No Surprise — Charles P. Pierce on Russia’s interference with the 2016 election.
Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
—Graham Greene, The Quiet American
In the mid-1980s, the aides to the president of the United States committed serious crimes in their efforts to send sophisticated weapons to a state sponsor of international terrorism. The president of the United States likely committed impeachable offenses. We were told to get beyond it, that the “country” couldn’t afford another presidency crippled by its own crimes so soon after Richard Nixon had hobbled his. We got beyond it. We moved on.
In 1998, the House of Representatives impeached a president on the most spurious of grounds and full in the knowledge that the charges had no chance of prevailing in the Senate. There were many grand and glorious speeches on the floor of the House about the rule of law and about the House’s constitutional duties. It was a proud moment and many an ambitious young politician thumped his chest over the righteousness of his cause. By 2000, nobody in the political party that had brought the charges even mentioned it any more. We got beyond it. We moved on.
In 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States interfered in a presidential election in an extra-constitutional and unprecedented way. It essentially installed a man in that office who had lost the popular vote by half-a-million and likely had lost the crucial state of Florida, too, which would have denied him a majority in the electoral college. From all sides, even from the candidate who was so badly wronged, we were told that “the country” needed to “heal” from this terrible crisis, even though the country seemed to be rocking right along. We got beyond it. We moved on.
In 2008, we elected a president after eight years in which the country’s moral foundation had been winnowed away by faceless bureaucrats and torturers in black sites in Thailand and shipping crates in Bagram, and eight years in which much of the national wealth was stolen by brigands in expensive suits on Wall Street. The new president was a good man. He wanted to look forward and not back. We got beyond all of it. We moved on.
In all of these matters, both subtly and directly, and by many of our institutions, including the press, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as frightened children and our democratic republic as something made of candy glass that would shatter from the vibrations if our constitutional engines were revved up too highly or if they performed their essential functions too vigorously. We were convinced that our faith in our values was a fragile and breathless thing that would collapse if exercised too strenuously.
We were persuaded that we were far too delicate these days for the kind of brawling politics in which this country had been born, and for which the Founders had set up the Constitution to maintain something resembling boundaries. We were fed cheap junk food instead of actual information until we developed a serious jones for it. Our belief in our counterfeit national innocence was that with which we washed it all down. We became a fat and lazy excuse for a democratic republic.
So don’t tell me to be surprised by the blockbuster story that The Washington Post published about the involvement of the Russian government in the 2016 presidential election. This kind of thing has been a long time coming.
Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances. “It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”
(By the way, I warned El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago months ago that he was fcking with the wrong executive editor, but would he listen?)
Do I believe the story? Of course, I do. Do I trust the CIA? Not implicitly, but I trust Marty Baron, and he wouldn’t have come within 10 miles of publishing this story unless he was extremely sure of its sourcing and its material. I also believe the story because of the truthless and lame-assed rapid response that came from the Trump transition team.
These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’
Every dipthong of that is a lie. The election was barely a month ago. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College was one of the slimmest in history. And, as for the shot at the CIA, it’s important to remember that a lot of the great work done by the McClatchy newspapers and others that debunked the case for WMDs in Iraq, the stories that nobody in the elite political media cared about at the time, also came from the intelligence community. Generally, intramural pissing matches among intelligence services are a boon to investigative journalism. For example, what was Mark Felt’s motive for going to Bob Woodward on Watergate if not Felt’s dissatisfaction with the way the FBI and the local federal prosecutors were handling the case? That statement is so transparently false and evasive that it inadvertently confirms what the Post reported.
And the fact remains that the embryonic Trump administration is lousy with Russian connections, right up to the oil baron who is expected to be nominated as secretary of state. (Did you know that Paul Manafort lives in Trump Tower? I didn’t.) The fact remains that the president-elect was noticeably touchy about his relationship with Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign. (“No puppet. You’re the puppet.” A legendary moment in American political rhetoric.) The fact remains that Putin is an authoritarian thug with no qualms at all about getting what he wants when he wants it, and the fact remains that Russian international ambitions do not change whether the government is Tsarist, Communist, or oligarchy.
