Of Mice, Pumpkins, And Former Presidents

Sometime after the transition in January of 1969, President Richard Nixon asked his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, how it felt the moment he knew he wasn’t president anymore. LBJ replied:

I don’t know whether you’ll understand this now or not, but you certainly will later. I sat there on that platform and waited for you to stand up and raise your right hand and take the oath of office, and the most pleasant words that I ever – that ever came to my ears were ‘So help me God’ that you repeated after that oath. Because at that time I no longer had the fear that I was the man that could make the mistake of involving the country in war, that I was no longer the man that would have to carry the terrifying responsibility of protecting the lives of this country and maybe the entire world, unleashing the horrors of some of our great power if I felt that was required.

As the nation watches the high and historic drama unfold on January 20th, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and his beautiful family. While he assumes the awesome responsibilities that come with being America’s 44th president, there will be another – much quieter – drama unfolding.

George W. Bush will fade into the political sunset and take his first steps as a former leader of the free world. And as he takes a final lap during these waning moments of his administration, complete with exit interviews, a press conference, and address to the nation, he has the look of someone who is very much looking forward to some of what Lyndon Johnson was talking about.

Harry Truman remarked at the moment he inherited the presidency that he felt as if a “load of hay” had fallen on him. Well, hay or whatever, the day he left office he felt relief. As he sat on the platform listening to Dwight D. Eisenhower deliver his inaugural address, Truman found his mind wandering. A short while later, he was in a limousine for a ride to a farewell luncheon. Suddenly, the driver stopped for a red light – the first such traffic observance for Truman since April of 1945.

Those first hours as a former president must be interesting indeed.

In 1921, Woodrow Wilson was a shell of the man who had heard cheering in so many languages just a year or so earlier. There was a moment when he had been seen as an almost Messiah-like figure. But then, virtually wheelchair bound due to the debilitating effects of several strokes, his health prevented him from sitting outdoors to observe Warren Harding’s inauguration. Instead, as he heard cheers for his successor in the distance, he was driven along the quiet streets of Washington, D.C. to his home on S Street.

But Wilson was still in the vicinity of the Capitol as his presidency expired, not so with Richard Nixon who relinquished the burdens of his presidency 39,000 feet over Jefferson City, Missouri on August 9, 1974, as Gerald R. Ford was taking the presidential oath in the White House East Room. The moment was marked by the singularly simple act of Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, the pilot of the presidential plane carrying Nixon to California. He changed the aircraft’s call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000.

The most dramatic inauguration day in recent memory was in 1981. At the very moment Ronald Reagan was succeeding Jimmy Carter, 52 hostages held by the Iranians for 444 days were boarding a plane at Tehran’s airport en route to freedom. Carter had spent a sleepless night monitoring the situation. The next day, the 39th president flew to Germany on behalf of the 40th to meet the freed Americans. Mr. Carter’s defeat in the recent election was due, in part, to his inability to obtain their release. The timing of the plane’s departure from Iran was delayed. This was one final act of insult by the captors. They didn’t let the captives go until the new president was sworn in.

As the now-former president met with the hostages, one aid, Hamilton Jordan, noted that Jimmy Carter “looked as old and tired as I had ever seen him.”

Years before he was elected to the nation’s highest office, William Howard Taft – who had a well-known aversion to overt politics – said: “It will be a cold day when I go to the White House.” He was right. That inauguration 100 years ago (though then still taking place on the 4th of March) was conducted against the backdrop of frigid temperatures and freezing rain that formed an arctic crust over the Capitol grounds. But the weather wasn’t the only frosty element that day – outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt, already less-than-enamored of his hand-picked successor’s moves away from “continuity,” watched the proceedings with “a stony expression and balled up fists.” This body language seemed to telegraph coming problems between Teddy and Taft.

John F. Kennedy’s celebrated inauguration was also tempered by hard and bitter weather, in the wake of a blizzard in Washington. As he spoke that day, vapor surrounded his words. The contrast between the youthful new leader and his aged predecessor was stark.

Following the ceremony, Eisenhower and his wife Mamie slipped out a side exit and went to the F Street Club for a luncheon with close friends. They then got in their car – just the two of them – and drove to their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The drive should have taken a couple of hours, but because of the weather it turned into a ten-hour ordeal.

