Thursday, May 25, 2017

JFK at 100

What would John F. Kennedy have done? As the United States seemingly lurches from one polarizing domestic or foreign crisis to another, it’s curiously tempting to look at the historical example of our 35th president, whose centennial we celebrate on May 29th, 2017. 

Kennedy was first and foremost a pragmatist, a point he underscored when, on being asked about his ambitions in high office, he answered simply: “I hope to be effective.” The Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter once informed “young Jack”, as he called him, that as the nation’s chief executive his job was to “direct funds, goods, and people to concerns that relate to the human welfare.” Kennedy’s desk diary of his time in office often reveals a preoccupation with rather more narrowly defined tasks. He was supremely good at seeing the “big picture” of a particular issue, and often showed a refreshing (and distinctly non-partisan) breadth of thought not always conspicuous in his modern successors. In January 1962, at the height of a potentially cataclysmic showdown with the Soviet Union over access rights to Berlin, Kennedy summoned the city’s military governor General Lucius Clay to discuss the crisis. Years later, Clay recalled that the president had made one or two “eminently sensible” suggestions about the issue at hand, before going on to seek his advice on another matter. 
“Kennedy was seeking to impose price and wage restraints on the US steel industry at that time,” Clay recalled. “He knew that I had been the head of a firm that was a large user of steel, and I remember he asked me whom he could get in touch with in the area, off the record, and talk quietly to” - another example of what the hard-headed general admiringly called the president’s “intuitive skill in finding problem-solving resources that others might have overlooked.”
The irony, perhaps, is that while Kennedy remains a potent symbol of modernity and progressivism, both in terms of his political philosophy and his notably laissez-fair personal morals, he was in some ways a traditional figure who embraced many of the institutions that had served to unite a disparate people for 200 years. To enumerate them would make today’s more sensitive liberal soul wince, so here goes: the Church; the flag; the rule of law; the US military; and perhaps above all the exercise of self-discipline in our fundamental social contract with one another – “the right to enjoy life to the full up to the moment when it detracts from your neighbor’s right to do so”, as he once put it to his British friend, and fellow centrist politician, Hugh Fraser.
Of course, one can take the view that Kennedy’s natural or acquired gift for compromise, particularly when it came to foreign affairs, displayed a far-sighted grasp of statesmanship; or that it was all a cynical piece of political pandering designed to make him attractive to both sides in a debate. In either case, it seems fair to say that Kennedy’s realism effectively checked and balanced his belief that it was important for the United States to constantly assert itself in the struggle to stem the tide of world communism. On the campaign trail, he was a consistently reasonable and benign commander-in-chief who assured his audiences that he would never commit young Americans to battle without the most compelling need to do so. In the War Room, he remained open to the counsel of his military chiefs that bombing the likes of Cuba back to the Stone Age was an eminently viable option.
Kennedy with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
“Any other course of action will be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” the bluff, cigar-chewing air force chief Curtis LeMay told the president at a White House meeting to discuss the growing Cuban missile crisis on October 19, 1962. “I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as a pretty weak response to this,” he added. When LeMay when on to inform the president that “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time”, Kennedy responded merely: “Well, you’re in there with me.”
It may not be insignificant that John Kennedy spent several of his most impressionable student years in and around London, just as the British political establishment argued over the correct response to take to Nazi Germany’s growing territorial ambitions. He was even present in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons to witness the climactic declaration of war on September 3, 1939. It might be a stretch to say that Kennedy’s whole later attitude to dictatorial figures such as Nikita Khrushchev followed on from his experience of the Europe of the 1930s. But there’s no doubt that he took with him into office a fundamental set of principles that he summarized this way in his 1940 undergraduate thesis-tuned-bestseller Why England Slept:

“Democracy may be a great system of government to live under, but its weaknesses are great … We must realize that democracy is a luxury. We may be able to afford it due to our particular position, but we must be continually aware of the lesson we have learned from our study of England and Germany’s armament history from 1937-1939. We have seen that a democracy cannot successfully compete with a dictatorship on even terms. Our foreign policy therefore, should be directed to taking advantage of certain economic and strategic advantages that we now possess, and making sure that we never reach a position of having to compete with a dictator on their home grounds—that is both starting on an even basis—or the dictatorship will win.”