The fact remains that we do not know fck-all about those to whom the president-elect owes money. The fact remains that, in October, the director of national intelligence accused the Russian government of hacking political organizations in this country. The fact remains that, less than a month ago, the director of the National Security Agency said pretty much the same thing, on the record, as the Post story reports that the CIA believes. Many facts remain. Many, many facts remain.
But, again, it seems, all of these facts that remain were less important than a desire to keep the real, grungy reality hushed up, lest it frighten the children. This is the most distressing passage in the Post’s story.
In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals. And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.” The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests. According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics. Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.
This president has been a good one, probably the most progressive politician we’ve seen in that office since LBJ was kicking ass in 1965. But he has made mistakes, and every single serious mistake he’s made has been because he assumed good faith on the part of his political opposition, misjudged the depth and virulence of his political opposition, or both. It’s 2016. Why would he still believe Mitch McConnell would act with dispassionate patriotism instead of partisan obstruction on anything? Why would he believe it of anyone in the congressional Republican leadership? Hell, he even admitted as much in an interview on NPR last July. I respect the president’s confidence in the better angels of our nature, but those angels have been deathly quiet since 2009.
El Centro — Gabe Ulla at The New Yorker profiles Versailles, the center of life in Little Havana now that Fidel Castro is dead.
On the night of November 25th, the owners of Versailles, Miami’s most famous Cuban restaurant, were at a Thanksgiving gathering when their phones buzzed with a news alert: Fidel Castro was dead. Nicole Valls, who helps run the restaurant with her father and grandfather, was used to false alarms; since 2006, when rumors of the leader’s ill health first circulated, she’d been keeping a folder in the trunk of her car containing protocol for Versailles in the event of Castro’s passing. Now, once she’d confirmed that Castro was really dead this time, she ran to grab the folder from her car and texted the restaurant’s managers with instructions: the parking lot would have to be cleared to make room for the many news vans that had reserved spaces for the occasion. In the early hours of the 26th, crowds surrounded Versailles, waving Cuban flags, banging out clave rhythms on pots and pans, and joining in chants in Spanish, including “P’arriba, p’abajo, los Castros p’al carajo”—“Up and down, and the Castro brothers can go to hell.” The next day, when celebrations resumed, the restaurant ran out of croquetas by noon.
Nicole’s paternal grandfather, Felipe Valls, Sr., opened Versailles, on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, in 1971, and in the decades since the restaurant has outlasted most of the local competition. The family today owns forty restaurants around the city, including one just down the block. But it’s their flagship restaurant that has become a de-facto town square for generations of Miami’s Cuban community, and the media’s go-to place for assessing the state of Cuban-American relations. The Cuban author Carlos Alberto Montaner, a close friend of the Valls family, told me, “How can you effectively reach the exiled community, an abstract concept of two million people spread throughout the world? Versailles is a concrete place that gives sense and form to that abstraction, and the media understand that.”
The restaurant has been an obligatory stop for politicians on the campaign trail since 1986, when the Florida politician Bob Graham, during his run for governor, put on a busboy uniform and worked a shift, wiping down tables and refilling water glasses. In 2000, the restaurant became a fixture of TV news segments during the custody battle over Elián González, when Cuban-Americans in the region rallied behind the boy’s family members in Miami. And in March, when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba, a group of protesters set up shop across the street from the restaurant, holding signs with messages like “Obama Miserable Comunista.” If Donald Trump attempts to undo Obama’s thawing of relations, as he has suggested he might, media outlets will look to the reactions of Versailles patrons.
But the Valls family knew that the most frenzied activity would come in the wake of Castro’s death. In “The Versailles Restaurant Cookbook,” published two years ago, Nicole Valls and her co-author, the local food and television personality Ana Quincoces, explained that one of the traditions of Versailles customers, especially at its outdoor café window, or ventanita, is “plotting Fidel Castro’s death.” Each time rumors surfaced that Castro had died, they wrote, “people flocked to the restaurant in droves to confirm the story and to celebrate the possibility that it might be true.”
