The man who pioneered Trumpism

An oft-forgotten figure first blazed the path that President Trump is following.


Vice President Spiro Agnew speaks as he attends the National Congress of American Indians convention in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 10, 1969. (AP Photo)
November 15

Last week would have been the 100th birthday of one of America’s most consequential vice presidents. There were no commemorations or retrospectives on his five years in office. But we have felt the impact of Spiro Agnew throughout this fall’s campaigns, and in many ways, it explains the results: Democrats made huge gains with well-educated suburbanites, while Republicans displayed increasing strength with non-college-educated, rural, white Americans.

Agnew is the spiritual godfather of President Trump and a harbinger of the modern Republican Party. Born in 1918 to a Greek immigrant father who ran a diner, Agnew rode a generational wave of middle-class Americans who transitioned from FDR-supporting New Dealers to law-and-order, suburban Republicans by the 1960s. Like fellow converts Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond, Agnew found political opportunity in a GOP that unapologetically defended white Americans threatened by the growing anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s movements.

Agnew’s path rightward was slightly different from those of many other converts. He was initially considered a moderate who relied on Democratic support in his 1966 election to the governorship of Maryland. In his short time in Annapolis, he signed a fair-housing bill and ended antiquated state miscegenation laws.

But after starting the 1968 presidential primary campaign as a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller, Agnew broke with the liberal New York governor on issues of race and law-and-order in the wake of violence in his state and what he considered a tepid reaction by its black leadership class. Agnew’s angry denunciations of rioters in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. caught the eye of Richard Nixon and his assistants, who were looking for a vice presidential nominee who could be acceptable to all wings of the party — especially the critically important, and growing, conservative Southern wing.

Agnew was a heartbeat away from the presidency for five years. And while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow recently devoted a podcast to Agnew’s corruption and the Justice Department investigation that led to his resignation in October 1973, he is remembered today mostly for his alliterative speeches (“nattering nabobs of negativity” and the “hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history”), ghostwritten by Pat Buchanan and William Safire. Agnew receives only a cursory reference in biographies of Richard Nixon and is often overlooked in retrospectives of the late 1960s. He was recently voted the worst vice president in American history by a group of academics.

But people weren’t always so dismissive.

In his most famous speech, delivered in Des Moines in November 1969, Agnew took on journalists by asking, “What do Americans know of these men who read the same newspapers and draw their political views from the same sources?” And just as for conservatives today, his political base loved the media-bashing.

Agnew addressed his “silent majority” supporters far from the cosmopolitan coasts, taking on “radical liberals” and those within his own party who failed to back Nixon’s Vietnam War policies. He brushed aside data and analysis as “pabulum for the permissivists.” He went after those who “think that a college education makes you not only intellectually superior, but morally superior as well to those who did not have your opportunity.” He questioned elites who “think that blue-collar work — like fixing an automobile or driving a truck — is not nearly as dignified or significant as pushing a pencil at a tax-exempt foundation.”

A broad swath of Americans loved it. By the end of 1969, Agnew was the third-most-admired man in America, behind only Billy Graham and Nixon.

Inside the White House, Nixon and his aides alternated between enjoying Agnew’s political tailwinds and worrying about the fallout from the growing divide in an increasingly polarized America. Nixon aide Jeb Magruder wondered if the vice president had turned off “people who enjoy art, attend the symphony, and read the New York Times Book Review.” Of course, these were exactly the kind of people Agnew’s supporters loved to hate.

Nixon staffers also worried that the vice president’s incessant us-against-them-talk contributed to the toxic environment that led to the deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by fearful National Guardsmen in May 1970. As Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote his diary in the aftermath: “The whole university community is now politicized, and there’s no way to turn it off. All blame Agnew primarily.”

Below the surface, Nixon and his aides busied themselves trying to keep Agnew at arm’s length from serious issues by occupying him with ceremonial and secondary tasks. Nixon wanted to replace Agnew on the 1972 ticket, but his campaign manager John Mitchell worried that dumping him would “backfire with the conservative new majority … particularly in the South, among whom Agnew had become almost a folk hero.”

