Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Reading

Slow Learner — Robin Wright in The New Yorker on Trump’s dangerous cluelessness.

Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled “Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies” file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week. “It’s neck-and-neck.”

Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.

“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”

Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents until now.

“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” (That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)

“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said.

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity—and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t or won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence—to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by coöperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government—and has been for a quarter century—with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO. It doesn’t. No NATO member pays the United States—and never has—so none is in arrears. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.

Trump’s White House has also flubbed basics. It misspelled the name of Britain’s Prime Minister three times in its official schedule of her January visit. After it dropped the “H” in Theresa May, several British papers noted that Teresa May is a soft-porn actress best known for her films “Leather Lust” and “Whitehouse: The Sex Video.” In a statement last month, the White House called Xi Jinping the President of the “Republic of China”—which is the island of Taiwan—rather than the leader of the People’s Republic, the Communist mainland. The two nations have been epic rivals in Asia for more than half a century. The White House also misidentified Shinzo Abe as the President of Japan—he’s the Prime Minister—and called the Prime Minister of Canada “Joe” instead of Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s policy mistakes, large and small, are taking a toll. “American leadership in the world—how do I phrase this, it’s so obvious, but apparently not to him—is critical to our success, and it depends eighty per cent on the credibility of the President’s word,” John McLaughlin, who worked at the C.I.A. under seven Presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, and ended up as the intelligence agency’s acting director, told me. “Trump thinks having a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago bought him a relationship with Xi Jinping. He came in as the least prepared President we’ve had on foreign policy,” McLaughlin added. “Our leadership in the world is slipping away. It’s slipping through our hands.”

And a world in dramatic flux compounds the stakes. Hayden cited the meltdown in the world order that has prevailed since the Second World War; the changing nature of the state and its power; China’s growing military and economic power; and rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons, among others. “Yet the most disruptive force in the world today is the United States of America,” the former C.I.A. director said.

The closest similarity to the Trump era was the brief Warren G. Harding Administration, in the nineteen-twenties, Philip Zelikow, who worked for the Reagan and two Bush Administrations, and who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told me. Harding, who died, of a heart attack, after twenty-eight months in office, was praised because he stood aside and let his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, lead the way. Hughes had already been governor of New York, a Supreme Court Justice, and the Republican Presidential nominee in 1916, losing narrowly to Woodrow Wilson, who preceded Harding.

Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign-policy issues. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real-estate developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. In April, Kushner travelled to Iraq to help chart policy against ISIS. Washington scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil.

“The national-security system of the United States has been tested over a period of seventy years,” John Negroponte, the first director of national security and a former U.N. Ambassador, told me. “President Trump disregards the system at his peril.”

Trump’s contempt for the U.S. intelligence community has also sparked alarm. “I wish the President would rely more on, and trust more, the intelligence agencies and the work that is produced, sometimes at great risk to individuals around the world, to inform the Commander-in-Chief,” Mitchell Reiss, who was chief of the State Department’s policy-planning team under Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me.

Republican critics are divided on whether Trump can grow into the job. “Trump is completely irredeemable,” Eliot A. Cohen, who was counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, told me. “He has a feral instinct for self-survival, but he’s unteachable. The ban on Muslims coming into the country and building a wall, and having the Mexicans pay for it, that was all you needed to know about this guy on foreign affairs. This is a man who is idiotic and bigoted and ignorant of the law.” Cohen was a ringleader of an open letter warning, during the campaign, that Trump’s foreign policy was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored.”

But other Republicans from earlier Administrations still hold out hope. “Whenever Trump begins to learn about an issue—the Middle East conflict or North Korea—he expresses such surprise that it could be so complicated, after saying it wasn’t that difficult,” Gordon, from the Bush Administration, said. “The good news, when he says that, is it means he has a little bit of knowledge.” So far, however, the learning curve has been pitifully—and dangerously—slow.

*This post has been updated to clarify the contextual significance of the year 632.

Pope Francis vs. The Religious Right — Charles P. Pierce on the smackdown from the Vatican.

I was intrigued by the story in The New York Times the other day concerning the warning shot fired by Papa Francesco and his allies in the press across the bow of politicized conservative Catholics who have spent the last decades or so making common ground with politicized Protestant Bible-bangers who no longer referred to any pope as The Whore of Babylon.

Once, long ago, on the night before Ronald Reagan became president, I sat in a Capitol Hill bar with a representative of the Irish embassy who was drinking heavily because some backwater Southern congressman had invited the Reverend Ian Paisley as one of his official inauguration guests. (At the time, Paisley was still the world’s most virulent anti-Catholic and had not yet signed aboard the peace process with Martin McGuinness.) Paisleys were heavily involved in, among other Religious Right institutions, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. My friend spent a lot of time that night with his head in his hands.

