Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spiro Agnew Stands for Civil Rights

Significant aspects of the Nixon era remain hidden from the public consciousness, because the Watergate Scandal so powerfully overshadows others event in this time period. Scholars, however, examine a number of noteworthy achievements during this time, including Nixon’s selection of Spiro Agnew for the vice presidency.

Like Nixon, Agnew’s public persona would be dominated by allegations of wrongdoing. Yet Agnew’s career is also worth studying.

Agnew emerged as a surprise, a relatively unknown figure, suddenly named by Nixon as a running-mate in 1968. Donald Rumsfeld recalls the astonishment when Nixon unveiled his pick:

When Nixon announced Governor Agnew’s selection the following day, he said he had based his decision on three criteria. First, Nixon claimed, Agnew was qualified to become president. Second, he said Agnew would be a good campaigner; and third, if they got elected Agnew would be able to manage domestic policy. To my knowledge, Agnew was not particularly noted for those qualities. More than anything Nixon seemed pleased that he had selected someone so unexpected, catching everyone off guard. And indeed the choice of Agnew was so startling that it stunned even Agnew.

As is often the case, in recent decades, a great deal of speculation preceded Nixon’s announcement. Nixon and his staff had listed potential running mates. Prominent individuals and Nixon’s personal friends had been consulted.

Some, like Rumsfeld, reckoned that Nixon had deliberately veiled his thinking, in order to create a shocking sensation when Agnew was disclosed as the vice presidential candidate. Gerald Ford, who at the time was House Minority Leader, was surprised and perhaps a bit skeptical. Later, after having ascended to the presidency himself, Ford would write:

Nixon had selected Spiro T. Agnew, the governor of Maryland, as his running mate. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who had risen from total obscurity a few years earlier to become a governor of a border state. I remembered meeting him two years before at a Republican dinner in Annapolis. He’d come up to me, a well-groomed but somehow diffident man who seemed to talk out of the corners of his mouth. “Hi, I’m Ted Agnew, Baltimore County executive, and I’m running for governor,” he’d said, sticking out his hand.

Why did Nixon choose Agnew? In addition to the three reasons outlined by Rumsfeld above, and in addition to his love for surprises, there was another factor in Nixon’s choice.

In 1968, Nixon was running against “the party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace” - the quote comes from a 1966 newspaper column authored by Nixon (with help behind the scenes from his speechwriter and staffer Patrick Buchanan). These three men were the public face and shaping force of the Democratic Party at that time.

Lester Maddox was a restaurant owner and segregationist governor of Georgia, known for driving African-Americans out of his restaurant by brandishing an ax handle. George Mahoney was a segregationist nominated by the Democratic Party for governor of Maryland. George Wallace was the segregationist governor of Alabama, who uncompromisingly declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Against “the party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace,” Nixon offered the heritage of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower and Nixon had moved the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, against resistance from the Democratic Party. When Lyndon Johnson used a procedural maneuver to weaken the act, a technicality about jury selection, Ike and Nixon responded with the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which they again ushered through Congress over objections from the Democratic Party.

As Republicans, Ike and Nixon had defended the 'Little Rock Nine' and broken through the barriers of segregation. The Democratic Party, in the person of Orval Faubus, worked to keep the African-American students out of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The Democrats were so committed to segregation that Eisenhower and Nixon had to use federal troops to ensure that the Black students were admitted to the school.

In this environment, Nixon chose Agnew. In Maryland, when Agnew ran for governor against George Mahoney, Agnew earned 70% of the African-American vote. Ann Coulter writes:

One of the main reasons Nixon chose a rookie like Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential nominee was Agnew’s sterling civil rights record. Agnew had passed some of the first bans on racial discrimination in public housing in the nation - before the federal laws - and then beaten segregationist George Mahoney for governor of Maryland in 1966.

