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This site isn’t a blog; click on “Latest Work” at the top of the screen to see my most recent posted and published work, going back to 2008. The rest of the site offers selected columns, reviews, essays, and audio and video commentaries that are grouped in thematic sections listed here below. To open a section, click the heading. Write with any comments. If a pdf won’t open, msg me and I’ll try to send it as an attachment.

Looking For America

A Civic-Republican Primer

Liberal Education and Leadership Training

The News Media, the Public Sphere, and a Phantom Public

Leaders and Misleaders

Israel’s Tragedy, America’s Folly

New York Nonsense and Urbanities

Folly on the Left

Conservative Contradictions

Our Chattering Classes

Race: Why Skin Color Isn’t Culture or Politics

Scoops and other Revelations

The Obama Chronicles, 2008

Faith vs. Churches?

What Politics Does to History, via George Shultz & Charles Hill


You probably haven’t heard of Charles Hill — but his influence on the dire mistakes of U.S. foreign policy ran deep   

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Henry Kissinger, Charles Hill and George Shultz The apothegm “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (“Of the dead, say nothing but good”) urges compassion and respect for the recently deceased, no matter how flawed they were in life. That injunction was obeyed last week in a memorial conference arranged by Yale’s Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy for Morton Charles Hill, the university’s “Diplomat in Residence,” who died, at 84, on March 27. 

The conference webinar’s virtually assembled (and tightly monitored) participants — some Yale faculty were “removed” by the website host from the “audience” — parodied unintentionally Hill’s long career of diplomatic dissembling. A Vulcan conservative, he revered England’s iron-fisted 17th-century Puritan “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell but also John Milton, an enigmatic diplomatic aide and chronicler. Both became models for Hill’s own Foreign Service work and as a confidant and ghostwriter for secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He was the chief foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign (during which Sen. Joe Biden quipped that Giuliani’s every sentence “contains a verb, a noun and 9/11”). He became a purveyor to starstruck Yale students of his own dark reading of liberal education’s great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

“Nil nisi bonum” has long been Yale’s way of arranging senior luminaries’ comings and goings with announcements “staged in a sequence indicative of sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day,” as Lewis Lapham put it in “Quarrels With Providence,”his poignant, sometimes hilarious short history of Yale. In one such orchestration, you might have thought that Charles Hill was ascending to oceans of eternal light last week as the tributes to him flowed at the Yale conference. 

Kissinger, 97, characterized Hill as a master practitioner of “anonymous indispensability” throughout their 50-year relationship. Hill was Shultz’s top executive assistant in the State Department and then a fellow with Shultz at the conservative Hoover Institution. Yale named him “Diplomat in Residence” and a “distinguished fellow” of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which has been funded by former Reagan Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and securities analyst Charles Johnson, as well as by the conservative Olin and Smith-Richardson Foundations. For more than 20 years, that program’s faculty triumvirate — John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy and Hill — worked to make “grand strategy” a brand name within Yale and at other universities, collaborating with other conservative-funded Yale initiatives: the Jackson School of Global Affairs, the William F. Buckley Program and the Johnson Center.

Conference tributes came also from Yale alumnus L. Paul Bremer III, the former American proconsul of Iraq’s Green Zone in 2003; from former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills (who embarrassingly praised Charles Hill’s work with a man whom she named “Boutros Boutros-Gandhi“); and from toadying Yale faculty, including Hill’s Grand Strategy partners, the historians Gaddis and Kennedy, as well as from the ubiquitous political scientist Bryan Garsten and the self-avowed “public interest lawyer” and longtime program enthusiast Justin Zaremby, whose essay in praise of Hill was provided on the conference website.

 But a wiser admonition to conference goers might have been “De mortuis nil nisi veritas” (“Of the dead, say nothing but the truth“). The whole truth is that Hill instilled in student acolytes the strain of that iron yet duplicitous discipline that has run from Yale’s own Puritan founders and from its first “spy,” Nathan Hale, class of 1773, through its birthing of the CIA (see the movie “The Good Shepherd”) and Yale’s outsized role in designing and staffing 20th-century American foreign policy. “Nothing but the truth” would reveal that, in Washington as well as at Yale, Hill perpetrated something worse than diplomacy’s inevitable, artful deceptions.

If you’re tempted to consider this assessment over-determinedly liberal or leftist, read a strongly similar assessment of Hill in The American Conservative magazine by Michael Desch, a professor at the George H.W. Bush School at Texas A&M University. Desch reports — as the recent, credulous, error-ridden Washington Post obituary for Hill does not — that “Hill was forced to resign from the Foreign Service after it became clear that he had concealed evidence of Shultz’s extensive knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal from federal agents.” Hill was a “Diplomat in Residence” at Yale because he was a diplomat in exile from Washington. And that’s only the beginning of what the nil nisi bonum faithful evaded.

When teaching becomes political 

It’s worrisome enough that today’s financialization of everything in America is forcing university development officers to rely not only on conservative donors with “agendas” such as those of the Yale programs I’ve mentioned, but also on civically rudderless benefactors such as private equity baron Stephen Schwarzman, whose priorities constrain universities to become business corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to become not citizens of a republic or the world but mincing, self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers.

Some leftist and “politically correct” initiatives on college campuses are feckless reactions against these pressures. Some conservative faculty at Yale welcomed Hill as a superior antidote to such civic mindlessness and as the embodiment of an older social discipline and sense of duty on which Yale had been founded.

But Hill and his backers insinuated themselves into liberal education in ways that prompt two cautionary lessons.

First, the writing of history may be damaged, not enriched, when would-be statesmen teach it and write it.

Second, a university dedicated to liberal education’s great conversation across the ages needs an immune system and antibodies strong enough to resist not only financialized greed and power lust but also all ideologies that serve such pressures instead of resisting them.

