Thursday, September 06, 2018

Crazy President in fiction vs. Crazy President in our world today

Last night Rachel Maddow, on her cable news show, mentioned a book called Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel, a fictional story about a mentally ill President, with the question being asked, what to do about him?. Today that out-of-print book is selling for $399 a copy on Amazon (no doubt the price skyrocketed on Rachel's mention of it). I found the following review/analysis of that book online -- the conclusion of the author is one I agree with, after reading about the President in the fictional book vs. the President we now have in our oval office. That is to say, the fictional President was far saner than the deranged man we have in our White House today, screaming and tweeting out crazed text messages to the world.  The book President was forced out of office, while we have a Republican Congress that refuses to take action against our real life dangerous nutcase in today's White House.  If interested, read the account of the fictional President below and see what you think:

The mentally ill president in 1965 political fiction

By Ted Delphos

The bill that became the 25th Amendment began as the bipartisan "Bayh-Celler proposal", introduced in the House and Senate on January 6, 1965; it was passed after conference on July 6, and was approved by sufficient states on February 10, 1967.

While it was being debated in the Congress, a political novel raising the issue of presidential mental illness reached the best-seller lists. This was "Night of Camp David", by Fletcher Knebel, one of the coauthors of "Seven Days in May". In this novel, President Mark Hollenbach may be unfit to serve; as with the military coup conspiracy in "Seven Days", the clues are shared by a small number of dedicated public servants who try to figure out what to do about it.

(One of the aspects of rereading the novel in 2017 is being reminded what a white male world U.S. politics was in 1965. The only female character with any role in the plot is the paramour of the male lead. There is a Black senator. A main character is Jewish. And that is pretty much it for diversity. And these are the Democrats, mind you.)

Today, when the terms "Trump Twenty-fifth Amendment" bring up 405,000 Google hits — when people are openly diagnosing him with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or worse — I thought it would be fun to look back at the behavior of the fictional Hollenbach which so disturbed the readers of 1965, and to see how it compares with the characteristics of the current president.

I. The President

As the action opens, a few years in the book's future — maybe the beginning of 1972, a 1972 in which the Viet Nam War has apparently been a much more low-grade affair, and the late 1960's were pretty calm — Mark Hollenbach has served for three years, mostly to general acclaim. A liberal Florida Democrat supported by a Democratic Congress, he is erudite, whip-smart, an experienced politician with rigorous ethical standards. No more than a couple persons in Washington or anywhere have any doubts about his mental stability.

The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Jim MacVeigh, a capable though unambitious first-term Iowa senator with great respect for Hollenbach, who is considering him for his second-term running mate. MacVeigh soon discovers to his horror, though, that Hollenbach has three or four ideas which he considers to be clear evidence of insanity. Here they are:

II. Wiretapping

In the opening scene, at the Gridiron Club, Hollenbach drops what passes as a farcical remark: "I propose that the FBI be empowered to maintain an automatic tap on all telephones in the country." Later that evening, though, in a tete-a-tete at Camp David, he explains to MacVeigh that he is in earnest:

"I've thought a lot about the rising crime rate, and … we've got to do something drastic. … it's quite feasible you know, if worked through the Bell system. … It would have to be done carefully, with great legal restraints and protection, naturally. But no respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It's the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we're after. Automatic wiretapping, aided by computers to store the telephone calls, would drive them all out of business."

Jim is horrified by this, and he's not the only one. At a later point, Supreme Court Justice Grady Cavanaugh opines, "The most damaging thing you've said, to my mind, is that the President actually is considering a national wiretapping law. That seems incredible to me." Jim replies, "That's just the point. His mind has to be radically disturbed to come up with a thing like that."

Stanley Karper, the Secretary of Defense, takes it just as seriously: "Now, in some ways, I find his serious idea of such a law the most conclusive evidence we've got as to the state of his mind. Even Hitler (!) didn't dream up anything so methodically diabolical in the way of invading personal privacy."

COMMENT: Obviously standards have changed; the national wiretap network envisioned by Hollenbach is not very far beyond our present "normalized" regime of taps and traces under the lenient jurisdiction of the FISA courts.

III. Aspen

Later in the fateful conversation, Hollenbach expounds on his great idée fixe: the "Aspen plan", a plan to merge the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia into a single nation:

"The idea is to forge the mightiest core of power the world has ever known. Not just an alliance, but a union — a real nation — a real union, political economic, social — of the great free nations of the globe." "Canada is the wealthiest nation on earth" "Scandinavia .. will bring us the character and the discipline we so sadly lack. I know these people, Jim. I'm of German extraction, but many generations ago my people were Swedes who emigrated to Germany." The racial messages here go unexplored…

Hollenbach speeds on "like a runaway train": "Great Britain was finished as a major power, attenuated, effete, jaded." "[W]ith the merger of know-how, power and character, … the new nation under one parliament and one president could keep the peace for centuries"

"Once we build the fortress of Aspen … I predict that the nations of Europe will pound at the door to get in. And if they don't, we'll have the power to force them into the new nation." Jim asks, "You mean military force, Mr. President?" "Only if necessary, and I doubt it ever would be. There are other kinds of pressure, trade duties and barriers, financial measures, economic sanctions if you will."