It is one of history’s better-kept secrets that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won a large share of the Black vote in 1968 because the opposing party was thoroughly populated with leaders who opposed desegregation and integration.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hillary Learns from Daley

Although Hillary Clinton’s career has been consistent since she emerged into the national consciousness in the early 1990s, it had some dramatic reversals prior to that. She was, in succession, a moderate Republican and a conservative Republican, before finally ending as a left progressivist.

What series of events took Mrs. Clinton through these, and other, political categories? Historians Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta write that “Hillary was a spirited and deeply conservative Republican.”

It is worth noting that words like ‘liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, moderate, left, right, progresive’ are ambiguous, and their meanings change significantly from context to context. What was Hillary Clinton’s context?

In 1960, her favorite teacher, much of her local community, and “her father supported Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency.” As a young person, Hillary was formed by her environment, by the people around her, “And, of course, Hillary also wanted Nixon to win.”

What did she find attractive about Nixon? After eight years in office, he functioned largely as an extension of Eisenhower’s policies: he was working for what would become the twenty-sixth amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Nixon also embraced Ike’s view that the United States should not enter, or commit militarily to, the war in Vietnam.

Not only Hillary, but much of her generation liked what Nixon meant for young voters.

Nixon’s loss in the 1960 election was heartbreaking for the young Hillary Clinton. “The day after the election, Hillary’s social studies teacher showed his students the bruises” which

he had received when he challenged the Democratic Party’s poll watchers at his voting precinct on Election Day. Hillary and her friend Betsy Johnson were infuriated. To Hillary, her teacher’s ordeal dramatically supported her father’s contention that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s “creative vote counting had won the election for President-Elect Kennedy.” Hillary and Betsy were so upset about what had happened to Mr. Kenvin that they took a moment during their lunch period to use a pay phone outside the school cafeteria to call Mayor Daley’s office to complain.

It was a disillusioning moment for the young Hillary. Her youthful understanding of freely-elected representation was shattered by the realization that the system was corrupted.

Her father, although disappointed, was more realistic, and accepting of the fact that system was as good as it could be, given the imperfect nature both of the world and of people. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta continue:

On the Saturday morning after the election, the determined young women decided to help a Republican group check voter lists against addresses in an attempt to find voter fraud. Both girls participated without getting permission from their parents. Hillary was driven to a poor neighborhood on the South Side, where she went knocking on doors, an act that was “fearless and stupid,” she recalled. “I woke up a lot of people who stumbled to the door or yelled at me to go away. And I walked into a bar where men were drinking to ask if certain people on my list actually lived there.” Hillary found clear evidence of voter fraud - a vacant lot that was listed as the address for a dozen alleged voters. She was thrilled with her detective work and could not wait to tell her father that she had discovered that Daley had indeed stolen the election for Kennedy. “Of course, when I returned home and told my father where I had been, he went nuts. It was bad enough to go downtown without an adult, but to go to the South Side alone sent him into a yelling fit,” she recalled. “And besides, he said, Kennedy was going to be President whether we liked it or not.”

Idealism did not die quickly for Hillary Clinton, however. In 1964, dismayed by LBJ’s foreseeable escalation and debacle in Vietnam, she supported Barry Goldwater. She liked Goldwater for many of the same reason she, and others of her generation, liked Nixon in 1960.

Gradually, however, her attachment to a system of representative democracy eased. Seeing Chicago’s mayor Daley orchestrate a flood of falsified ballots, election after election, she began to drift toward the notion that an elite corps of experts, installed at the helm of government, was a better mechanism than any type of voting.

Of course this view, a type of progressivism, was also not realistic, and would require compromises with reality. She understood that elections would continue to occur. But her participation in them, as a voter or as a candidate, would no longer be idealistic, but rather opportunistic.

After Goldwater’s 1964 loss, Hillary’s engagement with the system became more pragmatic - or more cynical, depending upon one’s interpretation. Her experiences at Wellesley College nudged her in this direction. At Wellesley, she was a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller’s bid to gain the Republican nomination for the presidency. This marked her move to the left wing of the Republican Party.

Toward the end of her time at Wellesley, she served as an intern for a group of congressmen, including Gerald Ford. She would recall, many years later, that she was impressed with Ford, and believed that he had truly earned his reputation as an extremely honest individual.

