Monday, March 28, 2016

Progressive Republicans: When That Was a Thing

How GOP reformers challenged the rules and
overthrew Vermont's political establishment

We hear it every day. "America is in peril."  But this particular wording was part of the Republican Party’s 1936 national platform. 

Eighty years ago, the basic pitch was not so different: Unless Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his “Socialist” New Deal could be stopped the country was doomed. Yet, when the votes were counted that November, FDR was re-elected with the biggest Electoral College margin in a century. Only three states elected Republican governors.

One of the holdouts was Vermont, reliably Republican for more than 70 years. On the other hand, the state's new governor represented the Party’s progressive wing. 

By the 1930s George Aiken had built a loyal following as an author, horticulturalist, lecturer, and legislator. After five years in the state House of Representatives, he became lieutenant governor in 1935. But the Democrats were gaining ground in Vermont during the Great Depression, and Governor Charles Smith was a less-than-charismatic 68-year-old. Seeing an opportunity, Aiken broke the Republicans’ unwritten rotation system and challenged Smith after just one term. Organizing young Republicans, he barnstormed the state, and reached out to progressive Democrats like Burlington’s former Mayor James Burke.

On the other hand, Aiken criticized some aspects of the New Deal, and issued dire warnings about “the visible and invisible government in Washington, whose thoughts and actions are so alien to the free-thinking people of Vermont and of the nation; whose policy for the last four years has been one of debt and destruction.”

In some respects he was a limited government conservative, charging that an overreaching President was after “more and more control of all of us and our possessions and resources, public and private.” Another tried-and-true theme. On the other hand, he accepted the money that flowed from New Deal programs, supported Social Security and conservation efforts, and later, as a US Senator, was a key author of the Food Stamp program, which benefited both the poor and farmers. As one of few successful Republican governors in the 1930s Aiken called for changes in the national party.

By 1937 he was being talked about as a possible candidate for President, a push orchestrated by the publicity director of the National Republican Committee, Leo Casey, also a Vermonter. At a Lincoln’s Day dinner organized by the National Republican Club in 1938 Aiken spoke to the nation over the radio, the mass medium of its day. He shocked some Republicans with his assertion that Lincoln “would be ashamed of his party’s leadership today.” 

Two years later Wendell Wilkie won the Republican nod and went down to defeat as Roosevelt won a third term. But Aiken had a plan -- to move from governor to US senator.

He was close to one of the current  senators, Ernest Gibson, Sr., a respected long-term leader of Vermont's progressive movement, as well as Gibson’s son, who became Vermont Secretary of State soon after finishing law school. When Ernest Senior died in office in 1940 – he had been representing Vermont in Congress since 1923 – Governor Aiken appointed Gibson Junior to complete his father’s term. It was the beginning of an alliance that became known as the Aiken-Gibson Wing, liberal Republicans united by a moderate philosophy and distaste for the Party’s "big business" wing, the Proctor faction.

In Washington, Gibson Junior struck up a friendship with a Missouri Senator, Harry Truman, and irritated conservatives back home with his support of the New Deal. According to historian Samuel Hand, he was ultimately just keeping “the seat warm until Aiken mounted his own candidacy” for the Senate. By the time World War II was declared, Gibson had enlisted in the Army. Aiken meanwhile won the Republican nomination to replace him, beginning an illustrious 36-year run as US Senator.

But then, in 1943, something unpredictable happened: Gibson became a war hero in the South Pacific. His achievement was magnified by the national publication of a dramatic photo displaying his wounds. By the time he returned home he was a celebrity and a political inevitability.

In 1944, another Proctor, the third since 1878, became Vermont governor. Mortimer Proctor’s family had been a dominant political force in the state for half a century. Like Republicans before him, he had risen through the legislature and moved directly from Lieutenant Governor to the top state job. In following this path he was obeying the unwritten “mountain rule,” a geographical approach to power sharing in which the office of governor alternated every four years between the east and west sides of the state. With the winner always a Republican, it was a way to avoid factionalism and promote “orderly” succession.

