copied the late president Ronald Reagan too, with his tax cut and also, with taking an active role in foreign policy, some of which for Reagan at least, did not end well. Axelrod commented that performing was Reagan’s forte. However, Obama was not as willing a performer. Trump is neither good at reading scripts nor good at speaking off the cuff.

Unlike Trump, Obama was principled and ideologically-oriented rather than reelection-oriented. He was his own man as much as he could be, given that he was forced into extremely difficult situations. He inherited a slew of problems from his predecessor George W. Bush, including a crashed economy and two wars. In 2009, then-Harvard law professor and bankruptcy specialist, Elizabeth Warren, helped Obama create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Axelrod claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., KY) started the obstructionist attitude in which the party ruling a house of Congress pettily blocks all legislation the opposing party is trying to pass. There have been previous periods of American history in which each side engaged in shenanigans to thwart the other– such as during the impeachment debate surrounding president Andrew Johnson in the 1860’s (!)

However, nowadays, angry and mean-spirited polarization becomes viral at the speed of light, as the easily brainwashed who have access to social media become easily outraged by the finger-pointing hypocrisy, hypocritical finger-pointing, and poison propaganda spewed by one side or the other.

Axelrod wrote, “Fear too often trumps reason.” Read the book to learn about the kinds of situations Trump has reason to fear, and Obama’s campaigns and administration.