When Nixon was reelected in a landslide in 1972, Agnew became the early front-runner to be the next Republican presidential nominee. But there would never be a run for president. Agnew resigned in disgrace a year into his second term, pleading no contest to tax evasion for taking kickbacks that had started during his time in Maryland. He slunk off to Southern California for a life spent golfing with Frank Sinatra, lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabian potentates and publishing an odd, steamy novel.

Historians often credit Nixon for establishing “the emerging Republican majority,” which opened a lane for Agnew’s good friend Ronald Reagan to carry the new conservative momentum into the White House in 1980. In this “rise of the right” narrative of the past half-century, figures such as Newt Gingrich, the tea party and Agnew’s old speechwriter Pat Buchanan also figure prominently. But it is Agnew who might be the best avatar of Trump’s party in 2018. His assaults on the media became the norm in Republican politics, as did his attacks on college professors, the purported immorality of popular culture and the perceived arrogance of “coastal elites.”

Agnew, with his pugnacious style, tapped into what many white Americans felt in the late 1960s, and he demonstrated a path forward for a conservative, populist politics that has been at the heart of Republican appeals — and the language of conservative media — ever since. Many of those better-recognized figures and movements learned the lessons taught by Agnew. But while they receive the credit, it was Agnew who first blazed the path.

Too Rich to Jail

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, flanked by other cabinet members, attended a ceremony at the White House on FridayCredit Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — When I was in Reykjavik in August, Icelanders were bragging about putting the corrupt bankers who ravaged their economy in prison. In America, it works somewhat differently.

We let the corrupt bankers who ravaged our economy roam free with bigger bonuses, more lavish Hamptons houses and fresh risky schemes. The big banks are bigger than ever and prosecution of white-collar crimes is at a 20-year low. And, cherry on the gilded cake, we put white-collar criminals in charge of the country — elevating epic grifters to the presidency and powerful cabinet posts.

Reading all the recent stories about the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis, it’s easy to see the neon line leading from Barack Obama’s failure to punish Wall Street scammers to the fact that Republican scammers are now infecting the entire infrastructure of government.

“The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rose up as opposite expressions of anti-establishment rage, nourished by the sense that colluding elites in government and business had got away with a crime,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker. “The game was rigged — that became the consensus of the alienated.”

 

Some saw it as the end of the Democratic Party. Democrats were the party of workers, charged with protecting people from big money, big banks and big fraud. Obama, the great hope to revitalize the left, immediately folded. Some analogized that the failure to send bankers to jail or even on perp walks made the party’s white blood cell count drop to the point that G.O.P. infections could run wild.

In his 2016 book, “Listen, Liberal,” Thomas Frank wrote that “the hope drained out of the Obama movement” at the meeting between the fledgling president and Wall Street C.E.O.s in March 2009: “After warning them about ‘the pitchforks’ of an angry public, Obama reassured the frightened bankers that they could count on him to protect them; that he had no intention of restructuring their industry or changing the economic direction of the nation.” (After he left the White House, Obama followed Hillary’s lead, buckraking on Wall Street.)

 

David Axelrod, the Obama counselor who fought during the crisis to “kick the offenders harder,” as he puts it, says he still feels “very conflicted.” “We feared that if you took a brick out of the wall then the whole damn wall might fall down,” he said. “But it wasn’t helpful, as far as Trump. To the extent that people felt the deal was rigged against them and in favor of the powerful, it gave him fodder.”

 

But it was just another Trump con. His administration, The Times reported, “has presided over a sharp decline in financial penalties against banks and big companies accused of malfeasance,” sparing corporate wrongdoers billions in fines.

Asked about The Times’s scorching investigation last month on how “self-made” Trump received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges, Kellyanne Conway shrugged it off, saying, “Haven’t they learned that the president always gets the last laugh?”

