Why I chose…Earnest and Arms

My mother died in March 2004, having outlived my father by nearly 22 years. As I often use humor to process the most intense emotions, I began to quip about “being orphaned at 37,” often adding some variant of this quote:

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

This quote elicited many a blank look.

If pressed, I would name the quote’s author, though I did not always remember the quote’s context.

It is thus a window into my interior thought processes to realize, having completed the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers in seven days, no explanations), that the quote originally appeared in a book I selected for that challenge.

Before I explain further, just bear with me while I describe my late mother’s favorite story as a child.

Called “The Selfish Giant,” it tells the story of a giant who walls off his lovely garden from the children who used to play there, causing winter never to end in it. Only when children find a way back into the garden does spring return. That the story ends with some maladroit Christian symbolism detracts little from its overall elegance.

This VERY short tale, one in an anthology of stories I used to browse in a favorite maternal great aunt’s high-end Philadelphia apartment, was my first encounter with Oscar Wilde.

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I was most likely exposed to the alchemic mix of high- and low-brow that is British comedy in sixth grade, when “in the know” classmates started talking about something called “Monty Python.” Perhaps this was because the seminal comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released just two or three years earlier, was already achieving cult status.

It is true that by sixth (or maybe seventh) grade I was regularly watching reruns of the surreally-brilliant Monty Python’s Flying Circus; it was one of a series of half-hour shows I would watch at 11 pm on Saturday nights, just before the Charlie Chan movie on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.

Around the same time, I discovered the decidedly-lowbrow (but no less funny) The Benny Hill Show. Entering high school a few years later, I happened upon the slap-dash lunacy of The Kenny Everett Video Show, the intelligent sci-fi surrealism of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the witty and well-written Doctor in the House (OK technically, Philadelphia’s PBS station WHYY was airing the 1972-73 follow-up series Doctor in Charge).

I was so enamored of this sitcom that I tape-recorded episodes 5 and 6; I still have the cassette, though I long ago taped over both episodes.

In short, by the spring of my senior year of high school, I was already an ardent fan of the broad slapstick and respect-for-audience-intelligence that defines British humor.

One afternoon that spring, I came home from school, sprawled out on our navy blue living room sofa, and pulled out a slim paperback.

Reading the paperback, I started to laugh. These were not soft chuckles or suppressed giggles. This was from-the-belly, out-loud, roll-around-on-the-floor laughing.

And I did not stop laughing until I finished the paperback a few hours later.

This is what I read.

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That I read this comic masterpiece as part of a small-group (n=2) presentation on the works of Oscar Wilde for my senior year English class—one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took—is certain. What I forget is whether everyone in the class had to read The Importance of Being Earnest or just my presentation partner and I.

He and I also read and analyzed The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel and the basis of this film, occasionally labeled noir[1] (including being screened in 2016 during NOIR CITY).

For that presentation, I freely admit that I dressed (as closely as I could with what I had) as Oscar Wilde and spoke in a mediocre British accent (yes, he was Irish…but we were presenting him in the context of late Victorian-era literature, or something). Despite my theatrics (because of them?) our presentation was very well-received by our peers. There are always critics, of course, including the one who noted that I sounded like “someone from Monty Python.”

Sorry, no photographs of me in that attire exist, nor do any recordings of my accent.

Clearly I had enjoyed this performance, though, because a few days later, my cousin and I went for cheesesteaks in a now-defunct joint just off the Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia—and I wore my Oscar Wilde attire and used the same accent. The reaction from fellow patrons, such as it was, was muted.

As for the play itself, I think it perfectly encapsulated everything I loved about British humor: it was irreverent, intelligent, silly and insightful all at the same time.

And it was laugh-out-loud funny.

Besides the ageless Dorian Gray, I would eventually read other works of fiction by Wilde: the plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance come to mind, as does the novella The Canterville Ghost. I enjoyed all of them, but none knocked me flat they way Earnest still does.

Incidentally, our eldest daughter read The Canterville Ghost for the first time tonight. She enjoyed so much she needed to relay its entire plot to me while brushing her teeth.

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Perhaps it was in the advanced United States history class I took my junior year, or perhaps it was in the (surprisingly mediocre) introductory political science course I was allowed to take at Villanova the following year[2].

At some point in my last two years of high school I was introduced to the Fabian socialists, a group of late-19th-century British writers and thinkers who advocated for needed social reforms, albeit more gradually than their Marxist counterparts. The Fabian Society, founded in 1884, morphed into the Labour Party in 1906; Labour remains one of the primary British political parties.

I was fascinated enough by the Fabian socialists that I wrote a paper (for what class, I could not tell you now, though it was probably in high school) on them. And I learned that one of their key members was an Irish-born playwright by the name of George Bernard Shaw.

Until then, all I really knew about Shaw was Monty Python member Michael Palin’s absurdist portrayal of him in a sketch in which Shaw, Wilde and James McNeill Whistler (the artist renowned for painting his mother) trade insulting witticisms directed at an unnamed King at a party.

And then I read this play.

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I was most likely assigned it in that same high school English class, but it might have been in a college course. Regardless, I was immediately moved by its simple and direct anti-war message.

Central to the story is that Bulgaria (backed by the Russian Empire) is at war with Serbia (backed the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1885; the alliances are eerily prescient of World War I, which would not start for another 29 years.

The play begins in the upstairs bedroom of the daughter of the highest-ranking Bulgarian officer (Major Petkoff) serving in the conflict. Raina and her mother Louka share the naïve romanticism about war and the soldiers who fight in it that would itself be shattered in the trenches of World War I.

Louka tells Raina her handsome young fiancée Sergius has that day led a “cavalry charge! think of that! He defied our Russian commanders—acted without orders—led a charge on his own responsibility—headed it himself—was the first man to sweep through their guns.”[3]

Filled with visions of her fiancee’s noble heroism, she settles down to sleep, only to be startled by a man creeping into her room. He is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs trying to escape capture. Despite the fact that he paints a far less flatteing picture of the cavalry charge and openly mocks its leader (unaware he is the fiancée of the woman whose bedroom he has entered), Raina ultimately decides to protect him. She gives him her last three chocolate creams (“Bless you, dear lady! You can always tell an old soldier by the insides of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols: the old ones, grub. Thank you.”[4]) which he ravenously consumes. Derisively (for now), she calls him a “chocolate cream soldier.”

As you might expect, over the course of the play, including the unexpected return of  her “chocolate cream soldier,” Raina rethinks her attitudes toward the nobility of war, apprehending its banal horrors more fully.

Unlike the film Johnny Got His Gun (the unforgettable backdrop for Metallica’s “One” video), which uses Grand-Guignol-style horror to convey its anti-war message, Shaw’s play is more subtle, using gentle satire and romance to make the same point. Shaw is sympathetic to all of his characters, allowing their debate to unfold without overt mockery or caricature.

Let me be clear: I am neither anti-soldier nor anti-military. I am a realist who honors the sacrifice of untold millions in wars and recognizes their occasional grim necessity.

But I am staunchly opposed to the glorification of war as the pinnacle of an aggressive form of heroism. I am staunchly opposed to government officials who have never served themselves using war as a political weapon. I am disgusted by candidates who use “Swift Boat” tactics to defeat those who have actually served in combat. To take one example: my maternal aunt is good friends with former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm serving in the Vietnam War, was defeated for reelection in 2002 after one term in part because his Republican opponent Saxby Chambliss attacked his patriotism in the context of his votes on various post-9/11 homeland security measures. This may also have been an early example of the clannish us-vs.-them nature of contemporary politics.

As with Wilde, I would read other plays by Shaw, including Candida, Major Barbara, Saint Joan and the astonishing Man and Superman. And as with Earnest, I enjoyed them (particularly Man and Superman), just not nearly as much as I did Arms and the Man.

Honorable Mentions:

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I read this in that challenging high school English class as well as in at least one college class. My only new thought on this masterpiece, perhaps the only work of fiction more often quoted than Casablanca, is how drawn I have always been to the character of Horatio. He is the quiet and loyal friend who tries (unsuccessfully) to get his friend Hamlet through his existential crisis and survives while everyone dies. Nice work if you can get it.

Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (International Collectors Library)

Forget that in just five stories[5] Poe essentially invented modern detective fiction. Forget the bizarre circumstances of his life (marrying his 13-year-old cousin) and death. This tortured artist was THE master of the short story (one that he felt should take no more than two hours to complete)—“the form in which the ‘highest genius’ might most advantageously exert its powers [and whose] compactness made possible both high excitement in the reader and maximum artistic control by the writer.”[6] If nothing else, Poe’s unrivaled tales of horror and suspense allowed Vincent Price to have a long and distinguished career.