COMMENT: This is all still at the idea stage, and the details for merging these countries under "one parliament and one president", however that is to work, are not spelled out. How far would Hollenbach get with the constitutional challenges? Anyway, is it more evidence of mental illness than the neocon scheme to take Iraq's oil under the Bush 2 administration, or Stephen Bannon's plans for regulating the religious and ethnic content of the United States?

IV. Persecution mania.

Hollenbach takes every slight or feeling of disappointment he feels toward people around him and weaves them together into a perception that he is under attack at all times by a conspiracy. Jim hears of a few of them up front, and the rest dribble into view throughout the course of the novel (a couple months). On each occasion, he works himself into a real and uncharacteristic fit of temper. But these remain isolated incidents, though perhaps of increasing frequency, and he is able to act normally most of the time.

a. Vice-President O'Malley: he has gotten caught referring a businessman from his district to a government contract. He gets no money for this, and it is a very low-grade scandal by today's standards, but it is understood by all that he will have to be dropped from the ticket. Hollenbach, however, concludes that O'Malley has staged his own downfall purposely to sabotage him: "[H]e let Robinson paint him — gradually … until he looked like a crook. That was intentional, Jim. O'Malley did it to defeat me in November." He gets agitated. "His entire aim was to soil me, to rub some of his mud off on me."

b. Davidge, a man whom he is considering offering a post. Jim's paramour, Rita, overhears this scene: "[H]e had learned that Davidge .. was only trying to infiltrate the subcabinet in order to spy on him … He was like a regular volcano erupting … Davidge had made a traitorous speech about the administration and that was 'the self-revelation of a wicked man'." Rita later goes through all Davidge's speeches and finds only one very benign sentence suggesting that the administration alter some policy.

c. Craig Spence, a newspaper columnist, who, at a time when there are apparently seven pols on Hollenbach's short list for VP, refers to the group as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs": "It's a snide little crack designed to demean the President." "Something has to be done about these irresponsible newspapermen. … I can cut off Craig Spence's sources at the White House. … I'm beginning to wonder, Jim, if there isn't some kind of conspiracy afoot to discredit me in the eyes of the country."

d. CIA Director Carter Urey, and Secretary of Defense Stanley Karper, who recounts: "He was raging against Carter Urey. He said that Urey was running the CIA like a separate empire, that he was insubordinate, paid no attention to the President's directives, and that he was trying to grind out a foreign policy of his own … He contended Urey was power mad and that he was out to supplant him … as head of the government. .. He said he wanted the Secretary of Defense to take over direction of the Central Intelligence Agency and said he'd hand me a directive giving me authority over Urey. … he didn't care what Congress thought, that he'd issue a secret directive."

When Karper says "You're talking like a madman," he responds, "Karper, you're another one. You want to destroy me too, don't you?" and he picks up an inkwell "as if he were going to throw it at me." But the next morning "He was cheery and very full of command and authority, like his regular self. He told me to forget what he'd said the night before, that he was upset and had said the wrong things. … He apologized for overstating the case."

e. Letters: Hollenbach writes a couple nasty letters to people he is close to, such as Texas farmer Slim Carmichael, whom he accuses of making demands on him at a time when there is a conspiracy against him. Another is to his son, Mark Jr., who has gotten pretty good grades but not good enough for Mark Sr.: "I had hoped that my own son would spare me vexations at this particular time when there is an obvious conspiracy afoot to sully and demean me, even to destroy me."

f. Five members of the CACTUS study group (see below): "I've got information they've joined the conspiracy against me, and I want you (Karper) to keep a close eye on them."

g. Jim himself, having been told about Jim's extramarital affair by the FBI, which was vetting him: "[W]hat I do suspect is that you're in league with O'Malley and the rest of that cabal. You've joined the plot to discredit me and disgrace the administration."

By the way, Jim takes it as quite outrageous that the FBI should have been looking into his activities before his possible selection as vice-presidential candidate: "Never before had Jim known of a president ordering an investigation of his proposed vice-presidential candidate." COMMENT: Those were more innocent times.

Karper is quite concerned about all this, telling one character: "But look at that absurd conspiracy delusion he has. It reappears over and over again. .. That's the symptom of a diseased mind, … and you know it."

Karper later declares: "The conspiracy thing is the key. Millions of ordinary people like to imagine there's a conspiracy behind everything, from the Kennedy assassination to the fluoridation of water. But when a man of Mark's caliber and education imagines there's a cabal operating to persecute and destroy him personally, well, there's only one word for it — paranoia."

