First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Former Senator Gary Hart (center), with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, in 2016. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Last month I had an article in the print magazine about a reported deathbed confession, by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, that he had intentionally set up the Monkey Business escapade that effectively ended the presidential campaign of Gary Hart.

Last week Todd Purdum, of The Atlantic, had a very good piece on the new movie, The Front Runner, about Hart during this catastrophically decisive week of his life. I hope you read the piece, and I liked all but one paragraph of it. Here is the exception:

(For the record, [Matt] Bai doesn’t accept the notion, recently reported by my Atlantic colleague James Fallows, that Hart might have been set up by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, who is said to have made a dying confession of just that to Hart’s former media adviser, Raymond Strother. “There’s no way you could have bounced all those balls in the right order,” Bai says).

I read Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out when it was published, and talked with him several times while writing my article (in which he is quoted). I think that Todd Purdum’s summary of Bai’s views inadvertently conflates two separate issues.

One question is whether the whole, intricate, Rube Goldberg-ish chain of circumstances that led from Hart’s getting on a boat in Miami, to his withdrawal from the race several weeks later, followed a specifically worked-out plan. Bai thinks it is far too elaborate to have been plotted out that way. That is what he told Todd Purdum recently, and that is also what he told me earlier this year.

But was Gary Hart set up? That is a different question, which was the topic of my story.

As I pointed out, since most of the principals are dead, the full truth about this misadventure may simply be unknowable. (Lee Atwater’s reported confession came just before his death in the early 1990s. Billy Broadhurst, the Louisiana lobbyist who brought Hart onto the Monkey Business, died in 2017. Donna Rice, who is now Donna Rice Hughes, may or may not know the full story. She has resisted interview requests on the episode, including mine, though recently she announced on Twitter that she was working on her own memoir.)

But the main argument in my piece is that it was worth considering the possibility, newly revealed by someone with a career-long reputation for honesty (Raymond Strother), that the episode began as part of a deliberate plan.That is: What if Atwater had intentionally set temptation and peril in Hart’s path, not knowing exactly what would happen next, but confident that something would?

On the first question--whether everything rolled out as Atwater foresaw—Matt Bai said he was skeptical, and so am I. But the second question--whether Lee Atwater might have plotted to get something going with Hart—is different. To me, this version of reality is unprovable, but conceivable. I understand Matt Bai to come out on that same side. As I quoted him in my article about this possibility: “It would be just like the perversity of history for someone to undertake an effort that might well have happened by itself.”

I elaborate on this distinction because it’s not quite the same as “Bai doesn’t accept the notion … that Hart might have been set up.”

Might Hart have been set up by Lee Atwater? I don’t know whether it did happen, but to me the evidence suggests that it could have. And we are left in the realm of what-if? and agnosticism. As I wrote at the end of my piece:

In announcing the suspension of his campaign, Hart angrily said, “I believe I would have been a successful candidate. And I know I could have been a very good president, particularly for these times. But apparently now we’ll never know.”

We won’t.

Donald Trump walking toward Marine One, on the South Lawn of the White House in October, 2018. Kevin Coombs / Reuters

I imagine this will be the last installment in the “weather flying with Marine One” series. Two previous entries here and here. (On the other hand, who knows that the incoming email inbox will hold.)

A person who has worked at the company that makes the current Marine One helicopter, aka VH-1, has this to say:

On your recent piece addressing the ability of the Presidential VH-1 to fly in bad weather. I would like to add some observations that my experience of nearly 10 years at Sikorsky Aircraft (the maker of the helicopter in question) allows me to contribute.  

I was [a high-level official involved in] many “systems” for Sikorsky aircraft.  I can’t say for certain (I lacked the necessary clearance for such information) which block upgrades the VH-1 received over the years, but what I can say is that aircraft from the VH-1 squadron were a constant presence at the Stratford factory for maintenance and system upgrades.

