Skunk Works

“I asked the Air Force for $30 million, but they had only $20 million to spend in discretionary funds for secret projects by which they bypassed Congressional appropriations procedures.”

The above was written by Ben Rich, head of the Skunk Works– a secret division of military-contractor Lockheed in Burbank, California in summer 1975.

The Book of the Week is “Skunk Works, A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed” by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, published in 1994.

In January 1975, the author, a scientist, helped with projects to build weaponry for the CIA and the U.S. Air Force. At the time, the U.S. government was cutting military spending, as the Vietnam War was ending.

Lockheed was suffering from a bribery scandal, and the longtime head of the Skunk Works was retiring. The out-going executive had contentious relations with Lockheed’s customers, but knew how to manage people building weaponry. The author was promoted to replace him.

In summer 1975, unbeknownst to Lockheed, competitive bidding among military contractors had already started for producing a “stealth” plane; meaning, undetected by radar, that could spy or drop bombs. One military school-of-thought was pushing missiles rather than bombs, because missiles could travel long distances, and required a minimum of military personnel.

As is well known, 1970’s software that powered military planes was extremely primitive. The complex aerodynamics involved in making a plane invisible to radar, requires reverse-engineering– quickly computing billions of bits of information obtained from surveilling the wings of the plane while it’s flying above, and taking photos of or dropping bombs on, enemy territory.

The stealth plane project was “Top Secret” so extraordinary measures had to be taken to keep it quiet; necessitating an alarm system, code-names, pass codes, security clearances, etc. Contractor workers labored around the clock to meet deadlines and budgets, despite numerous setbacks and frustrations. It was ultimately up to American president Jimmy Carter to decide which plane models the military was to build in future years. He did, in June 1977. Nevertheless, it takes eight to ten years for a non-secret plane to be designed, tested, and manufactured. It is even more difficult to estimate how long a secret one will take.

For, more problems arose with the stealth project, including a strike by the machinists’ union in August 1977. From the start, intrusive Air Force, Navy and OSHA inspectors had provided yet other stressful procedures-and -paperwork-and-more-paperwork diversions from the research and development.

August 1979 saw the “competitive” in competitive bidding. Pilots pitted the stealth fighter with high-precision, laser-guided bombs against an existing T-38 plane with Hawk missiles in the Nevada desert. After a July 1980 deadline was missed, finally, in June 1981, the contract-award-winner executed a first test-flight witnessed by government, military and weapons-making leaders from the White House Situation Room and the Tactical Air Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

One aspect of a spy-plane test-flight, is that the plane breaks the sound barrier– faster than the earth rotates, at a speed of, say almost mach 2 or 3– so its vibrations rattle or can break windows of structures on earth. Test flights that have failed have killed pilots, but successful ones have transported pilots cross-country in record time: from San Diego, California to Savannah Beach, Georgia in one hour.

Yes, Americans derive a few benefits and excitement from military toys. However– greedy, power-hungry people who fail to foster international cooperation, continue to argue that it is still necessary for the security of the nation, to build ridiculously expensive, high-tech weaponry that will never be used. The wasted money might be better spent on other budget items.

The author admitted that even during the Cold War, his operation “… almost wrecked our own free enterprise system by chasing after enormously costly technologies that were simply beyond our creative grasp …We spent a hell of a lot of money in deception and very little in behalf of worthwhile technology.”

Read the book to learn: how the author harnessed his and his underlings’ knowledge and experience in personnel management, physics, chemistry, aerodynamics, engineering, economics, contract-law and various other disciplines to stay on top of the juggling act that was his job; a wealth of additional information on the research and development of high-tech planes (including the tortuous ways they were paid for, and by whom; and how, with the knowledge gained in developing one of the spy planes– the Challenger disaster could have been averted).

Eyewitness to Power – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Eyewitness to Power, The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton” by David Gergen, published in 2000.

The author, who worked in various capacities in four presidential administrations, wrote about the components that comprise the best presidential leadership. He drew upon theories and comparisons of historians and political scientists in crafting his arguments.

One other kind of source he could have used more often, was numerous personal accounts such as his own, written by insiders– permanent staffers of presidential administrations– because such horse’s mouth records can provide corroboration on incidents and events from different perspectives; the least inaccurate version of the truth.

