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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

We are guided by what we get in the inbox. This week, we once again got a lot of history questions, so that's why there are so many of those.

Q: Following Eric Adams' victory in the New York mayoral Democratic primary, do progressives need a post-election "autopsy" to figure out what went wrong? There was a lot of confidence headed into this election: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-NY) home court, ranked-choice voting (RCV) would eliminate splitting the vote between candidates, and so forth. But despite all these factors, a centrist running on a "Tough on Crime" platform won. Considering New York City's status as one of the leftiest parts of the country, and that many prominent Progressives (including AOC herself) were intimately involved in the campaign, this has to be considered a major defeat. S.O.F., New York City, NY

A: We don't see this as a disaster for progressives, and we don't see that an autopsy is called for. As you note, Adams ran on a "tough on crime" platform. And, as chance would have it, there was a noticeable increase in crime right in the middle of the mayoral race. Sometimes, that's just the way the cookie crumbles.

Q: I'm wondering about what looks like very low turnout in the New York City mayoral primary. The city is home to 8.2 million souls, yet I see just shy of 1 million ballots cast. I'm sure that age, immigration status, etc. exclude many residents from voting, but even if half are ineligible, turnout of less than a million looks pretty dismal considering that this is essentially "The" election. How does this year's turnout compare to other primaries (in NYC or elsewhere)? Did RCV drive up turnout? M.H., Seattle, WA

A: There are about 5 million people in New York City who are eligible to vote. Some people don't care about elections at all, others specifically skip municipal elections, and still others specifically skip primaries. All those things keep turnout down.

The most important thing, though, is whether people believe their vote matters. This is why Republicans are outnumbered roughly 4-to-1 in the city, but were outnumbered 13-to-1 among primary voters—nobody thinks that the Republican candidate is going to win this year.

On the Democratic side, there were three factors that clearly made voters feel that their ballots mattered: (1) a close race, (2) an open seat, because Bill de Blasio is stepping down, and (3) RCV. So, turnout was quite high; by contrast, the 2017 Democratic primary (when everyone knew de Blasio would be renominated) attracted about half as many voters as this year's. On the other hand, the 2001 Democratic primary, which didn't have RCV, but did have a close race, an open seat, and the 9/11 attacks having happened just two weeks earlier, attracted 785,365 voters. So while it's likely that RCV drove up turnout this year, it's not the sole factor, and probably not the biggest factor.

Q: You had two items this week about Russian hackers. Why haven't we heard much about efforts to retaliate as a method of deterrence? Are there good reasons for the U.S. not to respond in kind, at least a little? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: The way that this game is played, "independent" hackers do the dirty work, and their government disclaims responsibility. That gives the government some amount of political and diplomatic cover. Further, speaking too openly about what is going on, and when, and why, may give the targets useful information that will make it easier for them to defend themselves.

And so, the U.S. likely has responded, at least in some fashion. That said, the American response is probably somewhat restrained because: (1) the U.S. government operates under greater political, legal, and diplomatic constraints; (2) Russia has fewer juicy targets; (3) Biden doesn't want to say anything that might help Putin better understand whether a "pipeline failure" somewhere in Russia was an accident or a hack; and (4) if Biden made it clear that he was playing dirty with Russia, some "good government" types in the U.S. might start giving him a hard time.

Q: The way that you write about the Russian hacking, it seems as if you're assuming that Vladimir Putin and/or the Russian government is behind all of it. What evidence is there for that conclusion, other than the fact that Putin is a devious autocrat? A.J., Baltimore, MD

A: Obviously, we are not privy to most of the information that might be used to be make such judgments. However, both Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, which bear responsibility for the great majority of the recent high-profile hacks, have been linked to the Russian government—and specifically to the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR (Cozy Bear), or to the Russian military intelligence agency GRU (Fancy Bear)—by multiple national governments (the U.S., the U.K., France, The Netherlands, etc.) and by multiple private security firms (most notably CrowdStrike).