Generally speaking modern Sikorsky aircraft (which no doubt would includes the VH-1) will integrate:

  • RIPS – Rotor Icing Protection System, which is a system of heating elements and conductive wire brushes which warms the rotating blades and prevents freezing;
  • TAWS – Terrain Avoidance Warning System, which as you might guess is an integrated radar system which warns of terrain variations;
  • RIG approach -  Rig approach landing systems, which are autonomous landing systems for dangerous landings primarily on oil rigs that obviously could be used in other types of dangerous landings; and
  • Windshield Wipers; in case anyone doubted it, yes helicopter pilots have wipers at their disposable for visibility.

In short, when I read that the aircraft could not fly in the wet, fall weather in France, I was stunned.  

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Barack Obama leaving Marine One, in 2013. Jason Reed / Reuters

Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.

(For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any  particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.

(Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon departed while still president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)

My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather, I was addressing two points:

First, that an initial line in some news accounts --that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.

Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.

Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:

I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].

In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.

The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army's endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.

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The sun sets, and a rainbow rises, over the U.S. Capitol on this past election day. The imagery may seem over-obvious, but it's a real photo, and appropriate. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.

This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.

Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.

I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)

And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.

So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.

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Maria Moreno, from the film Adios Amor, directed by Laurie Coyle George Ballis/Take Stock

Each spring, the music world hears the name “Coachella” and thinks of a major two-weekend arts and music festival. So attached are the name and the event that the web address Coachella.Com takes you not to the city’s official site but one where you can buy tickets for the festival.

The rest of the year, Coachella is a smallish farming community, in the sun-baked desert, where irrigation has supported a date-palm and grapefruit industry and where a mainly Latino farm work force has struggled over the decades for better pay and conditions.

This past spring, as the music festival was about to kick off, I did an item on “The Other Coachella” — the one I had known while growing up in the area, and the one that’s still there after the festival visitors have left. The occasion for the post was a new “Story Map” from our friends at the mapping company Esri, which gave a multimedia version of the city and people who dominate the town through the non-festival weeks of the year. The map, called “In the Valley of Coachella,” was written by the novelist Susan Straight and illustrated with photos by Douglas McCulloh. It is well worth a return look.

There’s one more aspect of “The Other Coachella,” and another kind of Coachella festival, that are also worth notice. Last month a group called Cinemas Culturas (plus other partners) put on the debut of “Festival in the Fields,” a film, arts, and education event meant to focus attention on the region’s working population. In a note earlier this year describing the project, Cony Martinez, director of Cinemas Culturas, the festival’s main organizer, said:

My mother was a farmworker for over 25 years. Therefore, I decided to create a platform that focuses and honors people like my mother.

The project focuses on the migrant community and the Latino community in general of the Coachella Valley.

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The Dodge City logo, on the road into town James Fallows

One of this cycle’s most closely contested, and highly important, elections is in Kansas. There the Republican Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, is in a surprisingly tight race for governor—against the Democratic nominee, Laura Kelly, and an independent, Greg Orman.

Apart from the general stakes in all races this year, this one has two additional points of consequence. First, it is a de facto referendum on the radical cuts in both taxes and spending wrought by the previous governor, Sam Brownback, a Republican. The cuts were supposed to energize the economy; they’re now widely seen as having badly damaged the state, and are unpopular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

Second, it’s both a referendum and a possible test case in the modern drama of voter suppression and voting rights. The Republican who hopes to become governor, Kobach, is at the moment the Kansas secretary of state. In that role he is responsible for supervising the very election he is running in. (Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor in Georgia while serving as secretary of state, is in the same structurally conflicted role.) Even more than Kemp, and second only to Donald Trump, Kobach has in the past few years trumpeted the supposed menace of “voter fraud,” and has very aggressively pushed new ID  requirements and other “protections” against the voter-fraud threat he talks about constantly. (Am I exaggerating? Judge for yourself.)

With this background, news over the past few days about a voting-rules change in a small Kansas city drew national attention. As it happened, the community affected, Dodge City, is one that my wife, Deb, and I have written about extensively. This past week’s news portrayed the city in a very different light from the one we had seen. Had Dodge City changed? That is what we have tried to find out.

Through the summer of 2016, Deb and I chronicled the experiences of individuals, families, companies, and public organizations in the famed Kansas town of Dodge City.