Gergen said John Keegan identified six major leaders who shaped the twentieth century: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, FDR and Churchill– only the last two of whom presided over democracies. As is well known, the last two also inspired other Western nations to help defeat Fascism, as the cliche goes. Had it not been for their leadership, arguably, the world might have seen the collapse of modern civilization.

During Nixon’s second term, Gergen supervised speech-writing, whose approximately fifty contributors included writers, researchers, administrators and correspondents. He continued working in a hostile environment, because it is human nature, especially among the young, to overlook flaws in an employer-leader in a goal-oriented group-effort, as “… Your wagon’s hitched to a star, and you resent those on the outside who tarnish the adventure.”

According to Larry Sabato, the American presidency is subjected to turmoil about every fifty years: in the 1870’s, there was the Credit Mobilier scandal under president Grant; the 1920’s saw the Teapot Dome shenanigans under Harding; and in the 1970’s, the United States suffered the consequences of a bunch of evil conspiracies under Nixon.

BUT– the author published this book BEFORE the early 2000’s, when the second Iraq War and its associated profiteering, abuse of power and other unconscionable activities became the norm under the leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The author did write, “Whether George W. Bush or Al Gore is elected president in 2000, the winner must place strict safeguards against the abuses of the Clinton years.” Good luck with that.

Gergen also opined that Gorbachev, more than Reagan, put the nail in the coffin of Communism by introducing open-minded reforms because the Soviets could no longer avoid the fact that their empire was crumbling. In November 1989, Gorbachev courageously told his country’s military to refrain from retaliating against the people dismantling the Berlin Wall.

Gergen went on to overlook the negative economic consequences of Reagan’s policies, and unfairly, oversimplify comparisons between recent American presidents through bare-bones generalizations.

Gergen felt that Bill and Hillary Clinton should have provided the Washington Post with all the documents that it was demanding, on Whitewater– a real estate investment entity (that might have committed wrongdoing in connection with Bill’s activities as Arkansas governor, but was unrelated to Bill’s presidential activities). The newspaper threatened to give the president bad press otherwise. However, the Post is neither a congressional committee nor a duly appointed federal investigator. The Clintons rightly refused.

At the time, as one of their political consultants, Gergen thought that if the Clintons had submitted the documents to clear themselves, relentless assaults on their privacy for purposes of political retaliation would have ceased. Oh, and Bill could have accomplished so much more during his presidency, absent those later distractions.

Additionally, Gergen made a comparison that was apples-to-oranges with Nixon’s refusal to reveal what he was doing. For, the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press and showed at the very least, probable cause of crimes of the president’s activities. There was no probable cause in the Clintons’ case.

Gergen mentioned three crucial aspects to governing: mutual trust and respect between the executive and legislative branches, and long-term integrity. Major laws that have stood the test of time were passed because the president “… understood what it means to govern. A permanent campaign is its antithesis.”

A president who does nothing but seek reelection (via rallies and the like) will obviously say or do anything to get reelected, as the cliche goes. Besides, as America has seen, two factors that can get a candidate elected president– regardless of competence– are inheritance and a power vacuum at the top.

Gergen pointed out that both Truman and Reagan had street-smarts but lacked extensive academic smarts. Yet with 20/20 hindsight, historians have come to laud the political prowess of their administrations. It is interesting to note as well, that the most recent five presidents in a row have attended Ivy League schools, but have had uneven records, to say the least.

So clearly, formal education is only one of a motley group of traits that maximizes a president’s effectiveness. Gergen listed others: “… knowledge, temperament, faith in the future that leads to wise decisions and responsible leadership… core competence and emotional intelligence, courage… clear purpose that is rooted in the nation’s core values as stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Read the book to learn a slew of details on presidential administrations’ natures and actions that Gergen contended represented good or bad leadership.

Close Encounters

“… the network executives he would be contacting were apt to regard him as a headline-seeking troublemaker who could not be trusted to behave with dignity and discretion.”

The above was written about Mike Wallace in the early 1960’s.

The Book of the Week is “Close Encounters, Mike Wallace’s Own Story” by Mike Wallace & Gary Paul Gates, published in 1984.

Born in 1918, Wallace grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. As have countless others on the idiot box before and since, he made a career of sitting in judgment of others, so of course, it was impossible for him not to be a hypocrite. Like the folks whom he caught behaving dishonestly, he and his employer-broadcasters had their share of legal kerfuffles.

