Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Everything Changed

When President John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963, the course of the future changed in the U.S. and around the world.  Fifty years later, that's clearer than ever.  On that day I felt that the course of my life would change, and fifty years later, with that course nearly run, it is a certainty.  It was the day that everything changed for me.  My life would perhaps not even resemble what it is today had President Kennedy lived and completed his second term.  Not just because of him but because of what he would have done and not done, as opposed to what others did and did not do.

I've avoided nearly everything on the Internet about this anniversary, and absolutely everything on TV (since I don't have it to watch.)  I have video from that past, but I haven't watched that either.  I've confined myself to two new books--two of the many published this year, and the tens of thousands published over the years about JFK.

JFK's Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke ( Penguin Press) is a day by day review of those 100 days in 1963, with lots of background from earlier years. Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration.  He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library.  He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history.  So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK since the first generation of biographies, this book turned out to be the right book to read.

The second book is If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam), an alternate history built on the premise that President Kennedy did not die on this day fifty years ago.  However it is basically built on historical fact, and much of it is about pre-11/22/63.  These parts of the book match Clarke's book almost exactly.  There are a few pages based on recorded conversations that are nearly identical.

Clarke's premises is that,even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood.  He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes.  On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme.  The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty.  He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

None of this surprises me, nor would any of it had surprised me on November 23, 1963.  I learned that he'd been shot by a p.a. announcement from our high school principal.  Then I had gym class outside.  I learned that he was dead from a boy coming down the stairs to the locker room as I walked up.  Hours later I was walking home with three friends, two of whom remain just about my only friends from high school.  Clayton and I usually walked across the fields from Central to Carbon Road, where he would go down towards his grandmother's house and I would go up and across to my house.  Johnny V. was with us that day--he lived on the street above mine.  And as it happened, my debate partner Mike and I had previously arranged to work on our debate case, so he was coming home with me rather than taking a school bus to Latrobe where he lived.

As we walked and talked we could not believe it was even possible that Lyndon Johnson could be President of the United States.  That turns out to be the Kennedys' view as well.  JFK is quoted in both of these books as believing LBJ would be a disaster.  In our shock, and forgetting all constitutional provisions, we speculated on how Bobby Kennedy could take over for his brother.  Surely that's what voters wanted.

Everything changed in America because of the assassination itself.  For me, it was the first significant death I had experienced.  There hadn't yet been one in my family.  But beyond the losses that arguably changed the psyche of the country, I saw a major focus of my life begin to fade.  In my own very small way I had organized classmates and worked on the Kennedy campaign in the 1960 election.  I got myself to Washington for the Inaugural and through luck and pluck managed to be one of the first ordinary citizens to shake President Kennedy's hand, two days after he became President.  By 1963 I had already participated in another campaign and had very interested contacts in the local Democratic party and the still powerful unions.  I was writing on world affairs (and from a very Kennedy perspective) for the school newspaper.  I followed every scrap of news in print and on TV I could about the administration, wrote letters to officials and generally felt I was practically part of the Kennedy administration.

Though I tried to continue the Kennedy legacy and remain involved in politics, even working for LBJ's campaign against Goldwater in 1964, that first impulse on November 22, 1963 gradually came true.  Without JFK's judgment, without his ability to communicate, without his style, things fell apart.  And everything else began to change.

On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained.  But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining.

Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues.  Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car.  So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President.  But he survives.

In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected, and much of what Clarke's book suggests would happen does happen.  The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass, JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power), he begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China.  And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam.  There is no Vietnam war.

But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of these policies, and of the difference it would have made with Kennedy in office when various cultural changes occur (as represented by the Beatles, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, etc.)  There would be an Students for a Democratic Society, campus protests, etc.  But they would not be so violent in any sense.  Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer.  But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves.  Politics and government as public service was a Kennedy tenet, and one he wanted to emphasize in his second term.  But LBJ destroyed that, temporarily for some, pretty much permanently for me.

The Vietnam war, more than any single factor, deformed my life and in various ways and to various extents changed the lives of my friends and contemporaries.  Vietnam plus LBJ plus the draft gave the 60s the edge of anger, desperation, despair.