Eisenhower, by the way, was the first former president to retain the services of a personal Secret Service bodyguard after leaving the White House – but only for two weeks.

On March 4, 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt rode together from the White House to the Capitol to transfer power at a critical moment in our nation’s history. But any eavesdropping fly on the car window would have been disappointed at the dialogue. Breaking a long and awkward silence, the generally loquacious Roosevelt noted the new Commerce building under construction. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce before becoming president, so FDR likely thought this would be a good icebreaker. The man who would soon take the oath of office remarked: “Lovely steel.”

Hoover had no response. It was the last time they would ever “speak.”

Whatever warm fraternity exists these days between former presidents – as was demonstrated last week at the ultimate White House power lunch – no such feelings were anywhere to be found 76 years ago as administrations changed during that time of severe economic crisis.

By the way, one of the first things Harry Truman did after becoming president was to invite Herbert Hoover back to the White for the first time since March 4, 1933. Truman correctly sensed that only former presidents truly understand what the office personally means.

The journey from power to lack thereof is a short one. It passes as quickly as the flip of a switch as the clock marks the moment and solemn words are uttered. In this unique split-second, one person assumes an awesome burden, while another gives it away.

As you watch the events unfold on Tuesday, look closely at the faces of George Bush and Barack Obama and you’ll see two men smiling – one out of relief, the other out of excitement. And both men will likely be thinking “Now what?”

Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day friends had gathered – first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before – and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.

One of the first tell-tale signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon their massive collection of luggage that had been left in the carport that evening, with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed. Ladybird then uttered a phrase that captures what all former presidents probably come to understand as they take their first steps as former presidents:

“The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”

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F/N Gathering Its Rosebuds While, And Where, It May

As RN often equably observed, his books could always count on at least a couple of hundred thousand sales because the cons —who were eagerly anticipating delicious new Nixonian excesses and outrages— were as likely to buy them as were the pros —who were patiently awaiting the latest expressions of Nixonian wisdom.

Indeed, Rose Mary Woods kept a “book list” —ultimately amounting to a couple of hundred thousand names— of those who wrote regarding RN’s oeuvre. Almost evenly divided between the pro and the con, the list would be maintained and used as the basis for the next book’s sales plan.

This is the context in which a press release from Universal Pictures announcing that Frost/Nixon enjoyed the biggest per-screen debut of any film released in 2008 should probably be read.

“Frost/Nixon”, Universal Pictures’ new electrifying drama, directed by Academy Award(R) winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, had a remarkable first weekend at the domestic box office, it was announced today. Over the weekend, the film accumulated $180,708 from just three locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto, for a per- screen average of $60,236. This figure gives “Frost/Nixon” the biggest per- screen debut of any film released in 2008.

“This is a spectacular opening, and we are thrilled with the result,” said Adam Fogelson, President of Marketing and Distribution for Universal Pictures. “Ron Howard, his cast and crew created one of the best films of the year, and it is gratifying that audiences and critics alike are celebrating it with such enthusiasm. We look forward to bringing ‘Frost/Nixon’ to additional markets through Christmas so audiences everywhere can discover for themselves what has people crowding into these early theaters.”

Currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, F/N will expand to 29 additional markets (including Washington DC) on Friday. It will open wide on Christmas Day — timing which some snarks will probably see as Universal’s coal in the stockings of America.

The major critics have now weighed in, and the film has received a pretty decisive endorsement: 92% positive among all critics (per Rotten Tomatoes) and 95% among the top tier. And the combination of strong reviews and potentially strong word of mouth could extend the film’s charmed life in Friday’s targeted cities,

But the answer to the question of whether F/N will “Sizzle or Fizzle” can, surely, never really be in doubt.

Given the reviews and degree of interest to date —not to mention the remnants of Rose Woods’ list — it’s hard to see a complete fizzle in F/N’s future. But —unless lightning were to strike in the form, say, of a Best Actor or Best Director Oscar— it’s hard to imagine the film finding a wider audience after the sizable but finite universe of interested individuals —the people who still love and the people who still love to hate RN, plus the hardcore universe of younger political junkies— have seen it.

Depending on how much it cost to make —and there’s nothing to indicate that this was a budget-busting project— the film seems bound to deliver a respectable, and even a strong, return on investment.

