“Political Gridlock” – Jim Leach Speech Transcript – Veterans Day – 11 November 2013

The following text is the transcript of a public speech delivered by Jim Leach on Veterans Day, 11 November 2013 in Iowa City. Header descriptions and links have been added to make the text more accessible.

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All People are Created Equal

As this is Veterans Day, I would like to begin with an historical perspective on the citizen soldier.

Our system of government emanated from war — a revolutionary war against the then mightiest army and navy in the world. The war was precipitated by a radical idea: that all men are created equal and endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights.[1]

Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

I mention the intertwining of the idea framework with war for a number of reasons, the most important being that we owe our freedom to the army of George Washington and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who followed in war -making and peace-preserving. The rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been protected in a myriad of ways. For instance, in the 20th century our armed forces fought in two world wars, stood up to Communist aggression in two Asian conflicts, and over eight presidencies — from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush — kept the peace during the Cold War in Europe. And at home in a traumatic moment, Dwight David Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to protect seven young black students entering a segregated high school.

Leaders and Public Servants Must Be Selfless

We owe particular respect to those who wore and continue to wear the uniform in combat, especially those who have served in circumstances where domestic dissent has been greatest. We can disagree with political decision makers but we are obligated to respect those in the armed forces who sacrificed so much for so many. Just think how much more dangerous a world we would live in if our military was as dysfunctionally organized as today’s politics and if our soldiers cared more for their self-interest than the national interest.

Two Famous Iowa City Residents

World War II ended 68 years ago, and because so few veterans of that war are still with us, I would like to reference two Iowa City residents who symbolize the greatest generation.

James Van Allen

The first is James Van Allen, the great space pioneer for whom the Van Allen Radiation Belt is named. But few in this town where he lived and worked for more than half a century knew anything about Jim’s role in World War II until a celebration of life ceremony took place at Hancher Auditorium a decade ago. Four people were asked to speak about segments of Jim’s life. The first was an elderly physicist at Johns Hopkins who surprised the packed audience by announcing that he wanted to address Jim’s time working for and then within the United States Navy, a time that he had simply noted in his c.v. had been spent as an “assistant gunnery officer.” It was a bit more than that.

The scientist told how after war broke out in Europe, Jim as research fellow at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. with a recently minted Iowa Ph.D. joined a top secret technology group called Section T of the Department of Terrestial Magnetism. Section T was part of the work associated with the National Defense Research Committee where atomic research also was supervised. The Navy had a serious problem with the effectiveness of shells shot from its shipboard cannons, and Section T was tasked to improve naval firepower capacities.

Of the shells fired from U.S. ships, fully a third either ignited in flight or failed to go off on striking a target. The German and Japanese navies had a similar but somewhat less intense problem. So Jim’s Section T group rented an abandoned Chevrolet garage in Silver Spring, Maryland and proceeded to experiment with developing a proximity fuze. Upgrading work that had commenced a few years earlier in Great Britain, the Section T group advanced the technology and solved the ruggedness problem (Jim’s principal contribution) of transferring theoretical methodology to usable weaponry. To test for ruggedness, Jim determined that he needed land to experiment upon, so he rented 40 acres of farm land in a suburban Washington county. Upon being told he should carry a firearm (in this case a .45 automatic) because of the presumed possibility that spies might be interested in his work, he was sworn in as a deputy sheriff of Montgomery County.

Working with others, he developed a proximity fuze, a key component of which he patented, that increased the effectiveness of shells from 67 percent to more than 99 percent — thereby increasing the firepower of the U.S. Navy by 50 percent.

The researchers in Section T eventually developed a ruggedly sophisticated proximity fuze, a key component of which Jim patented, that increased the effectiveness of shells shot from the navy’s long guns from 67 percent to over 99 percent —thereby increasing the firepower of the United States Navy by 50 percent. Jim’s group then turned to investigating the prospect of applying upgraded technology to anti-aircraft shells to replace the “ack-ack” we see in old World War II movies. Using radio signals to sense the presence of a plane, Jim and his Secton T colleagues developed the first “smart” precision weapon in the history of warfare.