Yet she left the Republican Party soon thereafter, when Rockefeller did not gain the nomination. By 1968, she was no longer supporting Nixon. That year’s Republican National Convention was the last one she would ever attend.

By 1974, she had long since stopped identifying herself as Republican, and was working to get Nixon impeached. Her attachment to the Democrat Party grew not out of her beliefs, but rather out of her perception that she had opportunities for advancement there. She had found LBJ more distasteful than Nixon, but was willing to use Johnson’s party for her own purposes.

While it is impossible to be certain about a historical figure’s inner thought processes, and wise historians do not engage in speculation, it seems that the seeds for Hillary Clinton’s eventual career were sown by Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.

Although she was disappointed with the outcomes of the elections he manipulated, and outraged at the injustice of his electoral corruption, she eventually came to embrace his methods and his party. Her youthful idealism, once shattered, gave way to a hardened opportunism.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Bull Connor and the Consequences of Racism

In May 1963, brutal and horrific images shocked not only the United States, but the world: images of peaceful protesters being attacked by dogs and pummeled by high-pressure fire hoses.

These images - newsreels or still photographs - have been seared into the consciousness and into the conscience of humanity. They stand as a symbol for the cruelty, viciousness, and hatred which racism is, and which racism engenders.

More than half a century later, these images retain their shocking power, and energize new generations to seek equal opportunities for people of all races.

But who was the man behind these images? Who ordered the savage dogs to be released onto innocent men, women, and children? Who commanded that high pressure water be directed at people?

And which consequences did he pay?

These images come from Birmingham, Alabama. The protesters were part of an event organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their peaceful protest walk through the city was designed to elicit a statement from Birmingham’s mayor.

Instead, they got the attention of “Bull” Connor, who was the Commissioner for Public Safety for the City of Birmingham. His legal name was Theophilus Eugene Connor. He personally made the decision to unleash the dogs and fire hoses at the young protesters.

Within days, the images of brutality directed against African-Americans, and against the white people who joined them in their protest, had turned large parts of the nation against Birmingham. The city’s government quickly negotiated a settlement with the protesters, which included the desegregation of some public accommodations.

But what happened to “Bull” Connor? Following the events of early 1963, the Democratic Party nominated him, later that year, to be its candidate for the Presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission. This would be a promotion for him; he had previously been commissioner over a single city - now he would have authority over the entire state.

Not only was he nominated for the statewide ballot, but he was also chosen by the Democratic Party to be the state’s national committeeman. In September 1964, the New York Times reported that

Mr. Connor, the former Birmingham City Police Commissioner, is this state’s Democratic National Committeeman.

Leading up the November elections that year, the newspaper goes on to explain who’s supporting Connor’s bid for statewide office:

Mr. Connor is the Democratic nominee for the chairmanship of the state Public Service Commission.

With the support of his party, Connor won handily and took office in January 1965. This is how his party rewarded him for his work in Birmingham in May 1963.

In 1968, the Democratic Party nominated Connor for reelection, and helped him to victory again.

Historian James L. Baggett writes that “Connor was unrepentant and never repudiated his defense of racial segregation.”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Claiming the Moral High Ground: 71 Years after it was Time to Act, Congress Passes HR 5739

On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, the House of Representatives approved a bill, HR 5739, unanimously. On Thursday, the Senate approved the same bill, unanimously. On Tuesday, December 23, the president signed the bill into law.

In an era often described as “bitterly partisan” and filled with “gridlock,” which urgent question created such bipartisan unity and occasioned such smooth functioning of the legislative process?

HR 5739 is known as the “No Social Security for Nazis Act.” It is designed to ensure that anyone who participated in Hitler’s genocide does not received retirement benefits from the United States government.

Naturally, it was passed quickly and unanimously. Who would oppose such a bill?

But there’s a problem: the new law may not affect anybody. The people to whom it might apply are probably already dead.