But Gibson said it was time to end this “rule of succession.” Instead, he challenged Proctor as leader of a do-nothing “old guard.” Once Mortimer Proctor went down in the primary, effectively ending the family’s political dynasty, the general election was a breeze. Gibson not only won the support of most Republicans but also many GIs, populists, renegade Democrats and the state’s poor.

Delivering on his promises was a bit more difficult, since conservatives still controlled the state legislature. He did manage to increase human services, establish a minimum wage and a pension plan for teachers, and push through the graduated income tax. He also became “father” of the State Police – to the chagrin of county sheriffs. But success was illusive in areas such as public health and welfare.

Before most mainstream politicians, Gibson recognized that public health would inevitably be one of state government’s biggest responsibilities. Aiken liked his thinking and brought some of his ideas to Congress. But rank-and-file Republicans never bought into the agenda, and many resented the idea that state government’s role should expand to include things like public health and subsidized services for the poor. 

By 1949 Gibson was disillusioned and accepted appointment to a federal judgeship by his old friend, and now President, Harry Truman. Aiken remained in the US Senate until 1975, where he won respect as an independent thinker and fought for energy projects that brought more affordable hydropower to Vermont.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, a myth developed that Aiken had said the US should declare victory and bring the troops home. What he actually said was that the nation “could well declare unilaterally.” The US had “won” the war, he argued – as it turned out, erroneously – because its forces were “in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam."

He knew it was a far-fetched proposal, but offered this ironic defense: “Nothing else has worked."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Defeating a Demagogue: It Has Happened Before

How a Vermont Senator Took on Joe McCarthy

Donald Trump took to calling Bernie Sanders a Communist during the 2016 election, just one example of  his willingness to scapegoat, distort and incite people for political gain. But this isn't the first time a demagogue has deceived America, or that a Vermonter has taken one on.

That was demonstrated dramatically at the height of the McCarthy era. In 1950 Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin’s ambitious junior Senator, had emerged as the country’s most powerful anti-communist crusader and initiated a modern reign of terror targeting “enemies within,” alleged security threats inside the U.S. government, Hollywood and communities across the country. It became known as a destructive "red scare."

By 1954, having already ruined lives and caused innocent people to be blacklisted and jailed, McCarthy was accusing army officers of communist sympathies. Even President Eisenhower handled him cautiously.

McCarthy in action as Flanders disapproves, 1954
Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders wasn’t the most likely candidate to confront McCarthy. A self-educated inventor, businessman and son-in-law of James Hartness, a former governor, Flanders was a pragmatic conservative who enthusiastically defended free enterprise. President of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank before his election to the Senate, he was also a devout Christian who believed “the world seems to be mobilizing for the great battle of Armageddon.” But he had heard enough from McCarthy in the Senate to be concerned about the country’s direction.

Columnist Westbrook Pegler initially drew McCarthy’s eye to Vermont by writing about a supposed communist cell in the Randolph-Bethel area. Local anti-communist fanatics Lucille and Manuel Miller were accusing public figures, from Vermont’s superintendent of schools to former governor Ernest Gibson Jr., by then a federal judge, and even Eisenhower, of communist leanings. Making matters worse, former State Department official Alger Hiss, who was convicted in a notorious espionage case, once owned property in Peacham.