Though my own father liked to slyly refer to Versailles by the nickname El Pentágono, for much of my early life I viewed the restaurant less as a political nerve center than as a place to get consistently good plates of ropa vieja with rice and sweet plantains. Versailles is where my parents, Cuban exiles who left the island in the early sixties and eventually settled in New York, would take the family for dinner whenever we visited cousins in Miami. The restaurant is open until 1 A.M. Sunday through Thursday and even later on weekends, so we’d go there after parties when every other place was closed. The restaurant’s many dining rooms are adorned with chandeliers and other faux-opulent homages to pre-revolutionary Havana, but Versailles, which has about four hundred seats, is really a cafeteria, a protean meeting ground with an inexpensive and expansive menu, plastic breadbaskets, and vinyl chairs. Like the long-standing Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans, it is a place for regulars who like to stick to their habits. A group of elderly exiles known as the Teen-agers eats lunch there every weekday, and devotees request specific tables based on the strength of the air-conditioning.
It is these old-timers whose political sentiments help to set the tone of Versailles’s coverage in the media. On Election Night, when it became clear that Trump would be the victor, a celebration erupted outside of the restaurant. Though the Cuban-American vote in Florida tipped in favor of the Republican candidate, a majority of Cuban-Americans support Obama’s policies toward the island. But the news stories from Versailles depicted a scene of pro-Trump fervor. Ana María Dopico, a Cuban-American professor at N.Y.U., told me that the media’s relentless focus on Versailles ends up selling a “caricature” of Cuban-American political feeling. The population of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade, a Democratic county, hovers close to a million. “The illusion of Versailles as a village square obscures how varied Cuban Miami is, and that Cuban-Americans are not a monolith,” she said.
The Mexican-American journalist and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who has lived in Miami since 1986, told me he’d found the post-Castro moment in Little Havana surprisingly subdued. Twenty years ago, when Castro seemed “all-powerful on the island,” there was a feeling that his passing could instantly provoke change, and inspire a mass immigration back to the island. “There is honor and dignity in confronting the dictator and outlasting the dictator,” Ramos said. But Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl in 2008, and the lessons of post-Hugo Chávez Venezuela made clear that a Cuba without Fidel wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Castrismo. Felipe Valls, Jr., Nicole’s father and the current head of the company, suggested a similar sense of ruefulness: “Castro lived a long time, and we weren’t able to say, in his face, ‘This is the new Cuba, and screw you.’ ” Exactly what Castro’s death, and Trump’s rise, will mean for Cuban-American relations remains uncertain. Versailles, more than providing campaign stops or media sound bites, will be most useful as a place for Cuban-Americans to process their continued sense of displacement—the trauma and complicated pride that stem from having roots in a country that an increasing number of Miamians never experienced firsthand.
A week and a half after Castro’s death, my parents and I all happened to be in Miami, and I went to sit with them one evening as they ate dinner at Versailles. The room was full. At one table nearby, four grandmothers drank batidos, or milkshakes, with their main courses. I picked at some croquettes, while my dad inhaled a plate of braised oxtail and my mom had filet mignon. At one point, our waiter, a man in his forties wearing the staff’s signature white dress shirt and green cravat, came by to check on us. I asked him about the celebrations earlier in the week, and when he expected Versailles’s next big party would be. “When Raúl goes, I guess,” he said.
The Highs and Lows — Daniel Wenger on the life of John Glenn.
“What is the reason for this?” John Glenn radioed from the threshold of outer space. “Do you have a reason?” The date was February 20, 1962, and the forty-year-old Glenn—then circling Earth at more than seventeen thousand miles per hour in Friendship 7, a capsule about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle—was responding to a set of rather unhappy instructions from ground control. In the next four and a half minutes, as Glenn reëntered the planet’s atmosphere, he was to perform a series of potentially life-threatening manual overrides. It appeared that Glenn’s heat shield had loosened, and the overrides were intended to secure it, so that he would not be incinerated. But ground control first wanted to insure that he understood the instructions, promising to “give you the reasons for this action when you are in view.” Glenn made the adjustments, and, during the topsy-turvy final stretch of his descent (he later reported that he felt like “a falling leaf”), he piloted the craft himself. This was a notable achievement even for a former Marine colonel who had flown a hundred and forty-nine missions in two wars, and who could maneuver himself “alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours,” according to a former squadron mate.
