Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 2, 2016

In Vietnam, a Patriot Without a Place

By David K. Shipler

            The name Nguyen Ngoc Luong will not ring a bell for most Americans, but it should. Through his anonymous work with correspondents, readers of a certain vintage who followed the Vietnam War through the pages of The New York Times were broken open to the distress and resilience of the Vietnamese. He understood his country at a depth far beneath the headlines, and so helped us see, learn to listen, and enrich our reporting.
            He once leaned over to me and whispered, as we sat in a Danang restaurant near a table of paunchy South Vietnamese Army colonels, “I cannot stand Vietnamese who have no sign of suffering on their faces.”
Luong was not just an interpreter of language, from Vietnamese into his fluent English, but also an interpreter of culture. His streetwise, romantic sense of righteousness and purpose led him to find the small, human narratives that illustrated the whole. And he kept us safe, sniffing out the danger of a too-quiet lane or a village of deceptive calm long before we had an inkling that something was wrong.
Luong died recently at the age of 80, in Ho Chi Minh City, in the country that he loved, but which did not love him enough. Alone among Times employees as Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Luong chose to stay, to decline the offer to uproot himself and flee with his family to America. “I am a buffalo boy,” he used to say, proudly and wistfully, for it had been decades since he had ridden a buffalo while playing his flute.
            There are hundreds of people like Luong all over the world, local citizens of countries in conflict, who interpret, arrange, guide, open doors, and protect the foreigners who arrive as journalists or aid workers to observe and assist. Their help is crucial, and is done mostly behind the scenes, where they become invisible heroes. My son Michael, who does conflict-resolution work in many parts of the world, met Luong in 2001 after hearing from me about him for years. “He has left me with the Luong Principle,” Michael said. “Find a Luong wherever you go.”
            Yet Luong was unique even as he played a customary role. He did not fit into any political category. His patriotism could not locate itself comfortably inside the neat boxes imposed by the war and its practitioners on either side. His love of country was transcendent, which was a source of torment for him as he tried to find a place in the matrix of beliefs and ideologies.
            The search began as a boy in Hanoi, when he once ran away from home into the countryside to try to join the Viet Minh in its anti-colonial war against the French. He found a guerrilla unit, as he told the story, and went to the commander, who asked, “Do you want to serve your country?” Of course, Luong said eagerly. “Then,” the commander instructed, “go back to school and finish your education.”
            After Vietnam was divided into North and South in 1954, Luong moved from Hanoi to Saigon, where he got a government job, becoming director for social welfare in a province in the Mekong Delta. Following an assassination conspiracy against President Ngo Dinh Diem, Luong told me, he was arrested for helping some of the plotters, who were friends, escape into Cambodia. (Whether or not he was guilty he never quite said.)
            In the South Vietnamese Army, he worked as an interpreter for General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, and later for an English-language newspaper in Saigon. In a fortuitous turn, he met Gloria Emerson, the gifted Times correspondent who made her beat the people on the ground—both Vietnamese citizens and American soldiers. She was captivated by Luong’s poetic eloquence in English and his artistic eye through the lens of a camera.
            She hired him but had to pay him out of her own pocket at first, for the Times refused to foot the modest bill. By the time I arrived in 1973, though, the New York office had relented, and Luong had become an established, salaried member of the staff. That was long before the paper adopted a practice of crediting interpreters and “fixers” at the bottom of a story, so his name appeared in print only in agate type as a credit beneath his published photographs.
            Luong had a gentle way of loosening up people and getting them to talk. Time and again, we’d approach a group of peasants or refugees and, sensing their nervousness about the presence of an American, he’d ask me to remain at a distance. He’d walk up alone, chat them up, and pretty soon have them laughing at something. Then he’d motion me to come over, and we’d have a conversation as candid as any can be in a war zone where vulnerable people tend to say what they think you want to hear.
            He taught me how to determine the safety of a road or a village. Never bother asking the local South Vietnamese authorities, he advised, because they’d always say, sure, it’s safe, we’ve got control. Ask the bus driver, the sampan driver, the farmer whose motorbike was stacked high with produce. From them you’d get the honest answer. This way we went confidently in daylight into villages where the Vietcong took over after dark.
            Once on the coastal road near Nhatrang, two swaggering South Vietnamese soldiers, their chests draped in bandoliers and their belts laden with grenades, eyed my Pentax camera hungrily. Luong said he thought they were planning to steal it, so he went over to them while I kept my distance. He talked to them for a minute or two, until they practically scurried away. What did you say? I asked Luong.
            He recognized their patches from a division that’s stationed in I Corps (up north), Luong explained, so he figured they were AWOL, being way down here. Luong happened to know the name of their division commander, and he asked them to give him his regards.      
            Despite his high skills as newsman, interpreter, and photographer, Luong had mixed feelings about his profession. He used to say that he dreaded one day meeting a Vietcong guerrilla his age who’d been fighting in the jungle all those years, and having to account to him for the way he, Luong, had spent his life.
            After Saigon’s fall in 1975, Luong tried to continue working for foreign journalists, but was told by the authorities that he could not do it. During a visit to Vietnam in 1997, I kicked around an idea with him about coming back for a while, traveling through the grassroots around the country, and perhaps doing a book. He was keen on it. His wanderlust and curiosity hadn’t diminished. But later he sent me word that he had checked it out, and officials had nixed the idea. He would not be allowed to work as or for a journalist.
For a decade after the war, the police questioned him frequently, although he waited for the arrest that never came. A Vietcong contact explained: “Luong, you weren’t nearly important enough,” Luong told Michael when they met in 2001. It “broke his heart,” Michael remembers.