To have been a knowing and culpable accomplice to Hitler’s brutalities, an individual would have to be approximately 92 years of age, or older, in the year 2015. Such an individual would have reached the age of majority, 21, in 1944, and would have been born in 1923.

If we stretch it a bit, it might be possible to assign liability to someone aged 18 at the time, which would make such a person 88 years of age now.

While there are many people who are 88 or 92 years old, the percentage of them who actively engaged in atrocities and crimes against humanity is microscopic. By the government’s own estimates, there may not be any at all. The largest possible number of people to whom the law might apply is, by those same estimates, four.

Had such a law been passed ten or twenty years earlier, it might have carried numerical significance.

The Congress and the President seem to want to claim the moral high ground for this courageous piece of legislation. By the same logic, they might also choose to deny Medicaid benefits to citizens who actively supported Benedict Arnold’s defection.

CNN reports the logic of the legislative branch:

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who has been a key proponent in changing the law, told CNN that she has asked both the Justice Department and Social Security Administration to find out how much money was paid out and how many were still receiving any social security funds. She estimated there were roughly four individuals who were still eligible for the payments.
“They are dying out, but anybody who gets it is too much. They came to this country under false pretenses,” Maloney told CNN.

The rationale which Representative Maloney offers is interesting. She believes that legislative action should be taken against those who “came to this country under false pretenses.”

One might expect Rep. Maloney to oppose paying benefits to people who’d participated in grievous violations of human rights and people who’d committed mass murder. Instead she presents a justification based on immigration procedure.

If Rep. Maloney knows and understands what she says, and says what she means, then her statement would have interesting implications for immigration in other contexts. It is, however, not probable that she does.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, and the HUAC

The Cold War was a time of espionage, counterespionage, and labyrinthian cases of undercover work. One of the more famous cases involved Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.

Hiss and Chambers met when they were both working for the Soviet Union. Hiss also worked inside the United States federal government, in the State Department.

With a successful and rising career, Hiss gained access to classified information inside the State Department, and was able to send it to Moscow. He was also able, as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, to give distorted information and misleading guidance, so that the administration made certain decisions which played into the hands of the Soviets.

Chambers, meanwhile, grew disillusioned with the international communist conspiracy. He saw Stalin’s spree of ruthless murders, and eventually left the Soviet intelligence agencies for which he had been working.

Quitting one’s job as a Soviet spy is dangerous. Chambers had hidden his own set of documents so that Stalin’s agents wouldn’t harm Chambers or his family. The agents knew that if they killed him, the papers would be made public, destroying the cover of large parts of the espionage network inside the United States.

In late 1937 or early 1938, Chambers left the spy network, went into hiding for a few months to cool off, and then began a successful career as a journalist, writing for Time magazine from 1939 until 1948.

Around 1939, Chambers met with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. He offered information about the Soviet spy network, which had operatives inside the United States government. Surprisingly, Berle expressed little interest in the offer.

Berle’s notes from the conversation with Chambers would, however, become important evidence a few years later, when a group of congressmen realized the importance of the information which Chambers could give. An account of the events published by Three Rivers Press explains:

In 1948, almost a full decade later, when he was working at Time magazine, Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, more famously known as HUAC. Cham­bers again named Hiss as a Soviet agent.

The notion that a Soviet agent could not only get a job inside the State Department, but could also rise in his career to the point that he was giving face-to-face advice to the President of the United States, was shocking. “HUAC showed somewhat more heightened interest in this fact than had the” Roosevelt administration.

Perhaps FDR didn’t believe the Soviet threat was real. Perhaps his seriously worsening health robbed him of the energy to pursue an investigation of the matter. Perhaps his staffers didn’t want to risk the scandal that might ensue if the public learned that the executive branch was filled with communist spies.

Since the late 1930s, Whittaker Chambers had been offering evidence about the Soviet espionage network. Understanding that this information alerted the nation to a serious threat, the House of Representatives was interested, in contrast to the

administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Here at last, Chambers said, was “a force that was fiercely, albeit clumsily, fighting Communism.” Rumors had long dogged Hiss, but as Chambers said, “for the first time, a man had stood up and said, ‘I was there, I knew them. The rumors are facts.’”

