Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Some years ago a convergence of curious circumstances led to me to write a book about some literary classics of the Cold War. In order to write about four books that interested me greatly, I felt obliged to read many others that interested me less. Among the large library I assembled was a best-seller of the year 1958—the year of my graduation from college. Its author was the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, and its title was Masters of Deceit. The masters of deceit were the Communists, particularly American Communists—about twenty thousand of them at the time of publication—but the real source of the contagion was Russia. Hoover himself might be described as a master of the oddly constructed sentence: “Engels was tall and thin, blue-eyed, two years younger than Marx, and a lover of horses and women.” Horses and women? Well there’s some masterful deceit right in plain sight.
Hoover and other prominent anti-Communists of that time saw Russian collusion everywhere. Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, opined that Dwight Eisenhower was possibly “a conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy”. Even then, at the height of the Cold War, sane people judged Welch to be a kook. And I doubt that even he could have gotten his mind around the idea that a future American President might fire a future FBI Director in order to cover up his collusion with Russian politicians and espionage agents. But in those days the peddlers of embarrassing conspiracy theories were mainly on the right. We owe to the best minds of our contemporary moment the development of the collusionist scenario.
What might be called the Mueller Report report issued by Attorney General Barr excited in me two unworthy reactions: surprise, followed closely by a kind of subliminal disappointment. The latter reveals a degree of political pathology that it is hard to fess up to. When a patriotic American citizen of conservative temperament is disappointed to learn that his President is not actually treasonous, there is something wrong—wrong with him, of course, but also, perhaps, with something rather larger. I blame society. Mr. Mueller and his staff beavered away for two years while maintaining an eloquent silence that our household exegetes at the New York Times and National Public Radio daily transformed for me into the unmistakable portent of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Is there a separate Pulitzer Prize for headlines? If so, I want to nominate the Times’s combo of “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy Says Barr” and “Barr Clears Trump of Obstruction After Mueller Demurs”. Who is this man Barr with his four-page masterpiece of deceit? He’s the Attorney General, Mr. Mueller’s boss. A dull stickler for legal formalities (often called “the rule of law” by the Times) Mr. Mueller, as required, forwards his report to his boss. There is reason to believe that Barr had thought a bit in advance about how he would handle Mueller’s report when finally submitted. After all, Barr had recently gone through public confirmation hearings composed in large measure of stern demands from his Democratic inquisitors that, should he be confirmed, he honor and protect the “Mueller probe”, as the press like to call it—demands to which he solemnly submitted before a televised audience of millions. It may have been his sensitivity to the possibility of distorting in any way Mr. Mueller’s principal finding—that he did not discover that Trump colluded with Russians—that led the Attorney General to cite Mueller’s own words verbatim and punctuate them with quotation marks: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” To attribute this opinion to Barr may strike one as rather curious: something like attributing Hamlet’s soliloquy to Daniel Day-Lewis. “Day-Lewis Claims ‘To Be or Not to Be?’ Is Question”. To be fair, by early morning when the print copy of the Times arrived, the absurdity had been removed. By then, however, Progressive Twitter was in full tweet. Note that Mueller-Barr speak only of the “Russian government”. No mention whatsoever of possible random oligarchs, the Bolshoi Ballet or the Nizhny Novgorod United Football Club.
The grousing of sore losers, however, may be drowned out by the bellowing of the sore winner. President Trump says (or tweets) a lot of unscripted things. Alas, frequently these things are stupid, too often they are erroneous, and almost always they are ungrammatical. He did not fail us on this occasion. Barr had made only two specific citations from the report, in one of which, with regard to the possible charge of obstruction of justice, he quoted Mueller as saying “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” So, said the President: “a complete and total exoneration”.
And so, I fear, it will go on, and that is a pity. For it is not as though the only fish our nation has to fry are red herrings. For example, our elected politicians might address such matters as economic stability, public education, environmental salubrity, physical infrastructure, and the reconstruction of a politics aimed at problem-solving and pursued in civility. Oh, and then there is foreign policy. Russian interference did not elect Donald Trump. The desperate and probably misplaced hope of millions of forgotten Americans did. Still, our political and journalistic elites have managed to spend the better part of two years in a strange obsession. So the Masters of Deceit in Moscow have good reason to gloat. They are a bit short of cash these days. And with enemies like theirs, who needs expensive friends? I wonder: does Trump love horses?