Stalking the Nightmare by Harlan Ellison

Yet another collection of short stories, this time in the vein of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the controversial Ellison, these are mind-bending stories of genies and sewers intermixed with three real-world stories, including his aborted screenplay efforts for the first Star Trek movie. Actually, as good as this collection is, my all-time favorite Ellison work remains his script for the single best episode of ANY Star Trek: “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I wanted to include at least one non-detective-fiction novel, and I chose this satiric dark comedy masterpiece in a close call over John Kennedy Toole’s absurdist posthumous gem A Confederacy of Dunces. Breakfast may not be Vonnegut’s most famous novel, but it is the first one I ever read, back in the carefree summer between graduating high school and enrolling at Yale. That is probably why it has stuck with me all these years, because I associate it with one of the happiest times of my life. It is also laugh-out funny.

The Aeneid by Virgil

When my mother, our keeshond Luvey and I moved in with my aunt and cousins in the middle of 7th grade, I was thrust into a new school in the middle of a school year. The most challenging part was choosing a foreign language to study in media res. I chose Latin. Having no choice, I quickly caught up, finding that I enjoyed Latin’s logical structure. Two years later, having moved into a beautiful new apartment (just Mom, Luvey and I), I inadvertently enrolled in the sophomore Latin class at Harriton High School while still a freshman; this choice helped me win Harriton’s first ever Latin award. In that class, we read the other epic poem about the Trojan War, this one from the perspective of Aeneas, son of King Priam of Troy. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas finds himself in North Africa, where he falls in love with Queen Dido (infelix Dido). Forced by the gods to relocate (leading Dido to commit suicide), he eventually helps to lay the groundwork for the founding of Rome. After reading much of it in Latin, I read it again for a freshman-year English class at Yale, making it the only major piece of fiction I have studied in two languages.

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I began this post with a quote about lost parents. Let me end it with another quote from The Importance of Being Earnest:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

I do not necessarily agree with the first part (Nell is nothing like her mother, for example). However, if I can be anything like my mother, who I miss (along with my father) every day, then so be it.

Until next time…

[1] For a film noir research project, I compiled 32 published film noir lists (minimum 120 titles) and 12 smaller lists (25-119 titles); a total of 4,825 films appeared on at least one of these lists. Dorian Gray appears on five of 32 LISTS, with 6.5 total POINTS (LISTS plus appearances on “sublists” within the 32 larger lists and/or one of the 12 smaller lists). Only 889 (18.4%) titles appear on more LISTS that Dorian Gray, and only 838 (17.4%) have more POINTS.

[2] I was one of two Harriton High School seniors who, by virtue of our exceptional PSAT scores, could take one of a selected group of courses at Villanova; my equally-bright classmate took a math course.

[3] Shaw, Bernard. 1984. Arms and the Man. Definitive Text (originally published 1898). New York, NY: Penguin Books, pg. 7.

[4] Ibid., pg. 16.

[5] The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Purloined Letter, The Gold Bug, Thou Art the Man.

[6] Silverman, Kenneth. 1991.Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, pg. 166

Why I chose…Naked City and More Than Night

My matriculation at Yale must have been even more formative than I realized because I have referenced my time there in four consecutive posts—five counting this one.

One reason my college years have been so front-of-mind is that my 30-year reunion was held this past weekend (May 24-27, 2018). I put off deciding whether to go until last Wednesday night (May 23), when I looked at reunion website and realized that it was feasible (if not inexpensive) to attend only one day; New Haven, CT is a relatively easy two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from our home. Our youngest daughter was over the moon at the prospect of joining me, while our older daughter was more ambivalent.

On Thursday, we decided that both girls would skip school on Friday and accompany me.

This proved an excellent decision as, despite the heat and swarms of mosquitos (youngest daughter woke up Saturday morning, looked at her legs and thought she had chicken pox), all three of us had a great time. Both girls quickly made friends with other attendees’ children, while I joyfully caught up with friends I may “talk to” on Facebook, but have not actually seen in 30 years.

Another reason my college years are on my mind is how crucial, I am realizing, they were to my long-time love of film noir, my impetus for writing this book.

One element of this influence was that when I attended Yale in the mid-1980s, there were six film societies showing a total of something like two dozen films every Thursday to Sunday. Naturally, I watched a lot of old movies (particularly ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock) during my four years there.

One film society was housed in my residential college, Ezra Stiles. I still have the wall poster from the first semester of my freshman year (Fall 1984).

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This poster has been living in a battered filing cabinet for years. When I pulled it out for book research four or five months ago, the first thing I noticed was the black-and-white photograph of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, presumably a publicity still from The Big Sleep.

Examining the poster more closely, I saw this written under the October 4 entry for Ruthless:

“The ESFS kicks off its 1984 Film Noir Festival with this lurid saga of a total sleazeball and his ugly struggle to doublecross all of his associates and climb to the top of the dung heap we call life. Bring a date.” (italics added)

Unless I had seen them in the context of films I had previously watched on HBO (e.g., The Postman Always Rings Twice [bad 1981 remake], Body Heat), that could easily have been the first time I ever read the words “film noir.”

I did not actually see Ruthless in October 1984, so I found a copy somewhere on-line and watched it in January 2018. It was mildly entertaining, with the best scenes being part of a flashback to the three main characters as children. A nearly unrecognizable Raymond Burr portrayed the main character’s father: a well-meaning gambling ne’er-do-well alienated from the main character’s imperious mother; Burr’s character reminded me more than a little of my late father.

The two-film “festival” concluded on October 6 with The Big Sleep.

I noted another way Yale impacted my love of film noir in this post, in which I began to explain why I chose the titles I did for the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), describing two detective fiction courses I took there.

One course was a “residential college seminar” (housed in Branford, the central locus for the Class of 1988 this past weekend); the other course, which I took my senior year, was taught within the American Studies department.

Besides the terrific works of fiction, Professor Lowry had us read and discuss two decades-old volumes of black-and-white photographs. More than 30 years later, why we read these works is fuzzy, though I think it had something to do with the movement toward “realism” in the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In many ways, both books are effectively Fodor’s guides to the places (be they in Paris, London, Los Angeles or any other large city) where most of the action in hard-boiled or police procedural fiction takes place.

Pulling out my copy of the first volume—Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30s—I see that it has far more text than I had remembered, making this masterful photographer’s book an illustrated memoir (mem-noir?) of night-time Paris between 1931 and 1934. A sampling of chapter titles tells the story: Lovers, A Night with the Cesspool Cleaners, Ladies of the Evening, In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere, Sodom and Gomorrah, An Opium Den.

As brilliant as Secret Paris was, though, it did not change my life the way this book did:

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Arthur (born “Usher”) Fellig, born in what is now Ukraine in June 1899, emigrated to New York City in 1910. In 1923, he landed his first job as a photographer; 12 years later he became a full-time freelance photographer, selling his dramatic shots of murders, fires…and even teenaged “BobbySoxers” screaming at a Frank Sinatra concert to that city’s tabloid newspapers.

Between 1935 and 1945, Fellig would prowl New York City at night in his sedan, which was equipped with police scanner and portable darkroom (in the capacious trunk), allowing him to take and develop his photographs faster than his competitors. His uncanny ability to anticipate a worthy photographic subject is likely what earned him the name “Weegee,” a variant on the Ouija board used to communicate with…the dead, or something.

In 1945, after years spent collating selected photographs, Naked City was published by Essential Books. Weegee suggests the reason for the title in a two-page introductory chapter called “A Book Is Born”:

“For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off…not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them. […] The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask ‘What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,’ the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”[1]

The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci as The Great Bernzini, is an underrated, albeit highly fictionalized, account of Weegee’s career that faithfully captures his modus operandi.

Still, as compelling as the photographs’ subject matter was, it was their look that riveted me. Working at night with an infrared camera and flash powder, Weegee’s photographs are textbook examples of high-contrast, almost washed-out, chiaroscuro—intensely bright white in a sea of black.

To many film noir aficianados, including me, this look is what makes film noir; it is no coincidence that Naked City was quickly turned into this iconic 1948 film noir. In fact, I could easily define film noir as “black-and-white films whose characters are anything but.” And while valid arguments can be made for the primacy of thematic (world-weary cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity, obsession), character (wise-cracking detectives, femmes fatales, ordinary people buffeted by fate and/or who make poor choices) or plot (crime, pursuit) elements, there is no getting around film being a visual medium, one that did not even require sound for nearly four decades. This is why I zero in on cinematography as central to the definition.

Indeed, another (only partly facetious) definition of film noir is a “Cornell Woolrich story, directed by Robert Siodmak for RKO, and filmed by John Alton to look like a Weegee photograph.”

As to why this look—impossibly-dark blacks punctuated by improbably-light whites—so appeals to me, I say, “I have no idea.”

There is, of course, the sense that black-and-white is artistically sophisticated, with the added advantage of being “classic.” A more prosaic explanation is that it is less garish and distracting, and allows you more easily to focus on the subject matter. Finally, there is the fact that my 20-10 vision for most of my life (that accuresed doctoral thesis) conditioned me to prefer more basic color schemes, which created less visual overlaid.

Any (or none) of these explanations may be true, and it would still be beside the point—which is that after reading Naked City, I never looked at the world in the same way again.

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I have already written (and contine to write) thousands of words about my love of film noir, so I will only briefly discuss Naremore’s seminal analysis.

