The Witness & the President

Would you like a story comparing two conservative icons? How about a narrative that reveals how both of those conservatives based their convictions on Christian faith yet had differing predictions about the future of freedom in America and Western civilization overall?

I have that story for you.

Yes, I’m talking about my book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, The Witness and the President.

Why am I highlighting it today?

I want to be sure you all know that it is now being published via Amazon and has a new Amazon page. You can see it here.

I spent a number of years researching and writing this book while maintaining a fulltime teaching position. Not only have I read anything and everything by and about Chambers, but I read every speech Reagan ever gave as president and went to the Reagan Library for more sources. I enjoyed every minute of that research.

I’m particularly humbled by the endorsements I’ve received: Paul Kengor, Reagan scholar; George Nash, the premier historian of the conservative movement; Richard Reinsch, Chambers scholar; Luke Nichter, editor of the Nixon tapes; and Patrick Swan, editor of a volume that deals with the public’s reaction to Chambers’s autobiography Witness.

This is a scholarly book, but it’s written for a lay audience. I trust you will find it an enjoyable read, while simultaneously learning things you never knew before. If you are on Facebook, you also might want to look at my special page for the book; give it a “like” if you think it’s worthwhile.

So that’s my “pitch” for today. I hope some of you will now decide to check it out, then let me know if I have offered you an accurate picture of what you would find.

Try it. I hope you will be pleased by what you read.

D-Day, Reagan, & Honor

Thirteen years ago yesterday, June 5, Ronald Reagan died. It was one day before the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was fitting that the media was forced to cover the life and accomplishments of Reagan at the same time as it was focused on the anniversary.

Reagan and D-Day go together. Two of his most famous speeches occurred on the 40th anniversary in 1984, during his presidency. First was “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech at the top of the cliffs that the special Ranger unit had to climb to take out strategic guns. The loss of life in that engagement was horrific. Reagan spoke to many of the survivors of that day.

In his second speech, he told the story of D-Day soldier Peter Zanatta, who had wanted to return to Normandy for the anniversary but who died before he could fulfill that desire. His daughter, Lisa, wrote a letter to Reagan about her father and Reagan was deeply moved by the letter. He made sure she was there for the commemoration.

In his speech, he honored both the father and the daughter:

Lisa Zanatta Henn began her story by quoting her father, who promised that he would return to Normandy. She ended with a promise to her father, who died 8 years ago of cancer: “I’m going there, Dad, and I’ll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I’ll see the graves, and I’ll put flowers there just like you wanted to do. I’ll feel all the things you made me feel through your stories and your eyes. I’ll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget. And, Dad, I’ll always be proud.”

Through the words of his loving daughter, who is here with us today, a D-day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any President can. It is enough for us to say about Private Zanatta and all the men of honor and courage who fought beside him four decades ago: We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.

If you have never seen the video of that portion of his speech, I urge you to watch it. Not only does it honor the Zanatta family, but it also reveals a president worthy of respect, one who does honor to the office he upholds—something that has been all too rare in recent years.

On this D-Day anniversary, let’s remember all those who not only did lay down their lives, but also those who survived but were willing to do the same.

Bombs Away? A Reagan-Trump Comparison

President Trump has stirred the criticism pot with his military actions: striking an air base in Syria and using the largest bomb in the US arsenal to destroy terrorists’ caves in Afghanistan. It has led some to question exactly what authority a president has to use the military without first consulting Congress.

That’s an important question because the Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war, not any president unilaterally. Of course, Congress hasn’t passed an actual war declaration since WWII. All of our actions militarily since then have either been in conjunction with the UN (Korea, Persian Gulf War) or with tacit approval of Congress to defend American lives (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). The latter were with congressional resolutions that fall short of true declarations.

Yet are there times when a president cannot wait for Congress to debate a matter because surprise is essential? Can the use of the military for one specific action be taken by presidential authority without a full declaration of war?

Let’s look at the Reagan years for a couple of examples.