But, sizzle is a slipprier standard. In Clintonian terms, it depends on what you mean by it. Such sizzle as there may be in F/N’s future is almost precisely there — in the future. Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s earlier success —The Queen— did respectable business, but no more, before Helen Mirren won her Oscar. This holiday season, along with visions of sugar plums, visions of Frank Langella’s Oscar acceptance speech are undoubtedly unfolding before the wondering eyes of Messrs. Morgan, Howard, Grazer, and Fogelson, et al. (and, of course, Mr. Langella).

That’s the only route to true sizzle for F/N. But there’s a precedent. And stranger things have happened.

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Herman Perry’s Letter to Richard Nixon

Sixty-three years ago today, businessman Herman Perry wrote a letter to Richard Nixon asking him if he was interested in running for a seat in the House of Representatives. At the time, incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis was representing the 12th congressional district of California. Nixon was a young up-and-coming attorney, a graduate of Duke University Law School, and a naval officer during World War II who had returned to his hometown of Whittier to work at an established law firm. “I am writing this short note to ask you if you would like to be a candidate for Congress on the Republican ticket in 1946,” Perry’s letter said. “Jerry Voorhis expects to run—registration is about 50-50. The Republicans are gaining. Please airmail me your reply if you are interested.”

On October 6, 1945, Nixon drafted a reply. “I feel very strongly that Jerry Voorhis can be beaten and I’d welcome the opportunity to take a crack at him. An aggressive, vigorous campaign on a platform of practical liberalism should be the antidote the people have been looking for to take the place of Voorhis’ particular brand of New Deal idealism. You can be sure that I’ll do everything possible to win if the party gives me the chance to run,” he wrote. “I’m sure that I can hold my own with Voorhis on the speaking platform, and without meaning to toot my own horn, I believe I have the fight, spirit and background which can beat him.”

In 1946, Nixon defeated Voorhis for his first political victory. The rest, as they say, is history.

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OK — My Bad — But I Get To Keep My Job

“I really don’t believe making mistakes means you have to give up your career,” Representative Charles B. Rangel said at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

Already dealing with the backdraft from several other scandals, eternal Harlem Congressman and immensely powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Charles Rangel has now acknowledged that he failed to pay tax on rental income from a Dominican Republic resort condo (the acquisition of which is already under separate scrutiny). That’s a long sentence, I know, but it’s carrying a lot of information; just as the jaunty, dapper, gravelly-voiced Chairman appears to be carrying a lot of baggage.

The 19-term Congressman was first elected in 1970, replacing the legendary Adam Clayton Powell; his first assignment was to the Judiciary Committee, and in 1974 he was part of the Impeachment Inquiry.  He has been re-elected with scarcely even token opposition ever since.

The rental income-tax story is reported in today’s New York Times:

Representative Charles B. Rangel paid no interest for more than a decade on a mortgage extended to him to buy a villa at a beachfront resort in the Dominican Republic, according to Mr. Rangel’s lawyer and records from the resort.

The loan was given to him by the resort development company, in which Theodore Kheel, a prominent New York labor lawyer, was a principal investor. Mr. Kheel, who has given tens of thousands of dollars to Mr. Rangel’s campaigns over the past decade, had encouraged the congressman to be one of the initial investors in the project.

In fact, it was the New York Post that broke the story — and that has been on “Tricky Charlie’s” (as they style him) finances and living arrangements like a Weimaraner on a pork chop for the last several months.

Chairman Rangel is far and away the biggest recipient of contributions from lobbyists in the New York delegation (and that sets a very high standard indeed.)  In the first half of this year he took in almost three quarters of a million dollars in this manner.

 

The DNC returned a $100,000 check he gave from the money raised at his 77th birthday party  fundraiser.  (The party, held at The Tavern on the Green in August 2007, raised more than $1 million.)  The technicality was that it went against the Obama campaign’s decision not to accept any PAC-related money, but it was widely seen as a serious slap at the formerly sacrosanct Chairman.

Its namesake’s way of supporting the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York doesn’t, in the words of the Washington Post, “pass the smell test”.  The paper editorialized about “Rep. Rangel’s Tin Cup”:

In the corridors of money and power in New York City, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), is called simply “Mr. Chairman.” Everyone knows that he’s chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. With his sway over tax and trade policy, captains of industry around the country are eager to have his ear. So when a letter from Mr. Rangel, especially if it’s on his congressional stationary, arrives, the 19-term Harlem congressman receives close attention.