In addition, if a random criminal group in Russia just out for the money were to cause an international diplomatic incident that gave Putin a headache, they would find that their tea tastes funny all of a sudden. Everyone in Russia knows that and no one would dare attack the U.S. without at least Putin's tacit approval, and probably not without his cooperation in return for a cut of the profits.

Further, even if the Russian government is not directly involved, they still have some responsibility when Russian citizens commit crimes against other nations.

Q: You wrote: "[M]aybe the way to counter the Russian hackers is to grant modern letters of marque and reprisal, something the U.S. hasn't done since 1856, to hackers to go after Russia."

What was the circumstance in which the U.S. called upon the privateers in 1856?
L.M.S, Harbin, China

A: Actually, the significance of 1856 is that the Crimean War ended, and a bunch of European nations signed the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, which outlawed the privateers. The United States considered joining the pact, ultimately decided not to, but nonetheless adhered to the prohibition on privateering.

The last time that the U.S. government issued letters of marque was in 1815, at the tail end of the War of 1812. If you count the Confederate government, then they had privateers in operation as late as 1865. In fact, the very last Confederate forces to surrender, in November of 1865, were the crewmen of the privateer(-ish) CSS Shenandoah.

Q: You mention fairly often that Associate Justice Stephen Breyer's pick to succeed him would be Ketanji Brown Jackson, but I haven't seen much discussion regarding Joe Biden's choice. Could it be that Breyer's reluctance to retire is the result of some behind-the-scenes political infighting about whom Biden would nominate, and Breyer's only card to play is the King of I-won't-retire-unless-you-make-promises-about-my-successor? A.W., Brooklyn, NY

A: Biden specifically promised that, if he is able to make a nomination, his first pick will be a Black woman. Assuming he is going to pick from the upper tiers of the federal judiciary, where pretty much all SCOTUS nominees come from these days, Jackson is one of only a handful of options, as there are very few Black women on the federal bench.

So, if Jackson is Breyer's preferred pick, then that is a done deal, no question about it. And to a large extent, Breyer can have just about anyone he wants if he agrees to retire. The only way there could possibly be an issue is if Breyer pushes for someone who is not a Black woman and/or someone who is a major risk to fail confirmation in the Senate and so would be a potential embarrassment for the White House. Even then, Biden would probably give Breyer what he wanted (thus committing the Justice to retiring), then pull strings to kill the nomination (it only takes one Democrat to torpedo a candidate), and finally nominate Jackson.

Q: Since the November elections, 8 months have passed, and we have the expected gridlock a 50/50 Senate and nearly 50/50 House produces. How different would results be if Cal Cunningham had kept it zipped, if Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) lost in Maine, or if more Democrats won House seats? And how would a greater majority change races in 2022? M.C., Simsbury, CT

A: The House is easier to address. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been so effective at keeping her caucus in line that the tiny margin of error has hardly mattered at all. Thus far, she's basically been able to whip the necessary votes for whatever she wants. Two or three or even 20 more seats probably wouldn't have changed things much.

As to the Senate, it is impossible to know. The only thing that would substantially change the dynamics of the Senate is if the filibuster is adjusted or killed. Right now, there appear to be two senators who are serving as the flies in that particular ointment, namely Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). So, two more Democratic votes would appear to give the party what it needs, even without their two intransigent members. But do we really and truly know that the other 48 members would, when push comes to shove, vote against the filibuster? Would Jon Tester (D-MT)? Angus King (I-ME)? Mark Kelly (D-AZ)? Catherine Cortez Masto/Jacky Rosen (both D-NV)? It's possible that one or more of these folks is pro-filibuster, and is just keeping quiet and letting Sinema/Manchin take all the flak. And would Cal Cunningham and Sara Gideon, coming from purple states, both be "yea" votes? There are just too many known unknowns here.

Assuming that the Democrats really did have 50 votes to bust the filibuster, however, then they would be able to do an awful lot of legislating. And that would surely help them in next year's midterms.