However, as the years went by, a certain strain of American Catholicism looked over at the success the Religious Right was having in American politics and asked the profound theological question, “Me Some Too, Yes?” They’d been restive for decades about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and now conservatism was on the march and they didn’t want to get left behind. They were encouraged in this by the theological reactionaries in the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, who later would become pope himself. At a previous gig, I wrote about this political counter-reformation at the moment it was being wrong-footed by the massive international conspiracy to obstruct justice undertaken by the institutional Church over the crimes of the hierarchical clergy. This was a bad time for the K Street Catholics in Washington.

Now, it seems as though Papa Francesco is taking a long pastoral look at what these people, and their allies in the hierarchy, have been up to. From the Times:

The authors, writing in a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Stephen K.Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics” that has stymied action against climate change and exploited fears of migrants and Muslims with calls for “walls and purifying deportations.” The article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States. The writers even declare that the worldview of American evangelical and hard-line Catholics, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, is “not too far apart” from jihadists.

A mark, that will surely leave.

American Catholicism, he argued, echoing the article’s thesis, “has become different than mainstream European Catholicism and mainstream Latin American Catholicism,” and has fallen “into the hands of the religious right.” The authors of the article argue that American evangelical and ultraconservative Catholics risk corrupting the Roman Catholic faith with an ideology intended to inject “religious influence in the political sphere.” They suggest that so-called values voters are using the banners of religious liberty and opposition to abortion to try to supplant secularism with a “theocratic type of state.”

All of this puts Callista Gingrich, our new ambassador to the Vatican, and the third wife of N. Leroy Gingrich, Definer of civilization’s rules and Leader (perhaps) of the civilizing forces, in something of a nutcracker. N. Leroy converted to Catholicism after marrying Callista. You can puzzle out the timeline of Gingrich’s personal history at your leisure. As someone told NPR:

But his conversion doesn’t erase his past. After all, Gingrich has a history of marital infidelity. He cheated on his first wife, and his relationship with Callista, his third wife, began six years before the end of his second marriage. She was a staffer 23 years his junior; he was a Republican congressman who had yet to become speaker of the House. “Without a doubt,” says Rozell, “many people will find it rather strange, ironic, whatever, that his religious journey that led him to convert to Catholicism began with an affair he had with a young woman while he was still married to his second wife.”

The Gingrichs are K Street Catholics all the way, devotees of the late Pope John Paul II and of his successor, the former Cardinal Ratzinger. From The New York Times:

Mr. Gingrich is a culture wars Catholic for whom the church seems a logical home for conservative Republicans. Generations removed from the Kennedy years when Catholics predictably voted Democratic, this is a new era in which conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have joined forces in what they see as a defining struggle against abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism.

This would appear to be the era out of which Papa Francesco is trying to muscle the Church. (This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops slammed the Trump Administration for its proposed new policy on legal immigrants.) This will make Papa Francesco and our new ambassador and her husband a fascinating interface. God works in mysterious ways, but N. Leroy Gingrich is a doozy. Of course, the Vatican has needed new gargoyles for a while now.

Way Off Broadway — John Leland on Sam Shepard in New York.

Sam Shepard, who died last week at 73, used to say that he was lucky to have landed in New York at just the right time. Rents were cheap, rock ’n’ roll was blooming, sex and drugs were easy, and adventurous no-budget theaters were opening in makeshift spaces downtown. For a 19-year-old arriving from California in 1963, handsome and unpolished, the city was a charmed playground.

His first great theatrical creation was himself, an image that still resonates with the people who knew him then.

“He knew how to invent himself as a character,” said Jean-Claude van Itallie, who was playwright in residence at the Open Theater, which formed in a warehouse earlier that year. “That whole persona of Sam as a cowboy — he was as middle-class as all of us. We were all tremendously ambitious, but we didn’t easily admit it.”

Mr. Shepard reached New York after a cross-country tour with a Christian theater group. Acting had been an escape from his father, a World War II bomber pilot who had brought the scars of war home.

In New York he looked up a high school friend, Charles Mingus Jr., son of the jazz great, who got him a job at the Village Gate nightclub, “cleaning up dishes and bringing Nina Simone ice,” as Mr. Shepard once described it. The two friends shared a cold-water apartment on Avenue C and Ninth Street, paying $60 a month in rent.

Mr. Mingus knew him first as Sam Rogers or Steve Rogers, the family surname. Even then, Mr. Mingus said in an interview this week, “He could walk into a room with a typewriter and not leave until he finished a play. No revisions, just typing.”

