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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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December 1962: President and Mrs. Kennedy travel to the Fiesta Bowl in Miami to meet with survivors of the brigade sent ashore in April 1961 in the failed invasion of Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs. Having taken full responsibility for the affair, Kennedy felt a strong personal bond to the survivors, saying it was not lack of bravery on their part that doomed the operation, but "incorrect facts," "poor advice" and a "bad decision."

The Anvil of History
by Bill Orton

    June 1, 2008 -- As Barak Obama turns his undivided attention onto John McCain, one thing clear about this election is that the outcome in November will radically impact the history of our times.

    John McCain and Barak Obama differ greatly over war, foreign policy, the Supreme Court, government spending, and virtually every other major issue.

    Differences in ideology will matter not only in the choice of whom Americans elect but in the course of history our nation pursues.

    But to this historian, the campaign is a choice framed less by positions than by how each candidate weighs facts and makes decisions.

    The manner of how our next president approaches problems, defines goals, gather facts, weighs advice and creates consensus around sound decisions will drive our history.

    One candidate is a constitutional scholar and former organizer who lays out a common goal, holds his cards close to the vest, gathers a wide range of views and then builds consensus.

    The other is a maverick and former warrior who frames decisions as clear cut moral choices and draws from a deep -- but flawed -- reading of history to frame those choices in a grand context of transcendent values.

    The choice we face is whether to choose an organizer willing to draw from others or a maverick willing to go it alone.

    Regardless of whom voters choose, let us hope our next president gains insight from how his predecessors were hammered against the anvil of history.

    "The difficult thing as President is not to do what is right," said Lyndon Johnson. "The difficult thing is to know what is right."

    LBJ's agony stems from the basic truth that presidents don't make easy decisions, as simple issues are resolved long before they ever reach the White House.

    Instead, leaders and nations are hammered like metal in a blacksmith's shop.

    Take war as an example, the hardest decision and most serious business a president and a nation can engage in.

    Looking not from the perspective of right or wrong, but as a measure of how a president forms decisions, war truly is the anvil on which historical destiny is hammered.

    For our current president, war is all he's got as a legacy.

    For our next president, the anvil awaits.

    On Iraq, the organizer and scholar spoke out against hostilities before a war vote was cast and argues today that America's national interests are not well served by the war in Iraq.

    The maverick and warrior voted for invasion and now backs a war he once derided as "a train wreck," saying that American troops could be in Iraq for "a hundred years."

    Historians will argue long and passionately over whether George W. Bush correctly read the facts, properly weighed advice and made sound decisions about Iraq.

    But for whichever candidate is elected in November -- the maverick or the organizer -- the ink is wet on what their role and our nation's outcome will be in this war.

    Earlier occupants of White House felt the same hammer.

    In April 1961, John Kennedy's response to the failed invasion attempt known as the Bay of Pigs demonstrated clear thinking and political courage that allowed him to learn and grow from the first fiasco of his presidency.

    Just three months in office, Kennedy looked deeply into the failings that led to the aborted invasion -- a plan devised by bureaucrats under the previous administration -- and acted in ways unthinkable today and universally applauded by historians.

    First, Kennedy took full responsibility for the decision to toss a motley crew of CIA-backed guerilla soldiers onto the beaches of Cuba with the ill-conceived belief that the people of that island would rise up to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.

    "I made a bad decision," President Kennedy told his personal lawyer days after the invasion. "The decision was faulty because it was based upon the wrong advice. The advice was wrong because it was based upon incorrect facts. And the incorrect facts were due to a failure of intelligence."

    Kennedy immediately appointed a bipartisan presidential oversight board to analyze the intelligence failures that led to the Bay of Pigs.

    He learned that stupid and dangerous ideas often move forward due to bureaucratic weight and that only a clear-thinking leader can prevent self-inflicted disaster.

    Never again would John Kennedy blindly accept the advice of military officials or bureaucrats on questions of national security and foreign affairs.

    The Bay of Pigs prompted Kennedy to ask hard questions, fix basic problems and ensure that he would not base decisions on faulty intelligence, incorrect facts and wrong advice.

    The lessons prepared him for his greatest crisis when the Soviet Union planted offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.