In 1983, a militant pro-Castro faction overthrew the government of Maurice Bishop, a moderate Marxist, on the island of Grenada. Reagan immediately understood the implications of the coup: if the new government survived, a third Cuba (Marxist Nicaragua was viewed as the second Cuba in Reagan’s mind) would have come into existence during his watch. Grenada would become another Soviet client-state in the Western hemisphere.

The new Grenadian administration brought in 600 Cubans to construct an airstrip that could accommodate large military planes. This worried not only the US but other island-nations in the region. Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica came to the White House to share her concerns with Reagan and ask for help.

Another factor Reagan had to take under consideration was several hundred Americans who were attending a medical school on the island. He wanted to ensure their safety, but knew that if word got out that action was being contemplated, those Americans could easily become hostages. The threat of another Iranian-type hostage situation loomed.

So, for national security reasons and fear for the safety of American lives, Reagan chose to act swiftly and as quietly as possible. He did bring in congressional leadership, both Republican and Democrat, before taking action, informing them of the situation. He got the go-ahead from them to proceed.

On October 25, Reagan sent 10,000 U.S. marines and army airborne troops to invade the island. All resistance was eliminated after three days of fighting. At first, some members of Congress were outraged, but public support for the invasion soared as TV coverage featured interviews with the grateful American students.

Then there was Libya in 1986.

This radical Islamic state ruled by strongman Muammar Qaddafi had used its oil revenues to bankroll terrorists in Europe and the Middle East. On April 15, 1986, having concluded that Libya had supported and financed the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin frequented by American military personnel, Reagan ordered the bombing of five targets in Libya, including the presidential palace.

Reagan wanted to send a message to Qaddafi that he needed to back off his financial support for terrorism, and that he should think twice before aiding and abetting attacks that might kill and injure US soldiers.

Again, Reagan felt that giving advance warning for this punitive action would allow Libya to prepare for it and minimize the damage. He had already publicly proclaimed the US perspective on Libya and other nations directly involved with terrorism when he said in a speech that Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya were “outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, loony-tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.” Of Qaddafi, he said, “He’s not only a barbarian, he’s flaky.”

In both of these instances, Reagan took into consideration national security and saving the lives of American citizens. Both actions were short-term, not full-fledged wars, and required secrecy for their success.

Trump’s decisions have to be evaluated in that same light. I have no problem with the Afghanistan bombing, as it is part of an ongoing effort to eliminate terrorism aimed at America. It would be nice, though, for Congress to go the whole way for a declaration of war and make it more constitutional. Yet I realize that it is difficult in this situation because terrorism is not confined to one nation; it is a continuing problem that pops up everywhere.

As for Syria, I have mixed feelings. Trump apparently decided to go ahead with that bombing because of the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens. He saw pictures of the results and was horrified. Who wouldn’t be?

But was there a direct danger to American citizens over Syria’s use of chemical weapons? Was our national security threatened by this terrible action? We are a compassionate people who want to stop atrocities, but can we do that everywhere in the world? Aren’t atrocities occurring in many nations? Where do we strike and where do we not?

Decisions need to be made on the basis of national security and saving American lives first and foremost. Other reasons may enter in as well, but there needs to be a compelling need to act; we can’t merely make emotional decisions.

My concern is that Trump often makes decisions based on emotion. He has little understanding of constitutional authority and limitations; neither does he care to learn.

While I can inwardly cheer that the bombing in Syria sends a message, I can wonder about the wisdom of that decision and whether it really accomplished its purposes.

My concerns about how Trump makes decisions and whether he has any bedrock principles have never gone away. I’m also concerned that too many Americans don’t care about those principles. Yet without a proper understanding of the rule of law, we are in trouble.

The Credibility Problem: Russia & Susan Rice

I try to stay away from definitive statements on current issues until most or all of the facts are known. That’s why I’ve written so little on the whole controversy about Russia’s influence over the presidential election.

Of this I am certain: Trump is not now president because Russia somehow sabotaged voting machines. Trump is president primarily because he ran against Hillary Clinton, arguably the worst major-party presidential candidate in the last . . . oh . . . well, perhaps since the birth of the Republic.