In popular culture, Dodge City has long been known as the locus of the Western melodrama Gunsmoke. In its modern economic reality, it  is part of the beef-packing economy of western Kansas--along with Garden City, Liberal, and some smaller communities. Over the past 30 years, this economic shift has also driven an ethnic shift in the region, as many immigrant workers—mostly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, but significant numbers from Africa or Asia—have come to work in Kansas feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Former senators Gary Hart (left) and Warren Rudman, in 2002. A year earlier their Hart-Rudman Commission had warned incoming president George W. Bush that terrorists were planning a major attack on U.S. soil. Win McNamee / Reuters

The new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) has an article by me on a tantalizing “what if?” question involving the course of modern history. The article is called “Was Gary Hart Set Up?”, and its point is to ask what different forks national and world history might have taken, if a long-ago but recently revealed deathbed confession, from the 1980s-era Republican operative Lee Atwater, actually were true.

James Savage, a staffer of the Miami Herald who was involved in the events I describe, then wrote in to complain about the story. You can read his letter, and my reply, here.

Now, some of the wide array of reader mail that has arrived. First, a reader in Florida parallels the argument in Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out, that the Hart stakeout was a turning point in American political and journalistic history:

I have always regarded the Hart “scandal” to be the beginning of a terrible turn in political reporting. Until then, the press had respected at least some privacy on the part of political figures with regard to personal peccadilloes — e.g., Eisenhower, Kennedy, FDR. With Hart, the press (beginning with my hometown paper [the Herald]) realized that sex sells papers, and afterwards everyone was fair game.

Front page of The Miami Herald on May 3, 1987, the it broke the Hart-Rice story. Screen shot from a reader in Florida.

The problem is that anyone with a skeleton in the closet or “human imperfections” of the sort taken for granted in less Puritan societies will now never offer him/herself for public office. We are left with a talent pool which is greatly shrunk, and political machinations such as were displayed in the recent Kavanaugh hearings promise to shrink it further.

If the press had been willing to respect Gary Hart’s privacy (and he in fact was my preferred choice at the time) the speculations you offer regarding “what might have been” would be tested by history.

I offer no suggestion for changing things. Only regret.

Susan Collins, Republican Senator of Maine, who cast what was seen as the swing vote in Brett Kavanaugh's favor. Mary Calvert / Reuters

Brett Kavanaugh’s impending arrival on the Supreme Court is like Donald Trump’s attainment of the presidency, in this important way:

By the rules of politics that prevailed until 2016, neither of them would have come close to consideration for their respective offices. For Trump, the reasons are obvious; for Kavanaugh, they’re brilliantly summarized by one of Kavanaugh’s long-term friends here, and discussed below.

Thus the ascent of a man like Kavanaugh necessarily changes the public sense of what is within bounds, and not, for the most powerful jurists in the nation—just as the ascent of Trump has changed assessments of what is within bounds for a president, and how much protection long-standing norms can supply.

More specifically, both Trump and Kavanaugh have shifted the implicit privilege-and-responsibility bargain that had previously applied to their offices:

- Presidents, in exchange for their great power, were expected both to act, and to speak, for the interests of the entire nation — including the substantial segment that did not vote for them. (Surprising but true: Every single U.S. president except Lyndon Johnson has taken office knowing that at least 40 percent of the electorate voted for someone else. In 1964 Johnson got the highest-ever proportion of the popular vote, at 61.1 percent—but he knew that nearly 40 percent had voted the other way, for Barry Goldwater.)

Trump, with his rhetoric and policies designed continually to fire up his base rather than appeal to his more numerous critics, has obviously viewed his role differently.

- For judges in general, and Supreme Court justices in particular, a version of the same bargain has applied: In exchange for outsize, unaccountable, lifetime power, justices will at least act as if they are above personal grievances and partisan loyalties. Kavanaugh has rejected that part of the implicit bargain: with his bitter outbursts in response to testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, with his partisan appeals during the nomination process on Fox News and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, with his comment in his written testimony that in today’s politics “what goes around, comes around.” He has, crucially, never promised to recuse himself in cases involving the executive powers, the possible offenses, or the pending investigations of the man who has elevated him, Donald Trump.