By the early 1990s, Yale’s immune system had been weakened, if not traumatized, by demographic and economic upheavals in New Haven and within the university itself — a long, sad story, beyond my scope here. As if sensing blood in the water of left-liberal responses to these dislocations, right-wing journalists and operatives began attacking Yale as too gay, too feminized, too hostile to the Western canon. Yale president Richard Levin made tactical responses to the university’s many challenges, engaging more seriously with New Haven’s social institutions and residents, rebuilding the university’s physical plant, and welcoming the lavishly funded conservative initiatives and operatives and exponents such as Hill.

Those tactics successfully deflected some of the right-wing assaults; Hill put out some fires set by conservative bashers of “liberal Yale,” some of whom had been his confederates in conservative policy making and Wall Street Journal punditry. But his Vulcan, almost pagan sense of human nature and its prospects compromised the classically liberal freedoms of expression and inquiry that he claimed to defend. Thousands of people beyond campus and the U.S. have become “mortuis” thanks to thinking and policies that Hill propounded as a sage to young acolytes at Yale.

Shortly before the war in Iraq began, I watched him pitch it forcefully to a packed Yale Law School auditorium audience. Interviewed on March 5, 2003 by “PBS NewsHour” correspondent Paul Solman (who would later join the Grand Strategy Program as a part-time lecturer), Hill assured PBS viewers that the United States had the capability “to do this operation swiftly, and it will be a war that will not do great damage to Iraq, to its installations, to its infrastructure, or to its people. … We will see … the restoration of American credibility and decisiveness. We’ll see an Iraq that is freed from oppression.” Five years later, at a dinner in Yale President Levin’s home, Hill regaled the guests with a Periclean assessment of Giuliani’s recent presidential campaign, which he’d served while on leave from Grand Strategy.

What bad politics does to history

By 2010, when I was reading Hill’s “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order” for my Foreign Policy magazine review (which you should read as a supplement to this post), PBS was broadcasting a documentary based on George Shultz’s 1993 memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph,” which had mainly been written by Hill. The PBS ombudsman criticized the film’s hagiographical, conservative slant, but the deeper problem was that Hill’s crafting of the memoir revealed unintentionally what can happen when former statesmen try to write or teach history.

Iran-Contra special counsel Lawrence Walsh’s 1993 report on how American officials had secretly funneled proceeds from illegal arms sales to Iran to right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua established that although Hill and Shultz opposed the scheme, bureaucratic self-interest kept them from trying to stop it. In congressional testimony written by Hill, Shultz lied about what they’d known and when, compromising the public investigation but providing Ronald Reagan with plausible deniability. By not telling the truth about the scandal, they hoped to avoid retribution from top Reagan aides. As the report goes, “Independent Counsel concluded that Shultz’s testimony was incorrect, if not false, in significant respects and misleading, if literally true, in others, and that information had been withheld from investigators by Shultz’s executive assistant, M. Charles Hill.”Desch of the American Conservative notes that Hill “describes himself as an ‘Edmund Burke conservative,’ but as one former Yale International Security Studies Fellow told me, ‘There’s not much if any daylight between Charlie and the neocons….'” 

Always at Hill’s elbow were the admonitory ghosts that had haunted him since his student years at Brown University. A large oil portrait of Oliver Cromwell hung in Hill’s New Haven home. The paleoconservative Richard Weaver, whose “Ideas Have Consequences”(1948) roused Hill’s and other conservatives’ dread of “the crumbling of modern man and the philosophical and moral threats hatching on the other side of the Iron curtain,” as Molly Worthen, a former Hill student, wrote in her biography of Hill, “The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost.” 

An energetic autodidact, Hill spun great literature, classical and modern, to justify his mottled Foreign Service record, paleoconservative convictions and neoconservative alliances. That might suit the schoolmaster of a military boarding school better than a teacher of liberal arts. But it sidestepped what becomes of great men’s ideas when those who virtually write their memoirs, as Hill did Shultz’s, twist their record to evade the judgment of history (and, in his case, of the Iran-Contra independent counsel). In real life, Hill’s dissembling compromised not only Shultz and foreign policy making but also an old, civic-republican college’s three-century-long struggle to balance humanist truth-seeking with training for republican power-wielding.

Dissembling in print

In 1993 The New York Review of Books published a damning review of Shultz’s “Turmoil and Triumph” by Theodore H. Draper, the grand historian of Communism and of the Cold War (which had been sputtering toward its close in the Reagan-Shultz years). Draper faulted Shultz’s facts and his methodology in presenting them. That prompted a letter from Hill contesting Draper’s judgment but, ultimately, discrediting his own. Hill contended that the factual errors Draper flagged in the memoir reflected Shultz’s sound decision to confine his narrative “to what he knew or was told at the time” and, in so doing, to exclude “information and evidence which came to light after a decision or event occurred.”

Defending this strange methodology, Hill unintentionally revealed what was untrustworthy in his own methods. He claimed that Shultz’s decision to report only what he knew of past events as they were unfolding (or only what Shultz and Hill want readers to think he knew) “makes ‘Turmoil and Triumph’ a unique, irreplaceable and unchallengeable historical document, as it reveals a reality that ‘memoirs’ invariably obscure: decisions of statecraft must be taken on the basis of partial and sometimes erroneous reports.” Parrying one of Draper’s factual corrections, Hill admitted that “it may be true that [Iranian-born arms merchant Albert] Hakim, not [CIA official George] Cave, was the … drafter [of a memo on the Iran-Contra deal], but Shultz at the time was told it was Cave, and to be true to how things actually were, Shultz’s narrative must say ‘Cave.'”