As Post staff writer Christopher Lee reported Tuesday, Mr. Rangel has been requesting meetings with business and philanthropic leaders since 2005 to discuss the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. It’s a $30 million facility Mr. Rangel says is dedicated to ensuring that the next generation of public servants reflects America’s diversity and “will allow me to locate the inspirational aspects of my legacy in my home Harlem community.” So far, $12.2 million has been raised. That includes a $1.9 million earmark, $690,500 in grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $100,000 from the New York City Council, $7.1 million from foundations and $2.3 million from individuals. The largest single gift ($5 million) came from the C.V. Starr Foundation, which is chaired by Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, a former head of insurance and financial services giant AIG. Mr. Rangel and college officials had a separate meeting with AIG this year, and another gift is under consideration.

Mr. Rangel’s actions raise a couple of red flags. First, House rules forbid solicitations on official letterhead, even for nonprofits. At a minimum, he should stop this practice. Next, Mr. Rangel says that congressional business never comes up at his meetings. We’ll take him at his word. But those with business before Mr. Rangel’s committee could try to curry favor with him by donating to the Rangel Center. The appearance problem here is huge.

Charlie Rangel is a colorful and engaging figure.  He’s the first to admit that “modesty is not really my best trait.” Before the 2004 he joked to voters that, if he became a powerful Committee Chair, “I don’t want to be treated differently than any other world leader.”  You can get an example of his winning ways on this interview given just as he was poised to assume his Chairmanship back in 2007.

Last July it was revealed —again by the New York Post— that Mr. Rangel, whose declared net worth was in the high six figures, was living in four apartments in Manhattan that were rent-stabilized in order to help low income tenants find decent housing.  I wrote about this story here at the time.

Even The Times’ usually restrained prose (especially where powerful Manhattan Democratic Committee Chairs are involved) showed some righteous indignation at the patent unfairness (and political foolhardiness) of Mr. Rangel’s living arrangements:

While aggressive evictions are reducing the number of rent-stabilized apartments in New York, Representative Charles B. Rangel is enjoying four of them, including three adjacent units on the 16th floor overlooking Upper Manhattan in a building owned by one of New York’s premier real estate developers.

The Olnick Organization and other real estate firms have been accused of overzealous tactics as they move to evict tenants from their rent-stabilized apartments and convert the units into market-rate housing.

The current market-rate rent for similar apartments in Mr. Rangel’s building would total $7,465 to $8,125 a month, according to the Web site of the owner, the Olnick Organization.

Mr. Rangel, the powerful Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, uses his fourth apartment, six floors below, as a campaign office, despite state and city regulations that require rent-stabilized apartments to be used as a primary residence.

Mr. Rangel, who has a net worth of $566,000 to $1.2 million, according to Congressional disclosure records, paid a total rent of $3,894 monthly in 2007 for the four apartments at Lenox Terrace, a 1,700-unit luxury development of six towers, with doormen, that is described in real estate publications as Harlem’s most prestigious address.

It’s one thing to to have a sweetheart deal of a questionable nature.  It’s quite another thing to flaunt it in a lavish rich-and-famous lifestyles coffeetable book.  What could have been the thought processes behind inviting the photographer over for that gig?

Me?  I’m of two minds about all this.  At least I think I am; and, if I am, then it’s at least two.  As a New Yorker, I’m long-accustomed to Mr. Rangel’s colorful ways and means and have developed what amounts to an affection for him.  He can be bombastic and he can be outrageous.  He’s one of the last lions left over from the old days when outsize personalities were not uncommon; and, if you had the right stuff to back them up, they were widely admired.  He is known as a prodigiously hard worker; a good boss; an excellent constituent services provider; and as the kind of all around good guy that is sadly missing and sorely missed around Washington these days.

He is a heart-on-sleeve liberal partisan, many (if not most) of whose positions I couldn’t disagree with more.   But whether you agree with him or not, you know where he stands and you can depend on him to stand up for what he believes in.

Given the unbelievable extent to which all Congresspersons —much less senior Democrats and powerful Committee Chairmen— are isolated from the realities of ordinary daily life while their asses are kissed six ways til Sunday 24/7/365, he has remained refreshingly accessible and good-natured.  And, at least based on what has surfaced so far, he is probably still only in the mid single digits on a ten point run-of-the-mill congressional corruption scale.