COMMENT: Hollenbach clearly has episodes of paranoid ideation, but they have not yet kept him from doing his daily duties to pretty much everyone's satisfaction.

Two other issues, though, are brought up to bring home to the reader how problematic it is to have a president who is even "somewhat" mentally ill:

V. The Stakes

We find that after Karper's experience with Hollenbach's conspiracy-minded anger, he has created a secret five-man study group — CACTUS — to try to create a mechanism to ensure that the three people charged with a nuclear decision — the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the last two being advisory — are in fact mentally healthy. The study group has gotten nowhere. It keeps running into the "fourth man" problem — how can you ensure that any person or body supposed to verify the sanity of the three is competent to do so. In particular, as Retired General "Big John" Trumbull points out, "nobody in this country can tell a president of the United States that his mind is sick…. that's one man we have to trust."

The problem doesn't go away, though. With all the evidence assembled, Karper declares: "I live with this nuclear decision day and night, and I just could not face my children or yours if I didn't do everything in my power to get Mark Hollenbach away from the go-code. It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery. It might lead to wholesale murder."

Also, at a key point, Jim is moved to action by hearing that Hollenbach will meet with Premier Zuchek of the USSR to discuss the Chinese nuclear threat and their development of "dragon bombs". "Suddenly the thought struck MacVeigh: President Hollenbach must not be allowed to go into this conference with Zuchek. … Who knew what fantastic secret agreement might emerge from such a meeting? Zuchek, a patient steel-nerved negotiator, utterly devoted to Russia's self-interest, vs. Hollenbach, whose once brilliant mind now was obsessed with fancied tormentors and played like a child's with the toy blocks of destiny."

VI. The characters assess the evidence

Throughout the work, the characters who believe there is a serious Hollenbach problem run into skepticism or resistance from equally respectable characters who don't see it. At one point (in one of several plot devices recycled from "Seven Days in May") Jim himself is grabbed up and held as a possible madman.

Jim shares what he has with Vice President O'Malley: "I suspect .. that President Hollenbach is suffering a severe mental ailment." O'Malley: "I've been in politics almost forty years, and that's the most serious charge I've ever heard." O'Malley hears Jim out but doesn't think he has "clear evidence" and doesn't think the 25th Amendment even applies: "The mental stuff is something else. It's all too hypothetical, too sticky."

When Karper is ready to "take the case to the country — with all that that involves," Senator Odlum (D-Louisiana) (all here are Democrats) is the only one in the book to react in the spirit of partisanship. "You couldn't," says Odlum. "Think what it would do to the party."

Karper: "This is bigger than party."

Odlum: "As I get it, you're willing to wreck the Democratic Party over the issue."

Karper: "I mean precisely that … and I think it's a damned outrage that Louisiana sends the kind of senator to Washington even to mention party advantage in the same breath with a madman's finger on the trigger." At this point they get in a physical scuffle.

In an attempt to resolve the debate, they call in the White House physician, Colonel Leppert. He throws cold water on the whole affair — he has never observed anything peculiar about Hollenbach's behavior, and is unswayed by the dossier they have put together: "Unless the President were adequately examined by the best psychiatric specialists in the country, I would withhold a medical judgment."

(Spoiler alert!) At this point, in the closing pages of the novel, Hollenbach appears before the group in the flesh, and affably talks his way out of everything. But Karper is unswayed, and cross-examines him into a sort of "Caine Mutiny" moment. Then — not too convincingly, in my opinion, and possibly because Knebel had written himself into a hole — Hollenbach decides to resign his office immediately in what we are to take as a moment of lucid patriotism. The option of actually using the involuntary removal provision of the 25th Amendment remains unused and untested, both in the novel and in real life.

VII. Hollenbach vs. Trump

There are similarities and differences between the Hollenbach and Trump stories. Interesting parallels include Hollenbach's feud with the CIA director and the fear that he won't adequately defend U.S. Interests against the USSR's steely premier. It's not clear that Trump has anything like the grandiose vision of Aspen. Bannon is in charge of the vision department. Hollenbach was ethically rigid and personally unselfish; Trump is the opposite.

In any case, I think it's pretty much indisputable that Hollenbach — whom the reader is clearly intended to see as a danger to the republic, someone who ought not to have the authority over nukes — is actually much more sane, much more competent, much more qualified, and much less dangerous than Donald J. Trump is in real life. Where Hollenbach has occasional fits of conspiracy mania, Trump lives in this world 24 hours a day. Where Hollenbach's mental health issues are cushioned by erudition and ideals, Trump has nothing but naked narcissism. Where Hollenbach's mental issues were hidden from the general public, Trump's are bringing on a new crisis every few hours.

The readers of 1965 were supposed to be afraid that someone like Hollenbach could be president. The demands of the job are not less, the world is not less complex, nuclear weapons are not easier to evade, and the problems that a mentally ill president can create are not fewer or less dangerous. Why are we not proportionately more eager to get this man out of the Presidency?