Certain roles invest the people who hold them with enormous  power over others. This happens with surgeons, airline pilots, police officers, combat commanders, judges. For that power to seem legitimate, the person occupying the role is supposed to comport him- or herself as if the role itself is uppermost in mind, not individual interests or whims. A combat commander who thinks, I’ve got to save my skin rather than How do I save my unit? will have no followers (and in the Vietnam era would have been fragged).

Kavanaugh has broken the part of the bargain in which we expect justices at least to act as if they are impartial, despite the biases every single one of them naturally brings. A justice who says of partisan politics, “What goes around, comes around” will arouse suspicion for every close call he makes.

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Donald Trump, in Mississippi, a few hours after the New York Times story on his financial history came out. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The huge New York Times report today by David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner, five weeks before the midterm elections of 2018, is a counterpart to the Access Hollywood tape that came out four weeks before the presidential election of  2016.

Why? Each of them involved allegations that, in any previous election cycle, would have ended a campaign or triggered major investigations.

In 2016: “You can grab ‘em by the pussy,” on tape.

In 2018: a long record of “outright fraud” by a president who has refused to disclose his tax returns or any other financial information.

From the New York Times.

To put this in perspective: the entire Kenneth Starr investigation of Bill Clinton, which by 1998 led to his impeachment, began with exposes and hearings about the Whitewater real-estate “scandal” in Arkansas, which at its most garish interpretation involved well under $1 million, a minuscule fraction of the sums discussed in the new story.

The Access Hollywood tapes apparently made no difference in the election results two years ago. Will this latest financial data make any difference in support for Donald Trump?

Who knows. Here is the tally of Republican senators who (to the best of my knowledge) have said anything about it:

This was, of course, the same day on which Donald Trump, at a rally in Mississippi, mocked Christine Blasey Ford, for her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh.

Thirty-five days to go.

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Ten weeks ago, in happier times. Jim Bourg / Reuters

Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to serve as a Supreme Court justice differs from Donald Trump’s suitability to serve as a president in some obvious ways.

Kavanaugh has long previous legal experience, versus none in public office for Trump. For the past 12 years, Kavanaugh has held a job generally regarded as the closest thing to being on the Supreme Court—namely, a seat on the D.C. Circuit—and he has been on conservatives’ list of prospective future justices for a long time. Most people doubted, even as of Election Day, that Trump would become president. Most people have assumed, even as of now, that Kavanaugh will be confirmed.

But after this past week’s hearings, and before anyone knows what job Kavanaugh will hold next year at this time, it is fair to liken the two men in one important way: By the rules of previous, pre-Trump-era politics, neither of them could possibly have made this final career step—Trump to the presidency, Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Each has done things and revealed traits that would have been automatically disqualifying in the world as it existed before 2016. Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh; Trump’s example is also shaping him.

By the pre-Trump rules of presidential campaigning, Trump’s prospects would have come to an end numerous times along the trail: when he mocked John McCain as “not a hero,” when he similarly criticized a Gold Star family, when he refused to release his tax information, when the “Grab ‘em!” tape came out, when he talked about the “Mexican judge,” when he revealed that he didn’t know what the “nuclear triad” was—the list goes on. After all, Edmund Muskie left the presidential race in 1972 to a large degree because he cried one time at an outdoor speech, in a snowstorm, and Howard Dean in 2004 to a large degree because he screamed too exuberantly one time at a post-primary-vote rally. Joe Biden was eliminated from the 1988 race to a large degree because he passed off someone else’s family-history anecdote as his own. Excesses like these became routine for Trump on the campaign trail, yet he went on.

In Kavanaugh’s case, his afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed three traits that previous nominees who sat in that chair have carefully avoided, because they would have been considered so damaging. They were: temperamental instability; open partisan affiliations; and a casual willingness to tell obvious, easily disprovable lies. These are apart from the underlying truth of the multiple sexual allegations about Kavanaugh, which may not ever be provable.