Glenn survived, of course, and for the rest of his ninety-five years he wore the halo of the pioneer astronaut—the sort of person who was “preselected by a committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and other experts looking for the healthiest, sanest, most highly motivated, and intelligent men they could find,” as Loudon Wainwright, Jr., a Life journalist who covered the early space program, wrote. The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci once called him “the most perfect fantastic Boy Scout in a nation of Boy Scouts.” Yesterday, when Glenn died, it was in suitably wholesome fashion—in the company of his children and his wife of seven decades, Annie, whom he had known, he once said, since they were “literally sharing a playpen” in New Concord, Ohio.
As befits a canonical twentieth-century American, Glenn, who was born in 1921, grew up during the Great Depression. He was close with his father, who took him flying for the first time, in an open-cockpit biplane, and brought him up Presbyterian. His engineering studies were interrupted by Pearl Harbor, which prompted him to enlist. After twenty-three years in the Marines, he gained national fame by flying a fighter jet from California to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes, breaking the transcontinental air-speed record. Soon after, he was picked as one of the first crop of astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.
After the Friendship mission, John F. Kennedy encouraged Glenn to retire from NASA and run for office. In 1964, Glenn made his first bid for a Senate seat, in Ohio, calling it “the best opportunity to make use of the experience I have gained in twenty-two years of public service.” The country had certainly seen military incursions on civilian office before, but Glenn’s announcement was archly received in certain quarters. “If our latter-day folk heroes take over the Congress, our legislators will all be out of work,” an unnamed New Yorker staffer wrote at the time. It took Glenn two more tries to get to the Senate—in the meantime, he worked as an executive at Royal Crown Cola—but almost as soon as he did, in 1974, he began to contemplate even higher positions. Two years later, he went into the Democratic National Convention as the favorite for the Vice-Presidential nomination, until his tepid keynote address apparently tipped the scales in Walter Mondale’s favor.
Glenn was a good legislator, in the end, more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it. His greatest success came in 1978, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a bill that was designed by one of his top aides, Leonard Weiss, became law. The act provided a framework for nations that were not bound by international treaties—India, Brazil, South Africa—to safely acquire nuclear-energy technology. In Glenn’s 1980 reëlection campaign, he portrayed himself as a man who “understands war but loves peace,” and he knew well how intertwined the two often were: the peaceful exploration of space grew out of military competition between Russia and the United States, and the rocket that had launched Glenn into orbit was derived from an intercontinental ballistic missile. Glenn, with his steady, stolid military voice and his socially liberal credentials—he was pro-choice and supported the Equal Rights Amendment—won a second term resoundingly. Reagan had taken Ohio the same year, and, in Democratic Party circles, there was immediate chatter about Glenn challenging the new President four years hence. When the 1984 primary rolled around, though, Glenn ended up playing the Martin O’Malley to Mondale’s Hillary and Gary Hart’s Bernie Sanders.
In the nineties, toward the end of Glenn’s Senate tenure, he took on campaign-finance reform, perhaps a kind of recompense for being tarred, during a 1990 Senate Ethics Committee investigation, as one of the so-called Keating Five—a group of senators who had received campaign contributions from Charles H. Keating, Jr., the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, and appeared to have intervened with regulators on Lincoln’s behalf. In 1991, after Glenn had spent half a million dollars to defend his “honor,” as he put it, he was let off with the lightest possible censure: “poor judgment.” These events were, Glenn later reflected, the low point of his career.
If great lives have their own grading curves, it might be said that Glenn never quite aced his self-examination. He once admitted to being jealous of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong for landing on the moon. Perhaps that’s why, in 1998, as he prepared to retire from the Senate, he persuaded NASA to return him to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person ever to have escaped Earth’s gravity. “It is hard to beat a day in which you are permitted the luxury of seeing four sunsets,” he had said during a joint address to Congress, in 1962. Finally, after waiting more than thirty years, he was permitted eight more days—and, because they were orbiting so quickly, a hundred and thirty-four more sunsets.
Doonesbury — The name game.