Trump’s White House started off like a branch office of Goldman Sachs, as Elizabeth Warren noted. Gary Cohn, Trump’s former economic adviser from Goldman, showed that Wall Street’s arrogance shines bright when he recently told Reuters that borrowers were just as responsible for the 2008 crisis as lenders.

“Who broke the law?” Cohn asked, adding: “Was the waitress in Las Vegas who had six houses leveraged at 100 percent with no income, was she reckless and stupid? Or was the banker reckless and stupid?”

Binyamin Appelbaum, The Times’s economics wiz, riposted on Twitter: “A more accurate characterization of the housing bubble is that it was one of the largest orgies of white collar criminality in American history.”

Speaking of orgies, Tim Leissner, the former Goldman Sachs banker whose guilty plea in the company’s $600 million international fraud case was unsealed this month, told the judge that his conspiracy was “very much in line” with the culture of Goldman Sachs “to conceal facts from certain compliance and legal employees of Goldman Sachs.”

 

Like his new boss, Matthew Whitaker has a pattern of thuggishness, threats, scams and abusing the power of his office to wage partisan feuds. Our new top cop was on the board of a shady patent company that has claimed Bigfoot exists and time travel could be coming. It also touted a “masculine toilet” to give well-endowed men “peace of mind” by ensuring that their genitals would not touch porcelain.

Now, after trashing the idea of the Mueller investigation in 2017, Whitaker — flush with power — is the oddball sycophant charged with ensuring that Robert Mueller can finish his report.

I’m sure we have nothing to worry about, though. As Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted Friday, “There must be decorum at the White House.”

snow dance/roll

Washington, D.C., got its first snowfall of the season this week. And at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, at least one animal was really, really excited about it.

It’s Friday, and we could probably all use this video of a young giant panda named Bei Bei just having the best time.

The three-year-old male somersaults down a snow-covered hill. He climbs trees and dangles from branches. He luxuriates on a snow-dusted bed of bamboo.

YouTube

This all appeared very fast-moving for a species known for its long naps and slow, deliberate meals.

All in all, looks like Bei Bei had a ball. That’s no coincidence. According to the zoo, “giant pandas prefer colder temperatures and are usually more active during the winter months.”

The zoo explains that their fur is thick and waterproof, so it “insulates them from the cold and wet snow.”

Sounds like a snowy day might be a good time to visit the pandas, or at least watch their live camera. History would show that that’s true. Here’s Bei Bei’s father, Tian Tian, really enjoying himself during a storm in 2016:

YouTube

Matthew Whitaker and the Corruption of Justice ~ NYT Op/Ed

The real question isn’t whether the acting attorney general’s appointment is lawful, but whether it is part of a broader attempt to subvert the rule of law.

Credit Illustration by Na Kim; Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
By forcing out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointing Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general to take over the Justice Department — and, not incidentally, the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller — President Trump has set off a storm of legal questions.

Does the appointment of Mr. Whitaker comport with the Appointments Clause of the Constitution or the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998? Doesn’t the law give control of the department to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mr. Mueller and oversaw the investigation because Mr. Sessions had recused himself?

To add to the academic discussion, the Justice Department’s own Office of Legal Counsel, which weighs in on major legal questions, gave its imprimatur to Mr. Trump’s decision on Wednesday. Now the state of Maryland and at least one criminal defendant are challenging the legality of Mr. Whitaker’s appointment in hopes that a federal judge will declare it invalid.But all of this debate, hairsplitting and litigation distracts from a more persistent question: Is it O.K. for a president to shut down an investigation of himself? To answer that question yes is to take the position that not only this president, but any president in the future, is free to take the law into his own hands.

 

Mr. Whitaker is an avowed antagonist of Mr. Mueller — he has called the investigation a witch hunt, said Mr. Mueller’s team should not investigate Mr. Trump’s finances and suggested that an attorney general could slash the special counsel’s budget.