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There are many terrific introductions to film noir, from comprehensive almanacs (Ballinger’s and Graydon’s Rough Guide, Hogan’s Film Noir FAQ) to encyclopedic treaments (Grant, Silver et al., Mayer and McDonnell, Keaney, Selby, Spicer, Lyons) to informal, thematically-grouped overviews (Mueller’s Dark City, Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen) to quasi-academic yet highly-readable analyses (Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Osteen’s Nightmare Alley) to, finally, the Film Noir Reader series.

But Naremore, to me, does the best job of weaving these strands together while also casting a wide thematic net (international films, neo-noir, technology, censorship, inter alia). In fact, of the 373 films discussed as “noir,”more than half (53.6%) were released outside the “classic” period of 1940-59,[2] nearly half (45.8%) were made entirely in color, and 19.0% were primarily produced outside the United States. Overall, Naremore combines the rigor of an academic with the passion of a fan, producing an introduction to film noir that is both erudite and readable.

Honorable mentions:

New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive by William Hannigan

Weegee was not the only tabloid photographer working her/his magic in nocturnal New York, as this well-annotated and gritty collection reveals, though, I actually sought out this book (i.e., asked for it as a birthday gift) a few years back because it included one particular photograph. On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison (along with her lover Judd Grey) for the murder of her husband Albert, making her the first woman to be electrocuted there since 1899; James M. Cain would fictionalize the story in his 1935 novella Double Indemnity. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter named Tom Howard, covering the execution in cooperation with the New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a hand-held toggle attached to a wire running down his pant leg. As the switch was thrown on Snyder, Howard was able to snap a photograph, the first ever of an electrocution; this, along with its infamous one word banner headline (“DEAD!”), was what I sought.

A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton

The term “film noir” most likely orginated with French film critics in the late 1930s, in the context of reviewing “poetic realist” films like La Jour Se Leve (Daybreak) and Pepe Le Moko. However, it was first used in its more familiar context in July 1946, when Parisian film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Paul Chartier (who, thanks to World War II, had not seen any American films since 1941) each wrote an article discussing a new wave of dark American crime films; they were actually piggybacking on  a 1945 New York Times analysis by Lloyd Shearer[3]. But the first truly comprehesive discussion of these films came in 1955, when two French film critics wrote Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 1941-1953. They depicted interlinking cycles of films with a common style, though in their “Chronological index of the main series” they only list 21 as “Film noirs,”with another 58 titles listed as either “Criminal psychology,” “Crime films in period costume,” “Gangsters,” “Police Documentaries” and “Social tendencies.[4]” But while their nomenclature is remarkably confusing, their analysis is incisive and, for many critics, conclusive. As Naremore, who wrote the Introduction to the 2002 City Lights Books edition of Paul Hammond’s English translation, noted in Contexts, “The best way to define film noir, Peter Wollen once remarked to me, is to say that it’s any film listed in…Panorama.”[5] I do not agree with that definition, but Panorama is still the place to start.

To be continued…

[1] Weegee. 1945. Naked City (unabridged republication of original Essential Books edition). New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., pp. 11-12.

[2] Overall, 2.9% were released between 1931 and 1939, 46.4% between 1940 and 1959, 5.1% between 1960 and 1966, and 45.6% between 1967 and 2006.

[3] All three seminal articles may be found in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. pp. 161-63. Overall, Borde and Chaumeton discuss 255 films as “noir.”

[5] Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. pg. 283.

Manifest(o) Identity

Having written and thought a lot about the 2018 United States (US) midterm elections, the first things I read each day (after my e-mail) are Taegan Goddard’s invaluable Political Wire and, of course, FiveThirtyEight.

On May 19, 2018, Goddard linked to this commentary by Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman. Waldman argues Democrats should abandon the “naïve” notion they will be able to win the votes of certain white Republicans (presumably once-Democratic voters who preferred Republican Donald J. Trump in the 2016 US presidential election) by showing them more “respect.” The fallacy, Waldman believes, lies in ignoring “where the belief in Democratic disrespect comes from and to assume that Democrats have it in their power to banish it.”

Specifically,

“The right has a gigantic media apparatus that is devoted to convincing people that liberals disrespect them, plus a political party whose leaders all understand that that idea is key to their political project and so join in the chorus at every opportunity.

“If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some obscure liberal professor who said something offensive, some liberal celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.”

If I may editorialize a moment, the sheer cynicism of this political strategy, while hardly new (McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy[1]), is breathtaking. There is no substantive policy argument or coherent ideological framework being offered, only an ever-stoked resentment intended to pit one (non-elite) group against another, a devious bit of misdirection by an alternate elite trying to maintain political power. This, of course, in no way excuses those who all-too-willingly fall for this misdirection. Not to get overly (or overtly) Marxist, but this is a textbook example of “false consciousness.”

Waldman, a writer for the progressive The American Prospect and graduate of Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, calls the target of this resentment “snooty liberal elitism.” Note the magazine for which he writes and his elite education (is he a Philadelphian like me?); I have no evidence regarding his snootiness.

Of course, I myself hold strong liberal views and attended Ivy League and other top schools (Yale, Harvard, Boston University School of Public Health), ultimately earning two Master’s Degrees and a PhD. I defer to others to decide how “snooty” I am.

Hold that thought.

Returning to Waldman’s article, his argument resonated with me for multiple reasons.

First, I have also written about whether Democrats should focus electorally more on “whites without a college degree” (President Trump’s core supporters) or on a coalition of younger, college-educated, non-white, urban and women voters. If pressed, I would choose the latter, though it is not necessarily a zero-sum choice (e.g., the decision by Democratic leaders to zero in on Trump Administration corruption could have broad appeal).

Second, I had just been thinking about “elites” in the context of explaining the choices in my seven-day Facebook book challenge. While discussing the third book, I highlighted Christopher Hayes’ compellingly-readable treatise, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.

In Chapter 5 (“Winners”), Hayes attempts to determine who comprises the “elite.” The (self-serving, given the plethora of wealthy and powerful conservatives) right-wing view is that “elitism” is not “degree of power or influence, but rather their condescension, their worldview, their tastes, preferences, and cultural diet […] snobby cosmopolitans who look down on the ordinary Americans who unpretentiously and earnestly devote themselves to the bedrock values of faith, family, and flag.”[2]

Need I point out that nearly all Americans value all three? I may be an atheist now, but I attended Hebrew School three days a week for six years, was Bar Mitzvahed and attended many a large family Seder. I adore my family, even if individual members at time drive me crazy and my definition is a bit looser. And while I love my country, I see its flaws and seek to repair them; my love is not unconditional.

Third, as a student of epidemiology, in many ways a quantitative offshoot of epistemology (how do we know and how much can we know), I am alarmed by the partisan bifurcation of information sources and accepted truths. It is not quite as simple as Republicans watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, while Democrats watch MSNBC and listen to NPR, though as oversimplifications go, that is not bad. For the record, while I regularly watch MSNBC, I rarely listen to NPR.

But such resentments can only be a winning political strategy if the “facts of the case” are in constant dispute, if we choose only to believe (as opposed to know) what we learn from “our” sources. That is one reason I noted Waldman’s (presumed) ideology and education: I always “consider the source” of anything I read, watch or hear.

All of these issues—Democratic electoral strategy, conservative populist resentment, an untenable fractured epistemology—are fascinating and of vital importance.

And they only obliquely relate to what I am trying to say here.

Just bear with me.

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In my first post, I presented two brief—and radically different—biographies. One was that of a “well-placed member of the coastal cultural elite,” while the other was that of “one of life’s losers whose ladder of opportunity is buried deep underground.”

Of course, this is my own bit of epistemological misdirection: both biographies are mine. I was trying to demonstrate both my story-telling style and the manipulative power of story-telling itself: both stories were, strictly speaking, true, but each included (and amplified) only those facts that advanced the story’s message.

Upon reflection, though, I think that particular choice of stories (and my book project) unwittingly revealed my own ambiguity about my identity. Much of my ambivalence (a term my psychotherapist loves to use) stems from my adoption at that time by that particular family, a sense bordering on guilt of how extremely (unfairly?) lucky I was.

Even within this blog, I have evinced this ambivalence. I literally mentioned that I attended Yale in the very first sentence of my post arguing that “we are not our resumes.

You cannot make this stuff up.

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So what does this identity ambivalence have to do with conservative populist resentment at snooty liberal elites?

(Actually, the question pretty much answers itself.)

What most galls me is that it is nothing more than reverse snobbery. Whereas I do not “look down on them,” they clearly despise me…without ever meeting or otherwise getting to know me (I have been called a “libtard”—a term both ridiculous and highly offensive—more than once on Twitter).

It is also factually incorrect.

While I have, through both native ability and extremely hard work, earned my Ivy League and other degrees, I am hardly a member of the elite.

In his “Winners” chapter, Hayes expounds upon what he calls “fractal inequality.” One illustration: the economic distance between the bottom 99% and the top 1% is the same as that between the top 0.01% and the top 0.99% (both within the top 1%), which is also the same as that between the top 0.0001% and the top 0.0099% (both within the top 0.01%).