But shouldn’t the narrative have moved on to tell what Shultz learned shortly thereafter? Hill’s casuistry is all too common in memoirs written by or for statesmen seeking to sanitize their own blunders and lies. His letter to the editor concluded his justification of that hoary practice with a try at literary grace: “In this review … Draper reads every note, but never seems to be able to hear the music.” But Hill’s own music was meant to distract attention from his flimsy rationale for Shultz’s presenting as factual the many suppositions that he and Hill knew — but never told readers — had already been discredited by the time they were writing the memoir.

Such gyrations would offend Thucydides, and they open a Pandora’s box or Orwellian memory hole in the writing of history: Hill’s is a “peculiar interpretation of ‘how things actually were,'” Draper replied, since the truth, as Hill and Shultz knew when they were writing the book, was that “Hakim was the [memo’s] drafter, so that is how ‘things actually were,'” while “Shultz was told at the time that it was Cave, so that was how things actually were not. But even if we accept [Hill’s] strange premise that Shultz had to put in his book only what he was told at the time, however erroneous, a question arises: Was not Shultz obliged to tell the reader what the truth was? As for notes and music,” Draper concludes, “the music cannot be right if the notes are wrong.”

This was no trivial exchange. It bared something wrong not only in Hill’s writing but also in the slippery historiographical and pedagogical modus he imparted to Yale students in lectures, seminars and campus publications. It should have disqualified him from teaching at a liberal arts college, but, as his students told me, and as I sometimes witnessed firsthand, he used his position as a supposed guide to the great humanist conversation, not to deepen their reckonings with the humanities’ lasting challenges to politics and the spirit, but to advance his Vulcan logic and his superiors’ strategic interests. His firmness and his intimacy with the great and powerful impressed students eager to learn how not to say that an emperor has no clothes and how to supply the necessary drapery if someone is incautious enough to say it.Both Hill and a student reporter seemed disposed to do precisely that in a Yale Daily News interview a month after 9/11:

Yale Daily News: [M]any have noted a change in President Bush’s behavior in the last month, the New York Times going so far as to say that he has achieved a certain degree of “gravitas.” Do you agree?

Hill: I think that people with basically sound leadership instincts … will find them growing stronger over time. So it seems to me that what we have seen in the president’s behavior is a string of more and more able performances, more and more firm and definitive performances. And this is what you want to see. It’s a growing process, and I don’t see any limitation to this growth.”

Hill wasn’t teaching student readers here how to conduct an inquiry in the spirit of liberal education. He was engaging in his almost instinctive misrepresentation of what was actually going on in order to reinforce political instincts and premises he believed the young reporter and his readers were inclined to share.

Hill loathed Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose understanding of equality and the General Will challenge the Lockean liberalism and Anglo-American hegemony that Hill claimed to defend. Never mind that more serious threats to Lockean liberalism and American hegemony come not from the revolutionary left but from casino-finance capital and corporate welfare that would have horrified Locke and Adam Smith, under banners of “free markets.” On one occasion Hill made students from his freshman seminar in Yale’s Directed Studies program recite in unison, from wherever each was seated in a larger assembly of the program’s students and faculty, a Rousseauian Creed, intended “to depict Rousseauianism as proto-totalitarian,” as one of the participants later wrote me.

“We went in feeling rather excited about it,” the student added, “but as soon as it happened, I felt rather uncomfortable. … There was something disturbingly authoritarian in Hill’s getting students to recite certain words at his prompting. In trying to combat a particular sort of groupthink, Hill actually wound up emulating what he claims to oppose.” A faculty member later confirmed that impression and more. “People were at each other’s throats over it afterward, he told me. ‘This isn’t liberal education,’ some of us felt.”

In 1998 Hill wrote another duplicitous, doomed letter to the New York Review, this one charging that Joan Didion’s review of “Lion King,” Dinesh D’Souza’s hagiography of Ronald Reagan, recycled an “erroneous story” that Reagan had falsely claimed to have seen the Nazi death camps in person during World War II. (Actually, he never left the U.S. and saw only footage from military cameramen which he edited into briefing films.)

Hill, eager to protect Reagan (as the Iran-Contra Independent Counsel had found him eager to do when that scandal broke), cites Shultz’s claim in Turmoil and Triumph that Reagan had showed the footage of camps to the visiting Israeli President Yitzhak Shamir, who then told this to “the Hebrew language” press, whose reports of the meeting were garbled in translation back to English, giving the mistaken impression that Reagan had claimed to have been in the camps.

Didion’s reply showed that Hill’s effort to deny Reagan’s blurring of romance and fact was itself wishful, at best. She cited Washington Post correspondent Lou Cannon’s report that both Shamir and Elie Wiesel told friends that Reagan, in separate, unrelated meetings with them, had given them the impression he’d visited the camps himself, and that both men had sincerely believed and been moved by what they understood to have been his experience.

Perhaps what we have here is four “statesmen” embellishing the past as they wander through the fog of Reagan’s mind, but more likely Hill has only compounded Reagan’s dissimulations. Scholars are reluctant to do such things. Foreign Service officers are expected to do it.

• Hill shouldn’t be doing it at Yale, but, there, too, his footwork is so fancy that it sometimes compounds the suspicions he’s trying to allay. In April, 2006 the Yale Daily News noted that “An article published in the Yale Israel Journal by Charles Hill… has become the center of a debate over alleged plagiarism in a lecture delivered by… George Shultz at the Library of Congress. The controversy arose when a group of Stanford students revealed last week that they had come across 22 sentences in Shultz’s 2004 Kissinger Lecture that had previously appeared in Hill’s article, published the prior year.”