He has a very compelling personal story that he set down in an autobiography published earlier this year: And I Haven’t Had A Bad Day Since.  It got such good reviews and word of mouth that I actually bought a copy.  Although I ended up skimming a lot of the political boilerplate towards the end, the earlier sections were vivid and candid.  They include the tales of a somewhat misspent youth, a spell in the Army in Korea where he won a Purple Heart (his reaction to that incident gave the book its title), and the beginnings of a hugely successful career in politics.

But what about his current arguments that he didn’t know about his tax obligations and that he thought his accountants and lawyers were handling everything.  I suppose they’re OK as far as they go.  The question is: how far do they go?   After all, the man is generally acknowledged to be brilliant; he’s a graduate of NYU’s School of Commerce and St. John’s Law School; and he’s surrounded by very large and capable staffs entirely devoted to his continuance in office.  And he hasn’t got to where he is by being inattentive to details.

This ignorance defense is very popular on Capitol Hill these days.  In the last few months it has been invoked by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad to explain the highly favorable non-competitive rates they got on mortgages for second homes from a lender who had business with their Committees.

What level of responsibility —and accountability— should attach to legislators who are in charge of regulating the nation’s banks and writing the nation’s tax laws and who claim ignorance as their defense when serious questions are raised about their financial and tax affairs?

The tide seems to be turning against Mr. Rangel these days.  Slowly now, to be sure; but perceptively gaining speed. His fund-raising prowess, formerly admired, is under investigation.  Ethics Committee involvement is under way.  His ardent support for Senator Clinton’s presidential bid has left him naked to his enemies at the Obamaized DNC.  And it can never be a good sign when you hire Lanny Davis as your defense attorney.

The admirable philosophy that has brought him so far for so long is about to be sorely tested: Charlie Rangel is about to have some very bad days.

UPDATE 9/13/08: In today’s Wall Street Journal, Eileen Norcross has an interesting column about rent control and stabilization in the New York City housing market.

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Falling Chinese Infrastructure

Yao Ming and earthquake survivor and hero Lin Hao, 9

Hugh Hewitt’s criticism of this comment by Sen. Obama is on the mark:

Everybody’s watching what’s going on in Beijing right now with the Olympics. Think about the amount of money that China has spent on infrastructure. Their ports, their train systems, their airports are vastly the superior to us now, which means if you are a corporation deciding where to do business you’re starting to think, “Beijing looks like a pretty good option.”

Merely to elaborate Br. Hugh’s thorough argument: (1) A thoughtful China hand tells me that while the PRC is celebrated for producing more engineers than the U.S. to keep pace with coastal China’s frenetic growth, on average they’re not as well-trained as ours. (2) Obama’s comment displays insensitivity to the suffering that persists in Sichuan Province, where 70,000 died in May, many of them crushed under school buildings to which “vastly…superior” doesn’t remotely apply. Writes Professor Zhi Wenjun:

The great disaster of the Wenchuan earthquake has evoked serious thinking by many people, especially on the quality of public construction, such as the phenomenon that many schools collapsed in the earthquake with serious casualties inflicted….In addition to the fact that the earthquake intensity went far beyond the state seismic fortification requirements in these regions, apparently the collapsed school buildings represented jerry-built construction projects.

The earthquake exposed extensive, fatal problems that exist in architectural design and construction in China.

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24 July 1969: Home From The Moon

On 24 July 1969, RN was in mid-Pacific welcoming the Apollo 11 crew home from the moon.

Like the rest of the mission, everything had gone almost flawlessly.

After traveling 240,000 miles, the capsule —named Columbia— splashed down less than two miles from the target. (RN requested that the band play “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” as the three Apollo astronauts set foot on the deck of the recovery vessel.)

A helicopter picked them up an hour later and brought them to a special quarantine unit on the deck of the USS Hornet, where a proud and buoyant POTUS was waiting —along with CINCPAC Commander Admiral John McCain and many other dignitaries— to greet them.