Flanders watched the fear of communism cloud the judgment of state officials, who had attempted to examine textbooks for subversive influences and amend the state’s Sabotage Prevention Act, a remnant of  World War I. The legislature rejected the proposal to review textbooks, as well as Gov. Emerson’s bill to ban suspect political parties. But that didn’t stop the University of Vermont from dismissing medical school faculty member Alex Novikoff for refusing to discuss his Communist involvement as a student with a Senate subcommittee.
By March 9, 1954 the usually soft-spoken, 66-year-old Flanders had finished watching and started to speak. Rising on the Senate floor, he mocked McCarthy for spreading confusion and sowing division. “He dons his warpaint,” Flanders said. “He goes into his dance. He emits war whoops. He goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink dentist.” Flanders was referring to an army officer, the only example of a communist sympathizer in the military McCarthy had been able to produce.
Congressional testimony on the alleged threat inside the military began in April. During what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings the Wisconsin senator accused the Secretary of the Army of interfering with his investigation. The Army countered that McCarthy had sought favors from a military aide. The hearings were broadcast live on television for weeks, the first event of its kind. Unfortunately, most Vermonters couldn’t tune in. The state’s first TV transmission tower wouldn’t go up until several months later.
Flanders was there, however, in the building, and by June had heard enough. In another broadside attack, he compared McCarthy to Dennis the Menace and Adolph Hitler. “Were the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the pay of the Communists he could not have done a better job for them,” he charged. On June 11, he further escalated the confrontation, entering McCarthy’s hearing room in front of television cameras to hand him a note, an invitation to be present when Flanders spoke in the Senate again. 
The future of the country was on a knife edge. On one hand, the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously on May 17 that segregation was illegal. In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Chief Justice John Marshall said, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” A week later, however, the same Court upheld the Internal Security Act, which made Communist Party membership grounds for the deportation of non-citizens. The French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam had fallen to insurgent forces led by Ho Chi Minh and Vice President Richard Nixon was urging U.S. intervention. In Guatemala a right-wing coup financed by the CIA overthrew the elected President, Jacobo Arbenz, whose government had nationalized the property of the United Fruit Company.
In this highly charged atmosphere, with public opinion divided – even in Vermont – Flanders went to the Senate floor and introduced a resolution to remove McCarthy from the chairmanship of the Senate Oversight Committee. This put the Republican Party in a bind. McCarthy was an embarrassment, but Flanders was going too far, challenging Senate rules regarding committee chairs and seniority. He was at the epicenter of a struggle over the fate of the country. Drawing on his pragmatic side, Flanders consulted with colleagues and took a small but crucial step back. Instead of demanding McCarthy’s removal from leadership, he proposed a censure motion. 
The struggle continued for months, right into the 1954 mid-term elections. Even though Flanders was a Republican, he worked with the National Committee for an Effective Congress, whose explicit aim was to elect a Democrat majority. The issue was too important to let partisan politics stand in the way. That Fall the Republicans lost control of the Senate.
Flanders’ resolution initially avoided reference to any specific actions or misdeeds by McCarthy. As he explained, "It was not his breaches of etiquette, or of rules or sometimes even of laws which is so disturbing. It was his overall pattern of behavior.” A special senate committee, chaired by Utah Republican Arthur Watkins, was appointed to evaluate the proposal. It proceeded to weigh 46 complaints itemized by Flanders, other Senate members and witnesses, in the end recommending censure on two counts: that McCarthy had obstructed a Senate Subcommittee attempting to investigate him, and had denounced a fellow senator "without reason or justification" and acted in an "inexcusable" and "reprehensible" manner toward Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, a witness before his investigating committee. 
On October 4, 1954, Time Magazine called the outcome “a ringing reassertion of the U.S. Senate's dignity,” and a “new landmark in U.S. government.” McCarthy’s destructive power had been broken, the beginning of the end of another Red Scare. Within three years “Tail-gunner Joe” died from cirrhosis of the liver, the result of years of alcoholism. Flanders described his contribution afterward with the usual candor and simplicity. “It became clear that in the outside world McCarthy was the United States and the United States was McCarthy,” he recalled. “The conviction grew that something must be done about him, even if I had to do it myself.”
Flanders was no revolutionary and had some unusual ideas. But through bold action at a crucial moment he expressed enduring attitudes toward authority, dissent and tolerance. Though clearly a New England conservative in many respects he was also part libertarian, part egalitarian, and a persistent advocate for accountability, all in all a prime example of the Vermont Way.

This essay is adapted from Greg Guma's forthcoming book, Green Mountain Politics: Restless Spirits, Popular Movements.

For more excerpts: The Vermont Way

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Perception Management: From Psyops to Blowback

In the Reagan Era, it was known as public diplomacy. The Bush administration called it strategic influence. What both terms described is the U.S. government's ability to influence mass perceptions around the world and, when necessary, at home.