As Hayes describes it:

“Such a distributional structure reliably induces a dizzying vertigo among those ambitious souls who aim to scale it. The successful overachiever can only enjoy the perks of his [or her] relatively exalted status long enough to realize that there’s an entire world of heretofore unseen perks, power, and status that’s suddenly come within view and yet remains out of reach.”[3]

Something very much like this happened to me when I arrived at Yale in September 1984. I had always been one of the smartest kids in my class, even at a high school recognized for its academic excellence which regularly sent a few dozen graduates to the Ivy League and other top schools.

Yeah, I had no idea what being smart meant.

I had classmates who could play complex musical passages solely by ear…and were mildly surprised that I could not (though I did once work out the opening chords to The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” on my portable electronic keyboard). My colleagues in the Yale Political Union had an astonishing mastery of debating techniques and policy details. One classmate (now one of my dearest friends) understood mathematics (and seemingly everything else) at a level that made the rest of look like kindergarteners.

Basically, while I ultimately found my niche and performed well at Yale (cum laude, distinction in the major), I was average there. And while it helped launch what became my health-data-analysis career, that career was far from lucrative, though I suppose some of my Boston-inflated salaries were respectable.

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Speaking of which, let me end where I started, with whether “respect” should be part of a winning electoral strategy.

To begin with, EVERYONE deserves respect by virtue of their basic humanity.

But to the conservative populists who think that America is somehow not great because of me or folks like me or what they think folks like me are like (or something), I observe that that respect goes both ways. You need to respect my triumphs and tragedies as well.

And do not for one minute think that my respect implies any kind of acceptance of retrograde and regressive beliefs.

Simply put, I will not overlook for the sake of electoral victory…

….the scapegoating of immigrants (undocumented or otherwise), Muslims or other non-white-Christian citizens: if you want my electoral respect, please show respect for everyone who does not look, sound or worship (o not worship) like you.

…the denial of basic science and the scientific method in the service of some half-baked conspiracy or religious doctrine: if you want my electoral respect, do not insult my intelligence or, for that matter, your own.

…the elevation of unborn fetuses over the lives of women: I am absolutely going there—if you want my electoral respect, stop objectifying, degrading and diminishing women, not only through anti-contraception and anti-abortion legislation but also through harassment and violence. Here I channel my late mother who firmly believed that if men could become pregnant, abortion clinics would be as plentiful as CVS or Walgreens.

…a preference for firearms over human beings: if you want my electoral respect, set aside your anti-government paranoia and mitigate my call for Amendment II repeal by taking serious steps to halt the US epidemic of gun violence (school shootings; police shooting unarmed civilians; homicides, suicides and accidents). I do not want your bleepity-frick guns, but neither do I want them anywhere but in your homes and on licensed shooting ranges.

…and any other latent or blatant racism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ignorance and/or outright paranoia: if you want my electoral respect, take a long look in your own conscience first.

The bottom line is this: I may respect you as a person (and expect the same in return), but I will NOT respect all of your beliefs.

I may at times feel guilty about the breaks I have received (not least my gender and skin color), but I will never feel guilty or ashamed about anything I accomplished given those breaks and my natural abilities, nor about what I believe through my own research, careful thought and debate.

If that makes me a liberal elitist, and if calling me that somehow makes somebody feel better about your own life (and provides an excuse not to change it—the way you tell others to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, whatever the heck that means), that is not my problem.

So…who am I?

Hello, my name is Matt Berger, and I am proud of my degrees from Yale and Harvard and Boston University, just as I am proud of my secular liberal belief system. And I ask you to respect me as much as I respect you.

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Until next time…

[1] “In more recent elections, the Democratic coalition has been fractured, particularly by issues associated with race,” which then underlay a series of values conflicts. “Exploiting these newer issues, Republicans had won all but one presidential election in the past quarter century, making particularly notable gains among whites, men, southerners, and Catholics.” (Italics added) Pomper, Gerald M., “The Presidential Election” in Pomper, Gerald M., Arterton, F. Christopher, Baker, Ross K., Burnham, Walter Dean, Frankovic, Kathleen A., Hershey, Marjorie Randon and Wilson Carey McWilliams. 1993. The Election of 1992. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., pg. 135.

[2] Hayes, Christopher L. 2012. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. First Paperback Edition. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks, pg. 138.

[3] Hayes, pg. 156

Why I chose…Dynamics of the Party System

In my two previous posts, I began to explain my choices for the Facebook book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), addressing my interest in crime, both fictional and real.

I now turn away from crime (fictional and otherwise) and toward something far more sinister and horrifying.

Politics.

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I first encountered American politics in October 1972, having just turned six, as President Richard Nixon was cruising to reelection over my staunchly Democratic family’s choice, South Dakota Senator George McGovern. On a gray November morning four years later, I sat in the front seat of my mother’s car in the parking lot of my suburban Philadelphia elementary school, poring over the state-by-state returns from the previous day’s presidential election. It was my first election “win,” as Jimmy Carter, the Democratic former governor of Georgia, had barely edged Republican Gerald Ford; Ford would have prevailed had he won just 12,000 and 15,000 more votes in Ohio and Mississippi, respectively. Looking back, I think the nation would have won either way.

As the 1980 presidential election began (and I found myself drawn to California’s Democratic governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., who had nearly wrested the nomination from Carter less than four years earlier), I was in 8th grade, being taught American history by the exceptional Tom Collins. Mr. Collins presented history (and politics) not only through important events, but also through art, literature and music; this is when my fascination with American history in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s began. We followed the unfolding election in class, learning about the ideological spectrum in the process. I particularly remember Mr. Collins standing at the blackboard, placing various current political figures on a left-right continuum, later proclaiming that he himself, as a history teacher, needed to sit right in the middle.

In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below) I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Sat__Apr_19__1980_

And yet I did not truly become a hardcore political junkie until late 1982/early 1983, when a slew of famous (seriously, McGovern again?) and not-so-famous (who the heck is Reubin Askew?) Democrats began declaring themselves candidate for their party’s 1984 presidential nomination. Hard to believe now, given his eventual 18-point victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale, but Reagan appeared quite vulnerable then.

Who knows why “Fritz” Mondale quickly became my first political hero[1]; until I cast votes for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008, my November 1984 vote for Mondale (I was still too young to vote in Pennsylvania’s April Democratic primary) was my proudest vote. Yes, he was an experienced hand with broadly similar liberal views, but it was more than that. What friends who preferred Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who would emerge as Mondale’s strongest challenger for the nomination, saw as “boring,” I saw as a gentle and genuine humility.

My attachment to Mondale was such that more than 20 years later, when I just joined Facebook, a high school friend asked me if I was still into Mondale. Yes, I responded, not taking the gentle gibe too seriously.  While many of my fellow high school students were apolitical (and most of their parents were centrist Republicans in the mold of the state’s two Senators, John Heinz and Arlen Specter), one of my closest friends was an avid Reagan supporter. Our friendly political sparring is a model of respectful disagreement I still try to follow.

That summer, I watched the Democratic National Convention gavel-to-gavel, though I chose to avoid the Republican National Convention.

And that fall, I enrolled in Yale University, where I pursued my interest in American electoral geography. In so doing, I helped to set up an undergraduate course, taught my senior year by friend and mentor David Mayhew, called “American Political Geography.”

Assigned in this course was the book pictured above: the 1983 revised edition of James L. Sundquist’s Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States; the first edition was published in 1973.

At first, I did not understand what this book had to do with electoral geography, which to my mind mostly involved tabulations of state-and-local election returns and/or beautiful color maps. It meant obscure works like Section and Party: Political Geography of Presidential Elections, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, written in 1981 by two geographers, J. Clark Archer and Peter J. Taylor, or Kevin Phillips’ groundbreaking 1969 work The Emerging Republican Majority.

Reading the book, however, as I recall doing in the sunny bedroom of the off-campus apartment I shared with two male classmates, drinking a half-milk, half-coffee concoction from a tall blue mug, I began to understand.

Stepping back a second, what I really liked about the book was how readable it was. This was not the stilted academic prose from which I would later rebel, a rebellion that still informs my “annotated meandering” writing style. Instead, it carried the reader along almost the way a novel would, leaving her/him wondering “what happened next?”

Consider this paragraph that opens Chapter Seven: The Realignment of the 1890s:

“The prairie fire that swept the frontier states in 1890 was bound to move eastward. As third-party politicians began their quadrennial efforts to organize for the presidential election two years away, they had a solid regional foundation to build on—by far the strongest political base any off-year election had constructed for them since the Civil War. The western victories energized and inspired reformers everywhere. The men and women who had been catapulted into national prominence by these victories found themselves in the vanguard of national third-party politics. And they assumed that role with missionary zeal.”[2]

Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to politics, that is propulsive writing (“prairie fire that swept,” “energized and inspired,” “catapulted,” “missionary zeal”). Sure, Dynamics occasionally gets bogged down in details (an occupational hazard of non-fiction writing, I have found), but overall it is as close to a “page-turner” as an academic work of political science can get. Just as Mr. Collins did, Sundquist presents this sweeping review of American political history (focusing on the shifting coalitions support America’s ever-evolving political parties) on a “human” scale.