There were right wing crazies in the early 60s, saying about JFK pretty much what they say about Obama. But they were marginal.  There were dangerous currents in the U.S. reacting to racial issues, but JFK was a quick study, and in 1963 he was aware of the new realities of the inner cities and suburbia.  There was press horseshit then as now, but despite political dangers (JFK knew the South was lost for a long time because of his support of Civil Rights)  the arc of history was strongly progressive. With a different 60s, there very well might have been a very different 70s, 80s and 90s.  And a quite different 21st century so far.

There's so much about why JFK could have been especially effective in a second term (while neither Clarke nor Greenfield expect he would have piled up the electoral votes that LBJ did against Goldwater in 1964, they agree that JFK would have won comfortably against Goldwater, and brought with him a Democratic congressional majority) that is hard to explain without knowing how different a time it was (though Clarke's book does a pretty good job of this.)  But that's precisely the point: he was right for the times.

As things turn out, I find myself in no position to be heard even if I tried to explain this.  But I was there, and I know it.  It was the turning point of my times and of my life.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Something Else Also Happens There

Credit Canada with this: when they finally have a Rabid Right political outrage powerful enough to get attention to their South, it's straight from hell.

Since last I noted it, and the accusations and admissions of public drunkenness, crack use while drunk, public urination etc. the Mayor of Toronto has been accused of bullying staff members, sexually harassing staff members and others, and physical abuse of his wife.

Under the law he remains mayor, but in two meetings the Toronto City Council took away most of his mayoral powers.  He attended the second of those meetings, on Monday, and put on a show on live television.  It was described in a National Post column by Andrew Coyne:

  "Something snapped at Toronto City Council Monday afternoon, and it wasn’t just Rob Ford’s cerebral cortex. Watching the mayor and his brother strutting about the council chamber — ignoring the Speaker, taunting other councillors, shouting down city officials, screaming insults at spectators, the whole carried out with an air of anarchic glee — was to sense the last tether connecting our politics to some sort of civilized norms breaking under the strain. We are adrift now, floating wildly, with no idea of where we will end up.

At one point the mayor engaged in an extended pantomime of a drunk driver, directed at a councillor who had been cautioned by police. At another, racing about the chamber — literally sprinting — he ploughed into another councillor, knocking her to the floor, apparently in his haste to join the apprehended brawl then under way between his brother and members of the public gallery.

To add to the general note of menace, the mayor was seen directing his personal driver/security guard, who for some reason was allowed onto the chamber floor, to videotape certain of the spectators who had displeased him. Given the services his last driver, the alleged extortionist Sandro Lisi, is accused of performing, it was an altogether chilling moment."

Ford told Council that it had "invaded Kuwait" with its action, that is forced a war, which he said he will wage in the next election.  Some observers (at least last week) consider that he could well win that election next year, because of the suburban voters of his base, and the rabid rightward swing it represents.

But evidence that Ford has become politically toxic is suggested in this story in the Toronto Globe and Mail which suggests that his own party may join with Liberals on a provincial level to change the law to make it possible for Ford to be removed from office.

Still, as Coyne noted:
 "If it is unclear where we are headed, it is clear as day how we got here. With each passing day, the Fords have been dragging the standards we expect of public officials deeper and deeper into the muck, each past act of public or private depravity somehow normalized by the next, worse offence. It is as if, knowing the evidence cannot exonerate the mayor, they and their apologists have decided to annihilate our very ability to judge the evidence."

Which prompts several thoughts about the U.S.  First, standards have been driven so far into the muck here that it takes something like this elsewhere to focus the danger.  Second, while Canada may have been following the U.S. Tea Party lead,  this episode looks a little too much like coming attractions for the U.S.

It Does Happen Here

This is not the Philippines.  This is suburban Illinois, after "unprecedented" tornadoes ripped through the length of this state, some with wind speeds approaching 200 mph.

The difference is that the people affected probably won't be starving, as some in the Philippines are.  But it's a reminder that even now, people in poor countries aren't the only ones affected by the climate crisis.

Story quotes and photos from the Chicago Tribune.