Hillary still hasn’t come to grips with that. She’s still out there making comments about how discrimination against women is why she lost. Fortunately, what she thinks doesn’t matter much now; she’s free to live in whatever fantasy world she chooses.

But did Russia try to influence public opinion toward Trump in devious ways? Keep in mind that Russia always has tried to do whatever it could to undermine America. Back in the Reagan years, there is evidence the old USSR was using Sen. Ted Kennedy to get Reagan out in the 1984 election, and the senator was a willing accomplice. He was never a model of pristine character.

By the way, Russian interference in 1984 didn’t exactly count for much in the final tally:

As the current probe slogged along, Republican Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, made a misstep by making a public announcement about how our intelligence services incidentally caught information on Trump transition members apparently being mentioned by Russian operatives, but that such incidental information did not reveal any collusion. Nunes’s false step was to say something about this publicly rather than going directly to his committee.

That bad decision led to a political furor by the Democrats (who are well-practiced in political furor), and now Nunes is under investigation for an ethics violation. He has had to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

The names of those Trump people somehow were made public. That is against the law. All kinds of suspicion, entirely warranted, has been directed at the Obama administration in its final days doing whatever it could to weaken the incoming administration.

The name that has come to the surface is Susan Rice, Obama’s former UN ambassador and national security advisor. Isn’t it amazing how she always seems to show up whenever there is a need to find someone to explain away Obama’s misdeeds?

Rice doesn’t have a history that engenders confidence in her integrity. Anyone recall that she became the face of the Obama team when they totally mishandled Benghazi? Anyone recall how she went on all the Sunday talk shows and peddled the Big Lie about a video causing the attack on American personnel in Libya? Anyone recall how she did it with no embarrassment at all?

Well, she’s back. She started off by saying she knew nothing about the intelligence gathering that caught some Trump people. Then that shifted into an admission that she did request to know the names of those people—within the legal allowance—but that she certainly wasn’t responsible for leaking those names to the public.

That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

Susan Rice has no credibility.

What really happened with Russia and what should we be concerned about? The investigation is ongoing. The real question is whether it will be a real investigation or merely another in a long line of political one-upsmanship.

The House Intelligence Committee needs to demonstrate that it has more credibility than Susan Rice.

America’s Best Presidents

There was no Presidents Day in my younger years. Instead, February stood out as the month we celebrated, separately, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no problem with a day that seeks to honor all those who have served as president, but there are some who certainly don’t deserve as much honor as others (I won’t name names) and the fusion of all presidents into one day has diminished the special occasions of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, so that, in my view, is another downside to the change.

As a historian who comes at politics and government from a Biblical and conservative perspective, some presidents rise above others in my admiration. Four, in particular, rise to the top for me. Let me identify them and explain why I esteem them above all the others.

George Washington

This is the man who was indispensable to the Founding of the nation. I don’t use the word “indispensable” lightly. Washington’s roles as head of the military during the American Revolution and as the first president were the glue that held us together. No one else during that era commanded the same respect as he did.

The Constitutional Convention was given greater legitimacy through his attendance as president of the convention, and the expectation that he would take on the responsibilities of the presidency calmed the country as it sought stability.

Washington’s character was his hallmark; he demanded integrity from himself as much as from others. He suffered through those long years of war, holding a ragtag army together when the Congress couldn’t figure out how to supply and pay the soldiers.

When, at the end of that war, Congress faced a potential mutiny of the officers, it was Washington who defused the mutiny with the force of his character. Respect for their commander who had shared their sufferings kept the nation from starting out with a military coup.

When the war ended, he resigned his commission and went home, confounding King George III, who couldn’t conceive of anyone voluntarily setting aside the kind of power and authority Washington had attained. He rebuked those of his followers who urged him to proclaim himself king of America.

He also stepped down from the presidency after two terms, even though the Constitution at that time didn’t require it, thus setting a precedent for all who followed after.

So, yes, I believe George Washington deserves special honor on this day.