As if concerns about the Constitution, the law and Mr. Whitaker’s judgment weren’t enough, the broader picture that has emerged about Mr. Whitaker is even more disturbing. He has expressed skepticism toward Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that established the concept of judicial review; he would support the confirmation of federal judges who hold “a biblical view of justice”; he may have prosecuted a political opponent for improper reasons when he was a federal prosecutor in Iowa; and then there’s the fiasco of his business involvement with a company accused of scamming customers that is being investigated by the F.B.I.

Justice Department regulations governing the day-to-day operations of the special counsel’s office allow for Mr. Whitaker to be read in on many of its inner workings, including that the acting attorney generalbe given “an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step” that Mr. Mueller decides to take. So there is nothing to keep Mr. Whitaker from being the president’s eyes and ears inside the most closely guarded investigation in the history of American politics.

On Thursday morning, the president rage-tweeted that Mr. Mueller was a “highly conflicted” person, leading a legal team that is “a total mess.” “They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want,”

 

Mr. Trump has reason to be worked up. On Wednesday, Mr. Mueller’s office told a federal judge that Rick Gates, the former deputy chairman of the Trump campaign, was still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations” and asked to delay Mr. Gates’s sentencing on charges — unrelated to the campaign — to which he had already pleaded guilty. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who has also pleaded guilty to unrelated charges and is cooperating with Mr. Mueller, arrived in Washington with his criminal defense lawyers. A friend of the longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone said on Monday that Mr. Stone expected to be indicted on charges of lying to Mr. Mueller’s team. Mr. Trump announced on Friday that he was finished drafting written answers for the special counsel, who, for months, has sought the president’s testimony in key aspects of his inquiry.

So it’s understandable that Mr. Trump would want an ally to exercise control over prosecutors who are making his life a nightmare. This is only his latest effort to scuttle the investigation of ties between his campaign and Russia. Mr. Mueller owes his own appointment and mandate to the president’s firing of James Comey, the former F.B.I. director — one of Mr. Trump’s most overt attempts to interfere with an investigation that has haunted him since he took office. He has also moved to fire Mr. Mueller, only to be thwarted by more sensible aides.

Congress could pass a law to prevent the president from firing Mr. Mueller, but Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has shown no interest in doing that.

As Mr. Trump continues to work to undermine this investigation, Mr. McConnell and his fellow Republican leaders should pause to consider the standard, and the precedent, they are at a growing risk of setting.

Arbus, Untitled and Unearthly

A series considered one of the towering achievements of American art reminds us that nothing can surpass the strange beauty of reality if a photographer knows where to look.

In Diane Arbus’s “Untitled (49) 1970-71,”; residents of a home for the developmentally disabled in New Jersey, dressed for Halloween, seem to be issuing a greeting to a parallel world. The photograph is part of a series, presented for the first time in its entirety, at the David Zwirner galleryCredit The Estate of Diane Arbus

 

By Arthur Lubow

 

  • Beginning in 1969 and continuing through the last two years of her life, Diane Arbus traveled regularly by bus to New Jersey to photograph people at residences for the developmentally and intellectually disabled. Her first destination, the coeducational Woodbridge State School, was just across the Hudson from her Manhattan apartment. Quite soon, though, she determined that an all-female institution in Vineland, in the southern part of the state, provided richer opportunities.

The photographs in the “Untitled” series, at the David Zwirner gallerythrough Dec. 15, are mostly taken in Vineland. Departing significantly from the work that built Arbus’s reputation, they include some of the most mysterious and haunting pictures of her 15-year artistic career.

The “Untitled” exhibition is the first in Zwirner’s new partnership with the Fraenkel Gallery of San Francisco to co-represent the Arbus estate. Rather than start with her iconic portraits of sideshow freaks, cross-dressers, pro-Vietnam war demonstrators and nudists, the New York gallery opted to show this less familiar, late work, which until now has never been seen in its entirety.