Initially, gunners in the Pacific theater refused to use these new anti-aircraft shells. They loved their “ack-ack” because they could see how close they were coming to their targets. The problem was that the “ack-ack” pops that they could follow registered misses rather than hits. Understanding that the shells with the new detonation fuze represented a quantum improvement in anti-aircraft capacities, Jim accepted a commission as a Naval officer so that he could “commandeer” a vessel and hopscotch from ship to ship in the Pacific to persuade forces at sea to use the new technology. An inventor turned salesman, he eventually persuaded the captains and skeptical gunners to put their trust in the shells with the proximity fuze. At the same time he organized a Pacific Island supply train for the new shells and for the replacement of faulty batteries in older ones.

Only after hours of Jim’s signature low-key persuasiveness and months of trial in combat engagements in which Jim participated were the new anti-aircraft shells fully accepted by the Pacific fleet. Then, when the Japanese launched a massive kamikaze attack in the largest naval engagement in history — the Battle of Leyte Gulf — the shells with the newly developed proximity fuse helped knock down thirty-eight of the forty-one attacking planes. Until this point, any ship without air cover was a sitting duck to air attack. And when the Germans started attacking London with V-1 buzz bombs, shells with the new detonation fuze dramatically upgraded British capacities to defend the city.

In a recent biography of Jim by Abigail Foerstner, the author cites reports that the radio proximity fuze worked so well that it allowed British anti-aircraft gunners in one instance to shoot down 35 German planes in 30 minutes and in another to destroy 68 of 72 buzz bombs bound for London. The fuze was first used in land artillery in Europe by allied forces in December, 1944, at the Battle of the Bulge. The shells which were set to explode 10 feet or so above ground rather than on contact with earth were far more devastating than earlier generation shells. General George Patten later observed that “the funny fuze” had been so effective at the Battle of the Bulge that its use required a full revision of the tactics of land warfare.

At Hancher, the Johns Hopkins physicist ended his talk by reading a sentence from a citation signed by the Secretary of the Navy in 1946. It read: No one is more responsible for the success of the United States Navy in World War II than Lieutenant Commander James Van Allen.

In her biography of Jim (available on Amazon), Foerstner cites recent World War II histories noting that in the war the United States benefitted from four science and mathematical break-throughs. The first was the a-bomb; the second, upgraded radar capacities; the third, the breaking of the German and Japanese codes; and the fourth, the proximity fuse. The reason so few in Iowa City or the public ever knew about Jim’s role in the war was that the technology associated with the proximity fuse was kept top secret through the Cold War.

Jim Van Allen was Iowa-modest. And, arguably, the single most important combatant in World War II.

Donald Showers

The second Iowa City resident I would like to reference is Donald (Mac) Showers. This afternoon, a close friend of Showers, a classmate of his at City High and the University of Iowa, and fellow hero of the war in the Pacific — Col. Richard Feddersen — dropped by my office to ask if I would mention Showers’ contribution to the war effort in this Veterans Day talk. I am honored to do so.

Showers was an intelligence officer who was part of a small group responsible for breaking the Japanese code. It was the breaking of the code that made possible, for example, a preemptive strike against the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway where four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Showers eventually rose to admiral rank and became chief of staff of the Defense Intelligence Agency and later a senior officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. He received a Distinguished Service Medal from both the Navy and the CIA.

There was a second aspect of the breaking of the German and Japanese codes that stands out. That being that we not only knew in advance about much of the key planning of our adversaries but we also knew that they didn’t know how much we knew. This knowledge was a key to strategies in the Pacific and for the landing in Normandy.

My father, for instance, a graduate of this great university and the law school where I now teach, was Executive Officer of a regiment that in its trek from Omaha Beach through Normandy and the Bulge to the Elbe came to be the fourth most casualty inflicted regiment of the war. Like so many others, Dad never spoke much of the war, but I’ll never forget the time he commented while watching a news analysis of a breaking revelation in Washington, that hundreds of Americans, including some press, must have known that Ike was planning a Normandy landing. But that secret was kept, just as was the Manhattan Project, the upgraded radar, the proximity fuse, and the code breaking. Lives were at issue, including his and so many others. Now we live in a world of wiki-leaks.

I mention these men and what they went through because we have to ask ourselves: are we letting them down?

Dysfunctional Governance

The founders envisioned a political system that divided power between branches and levels of government in order to circumscribe power and ensure that a kaleidoscope of perspectives would be considered in decision making. But no founder ever suggested that dysfunctional governance was a worthy goal. And no soldier who serves in the greatest equal opportunity employer in the world deserves to see our government shut down as life and limb is risked in combat.