    It is inconceivable to imagine our current president admitting to failures in Iraq based on bad intelligence, incorrect facts, wrong advice and bad decisions.

    Just eight months in office, George W. Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th -- a disaster of far larger proportions than the Bay of Pigs -- was to resist the exact sort of probing that Kennedy pursued.

    Rather than ask why an enemy we knew was gunning for us could catch us blind, President Bush moved swiftly from war in Afghanistan to an obsessive quest against Iraq, pushing off facts as inconvenient and ignoring countervailing advice.

    Will our next leader charge blindly ahead into decisions based on faulty intelligence, incorrect facts and bad advice?

    Will the maverick or organizer practice an intellectual laziness that leaves basic questions unasked?

    Lyndon Johnson was not alone in being hammered on the anvil over the agonizing path of determining what is right.

    "Vietnam was not only tragic," wrote for former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. "It was also a cauldron in which good and able men of high integrity, acting out of solid and well-reasoned motives, went terribly wrong."

    If our war in Iraq is based on incorrect facts, wrong advice and bad decisions, then the choice we face in November is over who can rescue our nation from the cauldron.

    The organizer has consistently questioned the intelligence, facts, advice and decisions that took us to war.

    The maverick has opposed tactics and strategy, but has never confronted whether the war itself is based upon sound intelligence, correct facts, good advice and sound decisions.

    The organizer say get out.

    The maverick says stay in.

    With four thousand Americans dead, tens of thousands wounded, hundreds of thousands suffering invisible wounds and nearly two million having served, the anvil of history awaits the next president.

    Most Americans are ahead of the president in knowing things went horribly wrong on Iraq.

    Voters also know that this election will change the course of history (as they tried to do in 2006). There is a palpable disgust over the media is dodging issues and instead feeding up a diet of trivia.

    Despite all this, there remains in the air an excitement and passion among ordinary Americans at the choices before them. Even though the Democratic nomination struggle has gone to the last primaries, the enthusiasm driving voters shows that history is made by people who get up off the couch and cast their vote, volunteer or donate money to someone who they can believe in.

    But politics is generally a small part of life for most Americans. They know it's important, but daily life takes precedence.

    And history? For most people, History is something framed by ponderous dweebs (such as myself) into a narrative that snuffs out the passion that originally got people off the couch and turns it into little more than dusty facts, dates and names.

    For that reason, one of the surprising aspects of this campaign (at least to a historian) is that one candidate not only participates in history, but is helping to write it as well.

    Unfortunately, though, while less ponderous then most writers, John McCain's books display what can only be called a sloppy attitude about historical fact. And in light of how heavy is the hammer now striking the anvil, we must worry whether a sloppy attitude about facts poses the risk that we might see another administration marked by intellectual laziness in a time of conflict.

    Brush off the dust from John McCain's books and it becomes telling how a potential president publishes basic errors and then forms political views on his own gaffes.

    In Character Is Destiny, Senator McCain cites Moscow (rather than Munich) as being the location where Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in 1938 in the vain attempt to avoid World War II.

    Apart from the question of why Hitler would travel outside his own country to meet Chamberlain, the simple fact is that in 1938, Nazi Germany was an implacable foe of the Soviet Union. Moscow would have been the last place Hitler would have chosen to meet anyone.

    The Moscow mistake could almost be dismissed as a minor glitch of lazy editing, poor fact checking or a mistaken memory, if not for the fact that to an entire generation, the word Munich conjures up images of weakness and impotence in the face of brutal aggression.

    The image of Neville Chamberlain with his umbrella waving that piece of paper bearing Hitler's worthless signature and proclaiming "peace in our time" oozed from President Bush's lips as he spoke in Israel last month and accused Barak Obama of appeasement.

    It sounds obscure and minor, but in light of the President's speech in Israel, the difference between Munich and Moscow is more than simply a crossword puzzle error. ("Six letter name for the foreign city where Hitler humiliated Chamberlain... hmmm... starts with M.")

    Maybe the Senator doesn't know his book contains a gaffe on appeasement so profound that it would make Winston Churchill himself gasp at the scale of the error. Is this just poor fact checking or sloppy editing by an aide? Or is Mr. McCain, himself, blurry on the most significant details of how World War II began? Is this just one more gaffe on the facts, to go with the latest errors over Iraq and the economy?