At long last, after more than a decade of work as a Soviet agent, Alger Hiss was exposed and proven guilty. In addition to evidence from Whittaker Chambers, other witnesses came forth. Hiss served three year and eight months in prison.

In the years after Hiss’s trial, more evidence has surfaced. Had that evidence been available at the time of the trial, his sentence might have been longer.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Barack Obama, FOIA, and Donald Rumsfeld

In the 1960s, Congress developed a piece of legislation known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The purpose of this law is to make sure that the government gives as much information as possible to the voters, and keep only that information secret which really needs to be secret.

There is a legitimate need to retain as confidential any information which would compromise national security if released, or which would unnecessarily violate a citizen’s privacy. But the executive branch is tempted to keep other information secret, unnecessarily secret, for political reasons.

A president, or his administration, might choose to deny access to information because of how it would affect policy debates or elections. To prevent the improper withholding of information, FOIA creates a process by which voters can formally request information.

In the nearly fifty years since FOIA was introduced, the Obama administration, along with the Johnson administration, set a record for obstructing citizen access to information. Ted Bridis, writing for the Associated Press (AP), analyzes information requests during the year 2014:

The Obama administration set a new record again for more often than ever censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.

Historians draw a number of parallels between the Obama and Johnson administrations. Both have a technocratic aspect which nudges both of them toward secrecy, and therefore draws both of them into conflict with the FOIA legislation.

President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that if he released information about the Vietnam War, it might block legislation he wanted from Congress, or influence elections against him. In order to learn the facts of the situation, and to allow the voters to make informed decisions, Congressman Donald Rumsfeld sponsored the FOIA legislation in the 1960s. Rumsfeld writes:

on a number of occasions I joined other members of Congress in expressing concern about what appeared to be the White House’s attempts to manage the news on the war. This was an understandable inclination on the administration’s part, since no doubt they felt the media coverage of the war was unfair. But the administration made matters worse with their seeming reluctance to provide much, if any, documentation that would have given members of Congress a better sense of what was taking place.

The administrations seek ways to evade the requirements of FOIA. Legal teams working for the White House find loopholes and technicalities in the text of the act, and use these as excuses for withholding information.

Ted Bridis lists some of the tactics which the Obama administration uses to deny access to information. The AP report states:

The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.

The situations in the 1960s and in 2014 are similar. Donald Rumsfeld promoted FOIA as a response to LBJ’s secrecy about Vietnam.

Information feeds decisions: whether decisions made by individual citizens, or made by Congress, people can make rational choices only on the basis of data. Rumsfeld describes the political process of shepherding the bill through Congress so that FOIA could become law:

By this time, I had become a cosponsor and advocate for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), authored by Congressman John Moss, a Democrat from California. The legislation, which passed unanimously in 1966, was crafted in reaction to the Johnson administration’s behavior. As a Democrat, Moss was in the awkward position of promoting a bill that went against the express wishes of the President, so I helped him develop the legislation and move it through the House. For me, support of the bill came down to one long-held belief: Good judgments require accurate information.

Like LBJ, Obama has kept details of his policy development secret. In the half-century between Johnson and Obama, legal scholars have found the loopholes and technicalities which Obama can exploit to ensure that voters do not have access to information.

In addition to legal maneuvering, the Obama administration has admitted that it has also resorted to illegal tactics. Questioned by Ted Bridis for the AP report,

It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law – but only when it was challenged.

Another tactic is simply to act very slowly in responding to FOIA requests. If the administration flatly denies a request, the requestor can file an appeal.

But if the administration simply fails to respond, the requestor has no decision to bring to appeal. The administration might even finally grant the data requested, but several years after the request, by which time the information is often useless. Ted Bridis continues:

Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000.

While the number of FOIA requests has increased from year to year, the Obama administration has decreased the number and percentage of them to which it responds. This leads to a growing frustration on the part of voters who want to know what the government is doing.