"Hundreds of residents who lost their homes or couldn't return to them amid gas leaks and downed power lines huddled Monday in a Washington church, thankful for shelter, running water and hot cups of coffee.

Others ventured out into a wasteland of plywood, drywall and chunks of twisted metal, carrying water, food and saws in hopes of salvaging remnants of their belongings.

A day after a storm of historic proportions slammed many Illinois communities, the task turned to assessing the damage — from lives lost to homes destroyed — and comprehending the power of the tornadoes.

Calling the November storm "unprecedented," Gov. Pat Quinn declared seven counties disaster areas, with National Weather Service meteorologists estimating about a dozen tornado touchdowns in Illinois. Six people were killed in three tornadoes, and two more deaths in Michigan were attributed to the storm."

"This is historic from the standpoint of the widespread nature of this," said Chris Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We had tornadoes that were developing very near the Chicago area all the way to the southern tip of Illinois and a lot of places in between. That just speaks to the power of the storm that affected us Sunday."

In the photo below, the vehicles are not toys--except to the tornado.

The Gathering Storms

After the huge Typhoon Bopha wracked the Philippines last year, the country's lead climate negotiator at a diplomatic conference, Naderev Sano, delivered an impassioned plea to finally take the climate crisis seriously as a matter of life and death:

I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha [location of the conference] be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?

Now another even more devastating typhoon has wreaked havoc in the Philippines, and yet another delegate is at yet another climate conference, this time in Warsaw, delivering an impassioned plea.

"We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here," he said, and later began a hunger strike--a fast for climate.  Video excerpts of his speech are at Youtube here.

But more than the connection between the climate crisis and more intense tropical storms is at issue here.  Forecasts of impacts suggest that poorer places like the Philippines are going to suffer the most, especially at first,while they are least able to cope with the effects.  This Philippines situation is becoming a rally point for poorer countries in the already tense relationship with rich countries, who contributed the most to the greenhouse gas pollution that will affect them.  

Munjurul Hannan Khan, representing the world's 47 least affluent countries at the Warsaw conference, said of the wealthy governments who are ignoring real action to address the climate crisis: "They are behaving irrationally and unacceptably." Hard to argue with that.

If affluent TV audiences are watching the slow progress of relief aid and the dimensions of the catastrophe in the Philippines, they may begin to understand that while much more serious and sustained attention must be paid to dealing with the very likely effects of the climate crisis, it is cheaper and much less painful in the long run to deal with the causes.  International aid organizations are making the connection, and demanding action on the causes of the climate crisis.

 But doing something now might cause pain to fossil fuel executives and rich bankers, rather than helpless poor in faraway foreign lands.  These poorer nations see this pretty clearly. As Temperatures Rise, Empires Fall was the Time Magazine headline on lessons of history in climate crises.  There's more than one way this can happen.

Meanwhile, the news on rising temperatures keeps getting worse.  Arctic temps are the highest in at least 44,000 years.  Based just on the latest UN climate report, researchers have estimated that deaths from heat waves may rise by a factor of 10.  But that may not even be the worst news of the month so far.

Climate scientists and especially climate crisis deniers have been talking about the reasons why global temps haven't risen as fast in the past 15 years as predicted.  The deep ocean carbon storage was pretty convincing, but some British and Canadian researchers suggest an even stronger reason: there was no pause.  The estimates were too low, by half.  There were gaps in the data, covered by faulty assumptions, etc.  You can read the column.  So if they are right, there's been no pause, and yet the deep oceans are still holding an enormous amount of carbon which someday will be released into the atmosphere.  Meanwhile, their graphic conclusions are in the graph higher at the top of this post.

Now to finish all the bad news I currently have, because there is some more or less good news on the topic..a very potent and clean way to soak carbon out of the atmosphere is with lots and lots of trees, with forests.  For awhile deforestation, especially in the Amazon, seemed to be waning, but apparently no more.  Brazil just announced that the massacre of the Amazon rainforest increased 28% in just one year.

Google Earth now has an interactive map of forest change for the first 12 years of this century.  The static version is below.  It shows deforestation but also new forest, though it's far and away a net loss.