What Politics Does to History
By Jim Sleeper | TPMCafe | August 13, 2010
Foreign Policy has just posted one of the more difficult and damning reviews I've ever written, of Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, by Charles Hill, the former executive assistant and speechwriter to Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz. As I was reading Hill's book last month in Frankfurt and Istanbul, PBS was broadcasting a documentary based on Shultz's 1993 memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, which was written mainly by... Charles Hill.
Liberal critics and PBS' own ombudsman criticized the film's hagiographical, conservative slant and its heavy funding from donors close to the Hoover Institution, where both Shultz and Hill are fellows. But the deeper problem is Hill's crafting of Shultz's memoir, which reveals, unintentionally, what can happen when former statesmen try to write or teach history.
We are not talking here about Winston Churchill's magisterial A History of the English-Speaking Peoples but about two wily old duffers trying to cover their butts. Hill is also trying to puff himself up to overawe undergraduates and college administrators, with implications for liberal education that would be amusing if they weren't so sad -- and, we can at least hope, instructive.
In his own Grand Strategies, Hill, an energetic autodidact, interprets great literature to justify his mottled Foreign Service record and his paleo-conservative convictions, which are really more pagan and Vulcan than liberal or civic-republican. That might suit the schoolmaster of a high-school military academy better than a teacher of liberal arts, yet Hill teaches classics to freshmen and "Grand Strategy" to seniors at Yale, where he's "Diplomat in Residence" and, although lacking a PhD, holds more honorific titles than the Emperor Franz Josef. That's partly the Yale administration's way of thanking him for helping so sinuously to put out some fires set by bashers of "liberal Yale" who have been his own confederates in conservative policymaking and Wall Street Journal punditry.
When Hill's former student Molly Worthen asked him a few years ago why he'd never written a book of his own, he only smiled and said there was no better way to get people to pay attention to one's ideas than to write them beneath the bylines of great men such as Kissinger, Shultz, and Boutros Boutros Ghali, for all of whom he has ghosted.
Grand Strategies shows that he wasn't telling Worthen the whole truth, and it sidesteps the question of what happens to the ideas of the great men themselves when those who virtually write their memoirs, as Hill did Shultz's, twist the record to help themselves and their principals evade the judgment of History and of the Iran-Contra Independent Counsel.
Because Hill's book elucidates his worldview by proposing literary precedents for his own foreign-service modus without ever elucidating the latter, it hides as much as it reveals about his mishandlings of both diplomacy and liberal education. In real life, as I show in Foreign Policy, his dissembling compromised Shultz and foreign policy making. And now it's compromising an old college's three-century long struggle to balance humanist truth-seeking with training for republican power-wielding.
Here's how Hill miscarries that struggle, let alone his pretensions to scholarship, in ways I couldn't cover in reviewing his book:
• 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 to the Review contesting Draper's judgment but, ultimately, discrediting his own. The letter contends that the factual errors Draper flagged in the memoir reflect Shultz's sound decision to confine his narrative "to what he knew or was told at the time" and, so doing, to exclude "information and evidence which came to light after a decision or event occurred."
In defending this strange methodology, Hill unintentionally reveals what's untrustworthy in his own and many statesmen's methods. He claims 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 acknowledges 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 mustn't Shultz's narrative also add what he learned to the contrary soon after? Isn't Hill's casuistry all-too common in memoirs written by or for statesmen seeking to sanitize bad decisions they made on the basis of their own blunders and lies, as well as those of others? Don't such memoirs "invariably obscure" that, too?
Hill concludes 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 is meant to distract attention from his flimsy rationale for Shultz's presenting as factual the many suppositions that he and Hill knew - but never tell their 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 very a "peculiar interpretation of 'how things actually were,'" Draper replies, since the truth, as he 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, tweaking Hill, "the music cannot be right if the notes are wrong."
• This is no trivial exchange. It bares something wrong not only in Hill's writing but also in the slippery historiographical and pedagogical modus he imparts to Yale students in lecture halls, seminar rooms, and campus publications. This should disqualify him from teaching at a liberal-arts college, but, as Worthen reports and his former students have told me, and as I've sometimes witnessed firsthand, he uses his position as a supposed guide to the great humanist conversation across the ages not to deepen students' encounters with the humanities' lasting challenges to politics and the spirit but to advance his Vulcan logic or his superiors' strategic interests.
In campus forums and the Yale Daily News, Hill speaks about world events as a Foreign Service press officer would, his brisk assertions cowing inexperienced undergraduates, impressed by his firmness and intimacy with the great and powerful. Too many Yale students already spend too much time learning how not to say that an emperor has no clothes -- and how to step forward to supply the necessary drapery if someone less clued-in is incautious enough to say it. Both Hill and a student reporter seemed disposed to find such drapery in a Yale Daily News interview a month after 9/11:
YDN: [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?
CH: 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. It seems to me that he's able to take on what comes at him."
Hill is not participating here in a humanist "great conversation" or teaching his student readers how to conduct an inquiry in the spirit of liberal education. He is not promoting honest communication in an open society such as Dewey envisioned. He is addressing his audience not as a professor but as a foreign-service officer, and he is engaged in a calculated - for him, almost instinctive - misrepresentation of what is actually going on in order to reinforce political instincts and premises he believes the young reporter and his readers already share. He does this every time he speaks to the Yale student press, and my Foreign Policy review unmasks one of his worst howlers.
Hill is right enough to teach Yale students that power counts and that how one exercises it counts immensely. But what kind of power does he promote? The original subtitle of Worthen's book (The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost) in the Houghton-Mifflin catalog was: "Grand Strategy and the Cult of Charles Hill," and she offers chapter and verse of that cult's litany, noting that Hill's students and colleagues "can never convince him he might be wrong" and that he "does not see the difference between the security bubble and the seminar room."
Hill particularly loathes Rousseau, whose understandings of equality and the General Will threaten the Lockean liberalism and Anglo-American hegemony Hill claims to defend. Never mind that the real threats to Lockean liberalism and American hegemony now come not from the revolutionary left but from casino-finance capital and corporate welfare, which would have horrified Locke and Adam Smith, parading under the banners of "free markets;" a few years ago Hill made the students from his freshman class in Yale's classics-oriented Directed Studies program recite in unison, from wherever each was seated within a large assembly of the program's other freshmen and faculty, a Rousseauian Creed, in order "to depict Rousseauianism as proto-totalitarian (itself a rather dubious move,)" 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 group-think, Hill actually wound up emulating what he claims to oppose." A faculty member who was present confirms that impression and more. "People were at each other's throats over it afterward. '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 claimed falsely to have seen the Nazi death camps in person during World War II, when 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 as that scandal broke), cites Shultz's (and his) 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.
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 myopia. Scholars are reluctant to do such things. Foreign Service officers are supposed 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 ally. 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."
Fair enough, but 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 to prove to federal investigators, who wrested the notes from him only with difficulty, that Senate testimony he'd prepared for Shultz on Iran-Contra was false. The report of the Independent Counsel blamed Hill, whose efforts to blame others it called "unworthy," in terms you can read in the Foreign Policy review. He is "Diplomat in Residence" at Yale because he is a diplomat in exile from Washington who tried but failed 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'd already made it 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 I've been sketching here is the eerie and ultimately very subjective nature of 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.
A fuller, richer accounting of that sad tendency would go far beyond this post and my review in Foreign Policy, and only time will tell who really wants that whole story told. But it's time even now to stop applauding old frauds and their funders who induct the young into networks that mistake lofty detachment for clear-eyed assessment, maximum surveillance for security, and chronic public lying for appropriate discretion. Whose vital interests do they really serve?