The details in these three categories fill the weekend’s news, and have been covered in many strong posts on our site: by Matt Thompson, by Megan Garber, by Judith Donath, by Joe Pinsker, by Adam Serwer, and many others. But to explain the grouping, and why it departs from the known past:

(1) Temperament. Positions of public power that are in the public eye are uncomfortable. People disagree with you. They criticize and even hate you. Often they twist facts and reach unfair conclusions. All of this goes with the territory of being a president—or a governor, a general, a boss, any kind of leader, or anyone who has to make high-stakes decisions that involve other people, and that some people won’t like.

What also goes with the territory, or should, is a thick skin, and a long view. Politicians can get away with the occasional public flash of anger about unfair accusations. That can be part of the personality they present to their constituents, though Trump is the first to make grievance itself such a long-running political act. But judges aren’t supposed to. There’s a reason the adjective judicious has the word-origin that it does. And by past conventions, Supreme Court candidates were supposed to present themselves as the most calmly judicious of all.

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Donald Trump at the United Nations Carlo Allegri / Reuters

American presidents usually address the United Nations General Assembly in the fall—as you can see here, and as Donald Trump did on Tuesday. Sometimes they also do so in the spring*, or on other occasions as the need arises.

American presidents usually receive a respectful hearing at the UN.

-  Sometimes it is more than just respectful, as when John Kennedy made his speech in 1961 calling for a new series of nuclear test-ban treaties. (“The events and decisions of the next ten months may well decide the fate of man for the next ten thousand years… And we in this hall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned this planet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ ”)

- Sometimes the reception is merely polite, as when Richard Nixon spoke to the UN during the Vietnam war, or Ronald Reagan while pursuing his “Star Wars” / Strategic Defense Initiative program against the Soviet Union.

- Very occasionally the reaction has fallen short even of politeness, as when Hugo Chavez, then strongman of Venezuela, spoke one day after George W. Bush, during the Iraq War. Chavez said that the dais still reeked of sulfur after Bush’s speech, because “yesterday the devil came here.”

But two things were unusual about Trump’s speech on Tuesday.

It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first presidential UN speech that challenged the very idea of international cooperation and standards. Compare Ronald Reagan, 1985:  “America is committed to the world because so much of the world is inside America…. The blood of each nation courses through the American vein and feeds the spirit that compels us to involve ourselves in the fate of this good Earth.” And Donald Trump, 2018: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

And, it was the only one, ever, to be greeted by openly mocking laughter, including from representatives of America’s closest allies, as David Graham described here. Criticism and disagreement, yes — they go with the territory of representing America’s enormous power. But ridicule is something new. The moment is too obvious to belabor as a symbol, so I simply note it as a fact.

Republican senators who have said anything about this performance: to the best of my knowledge, none.

Forty-one days to go.

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(Emily Jan / Gabriela Fernandez / The Atlantic)

We’re bringing back our #ReadingMyAtlantic Instagram contest and we’re so excited. The first iteration of this contest launched last year, and in the months since, we have been blown away by the creativity of our readers. We’ve loved seeing where you took your magazine with your babies and furry friends. We’ve watched you take us around the world to see the Louvre and the solar eclipse. And now, we want to see more!

The October 2018 issue is a special one. It features a lineup of stories that attempt to answer the question: Is democracy dying? For example, the historian Yuval Noah Harari argues “Why Technology Favors Tyranny.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Applebaum takes us to Europe, where the arc of history is bending away from liberalism. And Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld examine how tribalism threatens the American notion that we are bound not by blood, ethnicity, race, or religion, but by respect for our country’s founding beliefs. Not exactly light reading, we know, but we’re hoping this issue might spark some inspiration. Grab your copy and a phone or camera, and show us where you’ve been #ReadingMyAtlantic lately.

A reminder on how to enter: Snap a picture or boomerang of you (and your friends! Family! Pets! Get as weird as you’d like with it) reading your copy of the October issue, and share it on Instagram, using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic (Tip: make sure your profile is public for this so we can see it). We’ll select a winner in early October. The prize includes a one-year digital subscription and an Atlantic swag bag — including an Atlantic t-shirt, baseball cap, notebook and a limited-edition poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The winner’s post will also be shared from our account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.