It was really a non-story, given the two men’s long relationship, but with colleges struggling to prevent plagiarism as opportunities for it proliferate, students are concerned and confused about what it really entails. In this case Hill need only have explained that he’d been Shultz’s speechwriter and confidante for many years and that the mix-up that led both to publish the same words under separate bylines didn’t really involve one person wrongly claiming credit for another’s work.

But Hill couldn’t leave well enough alone, because, as a teacher at Yale, he had to defend his scholarly integrity as well as that of Shultz, by then a “professor” at Stanford. Hill’s first feint was to fall nobly on his sword for his superior, as a Foreign Service officer would: “It was my doing, and [Shultz] is being blamed for it. He is blameless,” he told the Yale Daily News before explaining that he, too, is really blameless because he and Shultz meet every summer “to discuss and debate current world issues, usually while taking notes and writing throughout.”

Hill then told the paper “he believes that after one such trip a few years ago, when Shultz was preparing for a lecture, they both took notes on their discussions, and then each returned home and wrote something up. Although Hill did not intend to publish his paper, he submitted it to the Yale Israel Journal when he was approached for an article on a short deadline. While he and Shultz later corresponded about the latter’s upcoming Library of Congress Lecture, Hill said, he found a copy of the paper he had written and recommended that Schultz take a look at it, forgetting that the paper had been published.

“[Shultz] got blindsided and it was my fault because I just didn’t recall any of this,” Hill said. “I guess I plagiarized something in reverse by using my own thing and gave him something he had contributed to without knowing it, so the whole thing is kind of upside down.”

The image of Shultz and Hill scribbling madly as they “discuss and debate current world issues” in the California sun and then writing up their notes in their rooms soon afterward seems too clever by half — an effort to spare Shultz some embarrassment over what shouldn’t be embarrassing to a former public official with a life-long amanuensis and few scholarly pretensions.

But Hill was also still trying to live down what his voluminous note-taking for Shultz had done: It had proved to federal investigators, who wrested the notes from Hill only with difficulty, that Senate testimony he’d prepared for Shultz on Iran-Contra was false. The report of the Independent Counsel called Hill’s efforts to blame others “unworthy” in ways you can read about in the Foreign Policy review. He is “Diplomat in Residence” at Yale because he is a diplomat in exile from Washington who tried to return as the chief foreign-policy adviser Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign — as, again, you learn from the Foreign Policy review.

• The last telling instance of Hill’s prevarications that I’ll present here highlights the dangers of entangling a state’s corruption of public discourse with a university’s teaching of the liberal arts. This time it was the late Tony Judt, not Theodore Draper, who did the unmasking.

Reviewing a book by Hill’s Grand Strategy colleague John Lewis Gaddis in The New York Review in 2006, Judt noted sardonically that “Gaddis’ account of [Mikhail Gorbachev] gives the Reagan administration full credit for many of Gorbachev’s own opinions, ideas, and achievements–as well it might, since in this section of the book Gaddis is paraphrasing and citing Secretary of State George Shultz’s memoir, Turmoil and Triumph.”

Not only did Hill ghostwrite Shultz’s claim; he made the same claim in his own voice, in the Hoover Digest in 2001, writing that “through the quiet pressure of Secretary of State George Shultz,” the United States had become in the 1980s “a guide for [the Soviet Union’s] ridding itself of much of its socialistic economic system.” Judt counters that “what changed [Gorbachev’s] perspective” on Communism and capitalism” was not… Shultz’s private lectures on the virtues of capitalism (as both Shultz and, less, forgiveably, Gaddis appears to believe) but the catastrophe of Chernobyl and its aftermath.”

Chernobyl isn’t mentioned by Shultz, Hill, or Gaddis or by Hill’s and Gaddis’ former student Worthen in her five-page account of Hill’s role in this stage of the U.S.-Soviet endgame. Her account — in her book about Hill – is Hill’s account, polished by Gaddis, with whom Worthen took a course in biography before writing the book and whom she thanks in her acknowledgments for having “read every chapter” in manuscript.

So Gaddis, in his own book The Cold War, credits Schultz’s account in Turmoil and Triumph, which was really written by Gaddis’ own Grand Strategy partner Hill; and all three men also use a 24-year-old, prepped by Gaddis and Hill, to tell the story as they want it told.

What Should We Learn?

What I’ve been sketching here are eerie and highly subjective, self-indulgent claims to omniscience by certain people who think themselves entitled to frame a republic’s grand strategies. It’s not enough to answer that since the American people elected the President who appoints the strategists, they can be trusted. A lot depends on how they’ve been trained.

The predominantly Ivy graduates whom the late David Halberstam dubbed, with leaden irony, The Best and the Brightest helped to mastermind the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam debacles, and their successors our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wrong training reinforces an arrogant ignorance of how the world really works. A republic has to determine its most vital interests and its greatest strengths by taking its innermost bearings through teaching and public discourse quite unlike Hill’s.

A republic does need a trained but open elite – an “aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson called it, not of breeding or wealth. Hill pays lip service to this goal, and he is quite right to charge, as he often does, that some academic liberals and leftists have abandoned it in the name of a specious and facile “equality” and cultural relativism. But strategists who are drawn inexorably to top-down crisis definition and management can easily corrupt both the republican ethos and the liberal education they say they want to rescue from liberals.

“Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” warned the neoconservative Hill admirer Robert Kagan in a 2013 essay, insisting, as Hill did, that often only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order we’ve taken for granted. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan warned that liberal civilization itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps, Kagan added, “this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle.” 

But such encroachments come not only from jungles abroad but also from within our own garden, and some of Yale’s postwar strategists have been their carriers, casualties and apologists, too eager to supply missing drapery to emperors who lack clothes. Yale’s own founders anticipated such dangers. They crossed an ocean to escape a corrupt regime and to build a college and society on moral and civic foundations stronger than armies and wealth. Soon enough, though, they had to seek material support from Elihu Yale, a governor of the East India Company, one of the world’s first multinational corporations.