As for political geography, Sundquist grounds much of this history in geographic terms, understanding that party bases were primarily regional in nature. For example, in the decades after the Civil War, presidential elections were primarily waged between a solid Democratic South and an equally-Republican North (especially New England), (sound familiar, but with the parties reversed?). In short, Sundquist’s book deepened my understanding of what drove the numbers in those tabulations and the colors on those maps.

Sundquist, who died on February 17, 2016 at the age of 100, was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1965 to 1985 (directing its Governmental Studies section for a time), after which he maintained a small office on an upper floor.

I was lucky enough to be an (unpaid) intern at Brookings in the summer of 1986. Two years later, fter graduating from Yale, I started a one-year stint as a governmental studies research assistant.

One dark night, I was still there well past 5 pm. Wandering the halls, I found myself in front of Sundquist’s office. A light was on; he was working inside. I quietly knocked on the door, and he called me into his office.

I recall little of our brief conversation other than praising Dynamics, but he was exceptionally friendly and expressed a sincere interest in my career plans. If I were already planning to apply to doctoral programs in political science, I would have sought his advice on that as well. We probably also talked about Professors Mayhew and Edward Tufte, who had changed my life in 1986 by telling me to “introduce yourself to David Mayhew.”

Afterward, I wondered why this lovely man had been “exiled” to an upper floor, but he seemed content with the situation, being an effectively-retired 73-year-old man.

In the end, I love Dynamics because it reminds me of something Tufte once said in class, “If your data are boring, then you have the wrong data.” There is no reason why any academic—or non-academic—work of non-fiction cannot be presented in both a thoroughly-researched and entertaining manner.

Rest in peace, Mr. Sundquist.

Honorable mentions.

I could fill this section with books by Mayhew (this being his most famous) and Tufte (especially this), all of which share Dynamics’ broad readability, or a handful of works on American electoral geography/political culture, but I instead choose these five titles (which proved harder than I expected).

Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice by Larry Bartels

I first encountered this book because I was the teaching assistant for a spring 1992 Harvard undergraduate course on the presidential nominating process; I read it right along with the students. At the time, there had only been a handful of presidential elections (1976, 1980, 1984, 1988) in which primary and caucus voters had completely selected each party’s nominee prior to the summer nominating conventions. This is why Bartels’ work was so exciting and groundbreaking: it was the first systematic study of how this process worked. I was so taken with it that I even tried to replicate some of its “momentum” graphics in my burgeoning doctoral thesis (the one I never finished).

An Economic Theory of Democracy by Anthony Downs

This highly-readable 1957 treatise about the way political parties are expected to behave under various political systems and voter distributions (e.g., the relative mix of liberal and conservative voters) is especially relevant today as American politics becomes ever-more polarized. For much of American history, enough voters were neither purely on the left nor purely on the right so that “median” voters were easy to locate. Two (and only two) stable political parties, one mostly center-left and one mostly center-right were thus forced to find common ground in a quest to win over these “median” voters. More recently, though, America has drifted toward a system in which most voters are firmly on one side or the other, making finding that common ground more elusive.

The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed by David Stockman

To a large degree, I love this excellent political memoir (Stockman served as Reagan’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget) because I do not share its author’s ideological viewpoint. Stockman was a staunch fiscal conservative who genuinely believed in 1980 that a radical combination of deep personal income tax cuts and federal spending reductions would produce considerable long-term economic benefits. He was also the Cassandra who first warned about the mountain of red ink (massive federal budget deficits) that ultimately did result from passing the tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts. His observation that, politically speaking, tax cuts are fairly popular and easy to pass while spending cuts exact unbearable pain, yielded the book’s title. There may be better political memoirs, but few are more poignant.

[Quick observation: Mondale was pilloried for declaring in his acceptance speech that these already-looming deficits would require the next president to raise taxes, and that he was admitting up front that he would do so (which  both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton ultimately did, with both punished for their fiscal responsibility). That was a moment of rare political courage that got lost in raw political calculation. The triumph of politics, indeed.]

The American Voter by Angus Campbell, William E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes

Before this landmark 1960 work, written by four political scientists and opinion researchers at the University of Michigan, the prevailing (somewhat naïve) view (see here, for example) was that voting decisions were based primarily on a combination of demographic traits, social class, inter-personal relationships and mass media. While this is not, strictly speaking, untrue, Campbell and his colleagues found something different: that voting decisions were almost exclusively based on party identification, itself usually acquired from one’s parents. This book, then, marks the beginning of the modern study of voting behavior—one that is far more “tribalistic” than we may want to believe.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher L. Hayes

OK, this page-turning modern classic is not, per se, a book about politics (much less a work of political science). However, I wanted to include at least one contemporary work (besides Mayhew’s recent books) addressing our current cultural and political climate, and other than this paradigm-shifting look at American history, this is the best, even after acknowledging that Nell and I are devoted watchers of the MSNBC weeknight 8-11 pm lineup[3]. Hayes uses a series of institutional “crises” (the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the 2007-08 financial collapse, the failures of intelligence that led to the Iraq War, etc.) to illustrate how the laudable idea of meritocracy—the notion that societal advancement should be based solely on ability and achievement, not birthright or social class—slowly corrupted nearly every key American institution. In many ways, the system really is rigged, resulting in untenable economic inequalities, which both political parties need to find a way to address substantively sooner rather than later; color me optimistic.

To be continued…

[1] It may well have been a day in late 1982, as I stood in the upstairs parents’ bedroom of a close friend, leafing through a Newsweek magazine whose cover story previewed a possible Democratic presidential nomination battle between Mondale and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who ultimately did not run). From what I was reading, Mondale seemed to have that Goldilocks “just right” quality.

[2] Sundquist, James L., 1983, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (revised edition). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, pg. 134.

[3] We usually start by watching the last few minutes of Hardball, as the girls are getting ready for bed. The girls then go to sleep in the latter half of “Chris,” definitely before the start of “Rachel.” Nell and the dog generally go to bed at “first commercial Lawrence.” Who needs clocks?

Why I chose…Murder, Inc.

In my last post, I described the Facebook seven-day book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations).

Freed from the challenge rules governing, however, I now explain my choices.

In this post, I explore my fascination with true crime by discussing…

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Fictional crime has fascinated me since I was seven or eight years old, when I first started reading Encyclopedia Brown and his various imitators. At Yale, I took two courses on the subject.

But my interest in real-life crime was slower to develop. As a child, I did watch TV movies/mini-series on the Manson Family, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Lizzie Borden. Shockingly, given its graphic violence, I was allowed to watch the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde on television. In 6th grade, I first read about Jack the Ripper.

The tipping point, as is so often the case, came in college.

My sophomore year, I lived with two other fellows in a converted basement seminar room. The year before, a Saudi prince (or something) had lived in that room. He had bought a large color television, and when he left the room (and, if memory serves, Yale itself), he left the television there.

One of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual lab, and a friend lent us her VCR. As a result, a number of movies were screened in our room (including the first pornography I ever watched, the artistic but deeply weird Café Flesh; its Mitchell-Froom-composed soundtrack is still a favorite)

Another film I first saw that year was the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club, a historically-flawed but highly entertaining and visually arresting film.

I had vaguely been aware of such 1930s underworld figures as Dutch Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano and “Mad Dog” Coll, but knew little about them. Schultz, portrayed with psychotic intensity by the talented James Remar, is the primary “villain” driving the film’s plot, through Luciano, Coll and Owney Madden are key players as well.

Three years later, I was living in Washington, DC, working at the Brookings Institution. Before going to bed weeknights, I would watch syndicated reruns; this is when I fell in love with Taxi. Another show that caught my attention was The Untouchables, the 1959-63 black-and-white crime show based loosely upon Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-enforcing gang of incorruptible Treasury agents in early 1930s Chicago.

This is another example of well-written, highly entertaining drama built upon completely invalid history (for one thing, Ness played a trivial role in the conviction of Al Capone for income tax evasion). Walter Winchell’s staccato voice-over narration was especially compelling[1], as was the rich chiaroscuro of its cinematography.

The fall of 1988 was also the 100th anniversary of the canonical Ripper murders, and so this absorbing, but wildly inaccurate TV movie starring Michael Caine aired, further piquing my interest in the case.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that within a few years, I was prowling the true crime sections of book stores, slowly building a library. Then, in 1997 the History Channel produced this engrossing documentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Whether or not Capone really was responsible for this atrocity (this excellent book makes a good counter-argument), this was my first comprehensive introduction to the “beer wars” of 1920s Chicago and, by extension, the subsequent development of “the syndicate” in New York City.

Over the next 10 or so years, despite immersing myself in excellent books on the Ripper case and some dreck on the murder of Elizabeth Short[2], I still preferred to read crime fiction rather than crime fact.

Most likely what changed was that as I scoured the true crime bookshelves looking for new volumes on the Ripper and Dahlia cases, I began to notice other interesting books.

One was a thick paperback with a garish orange spine on which in large capitals was written “MURDER, INC.,” with “THE STORY OF THE SYNDICATE” below it in smaller letters.