In spring 1957, Wallace hosted a hard-hitting live TV-interview show called “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC. Organized-crime figure Mickey Cohen– a guest on the show– slandered the then-chief of police of Los Angeles, saying he was corrupt. The chief sued ABC. As a result, during the show’s airing, the court required that an attorney hold up cue cards indicating when Wallace’s questions were becoming too controversial. Wallace commented, “Like a baby with its bib and a dog with its leash, I was judged to be in need of a legal teleprompter.”

At the end of 1957, as a result of one of Wallace’s countless minor TV-journalism scandals– involving the Kennedy family– the funding source of his show changed to the Ford Foundation. The show got a new name, “Survival and Freedom” and a more educational format. Unsurprisingly, it became boring.

In the autumn of 1962, Wallace decided to give up lucrative jobs: a) hosting entertainment-oriented radio and TV broadcasts that reported on trivial slice-of-life minutiae, b) hosting game shows, and c) acting in cigarette ads; in order to narrowly focus on serious TV journalism.

Wallace spent two months in Vietnam in spring 1967. He and a colleague ended up broadcasting a “60 Minutes” story in 1972 that was radically different from the one everyone else was narrating. Wallace said, “I responded by telling him [the colleague] what I thought of ‘knee-jerk, bleeding heart liberals’ who allow themselves to be taken in by a trendy media blitz.” With an open mind, they followed where the evidence led in connection with over-decorated Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert.

Another aspect of serious TV journalism that Wallace claimed to espouse, in addition to doing the hard work of collecting evidence through best-efforts / due diligence research, was primary sources: “… an eyewitness account– ‘I was there, and here’s what happened’– is more reliable than a version that has gone through two hundred years of rewrites.”

Wallace’s method of doing said research involved a “Candid Camera” type set-up, a prelude to the hidden-camera reality shows of the early 2000’s. But– his major goal was to catch people committing crimes, rather than evoke laughter at their naivety.

The situation had to be a “national disgrace” to air on “60 Minutes.” One segment in early 1976 showed how easy it was for residents of the state of Maryland, to obtain false identity documents in order to commit financial crimes.

Other stories broadcast up until the book’s writing involved Medicaid kickbacks, corruption in health-, building-, and fire-department inspections, tax evasion in cash-oriented businesses, a shady California health resort, a California diploma mill, and an anti-poverty program in Los Angeles. Also, an entrepreneur offered classes to teach business executives how to answer questions asked by the likes of Mike Wallace.

Read the book to learn plenty of additional details on all of the above.

Taking in the Masses

Taking in the Masses

sung to the tune of “Grazing in the Grass” with apologies to Hugh Masekela
and The Friends of Distinction

Sure is scandalous, taking in the masses.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

What a job just hushing up scandals of the past.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

There are too many politicians who go free while
taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

The family members making out besides the appointees.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

And the pundits’ lies and smears stinging like bees.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

And the claques, flacks and sycophants always eager to please.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

Everything here is so opaque you can’t see it.
And everything here is so fake but some believe it.
And it’s fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake.
Can you rig it?

I can rig it, he can rig it, she can rig it, we can rig it, they can rig it,
you can rig it.
Oh, let’s rig it. Can you rig it baby?

I can rig it, he can rig it, she can rig it, we can rig it, they can rig it,
you can rig it.
Oh, let’s rig it. Can you rig it baby?

The family members making out besides the appointees.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

And the pundits’ lies and smears stinging like bees.
Taking in the masses, yes, baby can you rig it?

Everything here is so opaque you can’t see it.
And everything here is so fake but some believe it.
And it’s fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake, so fake.
Can you rig it?

I can rig it, he can rig it, she can rig it, we can rig it, they can rig it,
you can rig it.
Oh, let’s rig it. Can you rig it baby?
I can rig it, he can rig it, she can rig it, we can rig it, they can rig it,
you can rig it.
Oh, let’s rig it. Can you rig it baby?
I can rig it, he can rig it, she can rig it, we can rig it, they can rig it,
you can rig it.
Oh, let’s rig it. Can you rig it baby?

PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS NOT TO SAY THE DISEASE OF COVID IS FAKE. BUT POLITICS AND PROPAGANDA HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FAKE.