The Obama White House has spent time and money researching new legal maneuvers it can use to justify withholding information from citizens.

The government’s new figures, published Tuesday, covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. They showed that despite disappointments and failed promises by the White House to make meaningful improvements in the way it releases records, the law was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers’ fees to keep records secret.

Another tactic is to grant a FOIA request, but to release only a redacted version of a text, meaning that key words, phrases, and even entire paragraphs of the desired text have been blacked out. This can be done with black ink on photocopies, or electronically if there is no physical ‘hard copy’ of the text to be released.

Naturally, this is done with the pretense that the information denied is either vital to national security, or would violate a citizen’s privacy:

The government responded to 647,142 requests, a 4 percent decrease over the previous year. It more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 250,581 cases or 39 percent of all requests. Sometimes, the government censored only a few words or an employee’s phone number, but other times it completely marked out nearly every paragraph on pages.

With a wide variety of tactics, the Obama administration denied a record number of requests. The amount of information denied, and the number of citizens requesting such information, are significant.

This reflects a declining inclination among the electorate to trust the Obama administration. Such secretive behavior creates suspicion in the minds of the voters.

On 215,584 other occasions, the government said it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.

There is considerable distance between the spirit of FOIA and its implementation. The law intended to release more information has become a set of technicalities by which less information is released.

There is a conflict of interest in the dynamic in which the administration decides which data are exempt from the FOIA and therefore not to be released.

Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. It cited such exceptions a record 554,969 times last year.

In one amusing case of FOIA maneuvering, the staff of First Lady Michelle Obama attempted to use the law to conceal the fact that staffers were concerned about the administration’s reaction to the cost of the First Lady’s dresses:

the U.S. should not withhold or censor government files merely because they might be embarrassing, but federal employees last year regularly misapplied the law. In emails that AP obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration about who pays for Michelle Obama’s expensive dresses, the agency blacked-out a sentence under part of the law intended to shield personal, private information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers or home addresses. But it failed to censor the same passage on a subsequent page.

The sentence: “We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House).”

While the narrative about the First Lady’s fashion expenses is entertaining, other FOIA topics are more serious. In a republic with freely elected representatives, the ordinary citizens who cast ballots need realistic knowledge about who has been hired to do what for the government, and the size of the paychecks involved.

Ted Bridis goes on to quote his fellow AP writer, Gary Pruitt, who sees the FOIA situation as reflecting on the basis of democracy itself: voters need accurate data about the regime in Washington.

“What we discovered reaffirmed what we have seen all too frequently in recent years,” Pruitt wrote in a column published this week. “The systems created to give citizens information about their government are badly broken and getting worse all the time.”

While FOIA was first introduced in the context of the Vietnam War, it is now useful in many areas of policy. The details of the 2012 terrorist attack on American diplomats in Benghazi are still not clear; FOIA could shed light on these.

The details of Barack Obama’s education and how his handlers found him and created a persona and a political career for him are still unclear. It would be in the best interests of the voters to know who is shaping the president’s speeches and policies.

Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis at Wellesley was kept from the public during Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993 to 2001), despite the fact that she took an active and official role in shaping policy.

Information alone does not suffice for a functional electorate, because some amount of reflection and analysis is needed on top of that information. But information is certainly necessary.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

George Wright: a Murderer Escapes Justice

In 1962, George Wright robbed a hotel in New Jersey with three accomplices: Walter McGhee, Elizabeth Roswell, and Julio DeLeon. They proceeded to a gas station, which they also robbed.

While robbing the gas station, they shot and killed Walter Patterson. The four were arrested. George Wright pleaded nolo contendere at his trial, and was sent to prison.

In August 1970, Wright and three other convicts escaped from prison. Wright and one of the other escapees, George Brown, made their way to Detroit, where they joined a nascent terrorist organization, the Black Liberation Army.

The Black Liberation Army was formed when Eldridge Cleaver left - or was expelled from - the Black Panther Party. Cleaver and others formed the new organization, promising to be more revolutionary and more violent.