Yale has embodied that tension ever since, struggling to balance students’ preparation for capitalist wealth-making with truth-seeking (first religious, then scientific) and civic-republican leadership training. The truth-seeking that I and other Yale students encountered in the 1960s nurtured in some of us enough independence of mind and spirit to resist established premises and practices when alternative strategies must be tried. Grand-strategic ventures abroad depend ultimately on such independence at home. Without it, the civic-republican strengths that effective foreign policy-making requires will be stampeded too easily into feckless ventures like the ones that Hill served in Vietnam and the Middle East and that he continued to defend and promote in New Haven.

A fuller accounting of this miscarriage will go farther than I can go here. But surely the true story of Charles Hill’s experience should teach us to stop applauding tricksters and their funders who train young Americans to mistake presumed omniscience for clear-eyed assessment, total surveillance for real security and chronic lying for necessary discretion.

What “politics” does to history: The saga of Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s right-hand man |

Looking For America

Looking for America
An account of this site’s main theme and of how I came to it.

Many unflattering generalizations can be made about Americans, many of those for good reasons. But every so often people in this country do things that strike me as not only typically “American” but appealingly so, in ways I’ve sketched and tried to account for in some of the writing collected on this site.

It’s a truism, acknowledged around the world, that many Americans did appealing things on 9/11, notably in New York. Many more do such things less dramatically every day, usually with so little public notice that we need remind ourselves that a republic’s strengths depend precisely on the things that ordinary people do when no one’s looking.

A republic — especially a liberal-capitalist one — has to assume, or at least pretend, that a significant minority of its citizens have taken certain values to heart enough to live by them and that they have enough self-discipline to do that without surveillance and policing.

Early in 2008, Barack Obama’s speeches revived those assumptions (or were they only pretensions?) across many of the usual partisan and ideological and even racial lines. He received more white votes, proportionally and absolutely, than his two white predecessor Democratic nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore; and he defeated John McCain among whites under 30.  He seemed to embody the “American” qualities that fascinate people the world over — not our wealth or power (which can be trashy and brutal, and which we’re squandering), but an egalitarianism that, at least until recently, inclined most Americans to say “Hi” to anyone rather than “Heil” to a leader; to give the other guy a fair shot; and, out of that kind of strength, to take a shot at the moon.

Such inclinations don’t come from nowhere. And they may well not survive.

I don’t fear that the American republic is sliding toward fascism, as some on the left think, or toward communist totalitarianism, as some conservatives warn. Far more likely, and no less frightening, is a dissolution of the civic-republican fabric that becomes increasingly coarse and dispiriting, as happened to republican virtues in ancient Rome. Is that happening here now? A republican way of life waxes or wanes in what Tocqueville called “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself,” the little daily interactions that count for as much as high moments of national decision.

Sustaining a disposition to give the other person a fair shot and to back her up as she tries; to deliberate with her rationally  about common purposes; and to reach and honor binding commitments — all depend on maintaining a graceful if elusive American civic balance of values, virtues and body language that the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” You see that civic-republican grace in a team sport when a player closes in on the action not to show off but to back up a teammate and help him score. You see it in the ways people who are deliberating in a contentious meeting decide to extend trust to a potential adversary cannily, in ways that elicit trust in return. You see it in the ways that people whose friendship or comity have been assailed still give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Or maybe you don’t see that kind of grace so often anymore. Maybe backbiting, road rage, and the growing degradation of public space and prime-time fare are prompting quiet heartache or a sense that something cherished but nameless has slipped out of our lives together. Without the civic balance I’m sketching here, this country can’t survive as a republican project that, for all its flaws, has nourished seeds of its own transcendence and pointed beyond its patriotism and its borders.
Giving American civic grace a better description than I have so far requires not just hard analysis but also some probing and poetry, some fakery and a lot of faith. You can develop an ear and an eye for it, and maybe a voice for it. I’ve been at this one way or another since around 1970, when I was 22. Sometimes I get it right, and people tell me so. Sometimes I don’t, and people tell me that, too.

This website is culled from more than 2000 columns, essays, reviews, posts and appearances in print and electronic venues, including a few books such as Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers, and a couple of anthologies. The rest of this introductory essay gives you some assumptions and experiences that guide my work. Beyond that, the pieces linked throughout this site will speak for themselves. In some sections I’ve added additional introductory thoughts — on journalism, race, conservatism, and the left. Bur first let me say a little more about what I assume and what I reject, and about how I came to believe what I do.

Civic-republican grace in writing and public life

I mentioned that the spirit of a republic can rise — as the historian Gordon Wood showed it doing in America in the 1770s — or recede — as Edward Gibbon showed it doing in his chronicle of ancient Rome. I’ve been following the civic-republican spirit’s American ebbs and flows since World War II, although I was born two years after that war’s end. This website offers some of my soundings.

Much of the writing collected here is journalism, the proverbial “first rough draft of history” when a reporter actually has some grounding in history and some experience in politics and enterprise beyond covering other people‟s politics and enterprise. I worked as a journalist in New York for 20 years, but I’m not mainly a journalist (or a New Yorker). When I do break news (See “Scoops and Other Revelations”), I do it mainly to explore intuitions and ideas which events of the moment are driving or illuminating. More often, I plough my writerly furrows before dawn at the margins of the news cycle, working counter-cyclically and counter-intuitively to track republican currents that are moving beneath and sometimes against what’s “news”.