Christopher Sandford is the author of Union Jack: JFK's Special Relationship with Great Britain

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Joyce Mitchell & Her Inmates With Benefits

The Spring 2015 escape by two worst-of-the-worst prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility (CCF) in Dannemora, N.Y., resulted in the largest manhunt in New York State history and the biggest domestic news story of the year. For three weeks America held its collective breath, as the narrative unfolded to its inevitable, violent conclusion. But even after it did, even after the players were no longer in motion, the tale retained its journalistic legs, largely because of its many angles:
—the brutal and depraved crimes that Richard Matt and David Sweat committed to be caged in a maximum security prison to begin with,
—the complacency and arrogance within the prison that allowed the escapees to gather key intelligence,
—the complementary skills of the prisoners, how they became a two-headed escape monster accomplishing an extraordinary feat,
—tales of the frightened public, who went without sleep, and when they did nod off it was with a shotgun ’cross their laps,
—tales of the 1,200 manhunters, the stalwart members of law enforcement, who scoured the harshest of wilderness for weeks on end in relentlessly inclement weather, praying they would catch the men before innocents were hurt,
—the budget cuts by the State of New York that impacted the case, and
Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, the sad sack of a woman who allowed herself to be used by the escapees, giving them the tools they would need to cut their way out of the beast’s belly, in exchange for flirtation, fantasy, and a modicum of tawdry prison sex.
Guess which facet of the story became the focus of Lifetime’s TV movie?  No surprise. It was Tillie, star of the show, with her Walter Mitty fantasy life and muttonhead excuses. The mother of three was called “Shawskank” on the front page of the New York Post. Her anemic attempts to explain her unexplainable behavior were meant to be damage control, but brought only the wrath of the public.
            So here comes the TV movie, New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin, which debuted on April 23 in the crucial Sunday prime-time slot. 
The movie gets a lot of things right. We briefly see Matt and Sweat’s brutality, and we feel the relaxed relationship between CCF’s prisoners and corrections officers that blurs their adversarial roles. The tunneling out and escape itself are presented in detail and with surprising accuracy.
It’s made clear that Mitchell’s carnal misadventures with Matt and Sweat were perfectly in character. Life for her was a daytime serial, from her young and restless schooldays to “As the Cell Block Turns” in adulthood. Her husband Lyle (Daniel Roebeck), a painfully dull but affable chatterbox, was the lover-on-the-side that broke up Joyce’s first marriage.
The manhunt and the effect of the escape on the Adirondack area are all but missing in the movie, leaving lots of room for clothes-on sex scenes featuring a lonely and bored fifty-something woman getting hot and bothered over sweet-talking dirtbags. The backroom intimacy portrayed is more than cringe-worthy. It’s crawl-out-of-your-skin worthy. But that’s prison sex in a nutshell, I’m guessing. 
Nobody asked me, but I gave New York Prison Break two and a half stars. It’s corny and melodramatic, but has a so-bad-it’s-good appeal—and I liked the movie better than I thought I would. Myk Watford as Matt and Joe Anderson as Sweat capture the superficial charm of these sociopaths, and Penelope Ann Miller gives Tillie an animation that may lack realism but improves watchability.
But I know one fellow certain to give New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell a rave review, two urgent thumbs up: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has to be ecstatic that the Lifetime movie never once touches upon one key factor that made the escape possible. Because of Albany’s penny-wise pound-foolish budget cuts, the superintendents of New York State prisons were not allowed to lockdown their facilities without an okay from an Albany beancounter. Days before the Clinton escape, a gang fight erupted on the prison grounds and the CCF superintendent wanted to declare a lockdown—but Albany said no. Too expensive. The lockdown would have resulted in a thorough search of every cell in the facility, exposing the fact that Sweat and Matt were singing the Credence song: DOO DOO DOO Lookin’ Out My Backdoor about their own self-made rear exits, back doors that would, within the week, lead them to an impressive but temporary freedom.

Michael Benson is the author of ESCAPE FROM DANNEMORA: Richard Matt, David Sweat, and the Great Adirondack Manhunt (ForeEdge), as well as Why the Grateful Dead Matter (ForeEdge) and The Devil at Genesee Junction (Rowman & Littlefield).