Here is the text of the not always entirely comfortable exchange (but you try having an easy chat with three men who have just spent a week in space and are behind glass because they may have picked up some ghastly moon bug and with the entire crew of the Hornet not to mention the entire world looking over your shoulder and fastening on every word):

THE PRESIDENT:

Neil, Buzz, and Mike:

I want you to know that I think I am the luckiest man in the world, and I say this not only because I have the honor to be President of the United States, but particularly because I have the privilege of speaking for so many in welcoming you back to earth.

I can tell you about all the messages we have received in Washington. Over 100 foreign governments, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, and kings, have sent the most warm messages that we have ever received. They represent over 2 billion people on this earth, all of them who have had the opportunity, through television, to see what you have done.

Then I also bring you messages from members of the Cabinet and Members of the Senate, Members of the House, the space agency, from the streets of San Francisco where people stopped me a few days ago, and you all love that city, I know, as I do.

But most important, I had a telephone call yesterday. The toll wasn’t, incidentally, as great as the one I made to you fellows on the moon. I made that collect, incidentally, in case you didn’t know. But I called three, in my view, three of the greatest ladies and most courageous ladies in the whole world today–your wives.

From Jan, Joan, and Pat, I bring their love and their congratulations. We think it is just wonderful that they have participated at least in television in this return. We are only sorry they couldn’t be here.

Also, I will let you in on a little secret. I made a date with them. I invited them to dinner on the 13th of August, right after you come out of quarantine. It will be a state dinner held in Los Angeles. The Governors of all the 50 States will be there, the Ambassadors, others from around the world and in America. They told me that you would come, too. All I want to know is: Will you come? We want to honor you then.

MR. NEIL A. ARMSTRONG. We will do anything you say, Mr. President, anytime.

THE PRESIDENT. One question, I think all of us would like to ask: As we saw you bouncing around in that float out there, I wonder if that wasn’t the hardest part of the journey. Did any of you get seasick?

MR. ARMSTRONG. No, we didn’t, and it was one of the hardest parts, but it was one of the most pleasant, we can assure you.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I just know that you can sense what we all sense. When you get back now incidentally, have you been able to follow some of the things that happened since you have been gone? Did you know about the All-Star Game?

COL. EDWIN E. ALDRIN, JR. Yes, sir. The capsule communicators have been giving us daily reports.

THE PRESIDENT. Were you American League or National League?

Col. ALDRIN. National League.

MR. ARMSTRONG. Neither one.

THE PRESIDENT. There is the politician in the group.

MR. ARMSTRONG. We are sorry you missed that.

THE PRESIDENT. You knew that, too?

MR. ARMSTRONG. We heard about the rain. We haven’t learned to control the weather yet, but that is something we can look forward to.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I can only summarize it because I don’t want to hold you now. You have so much more to do. You look great. Do you feel as great as you look?

MR. ARMSTRONG. We feel great.

THE PRESIDENT. Frank Borman feels you are a little younger by reason of having gone into space. Is that right? Do you feel a little bit younger?

MR. ARMSTRONG. We are younger than Frank Borman.

THE PRESIDENT. He is over there. Come on over, Frank, so they can see you. Are you going to take that lying down?

ASTRONAUTS. It looks like he has aged in the last couple weeks.

COL. FRANK BORMAN. They look a little heavy.

Mr. President, the one thing I wanted–you know, we have a poet in Mike Collins. He really gave me a hard time for describing the words “fantastic” and “beautiful.” I counted them. In 4 minutes up there, you used four “fantastics” and three “beautiful.”

THE PRESIDENT. Well, just let me close off with this one thing: I was thinking, as you know, as you came down, and we knew it was a success, and it had only been 8 days, just a week, a long week, that this is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation, because as a result of what happened in this week, the world is bigger, infinitely, and also, as I am going to find on this trip around the world, and as Secretary Rogers will find as he covers the other countries in Asia, as a result of what you have done, the world has never been closer together before.

We just thank you for that. I only hope that all of us in Government, all of us in America, that as a result of what you have done, can do our job a little better.

We can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.

We don’t want to hold you any longer. Anybody have a last–how about promotions? Do you think we can arrange something?

MR. ARMSTRONG. We are just pleased to be back and very honored that you were so kind as to come out here and welcome us back. We look forward to getting out of this quarantine and talking without having the glass between us.

THE PRESIDENT. Incidentally, the speeches that you have to make at this dinner can be very short. If you want to say “fantastic” or “beautiful,” that is all right with us. Don’t try to think of new adjectives. They have all been said.