When the chattering classes are making a cicada-like racket over the latest Big Thing, I try to live by Emerson’s admonition not to quit my hunch “that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.” Doing that sometimes yields scoops and insights that others miss. Some of these highlight the fragility of the republican experiment, and some have prompted me to assail public leaders and journalists who I think are increasing that fragility by being heedless of it, losing their civic-republican lenses and the balance of values and habits I characterized with Daniel Aaron’s “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

For instance, I upbraided a TIME magazine writer for his almost-celebratory profile, in 2007, of Rupert Murdoch, a man I consider a republic-wrecker but whom too many people respect, for reasons I tried to describe. A different kind of civic-republican scourging came 25 years earlier, in this account of an idealistic, young editor‟s delicate interactions with an urban warlord in Congress.

Seen through civic-republican lenses, both Rep. Fred Richmond, D-Brooklyn, NY and I were on a dark and slippery slope, but only the young editor (me) recognized it. I do also recognize a cruel streak in some of my past writing. Sometimes writing that feels cruel to its target is really a laser beam in its interpretive, truth-telling power, and it’s necessary and bracing:

If I ever resumed writing a regular column, as I did for the New York Daily News in the mid- 1990s, I’d call it “Somebodyhaddasayit.” As in the two pieces I’ve just linked, somebody really did have to say it. But saying it can also be scarily and unfairly intrusive, causing hurt and making enemies unnecessarily. Ultimately there’s no substitute for good judgment, self-doubt, tact, and compassion. It took me too long to learn that difficult truth.

I do also defend and sometimes celebrate people who bear the American republican spirit bravely and shrewdly against great odds. Here’s an example, written “before dawn” in the stacks of Yale‟s Sterling Memorial Library in 2006, as I looked up the family background of Ned Lamont, who was then making an anti-war Democratic primary challenge to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. I wound up writing not about Ned Lamont himself but about a long-forgotten uncle of his, Thomas W. Lamont II, who died toward the end of World War II and whose story I render here as as a fata morgana of the American republic, a fading mirage of the kind of citizenship we’re losing not at terrorists’ hands but at our own.”How’s that for countercyclical?

Actually the story, in The American Prospect, pdf’d here with a photo of Tommy Lamont in 1941, was widely linked, and I spun part of it off as a New York Times op-ed column that linked in the Prospect story itself. Being an American like Tommy Lamont is an art and a discipline. Most people do it only half-consciously or intermittently. The American republican spirit is pretty exceptional, which is why it’s often in trouble. You can’t run American civic grace up a flagpole and salute it, but you shouldn’t tear it down and cast it aside as merely a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations or something worse.

When the Vietnam War‟s brutality and folly were at their worst, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas urged young protestors of my generation “not to burn the American flag but to wash it.” I took his point, and I work with it. Americans who think themselves too sophisticated for it strike me as naïve. For one thing, the American republican spirit keeps them out of prison, but there is a lot more to it than that.

One couldn’t fairly call the writing collected here “nationalist” or “conservative.” Lately I’ve written in left-of-center sites and journals (Talking Points Memo, The American Prospect, The Guardian, Dissent, The Nation), challenging much of what passes for “conservative” in American public life. But a civic-republican compass does point rightward sometimes, and in the 1990s I wrote a few times in right-of-center venues (including even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages and, on one occasion each, the neoconservative Weekly Standard and Commentary) magazines, condemning the racialist “identity politics” that passed for progressive politics at the time.

Long immersion in black inner city neighborhoods had showed me the folly of guilt-ridden or ideological indulgence of ethno-racial flag-waving, whether in multi-culturalist pedagogy or in racial street theater that often passed for “civil rights” activism at that time. I’ve mentioned here
above that American national identity doesn’t rightly express any primordial kinship in ethno- racial claims of “blood and soil” or in a vision of national salvation through Christ or Allah. But more than a few Americans have yearned and fought to make it do those very things. They haven’t succeeded, and mostly they’ve been wrong. But not wholly so.

The American national identity was drawn up self-consciously and irreversibly in Enlightenment terms, as a civic-republican experiment, yet it does rely on something close to religious faith in its citizens even though it can‟t impose a religious doctrine on them without losing its civic soul. Living with that paradox requires a dark, sometimes acrobatic skill.

Americans are fated “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. To “accident and force,” he could have added, “or on fraud or divine command.”

Hamilton’s intentions in posing his challenge were tactical and sometimes murky and even fraudulent. Yet what he wrote, in the Federalist Papers, does pose a personal as well as political challenge to every American — a challenge that many people slide or slink away from most of the time. Being American really does mean standing up for the civic-republican project, though — embodying it with easy yet determined grace against exclusionary racial, religious, and economic currents that run right alongside the republican project, within it, and against it.

Think of Rosa Parks on that bus in Montgomery, presenting herself to not only as a black woman demanding vindication against racism but, also as a decent American working woman — a fellow citizen, too, like any other, boarding a bus and trying to enjoy her rights in a way that should have threatened no one and that. Parks didn’t call the bus driver a racist “mo-fo.” The way she presented herself in defending her rights lifted up the whole civil society instead of just trashing it as irredeemably racist and evil.

Civic grace like Parks’ is heroic, and rare: In fact, she had trained for it as an officer of her local chapter of the NAACP. But possibly you’ve seen something of that disciplined civic-republican grace more than once in other places; certainly if you look for glimmers of it, you find them in school corridors, playing fields, corporate offices and shopping malls. But, again, maybe you don’t find them so often. Maybe social epidemics from obesity to road rage act out a spreading, unspoken frustration at the loss of civic grace and neighborly trust.

When Americans stop feeling like fellow citizens as well as self-marketers, we have nothing else to fall back on, no myths of “blood and soil,” no firm religious doctrines or dispositions. Tocqueville worried about this even in 1835. I do, too, in several of the articles linked on this site. Whatever becomes of Obama’s presidential run, he has embodied something beautiful in becoming an American along the lines Hamilton sketched: Voters of all colors who elevated him through “reflection and choice,” not “accident and force,” made something achievable that at times transfixes the world: our ability to slip out of race knots, blood feuds, and cobwebs of superstition that equate having a skin color with having a culture.