Abraham Lincoln

There are still people today who grate at the name of Lincoln, believing he was a tyrant during the Civil War. Research into his character and actions overall, though, put the lie to that perception.

Lincoln was devoted to the Constitution and was a keen student of American history and government. All one has to do is read his Cooper Institute speech prior to his presidency to see how he amassed a ton of information on the views of the Founding Fathers as the basis for his political positions. And no one can escape his devotion to the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln was one of the greatest of presidential wordsmiths; he crafted his speeches carefully in the hope of showcasing the principles that lay at the foundation of the nation. His Gettysburg Address and his inaugurals, particularly the Second Inaugural, are testaments to the heart of the man, as he wove Biblical charity and forgiveness into the texts for all to remember.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis the nation has ever faced, and Lincoln had to deal with issues no president before or since has had to handle. If this was the ultimate on-the-job training, he came through magnificently.

The tragedy of his death is that he was only beginning to embark on the path of a peaceful, forgiving reconstruction of the country. Without him, that path became much rockier.

Through the loss of two sons to early deaths and the burdens of a great war, Lincoln was compelled to draw closer to God. I believe, in the end, he rediscovered his Christian faith. He richly deserves the honor so many have bestowed upon him.

Calvin Coolidge

Some will be surprised by the inclusion of Coolidge in my list of most honorable presidents. Liberal historians disparage the man they say did nothing in his presidency. They promote the idea that because he was a man of few words that he was insignificant. Well, wordy people are not always the significant ones; those who use caution in what they say may be far wiser.

Coolidge, as vice president, found himself thrust into the presidency by the death of Warren Harding in 1923. It was not an easy task to ascend to the office at that point because scandals in the Harding administration were just beginning to bubble to the surface.

Upon hearing of Harding’s death, the first thing Coolidge did was to take his wife’s hand and kneel with her by the bed to pray for guidance and the wisdom to take up the challenges set before him.

Coolidge, because of his basic integrity, made sure all investigations of those scandals proceeded accordingly. People who had been in the Harding administration went to prison. He offered no favors to them, no pardons.

The 1920s were a boom time economically for the country. Coolidge’s low-tax and reduced-regulation policies helped spur innovation and prosperity. He was in no way to blame for the later Great Depression. The prosperity of the 1920s was genuine.

He won election in his own right in 1924, and undoubtedly would have won again in 1928, but he voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency in the same spirit as Washington. In his memoir, Coolidge explained why he chose to step down, and I find it one of the wisest statements ever made by a president:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

Character meant more to Coolidge than power. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and honor.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan as one of my top presidents should surprise no one. After all, I’ve written a book about him. He won the presidency at one of the lowest points in the history of that office. Post-Vietnam, posts-Watergate, post-Carter, the nation was in the doldrums. Reagan, with his sunny disposition, helped restore optimism. And his policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rebuilding of the military—inspired new confidence in the nation’s future.

Couple all of that with his solid defense of liberty and firm belief that communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and we witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and new hope for freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith was real; I interviewed his former pastor and left that interview with confirmation of that fact. Reagan believed God had a purpose for America and that this country, despite some of its missteps over time, remained the beacon for freedom in the world.

Reagan’s humility stands out above all else in his character. He never took credit for the economic upsurge in the 1980s; he said it was the result of the hard work and faith of the people. When he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he wrote one final address to the American people. The last paragraph states,

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Even in that address, it wasn’t really about him—it was about America. His humility was his strength. Ronald Reagan deserves our gratitude and should be honored for what he brought to the Oval Office.

There are other presidents who served admirably, but, in my view, Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan are the four best in American history. Let’s remember them today.

The Left Going Crazy, Trump Being Trump

Watching the cultural/political Left go crazy the past few weeks should be instructive to many Americans. Although there’s nothing really surprising about the “progressive” reaction to Trump’s presidency, their out-of-control rage, whining, and actual destruction of property offers a valuable lesson about the dangers of Totalitarian Leftism.

The University of California Berkeley retains an iconic status in the minds of those on the Left. They believe it is the place where free speech was born in the 1960s. That image is imaginary. Free speech existed long before the presumed free speech movement at Berkeley.