Now, I think incidentally that all of us, the millions who are seeing us on television now, seeing you, would feel as I do, that, in a sense, our prayers have been answered, and I think it would be very appropriate if Chaplain Piirto, the Chaplain of this ship, were to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. If he would step up now.

RN was genuinely excited by the mission, the men, and the moment — he was sincere when he said he was the luckiest man in the world. A troublemaking reporter took the President’s hyperbolic assertion about the “greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation” to Billy Graham and elicited a correction; Rev. Graham said that there were greater times, including the first Christmas, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

When RN saw this story in his News Summary, he made a note to Bob Haldeman: “H —- Tell Billy RN referred to a week not a day.”

In RN, RN noted: “When I talked to Billy Graham a few days later, he said, “Mr. President, I know exactly how you felt, and I understand exactly what you meant, but, even so, I think you may have been a little excessive.”

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The Big Anti-Semitic Lie that Won’t Go Away

While fires were still smoldering at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvanian pasture, malicious people conjured up an evil myth. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many in the Arab world believed that the vicious attack on America was not the work of Islamists, but rather was an Israeli-driven Mossad operation. This legend soon developed muscular legs and is now widely regarded by millions of Muslims as the truth.

And why not? For decades school children in Muslim nations (not to mention their parents at home) have been baptized in anti-Semitic narratives. The opinions in their world about Jews in general, and Israel in particular, are concrete – thoroughly mixed up and permanently set.

And the most persistent and pernicious ideas that have been accepted by millions as factual truth flowed from the poisonous pen of a guy named Mathieu Golovinski.

The spurious publication called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an Islamist must-read. The work tells a story that fits the pattern of long-standing prejudices. The words reinforce the visceral hatred Islamists have toward Jews.

Islamist anti-Semitism is not a new thing. It didn’t begin with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, or the Six-Day War in 1967. It was around long before there was a Hitler – in fact, it grew up alongside Islam from the beginning. It’s an enmity that can be traced back to Muhammad and what he said, wrote, and did. And to those looking for ammunition to use against people they have been historically conditioned to hate, the often denounced and repeatedly refuted forgery is just what the evil doctor ordered.

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, it is true that non-Muslims and non-Nazis have at times bought into the notions set forth by the Protocols – some even in the name of Christianity. This is sad. But it is also statistically rare these days. Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan types apparently still peddle the book, but these people are the proverbial skunks at our national picnic. And eighty years ago, there were a few prominent Americans (automobile magnate Henry Ford notable among them) who endorsed the writings. But that was a passing, though very regrettable, thing.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purports to be written evidence of a vast and secret Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. It’s presented as a factual and detailed description of a late-nineteenth century meeting to plot international Hebrew hegemony through manipulation and treachery. These ideas are at the root of the mother of all conspiracy theories for those who live in the bizarre world of alternative historical reality.

In fact, the publication is a forgery – probably the most sinister and infamous fake in literary history.

The year is 1898, and Nicholas II rules a Russia that’s beginning to experience the revolutionary stirrings of modernism. The Tsar is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and tends to be easily led by strong people around him. He tries to take incremental steps toward leading the nation away from its feudal past, but some in his court are alarmed. Thus, evil men began to seek a way to short-circuit these liberalizing influences.

If only they could convince the Tsar that the voices of change he’s listening to are motivated by something other than the best interests of Russia – but how? It was in this environment that the greatest of all anti-Semitic lies was born. A threatening conspiracy would be manufactured – one that would bring Nicholas to his senses – and the Jews to their knees.

Mathieu Golovinski was living in Parisian exile at the time. Though he was Russian, having been born in the Simbirsk region in 1865, he was forced to flee after repeated clashes with Russian authorities, usually having to do with his tendency to fabricate documents and evidence in legal matters. He was a master of spin, innuendo, and dirty tricks. He was also very skilled in the arts of forgery and plagiarism.

And he worked for the Okhrana – the Tsar’s secret police.

He was approached by agents’ provocateur from the Tsar’s inner circle about creating a convincing anti-Jewish legend. They needed a narrative, one that would be seen as proof of a sinister plot behind the winds of change beginning to blow in Russia. Golovinski was commissioned to fabricate the evidence.