“It‟s not something he’s doing,” Dartmouth Professor Joseph Bafumi said of Obama to the New York Times; “it’s something he’s being.” American civic grace has its undertows and other dangers – not primarily the alien terrorists or domestic subversives whom Rudolph Giuliani the neoconservatives consumed themselves in warning us about, but undercurrents within Americanism itself that displace our fears, hatreds and sins onto others, abroad and at home. It may take a second American revolution against new concentrations of power, on behalf of a faith that transcends them, to vindicate what‟s stirring beneath our epidemics and acrimony.

Wherever I see people exercising civic-republican leadership, on a street corner or in a boardroom, extending trust in little ways that beget trust, I try to describe and explain its revolutionary potential in ways that strengthen it. Most of the essays listed in the “Sleeper Sampler” tried to do that. I mentioned that a civic-republican standard has prompted some ahead- of-the-curve insights about American public life.

Some of those prophecies are linked in “Scoops and Other Revelations”: My republican compass or radar showed me things as trivial as that Joe Klein was the “Anonymous” author of the novel Primary Colors and that New York Times editor Howell Raines would do that newspaper more harm than good, and as significant as that multicultural “rainbow” politics was going to implode in city after city and that liberals and leftists would have to let go of racial and other “identity politics” go as the central organizing principle of their politics. Precisely because this country is so diverse racially, religiously, and culturally, we have to work overtime on nourishing the common civic standards and lenses I use.

How (and How Not) to Think About Left and Right

Both left and right as we see them in American public life endorse certain civic-republican truths. Each side has contributed something distinctive and indispensable to governing ourselves through reflection and choice rather than accident, force, and fraud. But each side tends to cling to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.

The damage this does to the public sphere won’t be undone by imposing upon American politics the left-vs.-right floor plan of the French Chamber of Deputies, where such distinctions began. Yes, our economic and social classes make a mockery of expectations of organic community or egalitarian democracy. But we don’t have class consciousness or a pursuit of “equality” in the Marxist sense. Marxist analyses are indispensable, I think, but inadequate to engaging American politics.

Much the same is true of almost all of what passes for conservative analysis. See the sections, “Folly on the Left” and “Conservative Contradictions.” Ever since James Madison wrote about factions and helped craft a Constitution to channel and deflect them, the republic has needed an open, circulating elite of “disinterested” leaders who rise enough above class origins to look out for self-government by reflection and choice more than by class war. Jefferson sought such an elite in founding the University of Virginia to cull from the populace a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, not of inherited wealth and breeding.

It’s an open elite in the sense that, because membership in it has to be ratified both by other members of the leadership group and by voters’ common sense in assessing leaders, people can fall out of leadership as well as rise up to it. How this happens matters a great deal. At the same time Madison and Jefferson were imagining the new republic, the great British conservative thinker and Member of Parliament Edmund Burke (a supporter of American independence) pleaded with his constituents in Bristol that they offer to their elected leaders what I would say those leaders should also offer to their followers: If “we do not give confidence to their minds, and a liberal scope to their understandings; if we do not permit our members [of Parliament] to act upon a very enlarged view of things; we shall at length infallibly degrade our national representation into a confused and scuffling bustle of local agency.”

D.H. Lawrence made my additional point that “it is the business of our Chief Thinkers to fell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears,” he wrote. I am always looking for members of that open elite, however humble, who offer such leadership. They are everywhere, and they need recognition and support.

A Marxist would say that people who try to nurture an aristocracy of talent and virtue in a capitalist society are naïve or lying. But Americans still believe that every citizen should stand up for the civic-republican promise, whether as the moderator of a presidential debate or the umpire in a Little League game, as a participant in a street demonstration or as a board member who says, “Now wait a minute, let me make sure I understand what this proposal is based on and what it entails….,” or as a juror who quiets the ethno-racial voices in his head to join other citizens in finding the truth together. We do this through shared reflection and choice, not through radical pronouncements of the General Will or promulgations of religious doctrine or esoteric philosophy.

In politics, unlike science, the vitality and generosity of our truth-seeking matter even more than the validity of the findings. At any historical moment, the left’s claims or the right’s may seem the more liberating against the other, dominant side’s conventions and cant. In the 1930s, George Orwell sought liberation in democratic-socialist movements against ascendant fascist powers, and his sympathy remained with workers. But at times that required him to stand against workers’ self-proclaimed champions as well as against their exploiters, and at times he looked sympathetically into the religious and folkoric interstices of English life as it was, not as he might want it to be.

I’ve done some of that, too, in controversies turning on race and class, becoming scathingly critical of leftist and black protest politics of the 1980’s and 1990’s. As I wrote about Orwell, “He never forgot that both left and right tend to get stuck in their imagined upswings against concentrated power and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful misreadings of human nature make it founder in the swift, deep currents of nationalism and religion, leaving it pitching between denying their importance, on the one hand, and surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically on the other: “Socialism in One Country,” Marxism as a secular eschatology.

Yet Orwell never forgot that the corporate-capitalist state and its political leaders and apologists posed Nineteen Eighty-Four’ish dangers, too. He remained conservative enough to look sympathetically into nationalism, patriotism, and religion and to savor life in their interstices. He
was always on the left enough to seek solidarity in struggles against capitalist overreach without losing an irreducible personal dignity and responsibility that sometimes balk at solidarity itself. “

The balance I hold out for against ideologues and partisans of “the left” and “the right” is analogous to that of a healthy person who walks on both a left foot and a right one without having to notice that in many instants all his weight is on one foot or the other. What matters is the balance and the stride. A society needs a “left foot” of social equality and provision – without which the individuality and communal bonds which conservatives cherish couldn’t flourish – and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and autonomy, without which any leftist social provision or engineering would reduce persons to passive clients, cogs, cannon fodder, or something even worse.