Of the girl in the foreground in “Untitled (6) 1970-71,” Arbus wrote: “She bent her head to her knees and with an odd shiver somehow the rest of her followed in what looked like the first somersault.” Credit The Estate of Diane Arbus

“Entirety” should be marked with an asterisk. Arbus exposed roughly 1,900 frames of film in these institutions; she committed suicide in July 1971 without having fully edited or titled the pictures. It fell to her older daughter, Doon, to decide what constituted the series, relying (but perhaps not exclusively) on images Arbus chose to print. A book published under Doon’s auspices in 1995 included 51 pictures; additional ones have been released since. Of the 66 photographs at Zwirner, six are prints made by Arbus. (Five have never been publicly shown before.) One was shot with a Pentax 6×7, the cumbersome camera Arbus was trying out at the very end of her life.

 

While the portrayal of madmen and fools has a venerable artistic tradition, Arbus’s subjects are intellectually disabled, not insane, and they are physically unrestrained. No one had ever made pictures quite like these. Arbus arrived at two great insights. The first was that it would be more poignant to show her subjects happy. Her friend Richard Avedon had photographed at the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital in 1963, recording scenes of pain and degradation. Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 film, “Titicut Follies,” set at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, was similarly bleak and despairing. Crucially, Arbus searched for moments of celebration, not suffering, during games and holidays.

Her second brilliant stroke was to photograph outdoors, amid trees and fields, scrubbing off journalistic or sociological details of the institutional settings and entering the universal realm of dream and myth. In the exhibition, you can see the evolution of her thinking.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Louis Armstrong’s Life in Letters, Music and Art

 

18louis-armstrong-lead-threeByTwoLargeAt2X.jpgLouis Armstrong in his den in 1958. In the background: a rug in the guest bathroom at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Credit Charles Graham, via Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

 

 

Behind his blistering trumpet solos, revolutionary vocal improvising and exuberant stage persona, how did Louis Armstrong see himself? What was it like to be the first pop virtuoso of the recorded era — the man whose earliest releases set the tune for America’s love affair with modern black music, and who went on to become one of history’s most famous entertainers?

Those questions aren’t rhetorical. There’s actually a deep well of resources on hand to help answer them. For his entire adult life, away from the spotlight, Armstrong amassed a huge trove of personal writings, recordings and artifacts. But until this month, you would have had to travel far into central Queens to find them. Now anyone can access them. Thanks to a $3 million grant from the Fund II Foundation — run by Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest African-American — the Louis Armstrong House Museum has digitized the entire collection he left behind and made it available to the public.

Armstrong wrote hundreds of pages of memoir, commentary and jokes throughout his life, and sent thousands of letters. He made collages and scrapbooks by the score. Over the final two decades of his life, he recorded himself to reel-to-reel tapes constantly, capturing everything from casual conversations to the modern music he was listening to.

One of Armstrong’s trumpetsCredit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

All told, Armstrong’s is not just one of the most well documented private lives of any American artist. It’s one of the most creatively documented lives, too.

“Posterity drove him to write manuscripts and make tapes and catalog everything,” said Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and a noted Armstrong scholar. “He was just completely aware of his importance and wanting to be in control of his own story.”

And it wasn’t just posterity. The same things that drove him as a performer — faith in unfettered communication, an irreverent approach to the strictures of language, the desire to wrap all of American culture in his embrace — course through his writings, collages and home recordings.

Armstrong’s home office features a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
The Armstrongs in their denCredit via Louis Armstrong Archive

Armstrong had been largely responsible for shaping jazz into the worldly, youth-driven music it became in the 1930s. He emerged as a symbol of racial pride, crossing Tin Pan Alley gentility with street patois, and sometimes singing directly about black frustrations. But as his career went on, his grinning stage persona — an expansion on the minstrel shows and New Orleans cabarets of his youth — fell out of step with most African-American listeners’ tastes. (“I loved the way Louis played trumpet, man, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks,” Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography.)

With jazz’s identity solidifying as an art music in the 1950s, Armstrong became especially unfashionable to the critical establishment. The autumnal hits he scored in the mid-1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World,” seemed only to confirm the media consensus that the times had passed him by.

But these archives contain the tools for a better understanding of Armstrong: as idiosyncratic an artist as any, one whose creative instincts only grew deeper and broader over time.