Yet today we have a House divided and a Senate “snafued” by rules of its own making. These 20th-century rules do not deserve hallowed status. They were not envisioned in the Constitution. Indeed, the filibuster was originally designed to block civil rights legislation — i.e., undercut the intent of the Constitution as amended in the wake of the Civil War. In addition, various rules that are designed to enhance the prerogatives of individual senators have the effect not only of thwarting the will of the Senate but undercutting the relative position of the House of Representatives and the ability of the Executive branch to function effectively.

It is no mystery why gridlock exists and why dysfunction seems to rein. Nor is it a mystery why it matters.

Public Dissatisfaction

Public angst is understandable. After all, we have been immersed in our two longest and most debilitating wars. We have witnessed an avoidable recession and now find ourselves with high unemployment and tepid growth. Public debt has mushroomed and disparities in income grown. These circumstances have been manipulated by influence wielders who have exacerbated polarizing political trends for several decades. Now, rather suddenly, polarization is the order of the day. Matters of degree have become matters of kind.

Short Courses on Governance

To elaborate on the changing background of American politics, I developed a series of what I call two-minute courses in democratic governance when I left Congress for a teaching career.

Political Science 101

The first course I call Political Science 101. It has a mathematical dimension. Over the past generation America has been approximately one-third Democratic, one-third Republican and one-third no party. Half of a third is one-sixth. So one-sixth of America controls each of the two major parties. But in primaries where the real weakness in our democracy resides, at most one in four eligible voters participate in legislative races and often only one in eight or even less. Accordingly, if one multiplies 1/4th times 1/6th, it becomes evident that in a legislative primary with participation rates larger than average 1/24th of the electorate controls the choice of nominees.

Who is this 1/24th? In the Democratic Party it is rather liberal with consistent leadership coming from teachers, academics and union members. In the Republican Party, it is rather conservative with this philosophical term undergoing substantial change over the past generation.

When I entered politics conservatism was of a Goldwater bent — i.e, concern for military preparedness and opposition to high taxes and large social expenditures. But Goldwater’s brand of individual rights conservatism was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, views which would make him a liberal Republican outlier today.

In recent years the activism in the Republican Party has become more of a social conservative nature – i.e., pro-life, anti-gay rights, anti-U.N., with an infusion of global warming deniers. In addition, there has been a remarkable increase in the last half dozen years of libertarians who often but not always are pro-choice, pro-hemp, and less inclined to military options than either old-fashioned conservatives or liberals.

What these figures mean is that the largest group that is suddenly under-represented in Congress and increasingly state legislative chambers is the center-left and center-right who traditionally, although perhaps not now, are the largest segment of the electorate.

Political Science 102

Political Science 102 is a course about which everyone knows half, but many haven’t thought about the other half. The first half relates to presidential elections. It is generally understood that a Democratic candidate in a primary can be expected to attempt to appeal to the liberal voter and a Republican vice-versa. Once nominated, however, both can be expected to scoot a bit to the center to attract the undecided and philosophically more moderate.

But in Congressional races where 85 percent or so of all seats are safe for one party or the other, the first phenomenon (the candidate effort to appeal to the left if a Democrat and right if a Republican) also exists in a primary setting. But there is no scoot to the center in the general election or moderating in Congress because if such a movement occurs, a candidate or elected representative can expect a stiff primary opponent with significant organization and fundraising capacity to emerge. It is now primaries rather than the general election where many incumbents are most vulnerable.

Physics 101

Physics 101. Sir Isaac Newton once set forth three laws of nature, the third of which was that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. One day on the House floor I discovered as a pun a fourth Newt-onian Law. Watching the then Speaker of the House deliver a blistering critique of the opposition and then watching the Democratic reaction, it dawned on me that in social physics unlike natural physics reaction could be greater than action. I initially considered this was a law of partisan politics but I soon realized it also applied to relations between people in general and countries at large. If, for instance, someone calls someone else a “bum,” the chances are not insignificant that an escalated response of one kind or another may result. Likewise, if a leader calls another country “evil,” one can expect escalation of verbiage and possibly actions on the other side.