In July 1972, George Wright and George Brown boarded a Delta Airlines flight in Detroit. They had three accomplices: Joyce Brown, Melvin McNair, and Jean Carol Allen McNair. Joyce Brown sometimes also used the name Joyce Tillerson.

The five hijacked the plane as it approached Miami, Florida. On the ground, they demanded one million dollars in exchange for the lives of the passengers and crew. They received the money.

They ordered the crew to fly to Boston, where they refueled and took off for Algiers.

In a narrative of legal technicalities, they were arrested but then released by the Algerian government; Algeria had only recently obtained its political independence, and was in the grip of socialist regime which had a certain fondness for violent revolutionaries and for terrorists.

They went to France, where they were captured, tried, and convicted, but then released after a few years. Along the way, George Wright somehow obtained Portuguese citizenship.

In September 2011, he was arrested in Portugal. Again, however, legal technicalities helped him to evade justice. In April 2012, the National Review wrote:

In 1962, George Wright murdered a New Jersey gas-station owner named Walter Patterson. The victim was a decorated World War II vet with two daughters. Wright went to prison but escaped in 1970. He then joined something calling itself the Black Liberation Army. He and four of his comrades hijacked a plane in 1972. Wright was dressed as a priest, and hid a gun in a hollowed-out Bible. The hijackers demanded $1 million. Wright said over the cockpit radio, “If that money is not here by 2 o’clock, I’m going to start throwing a dead body out the door every minute.” The government paid. The hijackers forced the plane to Algeria. Wright took up residence in Guinea-Bissau, rechristening himself José Luís Jorge dos Santos. For the last many years, he has lived in Portugal, with his wife and two children (the same number Patterson had). U.S. authorities discovered him last September. Wright told the New York Times, “Knowing the Americans, I always feared that they had their antennas up.” He need not have feared much. In a decision last month, the Portuguese refused to extradite him, citing a statute of limitations. Wright is now entertaining book and movie deals. “Justice has been done,” his lawyer said.

A murderer and hijacker successfully used international legal articulations to escape the lawful consequences for his actions.

Now over seventy years of age, George Wright has coached basketball, married a woman thirteen years younger than he is, and raised two children who are now over the age of twenty.

He has operated a restaurant, worked as a bouncer in a nightclub, and sold souvenirs to tourists on the nearby beach. His neighbors were shocked to learn that he is a convicted murderer, prison escapee, hijacker.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

California's Educational Decline

Amidst the flood of statistics about education in the United States, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what’s really happening. Together with Mark Twain’s famous saying, the reader will note that the same data set can be manipulated to support hypotheses which are not only divergent, but contradictory. Scholar Heather MacDonald notes that

In the 1950s and ’60s, California led in educational achievement.

Whether measured by anecdotal evidence, or by any statistical metric, or by common sense, California’s school system has declined dramatically. One reason is that it is a statewide system, instead of one controlled by local cities and counties. But there are other causes at work here as well. Heather MacDonald writes:

California is at the bottom of the educational heap. Over a third of California eighth graders lack even the most rudimentary math skills; 28 percent are equally deficient in reading.

By contrast, states like Iowa have outperformed California by almost every metric. Iowa has experienced dramatic demographic shifts: increasing immigrant populations, including both legal and illegal immigrants; which translates into increasing numbers of students for whom English is not a native language, and in some cases not even a functional language. Iowa has also experienced an increase in African-American and Asian-American populations, as well as populations for whom Spanish is a native language.

Why does Iowa so starkly outperform California?

Some observers attribute California’s decline to demographic factors, but the Iowa example seems to undermine that line of argumentation.

In addition to being a state-wide system, another factor which may weaken California’s educational system is its choice of methodologies, textbooks, and operational ideologies. It has directed a significant portions of its resources, i.e. taxpayer dollars, into programs which do not correlate to academic achievement.

California’s intellectual self-destruction must be viewed in the context of its broader political and social decay. Given those factors, the deterioration of the California school system may have been inevitable.