He came across an old book, written in 1864 by an anti-monarchist activist named Maurice Joly. It was entitled, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquie and was written as a thinly disguised attack on Napoleon III’s rule in France. The book was suppressed by the French government and the writer was imprisoned. He committed suicide in 1878.

A plan was hatched to borrow from this obscure book, changing some of its cosmetics and phrasing. It would be recast, using Joly’s fictional dialogue for a model, as the actual deliberations of a secret cabal of Jews bent on taking over the world. When the fake was finished, it was spirited back to St. Petersburg, and all that would be needed was a way to get it before the ruler of the realm.

Enter the other religious zealot in and around the court of the Tsar.

When most think of religious influences around Nicholas II, attention is usually given to Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who haunted that scene beginning about 1905. But often overlooked, and certainly more ominous as far as long-term impact on the world is concerned, is the influence of his cultic contemporary, Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus. He was a writer on religious matters and a self-styled spiritual mystic.

And he is also the man who first published Golovinski’s sinister forgery.

Initially placing the Protocols as a chapter in one of his books, Dr. Nilus saw to it that the potentate was fully briefed and convinced about the purported Jewish threat. And like Rasputin, he also had the ear of ruler’s wife – so the Tsar, never a man to have his own firm opinions, fell prey to the lie. And in the days following his nation’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese at a loss of several hundred thousand men, not to mention overwhelming financial expense, circumstances were ripe for the rotten fruit of a compelling scapegoat story.

On January 9, 1905, the Tsar’s troops opened fire on protesters who peacefully marched near the palace in St. Petersburg. This would become known as Bloody Sunday. The Tsar and his inner circle saw in the Protocols the real reason for the unrest – it was a big Jewish plot to overthrow the monarchy.

So it began – the gargantuan conspiratorial lie that has reared its hideous head time and time again over the past one hundred years. Jewish plotters were blamed for The Great War (1914-1918). Then in its aftermath, when Germany was struggling to recover from defeat, the big lie was discovered by the greatest demagogue of the day, Adolf Hitler. By the time the future German dictator was sent to prison in 1923, he was well versed in the Protocols and drew significantly from the forgery as he wrote his own hate-filled and delusional tome, Mein Kampf.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became, to men already filled with anti-Semitic ideas, proof positive of a sinister Jewish agenda. To those who believed the lie, the writings were sufficient evidence for the indictment, condemnation, and eventual execution of these conspiratorial people. The Protocols in many ways fueled the Holocaust.

Yet all along, reasonable people – scholars, journalists, and statesmen – have gone to great lengths to expose the fraudulent nature of the Protocols. Beginning with a lengthy analysis in the Times of London in 1921, to a celebrated trial in Switzerland in 1935, to a report by the United States Senate in 1964, good people have said again and again: “the book’s a fake.” Good people still do.

It’s the bad people who are the problem.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the biggest publishing hoax of the past one hundred years, is not going away. This is largely because Islamists are using it, with great effectiveness, to fan contemporary flames of hatred. In fact, it’s arguable that there are more copies of this lie-laden text extant, than ever before. The forgery is used by politicians and clerics in the Muslim world to justify their distorted and destructive world-view.

Gamal Abdel Nassar, the late president of Egypt, recommended the book to his countrymen. His Saudi contemporary, King Faisal, had the forgery put in hotels in his nation, like Gideon Bibles (he once gave a copy to Henry Kissinger). The Ayatollah Khomeini, who took over in Iran in 1979, made the Protocols a national bestseller. An entire generation of Islamic thinkers and scholars now aggressively promotes the forgery as literal fact.

Hamas owes Article 32 of its charter to these long-ago-discredited writings when it says things like: “Zionist scheming has no end…Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of Zion.” And it’s, of course, a perennial favorite with Holocaust deniers such as that wacky Iranian, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Islamist anti-Semitism is at the root of the so-called War on Terror. The bad guys use the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as their proof-text. It would make sense that if we really want to eradicate the symptom we must deal frankly with the cause. Islamism isn’t an aberration. It’s an ideology based on prejudices rooted in the distant past and old lies that won’t seem to go away.

Shortly before his death in early 2005, the legendary pioneer of twentieth-century graphic art, Will Eisner, a man who spent much of his life debunking the infamous forgery, called the Protocols a “terrifying vampire-like fraud.”

Indeed. – DRS

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