Instead, Luong was restricted, put in a kind of occupational cage. He had to eke out a living by selling religious trinkets outside the cathedral for a time, playing in a small band he organized, and teaching English. The communist government wasted his precious devotion to his country, silenced his poetic eloquence, and blinded his artistic eye.

November 23, 2016

The Election of Wishful Thinking

By David K. Shipler

            Mark Twain is said to have once advised, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” So it might be said of Donald Trump. If you don’t like his policy on this or that, just wait a few minutes. It was true during the campaign and has been the case since the election.
His shifts have stoked the wishful thinking that some on the left have embraced since his candidacy. First, his cruelly personal, bigoted assaults were supposedly so off-putting that voters would surely flee from him in droves. On the contrary, he did better and better as the primaries proceeded.
Then, conventional wisdom in the press and political establishment held that a) he would moderate his tone during the general election campaign to appeal to a broader electorate, or b) his repeated misogyny, crude ignorance of the world, and narcissistic rants would propel him into the dustbin of history. He did not moderate, and he made history instead of being buried by it.
All assumptions about the power of good manners, truth-telling, and common decency fell by the wayside. Whenever Trump said something obnoxious, and especially after the recording surfaced of his boasts about his predatory sexual preferences, The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations rushed to hear from the distraught and fractured Republican leadership about the party’s imminent disintegration and how it might put itself back together again after the expected devastating loss.
Most of the chattering class, including conservative Republicans, couldn’t believe that voters would tolerate his rude attacks on sacred cows—the parents of a U.S. soldier who had died in combat, a former P.O.W. named John McCain, a Miss Universe, a handicapped reporter—or his flirtation with Vladimir Putin or his nonchalance about NATO commitments and the spread of nuclear weapons. But even when his poll numbers dipped after an egregious remark, the support then steadied and never signaled the collapse that some political coverage predicted.

November 9, 2016

Let History Judge

By David K. Shipler

All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.
                                    --James Madison


            In the Revolution of 2016, alienated Americans have set the stage for a hard lesson in how democracy can be used to disable democracy. It would not happen at once, but as gradually as if the constitutional body were afflicted by an autoimmune disease. The curing power of the people’s voice would be turned against itself. The strong hand at the top, so fervently desired by the forgotten and ignored, would evolve into a counter-revolution of authoritarian demagoguery, which even a tradition of pluralism could not withstand. This is the gloomiest scenario.
            There is another scenario, however. It envisions a successful test of the ingenious American system, imagined and created to separate, check, and limit the power to reign and abuse. The Constitution restrains and holds. The president’s autocratic impulses are shackled to the rule of law.
            Nothing in Donald Trump’s pronouncements, policies, and behavior so far suggests that he grasps or accepts the constraints of the Framers’ inspired concepts. He fired up masses of aggrieved citizens by promising them decrees, not proposals. He talked as if he could do whatever suited him, as if no legislative branch existed, no courts stood to thwart his whims. He has recognized no principle of protecting minority interests. He has nurtured a cult of personality more suitable to a dictatorship than a democracy.
            Therefore, it is reasonable to expect in him a president who will push far past the boundaries of his constitutional prerogatives by trying to politicize law enforcement and the judiciary until they are mere shadows of justice. It is logical to expect a president who will insult and dismiss citizens along racial, gender, and religious lines, as he did during his campaign, and continue to give license to the hate-mongers among us. It is likely that he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to divide and diminish this once-great nation, and even to bring dissidents to subservience.