Words are Important

Why does all this matter? The health of politics in a democratic society as well as peaceful relations between nation-states is often related to the temperance of statecraft. It is also related to basic policies and governmental stability. Inability to work together and resolve inevitable differences affects reputation. Today reputation risk is high on Wall Street and in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

Words are important.

Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election hired a journalist who labeled John Adams a “hermaphrodite.” Our last president, George W. Bush, was called a “fascist” and our current resident has been termed a “fascist” and a “communist,” often by the same people at the same time.

What is the matter with hyperbole? Plenty.

In Adams’ case the description was intended as a character slur. In the case of both Bush and Obama the criticism is more dangerous because the words “fascist” and “communist” have warring implications.

Four hundred thousand American patriots lost their lives defeating fascism. Tens of thousands fell and trillions of dollars were spent holding communism at bay. As for the “birther” denial that President Obama was born in Hawaii, at issue becomes the Constitutional legitimacy of the presidency.

What kind of tragic action might commence from someone who holds these kinds of views?

If all men are created equal, doesn’t if follow that it is important to respect someone else’s views even if one thoroughly disagrees? And doesn’t it follow that a better perspective can be had if one looks at anything from more than one set of eyes?

Alexandria Quartet

When I was in college, a fashionable set of books to read was the Alexandria Quartet by the British author Lawrence Durrell. Durrell wrote four books, each titled with an individual’s name, set in the years between World War I and II in Alexandria, Egypt.

Each book was about the same, rather minor happenings in an exotically vibrant city. One might wonder why read about the same events four different times.

It ends up that all four stories are dramatically different. The literary moral is that each participant witnessed happenings of the day in a different way and that to get a sense for reality it is helpful to see things from a variety of perspectives.

This is why two people in a court room may testify truthfully but quite differently to the same events. It is why it may be helpful at a dinner table, in a legislature, or in international relations to listen to what others think and say.

Understanding other perspectives is particularly important today because the challenges of mankind have undergone radical change in the capacities of warfare. In the profoundest political observation of the last century, Einstein observed that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking.

What Einstein meant was that man suddenly has developed the capacity not just to wage war but destroy all life forms. We have no choice except to change our way of thinking, and this surely begins with trying to understand how and why others think the way they do.

In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats observed that the center cannot hold when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats was reacting to the seemingly senseless carnage of World War I trench warfare. But the chaos of modernity has produced a crisis of perspective as well as values that give his words contemporary relevance.

Corporate Personhood Threatens Democracy

I stray into the politics of politics because political gridlock poses a challenge to national security just as it does to domestic tranquility and because the institutional shock of our times is the undercutting of our governance ethic by the principal balancing institution in our constitutional system: the Supreme Court.

In the most irresponsible decision since the 1857 Dred Scott ruling held that a class of human beings (those of color) could be bought and treated as property, the court in Citizens United determined that a class of property (corporations) had the rights of human beings and could invest directly in politics.[2]

The court’s grant of massive new power to corporations changes the chemistry of governmental decision-making. Based on the frail assumptions that corporations are individuals and that money is speech with its use therefore protected by the First Amendment, Citizens United genetically alters our democratic DNA, pushing American politics in an oligarchic, corporatist direction.

Governance is about choice making: how to tax, what to spend, how to protect the national interest. Because the how of democratic processes impacts the what of policy (and vice-versa), changes in political dynamics are of extraordinary consequence in the determination of public priorities.

Tax policy and all areas of federal spending from education and research to national security are vulnerable to significant change due to the Citizens United ruling.

Debt is a Threat to National Security

The build-up of debt has reduced federal options. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has gone so far as to suggest that our debt may currently be our greatest national security threat.

The debt issue is aggravated by the fact that the wars we have been fighting and the interventions we have been making in this new century are unique in history. No shared sacrifice by the American people was called upon.

As citizens of the first country that has ever opted to finance war with tax cuts, we have passed on to future generations the obligation to absorb the multi-trillion dollar costs of an interventionist foreign policy. We forget the lessons of the “Greatest Generation” which not only won the greatest war in history but accepted financial and strategic responsibility to help re-energize Europe and prevail in the Cold War.