I dismissed it at first because it was a 2003 De Capo Press reissue of a book originally published in 1951. That seemed boring somehow.

But I kept returning to it. It was that title, and that black-and-white cover photo of a bloody hand holding a playing card.

I finally succumbed in 2008 or so.

The book exists because in “the spring of 1950, Burton Turkus, a former [Kings County] assistant District Attorney, asked [journalist Sid Feder] to write a book with him on the fantastic ring of killers and extortionists that is organized crime in the United States.”[3]

The book, which admittedly starts slowly as Turkus settles into his new role as Brooklyn ADA in 1940 and is agog at the number of unsolved murders in the Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn, picks up at the end of Chapter 2 with this passage:

“We had to have a Buggsy or a Happy Maione who would put the finger on the rest and reveal the machinery. We needed, in brief, a canary that could sing good and loud—and on key. A Reles would do. Do? He would be the exact, perfect fit! Of one thing in this mess, though, both the Law and the mob were positive: Kid Twist would never break. It was legend in the police department how the Kid was arrested and worked over time and again—but never a word out of him.

“And then, Mrs. Kid Twist Reles walked into the District Attorney’s office.

“‘My husband,’ she announced, ‘wants an interview with the Law.”[4]

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, so-named for his penchant for using his long arms and abnormally strong hands to strangle transgressors, began talking to Brooklyn District Attorney William O’ Dwyer on March 23, 1940. Twelve days later, he had confessed enough dirt on the contract killing organization Murder, Inc., headquartered in the back of a Brownsville candy store, to fill 25 notebooks (and exhausting countless stenographers). In so doing, Reles had provided solutions to some 70 unsolved murders, and his later court testimony would help to convict six men, including Murder, Inc. head Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, of murder; all six were executed.

But just as Reles was set to testify against Albert Anastasia on November 12, 1941, he earned the gruesome sobriquet of the “canary who could sing—but couldn’t fly.” Despite being heavily guarded by 18 police officers on the top floor of the Half Moon Hotel, Reles somehow fell out a window to his death. Some tied-together sheets suggested a botched escape attempt, though that does not quite align with Reles’ obvious relish in telling his stories.

Still, Reles had exposed not only Murder, Inc., but the existence of a vast, highly-organized criminal syndicate, organized by Luciano and Meyer Lansky in the early 1930s.

This, then, was the book that fully introduced me, in riveting detail, to the early history of the American mob, in particular the Schultz-Dewey affair and the consolidation of power by Luciano through the murders of two rival mobsters: his boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria (he of the cover photograph; April 15, 1931) and Salvatore Maranzano (September 10, 1931).

This book is also the single best true crime book I have ever read, chock full of detail and written by an experienced crime journalist. At nearly 500 pages, it is a bit sluggish in place, but it is worth the effort.

Honorable mentions:

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund

This is not the best book on the Ripper murders, but it is the first one I ever read, back in 2000. It is a highly-readable compendium of factual overview, essays and commentary that provides a comprehensive introduction (and a wide range of more-and-less plausible solutions) to the case.

Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs

Forget the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. If you want to learn about the Depression-era bank-robbing gangs (Barker-Karpis, Dillinger-Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd [and the Kansas City Massacre], etc.) and their battles with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the newly-reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is the book to read.

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

As I noted above, Eliot Ness, for all his legitimate crime-fighting heroism, both in Chicago and in Cleveland, had very little to do with Capone’s 1931 conviction for income tax evasion. This terrific book tells the story of the true hero of the story, Internal Revenue Service agent Frank J. Wilson, who painstakingly compiled the required forensic accounting evidence. Incidentally, the book’s title stems from President Herbert Hoover’s direct order following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbitt, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

This story has almost been forgotten today. The “crime” of the title is the murder, atop the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, of renowned architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, violent and paranoid husband of beautiful young model Evelyn Nesbitt (later known as “the girl on the red velvet swing”). But it is Nesbitt’s bittersweet life—and its female authorship—that makes this book so interesting.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

As compelling as the story of serial killer H. H. Holmes is, what I loved most about this book was the way Larson contextualized the killings in the context of the 1893 Chicago Exposition. For example, among other things, it introduced a giant slowly-revolving wheel created by a man from Pittsburgh named George Ferris; it seems everyone wanted to ride “Ferris’ wheel.”

In short, I think the best true crime books do what all of these books do, place crimes within a larger context, so that by learning about the crimes, we learn a good bit of history as well.

To be continued…

[1] This is the second time the late great Elizabeth Montgomery appears in this post. This clip is from the 2nd –season episode “The Rusty Heller Story,” featuring Montgomery as Heller, and she portrayed Lizzie Borden in the TV movie listed earlier.

[2] I freely admit that this characterization is informed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Harnsich, who once live-blogged his reading of a book about the case. Yes, I read both the book and every word of Harnisch’s in-real-time critique. I recommend the latter, at least until Harnisch finishes his own long-awaited book on the case.

[3] Turkus, Burton B. and Feder, Sid, 1951, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (second De Capo Press edition, 2003). Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, pg. xi.

[4] Ibid., pg. 50.

Why I chose…The Big Knockover

I am not generally a fan of Facebook “challenges.” Nonetheless, when my friend Rebecca nominated me for the seven-day book challenge, I accepted.

The rules were simple: on each of seven consecutive days, post a book cover, with no explanations, while also nominating another person for the challenge.

On May 16, 2018, I completed the challenge (other than only nominating one person, my wife Nell).

Just bear with me as I explain my seven choices.

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I quickly decided not to choose my seven “favorite” books, however defined. There are books, like Stephen King’s The Stand, with which I was once obsessed (my 9th grade Latin teacher and I spent hours casting a hypothetical film version), that clearly had an enormous impact on my life, but excite me far less now. This also eliminated key influences from my childhood like the Encyclopedia Brown books, The Tower Treasure, The Absurdly Silly Encylopedia and Fly Swatter and, the books I reread most often, Charlotte’s Web and The Ghosts.

I also wanted to avoid picking only works of detective/crime fiction, or only books on film noir, or only true crime books, or only books on politics, or seven editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia, or …well, you get the idea.

Finally, I deliberately excluded books by friends/mentors, including David Mayhew, Edward Tufte and Eddie Muller.

In the end, therefore, I chose seven books that were both meaningful and influential in their own right, but that also represented a distinct area of interest. And even then there were entire fields (baseball, epidemiology/statistics, random gems like Ten Restaurants That Changed America).

Other than getting the easiest selections out of the way, I posted these books in no particular order.

And that is the order in which I will explain my choices (with up to five “honorable mentions”) in a series of posts, starting with…

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When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were 12 residential colleges; I was in Ezra Stiles College (class of 1988). These were intended to be smaller communities—each with its own residential building with interior courtyard, dining hall, library, seminar rooms, Master and Dean, etc.—within the larger community of undergraduates.

At the time (and probably still) there were course offerings called “college seminars.” These seminars, in which we met once weekly for two hours to discuss assigned readings, were housed within a residential college and offered instructors (many, like former Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] Director Stansfield Turner, from outside the Yale faculty) the opportunity to teach something outside the regular curriculum.

I thus had the opportunity junior year to take CSBR311b (College Seminar, Branford College, #311, spring semester): “Power and Pleasure in Modern Crime Fiction,” taught by the contagiously-enthusiastic Richard S. Lowry, now on the faculty of the College of William and Mary.

This was one of those courses that grabbed me by the collar, shook me and forcibly expanded my literary horizons. Up to that point, I had been comfortably settled in the “golden age” of detective fiction (John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.); I was particularly devoted to Carr, to the point that I struck up a correspondence with his biographer, Douglas Greene. I even based my could-have-been-much-better final project (detective fiction course syllabus with detailed justification) on Carr’s work. I still managed to earn an A-, though.

But it was in this course that I read my first ever works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (two pioneers of the “hard-boiled school” of detective fiction): their first novels, Red Harvest and The Big Sleep, respectively.

As much as I enjoyed them (more than I did Mickey Spillane’s debut I, the Jury or the ultra-violent Strega, by Andrew Vacchs, which I could not finish), it would be a few years before I sought these authors out again.

Once I did, though, I was hooked. And while I have read nearly everything I can find by both authors (as well as Sara Paretsky, whose debut Indemnity Only I also read in Lowry’s seminar[1]), it was ultimately Hammett—whose tight, spare verisimilitude reflects his own experiences with the Pinkerton Detective Agency—who I came to admire most.

Simply put, Samuel Dashiell Hammett is my favorite author, and “detection” is my favorite fictional form. This superlative collection of short stories (written 1925-29) featuring unnamed detective “The Continental Op,” accompanied by a fragment of the autobiographical novel “Tulip” and a biographical essay, lovingly curated by long-time lover Lillian Hellman, is my favorite combination of the two.

For a good sense of Hammett the short-story writer, I recommend the 1982 Wim Wenders film Hammett, in which Hammett (played by Frederic Forrest) himself becomes embroiled in a story he could have written (and then does…).

Honorable mentions:

Trouble is My Business by Chandler.