If you don't think it's been going on for years and continues to this very moment, well, then it's working.

Bread & Puppet outside the Hilton (1995)
As the Iraq war began, we did get a peak behind the curtain. Word leaked out that a new Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence was gearing up to sway leaders and public sentiment by disseminating sometimes false stories. Facing censure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly denounced and disbanded it. A few months later, however, he quietly funded a private consultant to develop another version. 

The apparent goal was to go beyond traditional information warfare with a new "perception management" campaign designed to "win the war of ideas" - in this case, against those classified as a terrorists.

It's actually nothing new. Beginning in the 1950s, more than 800 news and public information organizations and individuals carried out assignments for the CIA, according to The New York Times. By the mid-'80s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: an organized, covert public diplomacy apparatus designed to sell a new product -- Central America -- while stoking fear of communism, the Sandinistas, Gadhafi and others.

Sometimes this involved so-called white propaganda, stories and editorials secretly financed by the government. But they also went black, pushing false story lines.

The U.S. Department of Defense describes perception management as a type of psychological operation. Traditionally, it's supposed to be directed at foreign audiences and basically involves conveying (or denying) information to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.

The goal is to influence enemies and friends alike, and provoke the behavior you want. During George Herbert Walker Bush's administration, the scope officially expanded to include domestic disinformation, using the CIA's public affairs office. This operation was charged with turning intelligence failures into successes by persuading reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests.

The Clinton era approach, outlined in Directive 68, was known as the International Public Information System. Again, no distinction was made between what could be done abroad and at home. To defeat enemies and influence minds, information for U.S. audiences was "deconflicted" through IPI's work. How appropriately Clinton-esque.

One strategy turned out to be inserting psyops -- the term of art meaning psychological operations -- specialists into newsrooms. In February 2000, a Dutch journalist revealed that CNN and the Army had agreed to do precisely that in Atlanta.

Once you realize that managing perceptions is standard procedure, some news stories take on a different meaning. For example, a popular storyline about post-war resistance in Iraq was that only a few Saddam loyalists and dead-enders were involved. Meanwhile, the opposition was sending videotaped messages, saying things like, "We are not followers of Saddam Hussein. We are sons of Iraq." For years, journalists and spokesmen stuck with a central assumption: that whatever problems we now face, leaving without "winning" would be worse.

Another approach is warping the facts to promote spin. Thus, in January 2004 USA Today could headline a story, "Attacks Down 22 Percent Since Saddam's Capture." Actually, the number of troops killed went up 40 percent during that period, but the U.S. military sources making the news preferred to focus on the number of incidents.

Or just fabricate the news -- from the Al Qaida-Saddam link to WMDs. And when something goes wrong? It's simple: just misplace the blame. Thus, when photos of soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners came to light, the first line of defense was to call it an aberration -- people somehow operating outside the chain of command -- and ignore reality.

During the first Gulf War, military intelligence officers didn't even need to ask: GIs routinely forced surrendering Iraqis to strip and pose for photos in groups. The new element was sexual humiliation, persuasive evidence that it was a psyop.

According to journalist Seymour Hersh, the abuse was part of a Pentagon operation called Copper Green, which used physical coercion and the sexual humiliation of Iraqis to generate intelligence about growing insurgency. The theory was that some prisoners would do anything -- including spying on their associates -- to avoid dissemination of shameful photos to family and friends. Not exactly the work of a few out-of-control grunts.

To most of the world, the photos from Abu Ghraib prison were evidence of potential war crimes, or at least punctured  U.S. pretensions about moral superiority. For those who orchestrated them, however, it was merely a psyop warfare tactic, a more violent form of perception management.

In terms of generating information that could reduce violence, Copper Green didn't work: the insurgency continued to grow and gave birth to ISIS. The un-intended consequences have been enormous. But in the psyop world, this happens so often that there's even a term for it -- "blowback" -- meaning an operation that has turned on its creators. Put another way, you reap what you sow.

(This column was originally published on June 21, 2004, UPI