Recently, Berkeley is again in the news as riots have broken out on campus, complete with attacks on local businesses. No one is allowed to have a different idea at Berkeley; genuine free speech is a rarity on many American campuses—all in the name of tolerance.

As a university professor myself, I think I can assign a grade:

Conservative voices are either silenced or harassed in many of our cultural venues. Calm, reasoned debate no longer is the norm; emotions rule all too often:

Stakeholders on the Left are all upset that a woman who fervently believes children need better educational options is now confirmed as the new secretary of education. Apparently, working for school choice (I thought the Left loved “choice”) and donating tons of personal funds toward helping children get the education they need is now a disqualification for being the education secretary. Their reaction has become typical:

And of course there are all the organized and funded protests over a travel executive order that has been characterized undeservedly as a “Muslim ban.” Never mind that it was in accordance with previous legislation and similar to what other presidents have done; rationality and constitutionality are not part of the Left’s thought process anymore.

The real problem with that particular EO was the way Trump handled it and how it was applied to people who should not have been targeted. What Trump should have done is make a short address to the American people about what he was going to do and explain the precise nature of the order ahead of time, thereby short-circuiting some of the hysteria that erupted.

Instead, he just dumped it out there without sufficient explanation. That’s one of Trump’s ongoing problems. He just does things and doesn’t take into account the possible reaction.

He also continues to have a brain-to-mouth issue. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, when asked about Putin, whom O’Reilly correctly called a killer, Trump came back with the quip that the US has done its share of killing as well.

That came across as Trump proclaiming a moral equivalency between an increasingly totalitarian Russia and the US. Putin finds ways to create suspicious deaths for those who criticize him; when has that been US policy?

Trump continues to harbor admiration for Putin and other strong dictators, and he somehow seems to think that America has been just as bad as other nations in how its citizens have been treated. Tell that to the 7 million Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin. Explain how the persecution and executions of Christians in communist countries compares favorably with how we treat our people.

This moral equivalence argument is fantasy land, and Trump needs to disavow it immediately. It reverses the realistic view that Reagan brought to policy in his day.

Donald Trump remains his own worst enemy. If he wishes to succeed as president, it’s going to take more than bluster and insults toward those who disagree with him. He’s going to have to learn some statesmanship. Will his basic character allow this?

The Confirmation Circus

Confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees have become quite a circus. It was to be expected, unfortunately. I remember when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was putting forth his agenda a few years ago. Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature ran away to Illinois so there wouldn’t be a quorum to conduct business. Senate Democrats seem to be copying that strategy, refusing to show up to vote on whether to send nominees to the full Senate.

It’s a tried and true method used by toddlers, angry juveniles, and immature people everywhere.

Republicans had to alter the rules even to get the nominees out of committee. Perhaps it’s the only way to deal with temper tantrums.

In the Democrats’ crosshairs now is Betsy DeVos, slated to be the new education secretary. Since she’s an advocate for private schooling, the teachers’ unions are up in arms. They’ve been busy consolidating their support with the Democrats:

I’m always amused by cries of “influence” when aimed at various conservative groups who donate to Republicans. The National Education Association (NEA) and its allies practically own Democrats; they have more money to throw around than all conservative groups combined.

Soon we’ll be treated with the confirmation hearing for Neil Gorsuch, chosen to take Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. The circus will continue. Over a decade ago, Gorsuch received a unanimous vote for his current judicial position. That’s history.

I trust Gorsuch is prepared for what he is about to experience:

Will Republicans have to turn to what is called the “nuclear option,” not allowing a filibuster on the nomination?

What a shame that this scenario has turned into an unbridgeable political divide. Democrats have become unhinged over these nominees, using their outrage to raise even more funding for their theatrics.

I know that theatrics have played a role throughout American political history, but I don’t believe we’ve ever witnessed the kind of role-playing that has come to the forefront ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, at least not on such a sustained basis. We are a nation that is verging on a complete cultural and political division not seen since the Civil War.

What will be the result?