A walker with a balanced stride doesn‟t notice when all his weight is on just one foot rather than the other. So, too, with a society. But in a society, each “foot” – the left foot of common provision, and the right foot of irreducibly individual freedom – isn’t really a foot but a constellation of interests and powers, each with its partisans (and parasites?) certain that their opponents have made the other foot too strong.If such claims aren’t modulated as much as Madison wanted, the side that gains dominance hobbles society‟s stride. The balance itself is always contested, of course.

Even if we could ordain equality and moral clarity, the irreducible differences among individuals and the divisions between the sociable and the selfish inclinations in every heart would upset the balance. A republic anticipates this. It sustains an evolving center without succumbing to hatred and violence. Doing that requires vigilance against concentrations of power, using institutional checks and balances; it also requires knowing how to extend trust to others in big and little ways that elicit trust in return.

That‟s what’s ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free, shrewd and generous. It’s what requires fakery and faith. It draws on virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor free markets alone can nourish and that armies alone can‟t defend and wealth alone can’t buy. Ultimately, and ironically, our strength lies in the very vulnerability that comes with extending trust.
A republican leader who was gifted in that art, Yale’s president of the late 1960s, Kingman Brewster, Jr., put it this way in what is now the epitaph on his grave: “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In common place terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

The generosity Brewster prescribed isn’t material but “of spirit.” Anyone, however poor, can reciprocate it, thereby winning fuller membership and opportunity. Civil-rights demonstrators did that by crediting racist whites with more good faith than sophisticates were inclined to do, thereby shrewdly shaming everyone into bending. Conceivably, Brewster’s generosity of spirit does include a material component. Conceivably, a republic can make itself enough of a community to extend opportunity and support in ways that enhance reciprocity and initiative and thereby speed real “inclusion.”

In the civic-republican way, though, material generosity doesn‟t precede the spiritual; it responds to it. It‟s the “hand up” that implies prior mutual recognition, not the hand-out that implies distancing or pacification. Mutual aid doesn‟t reduce the spiritual to mere sentiment, derided by economic determinists. left and right. Nor does the republican spirit dismiss material aid as inevitably debilitating of spirit. In an American balance, neither the left foot of social provision nor the right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility gets very far without the other.

How I Came to This

Three cultural currents in my upbringing and early adulthood inclined me to look out for the civic-republican challenge Hamilton described. The first two are Old Testament prophecy and New England Calvinist propriety. I chafed under both of them but took them to heart as a grandson of four Lithuanian Jewish immigrants growing up in a stereotypically New England Yankee town, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, in 1950s and ’60s.

In 1986 wrote rather innocently about Longmeadow in a newspaper column prompted by my 25th high school reunion. In 2004 I wrote more knowingly, but still sympathetically, about the larger civic-republican tradition of Kingman Brewster, a direct descendant of the Plymouth Pilgrims’ minister on the Mayflower who was born in Longmeadow and who was Yale‟s president while I was an undergraduate there in the late 1960s.

A third cultural current grew stronger in me around the time I turned 30: Like many New Englanders before me, I took my civic and moral presumptions to New York -– not to literary Manhattan but, for 10 years, to hard-pressed Brooklyn neighborhoods where I ran an activist weekly newspaper (that’s me, in the jacket and tie). I did a three-year stint in city government as a speechwriter for City Council President Carol Bellamy. After that I wrote for the Village Voice, Dissent, and daily newspapers, mostly Newsday and the New York Daily News. I made occasional forays into the New York Times and the New York Post, the latter of which my second-cousin, James Wechsler, had edited in its liberal heyday before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1977 and transformed it into what it is now, a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

I also became a writerly supporter of the social-democratic left, working for the Village Voice and for the quarterly Dissent under its founder Irving Howe. Two essays that carry that current are “What‟s Wrong With Fred Richmond?” in the Voice and “Boodling, Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism,” a sketch of New York in the late 1980s that ran first in a special issue of Dissent on the city, “In Search of New York,” which was published under that title in paperback by Transaction Books, and again in Empire City, a Columbia University Press anthology of 400 years of writing about New York, edited by David Dunbar and Kenneth Jackson.

The social-democratic left I joined has been an American left, with a strong civic-republican orientation. Unlike the Stalinist left, it wasn’t subversive of democracy and so didn’t have to cover many hypocrisies (such as its opportunistic use of civil liberties, civil rights, and democracy itself) with a bombastic patriotism like that of the American Communist “Popular Front” of the 1930s and 1940s. Nor was the social-democratic left drawn irresistibly toward racial identity politics as the “cat’s paw” of an advancing Revolution.

In New York I took strong stands against leftist evasion of the civic-republican challenge. One of the earliest was a harsh assessment leftist identity politics in the wake of the bitter Crown Heights race riots in New York in 1991 and, later, in a Harper’s essay on the future of American blackness and whiteness. For more on my long experience in and around racial politics, see the “Race” section elsewhere on this site. I’ve mentioned that essays like these, among others, made me some enemies.

I hope that that’s putting it too strongly. The essays on race did anger some activists, liberal and conservative. So did my often-raw criticisms of journalists for betraying their craft’s civic- republican raison d’etre. (See the sections “News Media, the Public Sphere, and a Phantom Public” and “Our Chattering Classes” on this site.) Beyond also commending two of my prescient books, The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 ), I’ll suggest that you click on “Latest Work” at the top of this website’s homepage and follow what I’ve been writing lately.