October 31, 2016

Can the FBI Be Trusted?

By David K. Shipler


            On a March weekend in 2004, senior fingerprint examiners were called urgently into work at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. A print had come in from the Spanish National Police, found on a blue plastic bag of detonators discovered after ten bombs had blown up on trains in Madrid, killing 191 passengers and wounding more than 1,400. Under stress, the examiners hastily matched the print—erroneously—to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who had converted to Islam.
This case is worth recalling in light of the current uproar over Hillary Clinton’s emails, because it provides rare insight into the FBI’s capacity for circular reasoning and sloppy forensics—even downright intellectual dishonesty. Time and again over the years, Americans have seen that alongside the many fine FBI agents are lazy thinkers who filter evidence to suit their imagined theory of a crime, and who prejudge people based on religion and ethnicity.
The agency is less nefarious than under Director J. Edgar Hoover, when it launched covert operations against civil rights and antiwar activists, but it remains well below its mythical high standards. Given the rules-be-damned posture of its current director, James Comey, it needs to be watched closely.
Mayfield was arrested as a material witness, his reputation was shredded, his family was traumatized, and his law practice was severely damaged before he was cleared—not by the FBI but by the Spanish police, who kept insisting that the print was not a match at all. In the end, the FBI’s misdeeds cost taxpayers $2 million to settle Mayfield’s lawsuit.

October 26, 2016

Who is the Toughest of Them All?

By David K. Shipler

            The answer, which should be obvious by now, is Hillary Clinton. A good many of Donald Trump’s supporters like him for his supposed toughness, but the three presidential debates, combined with his “whining” on the campaign trail (President Obama’s word), exposed his weak-kneed nature as a vulnerable personality who couldn’t hold his own in a face-off with a foreign leader if his country’s security depended on it—which it would.
In the debates, he was easily rattled. He meandered off subject. He couldn’t muster hard facts and bring a thought to a persuasive conclusion. In a summit meeting, the likes of Vladimir Putin would eat him alive, both by flattery and stiletto argument. Trump would either give away the store, make agreements he’d later disavow, or stomp his foot in temper tantrums. Never in this campaign has he demonstrated any talent for the tricky diplomatic negotiation, despite his dubious boasts about his commercial deal-making.
By contrast, he and his fellow Republicans have given Clinton a stage to show her grit. During hours of small-minded grilling on Benghazi by Congressional Republicans, she stayed steadfast, cool, and professional. They failed to dent her armor.
Nor did she flinch when Trump, in a tactic of cruelty, used four women as props to poison the gathering for the second debate. The age-old practice of blaming the victim of sexual misdeeds, in this case the wife of the philanderer, backfired.

October 18, 2016

Trump vs. America

By David K. Shipler

            While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.

October 11, 2016

Voting for the First Principle

 By David K. Shipler

            If you fear and detest Donald Trump, as well you should, but have strong aversions to Hillary Clinton, and if you value your vote as a statement of principle that neither major candidate satisfies, consider this: If you rank your principles in order of importance, the one at the top ought to be the protection of the American democracy, as flawed as it is, against the threats from within.
            The only way to vote for that First Principle is to defeat Trump, and the only certain, practical way to defeat Trump is to vote for Clinton. Not for Gary Johnson the Libertarian or Jill Stein the Green, no matter how attuned their policies are to yours. And not to stay home and abstain. Citizens who fail to vote undermine democracy, too.  
There is little need here to repeat the litany of threats that Trump presents, and which every American who has been paying attention already knows. To his autocratic impulse to ride roughshod over the constitutional system of checks and balances, to sweep away the rule of law, to foster racial and religious hatred, to invite violence against his opponent, to inspire vigilantism at the polls, can now be added his threat, if he wins, to jail his opponent, which he expressed in the second debate. This is the stuff of a banana republic, not the United States of America.
Republican leaders who were shocked, shocked, by his frat-boy, “locker-room” boasts about committing sexual assault against women were holding their fingers to the wind instead of to their brains—or their hearts.
But it is an ill wind that is strafing the country.