    If it were an isolated error, the Moscow flub could be written off, but the maverick and warrior goes beyond simple errors in his writing of history.

    McCain, for example, paints Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela in ways that fly in the face of the historical record and the words that those individuals themselves used to describe events in their lives.

    Young Mr. Churchill, eager for a reputation as a maverick and to earn extra income as a journalist, detached himself from active duty in India and used his family's political connections to hire on as a freelance writer covering a British military campaign into east Africa.

    The commander of the campaign, the legendary Lord Kitchener, was loathe to bring Churchill along, as he understood that Winston intended for the sake of fame and income to write with a critical pen about the mission.

    Yet McCain either overlooks this or isn't aware of Kitchenerís dislike of Churchill and portrays instead, a story of the intrepid adventurer recording the "great British victory" at Omdurman, a brutal twenty-minute battle that hinged upon a two-minute cavalry charge in which the English drove their horses at full gallop into a column of African foot soldiers armed with spears, curved blades and rifles.

    In the last great cavalry charge of the British Empire, lancers and officers charged through the African column with swords swinging, pistols firing and lances impaling before regrouping on the other side and charging back through the line again.

    The British then flanked the disorganized enemy and used their carbines to finish what their swords and pistols had begun.

    According to historian William Manchester, coming from the direction of the enemy, Churchill saw "a succession of grisly apparitions; horses spouting blood, struggling on three legs, men staggering on foot, men bleeding from terrible wounds, fish-hook spears stuck right through them, arms and faces cut to pieces, bowels protruding, men gasping, crying, collapsing, expiring."

    The violence -- unimaginable today -- left thousands dead from the cavalry charge and the ensuing lopsided battle.

    Writing later about Omdurman and the march through east Africa, Churchill said that the triumph had been "disgraced" by "atrocities" and that "Kitchener is responsible for this." Upon his return to England and publication of his full account, the campaign became a scandal.

    Only someone with a romantic view of martial glory or a simplistic vision of history could paint Omdurman as a "great" victory while ignoring Churchill's own journalistic record that criticizes Kitchenerís entire march as an act of political intimidation by the British Empire against a weaker foe.

    Perhaps it is the former warrior's experience in Vietnam -- including surviving a violent carrier-deck explosion in 1967 that left nearly 150 American sailors dead in the worst naval carnage since WWII -- that leaves him inured to tales of bloodshed and thus capable of overlooking Churchill's critique of Kitchener and Omdurman.

    Further, in portraying Nelson Mandela, McCain recounts how the great figure is locked up after a sham trial and put to hard labor at a notoriously brutal prison. In McCain's telling, Mandela is from day one the nonviolent, enlightened soul able to reach out to his captors.

    It is true that at Robbin Island, Mandela did forge a bond with his guard that not only changed both men, but eventually an entire nation.

    But Mandela himself later characterized that early period as being a time of bitter feelings and suspicion, in which he struggled with his own inner hatred of whites caused by the cruelty and injustices under which he and black South Africans suffered.

    It took time and inner reflection, Mandela said, before he could overcome the suspicions and bitterness to arrive at the non-racialism that held the key to his own personal redemption and to South Africa's national salvation.

    It is all the more stunning that McCain would paint so simplistic a picture of Mandela, since he, himself, had his own inner struggles at his treatment at the hands of his own North Vietnamese captors, whom he refers to by names such as "The Jerk" and "Gun Guard."

    It is admirable that the maverick and warrior looks to history to form his world view, but John McCain's sloppy attitude about the facts makes one wonder if we face from him the same sort of intellectual laziness that we see from our current president.

    The maverick's unbending, unalterable views suggest that once again arguments will go unchallenged, alternate advice will be pushed aside and decisions will be made based on a misreading of the facts.

    Pit that against the organizer and constitutional scholar who is criticized -- as was John Kennedy -- for listening to a wide range of views, holding his cards close to his chest and refusing to contort history to fit the needs of the moment.

    America will be hammered on the anvil no matter who we elect, but we cannot afford another administration that practices intellectual laziness by ducking the facts, coddling bad advice and making decisions that ignore the truth.


Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.