This volume contains four of Chandler’s best stories, including my favorite detective fiction short story, “Red Wind.”

Deadline At Dawn by Woolrich (as William Irish)

This tale of just-met lovers racing against time (and a palpably sinister Manhattan seemingly determined to thwart them) to clear a sailor’s name of murder is Woolrich at his breathless, suspension-of-disbelief best.

The Three Coffins by Carr

Not only is this my favorite Carr novel, hands down, it is the only detective (or any) novel I know in which the detective (Dr. Gideon Fell at his most incisive) literally addresses the reader with his chapter-length lecture on locked room mysteries.

And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians) by Christie

Upon reading this locked-room tour-de-force in high school, I memorized its central poem (“Ten little Indians, sitting down to dine/One went and choked himself, and then there were nine”). I even bought a copy for a friend to read. Christie was the undisputed master of the innovative solution, and this is one of the best…ever.

A Surfeit of Lampreys (aka Death of a Peer) by Marsh

What makes this novel so good is that you get about a third of the way into a gripping story of a young New Zealand woman living with a family of English peers and suddenly you say, “Oh, right, this is a detective story!”

To be continued…

[1] In 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Paretsky at a book-signing (Blacklist) in Bryn Mawr, PA. After discussing some superficial similarities with her detective V. I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawksi, she graciously signed my book thus: Matt: To a Black Label-drinking Cub-loving mystery-reading dog-walking guy Sara N. Paretsky. 

The Butterfly (ballot) Effect

It is a curious fact that on November 10, 2002, just two days after the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed Resolution 144, requiring Iraq to readmit UN weapons inspectors and comply with prior Security Council resolutions, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, M.D. gave the keynote address at the 2002 Annual Meeting and Expo of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The meeting was held that year in Philadelphia, and I was in the audience for that address. As a political junkie, I knew who Dean was, but I had never heard him speak. Like nearly everyone else in that room, though, I was riveted. Given the venue and Dean’s background as an internist, he primarily called for universal health insurance (paid for by a full repeal of the 2001 tax cuts) among other health-related issues.

But in style and tone, he sounded very much like a man who wanted to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 against President George Walker Bush.

And by the time he formally announced his candidacy on June 23, 2003, I had already attended a handful of “Meet-Ups” organized in support of his likely candidacy.

Dean would ultimately lose the nomination to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry and running-mate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina would then lose narrowly to Bush (had Kerry flipped 80,000 votes in Ohio, he would have won the Electoral College [EV] 271-267, while still losing the popular vote by 2.4 percentage points).

As usual, vote totals come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

The keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given by a little-known candidate for the United States (US) Senate (Senate) from Illinois named Barack Obama. Obama would easily win his Senate race that fall over Republican Alan Keyes.

Meanwhile, on February 12, 2005, Dean was elected Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Over the next four years, he would oversee the Democratic recapture of the US House of Representatives (House) and Senate in 2006, as well as the election of Obama as the first African-American president in 2008.

Dean’s greatest legacy, however, was being one of the first Democratic officials to call for an end to the Iraq War, which had launched on March 19, 2003. That mantle would be taken up a few years later by Obama in his battle against New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Obama would single out Clinton’s October 11, 2002 vote in favor of authorizing President Bush “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”[1]

Here is the full text of that resolution:

H. J. Res. 114

The Iraq War lasted until December 15, 2011, by which time some 5,000 coalition troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died (including deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein); more precise estimates are difficult to locate.

Rather than re-litigating the Iraq War, I simply state my firm belief that it does not happen if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach County, FL, intending to vote for Vice President Albert A. Gore, Jr. in the 2000 presidential election but confused by Florida’s “butterfly ballot,” had not mistakenly voted for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan instead.

FL 2000 ballot

Yes, Gore gave a speech in San Francisco, CA on September 23, 2002 in which he declared himself open to future multilateral military action against Iraq for its ongoing defiance of UN inspections and sanctions. However, that speech was specifically in response to the authorization resolution then approaching final passage in the House and Senate.

In an alternate world in which Al Gore is president in 2002, the wording of that speech (calling the resolution far too broad and vague while explicitly de-linking Iraq from the September 11, 2001 attacks) tells me that no such resolution would have been proposed in Congress in 2002. And if it had, he would not have actively supported it the way President Bush did, convincing 29 (of 51[2]) Democrats to vote “Yes.”

Simply put: no authorizing resolution, no Iraq War (at least, not one that we would recognize).

**********

I recently speculated about the impact of a counterfactual Tom Dewey victory over President Harry Truman in 1948.

A few nights ago my wife Nell asked me if “I was done with Dewey.” Not sure what she meant, I started to talk about my interest in the counterfactual that Dutch Schultz does assassinate then-Special-Prosecutor Dewey in 1935.

“Basically, not much would have changed as…”

“No,” she gently interrupted my stream of consciousness, “I mean are you still writing about ‘what if so-and-so’ had won?”

“Maaaybe… why?”

“Because I am really interested in what would have happened if Gore had beaten Bush.”

[I paraphrase somewhat, but this is the gist of the conversation.]

I started to demur (having never “taken requests” before), but then I quickly became excited by the possibilities.

Just bear with me, then, while I briefly review the 2000 US presidential election.

Because President William J. Clinton could not seek a third term under Amendment XXII to the US Constitution, two Democrats (Gore and former New Jersey Senator William W. Bradley) and 13 Republicans (all but six of whom—then-Texas-governor Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, Keyes, businessman Steve Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch—had withdrawn by the end of 1999) ran for president in 2000.

Gore would sweep the nominating contests, eventually choosing Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jewish major-party nominee for president or vice president.

Bush would face a serious challenge from McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary on February 1 48.5 to 30.4%. However, McCain dropped out of the race on March 9, after losing the majority of Super Tuesday states two days earlier. Bush would ultimately name former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney as his running-mate.

The general election campaign was, frankly, boring. Bush led by a narrow, but consistent, margin in the public polling, though that margin had dropped to an average of just 2.0 percentage points by Election Day (November 7).  Complicating matters were the candidacies of Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

My enduring memory of that election night is this sequence of events:

  • CNN declares Gore the winner of Florida, essentially making Gore the next president
  • CNN retracts that call, calling Florida “too close to call”
  • CNN declares Bush the winner of Florida, making him the next president
  • CNN retracts its call a second time, again calling Florida “too close to call”
  • Well after 2 am, I go to sleep

You may read about five weeks of hanging chads here. The upshot is that Bush was ultimately declared the winner of Florida—and the presidency—by 537 votes (out of 5,963,110 votes cast in Florida, and 105,425,985 cast nationwide).

Somewhat lost in the Florida recount drama was that Gore won the popular vote by almost 550,000 votes (48.4 to 47.9%).

**********

The least-complicated path to a Gore victory in 2000 is through the Palm Beach County voters who mistakenly voted for Buchanan. Had they voted “correctly,” Gore likely nets some 5,000 votes and is declared the winner early on the morning of November 8, 2000. Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush quietly signals to his older brother George that a recount is not worth the trouble, and the latter graciously concedes to Gore.

One thing would have changed immediately.

Once Lieberman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 2001, the Connecticut’s Republican governor, John Rowland, would have appointed a Republican to replace him in the Senate (assuming two-thirds of the solidly Democratic legislature approved), giving Republicans a temporary 51-49 Senate majority. Under Connecticut law, though, a special election would have been held on or about August 31 (160 non-weekend days from January 20).

In our actual timeline, Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote Senate gave the Republicans the majority, despite a split 50-50. That changed on May 24, 2001, when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation to Independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, effectively giving the latter a 51-49 majority.

With Gore as president, it is highly unlikely Jeffords switches parties (though he and Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—who both voted against H. J. Res. 114—would have continued to vote with the Democrats much of the time). However, it is also likely that only a very moderate Republican (Representative Chris Shays? former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker?) would have won 2/3 approval of Connecticut’s General Assembly. Either way, a Democrat would have been a slight favorite to win the special election, restoring the Democrats 50-50 majority (with Vice President Lieberman the tie-breaker).

Meanwhile, the Republicans only had a nine-seat majority in the House, 222-213, including two Independents: one who typically voted with the Democrats (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and one who typically voted with the Republicans (Virgil Goode of Virginia).

The bottom line is this: Gore and Lieberman, having just won a narrow surprise victory (294-244 EV; 0.5 percentage points) would have faced a nominally Republican Congress—and an evenly divided nation.

**********

In my remarkably-similar Dewey victory scenario, I argued that nominating General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State would be the best unifying move he could make, while also eliminating a future rival for the presidency.

I argue Gore would have made an analogous move: appointing former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell as Secretary of State or, less likely, Secretary of Defense.

Of course, that is exactly what President Bush did, making Powell the first African-American Secretary of State.

If Gore named Powell Secretary of Defense instead, I believe he names the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of Delaware, as Secretary of State. He may also have kept Madeline Albright on as Secretary of State, but I suspect he would have wanted to choose his own person.

Both men would have easily won Senate confirmation.