October 7, 2016

Dear Post Office: A Sequel

By David K. Shipler

            I bumped into L.J. Hopkins outside the post office yesterday, and he was beaming as I’ve never seen him. He’s always an affable guy, but the smile now glows. With the help of a variety of dedicated folks from many walks of life, from lobstermen to legislators to lawyers, he has won and brought victory to everyone in two small island communities off the coast of Maine.
This report of the happy ending to the story comes in response to far-flung readers who, despite having no personal connection to this tale, asked to learn the ultimate outcome after I described the problem last June. It is partly David and Goliath, partly a case study on how to move a gargantuan bureaucracy that doesn’t give a wit about the little guy.
            Six months ago, the US Postal Service decided that a convenient arrangement was no longer permissible. For nearly thirty years, L. J. had been carrying the mail for the adjacent islands of Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, along with UPS and FedEx packages, prescription medicines and engine parts that islanders needed, and groceries for the island’s only store. His mother had done the same thing for decades before him.
Every morning, L.J. drove his white van, loaded up with essentials, onto the state-run ferry on the mainland, got off on Swan’s, delivered his goods, and took an afternoon ferry home. The stuff destined for Frenchboro then got put into a seaworthy lobster boat owned by the Swan’s Island storekeeper, Brian Krafjack, who would make the run across open water to Frenchboro, weather be damned.
 This lifeline is no small matter. It helps to make the islands viable, keeps them inhabited at a time when the temptations of mainland life play on the imaginations of the younger generations. Swan’s Island has 332 year-round residents, Frenchboro, 61. L.J.’s service has helped islanders who struggle financially avoid some of the steep ferry fares they’d have to pay to spend most of a day going off for medicine or parts.

September 29, 2016

The Miscalculations of Shimon Peres

By David K. Shipler

            Shimon Peres has been lionized since his death this week, but the praise has obscured at least two of his grave errors, which damaged Israel’s options for peace with the Palestinians. One was his early support for Jewish settlements in territories captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war. The other was his unwillingness to call snap elections after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. These two miscalculations, which went unreported in The New York Times obituary, have had lasting effect, and not to the good.
Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, had a long list of accomplishments to his name. He was instrumental in obtaining weapons for Israel before the United States became its chief benefactor, and in getting the materials necessary for the country to develop nuclear weapons. He served in multiple posts, including defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister, and finally president. He philosophized eloquently.
Most important, his aides secretly negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization a loose agreement known as the Oslo accords, which led to the PLO’s and Israel’s mutual recognition and opened a way to peaceful coexistence. Peres, Rabin, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded too hastily as it turned out. Ultimately, the Oslo process was violently derailed by extremists on both sides. Ironically, Peres’s mistakes were partly responsible.
Decades before, by facilitating Jewish settlement in occupied lands, he had inadvertently helped give a foothold to a movement that became a zealous force of religio-nationalism, one that today brooks no compromise with the Palestinians. The movement, whose adherents now occupy cabinet positions in the government, reveres the ancient biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria—known to the rest of the world as the West Bank of the Jordan River—captured from Jordan in 1967 and the logical place for a Palestinian state, were it ever to be created. Jews have a historical right to be there, the religio-nationalists argue. And they are there, with some among them committing daily vandalism and vigilantism against Palestinians.

September 26, 2016

Stop, Frisk, and Miss

By David K. Shipler

            On a warm night some summers ago, a wiry sergeant named G. G. Neill and his “power shift” of police officers pulled their four marked squad cars into a somber, impoverished block in Southeast Washington, D.C. Six cops got out, none of them undercover. They were in uniform because they wanted to see what young black men hanging out on a street corner would do when the law appeared. Neill believed that telltale reactions would often betray a person who was concealing a gun.
            The armed man’s buddies, hanging out, might all turn to look at him. He might walk quickly away. He might turn one side away from the cops, lean against a car, hold his girlfriend tightly on his weapon side, or repeatedly touch his waistband to be sure the gun is securely in place. His clothes might be too bulky for the weather, or an ill-fitting jacket would hang lopsided, as if weighed down by something heavy in a pocket.
            This time in this block, however, and in many others during the deep nights when I traveled parts of the nation’s capital with the unit, the young black men did nothing suspicious. That didn’t prevent them from being searched. Some were so used to the cops coming around that they pulled up their T-shirts, without being asked, to show they had nothing stuck in their belts. They were as casual as passengers removing their shoes at airport security. Others allowed themselves to be patted down with no overt objections except for the smoldering looks in their eyes. They raised their arms so the cops could run their hands up and down their bodies and between their legs, then squeeze their pockets.
            This is the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment in the nation’s heavily black neighborhoods. The Framers carefully crafted the protection of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But that right, which is not to be overcome unless probable cause exists that evidence of a crime will be found, has been shredded by the war on drugs, the war on street violence, and most recently the war on terrorism. Wars, whether actual or metaphorical, do not comport well with individual liberties.