Debt — its existence and management — involves two dynamic paradigms of clashing economic theory:

  • John Maynard Keynes and his most vocal modern day disciple Paul Krugman point out that in times of weak economic growth and national emergency, deficit financing can boost economic output.
  • Friedrich Hayek and his modern day disciple Milton Friedman argue that monetary stimulus is preferable to fiscal and that whatever the circumstances, care must be taken to keep taxes low.

In the crisis we have just gone through, both monetary and fiscal policies have been pressed. Federal spending has vastly exceeded revenues, federal taxes have been kept lower relative to the GDP than in the Reagan administration, and monetary policy has been expanded in unprecedented ways.

The question is now one of balance.

A modicum of consensus may be developing that the debt issue cannot be ignored. But no consensus has developed on how to constrain it and pay for everything from health care, whether or not “Obamacare” stands, to the hanging burden of our multi-trillion dollar interventionist foreign policy.

The challenge for the public is thus to galvanize a new governance ethic that recognizes that elected representatives of both parties have a mutual obligation to foster balanced decision-making without sophistically jeopardizing our debt obligations and causing government shut-downs.

Here let me mention a historical anecdote and presume a contemporary speculation.

The father of Republican economics is Alexander Hamilton. Against a populist tide, he insisted, and George Washington concurred, that we honor our Revolutionary War debt. How could a Hamiltonian not be offended by aspects of this year’s national politics?

Likewise, it is difficult to conceive how a serious disciple of either Keynes or Friedman would believe it wise to toy with bond markets with political strategies that imply that the full faith and credit of the U.S. government are in jeopardy.

Introducing uncertainty into public debt obligations has the inevitable effect of increasing the likelihood that interest rates — i.e., the costs of borrowing — will go up in the public sector with probable spiking implications for private sector borrowing as well.

Citizens could be faced with a more expensive government that delivers fewer services in an economy that supports fewer jobs. This is why the turmoil of the last month seemed so irrational to many traditional conservatives as well as modern liberals.

The moral is simple: Debt reduction is a credible, perhaps even imperative, goal, but it remains a national obligation to honor debt once undertaken and ensure that government is a stabilizing force in the economy.

The dilemma of today’s politics is that America has an abundance of leadership in commerce, science, the arts and every facet of the academy but the political system is hamstrung by ideological cleavages.

The Political Ideological Complex

President Eisenhower warned years ago of a military-industrial complex. Today my worry is more about the rise of a “political-ideological complex.” Ideologues use politicians as pawns while politicians use ideologues, especially those with deep pockets, as enablers of personal ambition. This reinforcing set of mutual interests has little to do with the common good and much to do with the break-down in civility in public life.

Basketball as an Allegory of Functional Government

Let me conclude with an observation about another element of American society that is highly competitive: sports. On Sunday, like many in this room, I went to a women’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye arena. Iowa was playing the 14th ranked team in the country and it was a terrifically competitive contest which the Hawkeyes won in overtime.

What stood out was the character of the individual players and how well they played together. Everyone in the home town audience admired the Hawkeye coaches and rooted for the Iowa players, but by the end of the game deep respect had also developed for the opposing team.

It was hard not to be reminded of the words that used to be oft-quoted of a long passed sportswriter named Grantland Rice who once observed that winning and losing weren’t the most important thing; what mattered most was how the game was played.

Likewise, in politics. The temper and integrity of political discourse is often more important than the precise outcome of an election or issue.

When I first entered politics I used to make one-to-one analogies between sports and politics. As time went on, these analogies broke down. Despite the publicized misbehavior of a few, sports have a far higher competitive ethic than politics.

This may be the case because most sports have referees whereas politics have none. It also relates to coaches who teach athletes how to work together and respect their opponents. In politics the analogue to coaches are campaign advisers.

There is hardly a campaign adviser in the country who doesn’t urge a candidate in a close election to go negative. But how do people and political parties come together after accentuating the negative? In the wake of so many modern elections, how does a public respect the processes, the winners as well as losers?

Putting the Common Good First

Soldiers learn that working as a unit increases the chance of prevailing in combat. Athletes learn that team effort trumps individual stardom.

Should not the common good in politics come before self, the country before party?

Thank you.

Jim Leach represented Eastern Iowa in the U.S. Congress from 1976-2006. He is a visiting professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law.

__________

Endnotes. Below are links to additional resources referenced above.

  1. United States Declaration of Independence
  2. Corporate Personhood
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