When Ralph Cook, a waiter at the Village Gate, started the Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964, he gave Mr. Shepard his first break — a pair of experimental one-acts that used disjointed dialogue to “change the audience’s cognition,” Mr. Mingus said.

The Village Voice loved it, and Mr. Shepard was off. In the next six years, he had 18 plays produced — including six that won Obie awards. And then he left the city, only sporadically to return.

“He was blessed with good fortune, always in the right place at the right time,” said Peter Stampfel, who met Mr. Shepard in a pawnshop in the East Village where Mr. Stampfel was retrieving a violin he had pawned to buy amphetamines.

Off Off Broadway in the mid-1960s was wide open. An actor in one theater might be designing costumes in a second, then rushing to see a new play in a third. Audiences typically did not pay, and sometimes did not show up.

“It was an incredibly exciting time,” said Tony Barsha, a playwright and director who worked with Mr. Shepard at Theater Genesis. “Creativity was just flowing all over the place.’’

“We thumbed our noses at Broadway and Off Broadway because they were so slick and commercial, and what we were doing was just off the wall stuff,’’ he added. “Nobody was thinking of art for the ages. Sam was just dashing this stuff off. His early work was just what came out of his head. It had nothing to do with dramatic construction or form or history. I think he was using a lot of drugs at the time, speed mainly. I did the same thing.”

The budget to stage a play at the Judson Poets Theater on Washington Square was $37.50, said Albert Poland, who produced some of Mr. Shepard’s early plays. The budget at Theater Genesis, where Mr. Shepard became a regular, was possibly lower.

“That was the dangerous place,” Mr. Poland said, longingly.

Theater Genesis, said the playwright Murray Mednick, was the most macho of the Off Off Broadway spots, “very interested in street language. There was a lot of turmoil, and out of that came this hard-bitten kind of writing, and Sam was a part of that. But he had a sense of America, of being an American, that translated on the stage.”

When Mr. Shepard took one of his plays to Ellen Stewart, a former clothing designer who started La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1962, she didn’t even look at the script: “‘We’re gonna do it, baby,’’’ he recalled her saying.

Mr. Stampfel invited him to play drums in his band, the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk group that went on to open for the Velvet Underground, Ike and Tina Turner, Pink Floyd and others. The two shared a taste for drugs and a preference for energy over musical finesse, Mr. Stampfel said this week.

“When we started, he never mentioned writing plays or that he got a grant,’’ Mr. Stampfel said. “We’d mention his name to other people and they’d say, you mean the guy who writes plays?”

With the war raging in Vietnam, and F.B.I. agents storming the apartment on Avenue C looking for subversives, Mr. Shepard avoided the draft by feigning a heroin habit.

When Mr. Shepard married O-Lan Johnson, an actress who appeared in some of his plays, in 1969, Mr. Stampfel and the other Rounders performed and handed purple hits of LSD to guests as they entered.

A year later, shortly after the couple had their first child, Mr. Shepard was playing drums with the band on Bleecker Street, when a journalist came backstage to interview them. The journalist was Patti Smith. “She went straight to Sam, and they went straight to the Chelsea,” Mr. Stampfel said.

“Some people are one-woman men,” Mr. Mingus said. “And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.”

Their public affair, loosely echoed in a play they wrote together, “Cowboy Mouth,” lasted until Mr. Shepard and his wife reconciled and before long left New York for London and Nova Scotia.

By then, the East Village was changing, and Off Off Broadway with it. Mr. van Itallie, Mr. Shepard, Lanford Wilson, John Guare and other downtown writers who started at La MaMa or Caffe Cino found bigger audiences further uptown.

But downtown still had a last bit of theater for Mr. Shepard. In the spring of 1970, he had plays opening at Lincoln Center and in the Village, at the Astor Place Theater. It was a major accomplishment, and most of the downtown crowd celebrated Mr. Shepard’s rise, Mr. van Itallie said.

Joey Skaggs, a street artist and prankster, thought Mr. Shepard needed to be saved. “He was making it,” Mr. Skaggs said.

So for an opening-night prank, he planned to “kidnap” Mr. Shepard and put him on a bus out of town. It was a conceptual joke between friends, Mr. Skaggs said. But when six characters in gangster suits rushed toward Mr. Shepard, he started punching. The joke fell apart. The reviews for both shows were bad.

Mr. Shepard, of course, went on to movie stardom and success as a major American dramatist. His plays became more formal and polished. Caffe Cino, the Open Theater and Theater Genesis folded; La MaMa lives on as a cultural institution. None of the four theaters’ founders survives.

Last October, Mr. Stampfel said, Mr. Shepard called him out of the blue to wish him a happy birthday. The two had largely fallen out of contact.

“I knew he was saying goodbye,” Mr. Stampfel said.

Doonesbury — Insurance junkies.