If Powell became Secretary of State, then a fascinating choice for Secretary of Defense would have been McCain. McCain may well have been too hawkish for Gore (and most Democrats), but the idea is worthy of consideration if only because of McCain’s bipartisan instincts and his closeness to Lieberman.[3]

Not to wander too far down a speculative rabbit hole, but having replaced the first female Secretary of State with a man, he could then have made history by nominating the first female Secretary of the Treasury (even if Lawrence Summers had only been serving in that role since July 2, 1999). Strong candidates include Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, or Janet Yellen, who had recently served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors (and in 2014 would become the first female Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors).

Finally, while he may have been tired of serving after having spent the previous eight years as Secretary of the Interior, I think Bruce Babbitt would have been considered for Attorney General.

**********

It is difficult to remember post-9/11 how good things generally were in the US in January 2001. While the economy was slowing down (and would actually enter an eight-month-long recession in March 2001), it had been growing since July 1995, averaging 4.3-percentage-point quarterly increases in real Gross Domestic Product. The federal government actually ran surpluses in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000. The US was not at war, even accounting for ongoing conflict in the Balkans. Terrorism was not a perceived threat, despite 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and an attack on the USS Cole in 2000; all three attacks were launched by an Islamic militant organization called al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden.

The Bush Administration rode these budget surpluses to passage of massive tax cuts (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act) on June 7, 2001. I still remember receiving my $300 rebate check. Bush himself was fairly popular, averaging 56.6% approval (vs. 31.4% disapproval) in Gallup polls.

My surmise is that President Gore, facing a nominally Republican Congress, calls for much smaller, targeted tax cuts.

But otherwise, he would almost certainly have used the budget surpluses to pay for his top domestic priority (besides preventing the Social Security trust fund from being raided, brilliantly parodied here): battling climate change.

We can argue about the economic impact of the 2001 (and 2003) Bush tax cuts. However, on this point I stand firm: Iraq War aside, the loss of eight years of action to reverse the human-activity-caused warming of the Earth’s atmosphere was the single worst impact of Bush’s victory.[4]

**********

And then came the morning of September 11, 2001.

I am agnostic on whether the Bush Administration “should” have known an attack like that was coming, although there is evidence they…misunderestimated…warning signs. Still, to know that al-Qaeda was going to attack those targets in that way on that day is absurd. Was there a clear, if vague, threat? Yes. Could 9/11 have been prevented? I have absolutely no idea.

So I must conclude that 9/11, or something similar, still happens.

Outside of doing everything in his power to capture (or kill) Bin Laden, and not using the attack as the pretext to invade Iraq, I cannot say with certainty how the Gore Administration would have handled such an event.

I will always give President Bush credit for his immediate response: calming the nation in a televised address, standing with his bullhorn at Ground Zero, and immediately going into Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda.

I have no doubt President Gore would have behaved remarkably similarly—calm, resolute and determined.

It is after that I think their paths diverge.

Would there still have been a Patriot Act and, by extension, a Department of Homeland Security? We cannot know for sure, but I think the answer is no.

Would there still have been a War on Terror? Possibly, but it would have looked very different; it would not have been used (like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to justify all manner of foreign policy interventions. My evidence for this, again, is Gore’s September 2002 speech.

The counter-argument is that no Democrat ever wants to appear weak on national security matters, although Gore’s own service in Vietnam—and the presence of Powell—would have insulated him somewhat.

On balance, then, the response to 9/11 would have very similar in the short term (most notably, the invasion of Afghanistan), but very different in the longer term (no Patriot Act, no “War on Terror”—and no Iraq War).

**********

In the actual 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans defied recent history by netting two Senate and eight House seats; based on the average of the previous five midterm elections for a newly-elected president, Republicans should have lost one Senate seat and 15 House seats.[5] These atypical gains resulted in part from a rally-‘round-the flag effect of the ongoing response to 9/11 (chart from here).

1200px-George_W_Bush_approval_ratings_with_events.svg

Under President Gore, would Democrats have gained two Senate seats, or lost one? Would they have gained eight House seats, or lost 15? Let’s split the difference: the Democrats net one Senate seat (giving them a 51-49 edge), while losing only three or four House seats.

This makes the 2002 midterm elections effectively a wash.

It is in 2004, however, that things get dicey for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections. Limiting those elections to the five in which only a fourth consecutive term was being sought, the percentage improves to three out of five (60%).

However, there has only been one such opportunity (President George H. W. Bush losing reelection in 1992) since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson failed to win a sixth consecutive Democratic victory. And all eight previous such elections occurred when one party tended to control the White House (Republicans won all but four elections from 1860 to 1928, Democrats won all but two elections from 1932 to 1964). Starting in 1968, though, Republicans held the White House for 28 of 48 years (through 2016)—and a Gore Administration would have brought Democrats to parity.

In other words, short of capturing Bin Laden (say, at Tora Bora in December 2001), it would have been very difficult for Democrats to win a fourth consecutive term in 2004.

Who would have beaten the Gore-Lieberman ticket?

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004.

The growing ever-more-conservative wing of the party still viewed him with suspicion in 2008 (one reason he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate), so he would likely have been challenged from the right. Possible candidates (who actually ran in 2008 or 2012) include Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Texas Governor Rick Perry and Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). Of those candidates, only Huckabee (7), Santorum (11) and Gingrich (2) ever won any primaries or caucuses.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to see anyone wresting the nomination from McCain.

Who would McCain then have chosen as his running mate?

“Conventional” picks include Jeb Bush, especially given the importance of Florida in 2000, and three Ohioans: former Representative John Kasich (who ran briefly in 2000), Senator Mike DeWine and Governor Bob Taft. Whoever had won more social conservative votes between Huckabee and Santorum could have made a good “unity” pick, while Thompson’s aw-shucks conservatism (and acting career) would have been appealing as well.

He also could have considered three women: North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle. Either of Maine’s two Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, would have been deemed too moderate.

My guess?

None of the above.

That McCain wanted his close friend Lieberman to be his 2008 running mate shows how important that personal connection was to him. I do not know if he was as close to McCain in 2004 as he is now, but my gut tells me he picks South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had become a conservative darling as one of the House prosecutors in President Clinton’s January 1999 Senate impeachment trial.

There is one more reason why I think the McCain-Graham ticket wins in 2004: no Karl Rove.

As Bush’s chief strategist, Rove emphasized maximizing base turnout over “running to the center.” One way he did this was through controversial 2004 state ballot initiatives on such issues as gay marriage and stem cell research.

But if Bush loses in 2000, Rove never gets the chance to use that strategy in 2004, likely altering Republican strategy for the next 12 years. McCain is thus free to re-run his 2000 nomination-contest playbook: appealing to Independents and like-minded Democrats (while Graham shores up the Republican base).

It works, in my opinion, with McCain holding Bush’s 244 EV while adding Florida (27), Michigan (17) and New Mexico (5), winning 293 to 245.

Of course, whichever ticket won in 2004 would have faced the same rough four years President Bush actually did: Hurricane Katrina, the near-collapse of the auto industry, the Great Recession of 2007-08, and so forth. And it is easy to imagine an aggressive McCain committing American troops around the world (perhaps even in…wait for it…Iraq).

Who would then defeat President McCain in 2008? It would not have been Dean (without Bush, he never runs for president) or Obama (who bides his time by winning reelection to the Senate in 2010). Probable candidates include Clinton, Edwards (who wins reelection in 2004), Biden, Lieberman, Kerry and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. I do not think former Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) or Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd run.

Clinton is almost certainly the prohibitive front-runner (especially without an Iraq War vote to defend), but any of these candidates (pre-Rielle-Hunter Edwards, in particular) could have given her a tough time.

And with a Democratic victory in 2008—Clinton-Edwards? Biden-Clinton? Clinton-Richardson?—we loop back into a familiar timeline.

Albeit one in which…

  1. The Iraq War as we know it never happens,
  2. Addressing climate change is a top domestic priority,
  3. The War on Terror never happens,
  4. There is no Patriot Act or Department of Homeland Security,
  5. No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill (Medicare Part D) never exist,
  6. Tax cuts are smaller and more targeted,
  7. The budget surpluses of 1999-2000 are not eliminated by tax cuts, two wars and the prescription drug bill, and
  8. Very possibly, the US elects a female president in 2008.

Until next time…

[1] H.J.Res. 114 — 107th Congress: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

[2] This total includes Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who was caucusing with the Democrats.

[3] McCain now says he regrets not choosing Lieberman as his running-mate in 2008.

[4] Point of personal privilege: in the 1990s, I dated a woman who earned her doctorate in chemistry from MIT. She s spent the summer of 1994 in New Zealand analyzing data on the shrinking ozone layer gathered by planes that would fly from New Zealand over the Antarctic. Her doctoral adviser, Mario Molina, was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in atmospheric chemistry. Climate change is real, and we humans are causing it. Full stop.

[5] These are the median values from 1970, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1994. I used the median, rather than the averages (-2 Senate seats, -23 House seats) to avoid extreme skew from the Democratic performance in 1994 (Bill Clinton’s first midterm election: a net loss of nine Senate and 54 House seats).