Q: To defeat Donald Trump completely, what would it take? What would constitute a crushing blow? A conviction of a major crime? Something else? D.K., Iowa City, IA

A: At this point, Trump has set the template. He could get divorced from Melania, be convicted of financial crimes, be caught on camera using racial slurs, be proven responsible for the 1/6 insurrection, and be thrown into the power reactor of the Death Star, and it would not matter. There is no shortage of Republican politicians— Govs. Ron DeSantis (FL) and Kristi Noem (SD), Sens. Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX), Reps. Chip Roy (TX) and Lauren Boebert (CO), etc.—willing to run as "Trump, but without the baggage."

So, he's not going to be purged until such point that Trumpism is unambiguously shown to be a political loser. It's possible that will happen in 2022 and 2024. If he's not on the ballot, and the Republicans take a beating, then they may conclude that there can only be one cult leader. More probably, it will be a slow process, as the voters he targets either die off, or stop responding to scapegoating, culture wars, bold-but-empty promises, etc.

Q: What percentage of Republican politicians are in the throes of self-deception, and what percentage are merely lying like hell for personal and political benefit? D.L., Cary, NC

A: The two things are not exclusive. When a person outright lies, they feel guilty, unless they are a complete sociopath. And their guilt shows, and so makes the lies less believable. Self-deception solves that problem because it convinces the person that they are not lying, or else that their lies are justified or are not harmful. So, those who self-deceive don't display the subconscious cues of guilt (most obviously reflected in the eyes), and their lies are more effective.

Virtually all politicians practice self-deception of one sort or another (there are a half a dozen sub-categories). Many of today's Republicans just so happen to practice it with particular...enthusiasm? Skill?

Q: Can you offer any guidance for a "diplomatic" way to acknowledge the growing education gap along partisan lines, when speaking with conservatives? Once Ron DeSantis "discovers" that liberals are over-represented in academia, is there a polite way to explain to our conservative friends and family, that this is not a surprise?

Explaining that voters with higher levels of education are more likely to vote Democratic, will usually be met with a defensive reaction: "Are you saying that people who vote Republican are stupid?" Instead of the obvious snarky reply, I'd prefer to avoid the perception of insulting their intellect. Any advice for a different way to approach this conversation?
D.T., San Jose, CA

A: If someone, say a student, responded with that exact remark, we would say: "No, I am merely giving you an objective fact. Is what you said your interpretation of the data? If not, then what is your interpretation?"

You could also make one or more of the following observations:

  • "I am not saying Democrats are smarter, but I am saying they are more educated."

  • "Education and intelligence, while often correlated, are not the same thing."

  • "The liberal understanding of 'service' meshes better with teaching or advocacy, while the conservative understanding meshes better with religious leadership or military service."

  • "Many Republican politicians and leaders tend to paint the world in black and white terms. It is difficult for that worldview to remain intact as someone gets an education, as educated people tend to recognize that the world is made up of many shades of gray."

Q: Is there another time in American history when a minority party has obstructed the majority for no other reason than to deny the president his agenda? Is there any precedent for what we are seeing in Washington right now? If so, how did it turn out for each party? Are there lessons to be learned? R.L., Alameda, CA

A: It was actually Winston Churchill's father, and not Churchill himself, who said: "The duty of an opposition is to oppose." Still, the sentiment is on target. Whichever party or faction is in the minority in the U.S. always tries to put the brakes on; the only question is how far they are willing to go in order to do it.

The obstructionism, and the willingness to push boundaries, are at their worst when the minority faction becomes persuaded that their key issue or issues are existential, and that there is simply no middle ground to be had. Slavery was that way, and so was civil rights legislation. And so it's not surprising that the two most gridlocked periods in the history of Congress, prior to the 21st century, were 1845-60 and 1950-65.

The current Republican Party certainly gives the Southern Democrats of the antebellum years, and the Southern Democrats of the civil rights years, a run for their money. What makes the current era different is that the modern GOP doesn't really have a core issue that they are committed to. A big chunk of the base just wants to cast blame for...everything. They want to lash out at immigrants, the deep state, the media, the government, the liberals, minorities, etc. Another chunk wants a theocracy, and wants to outlaw abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and the like. Yet another chunk wants lower taxes and deregulation. Other than the taxes and deregulation, delivering on any of these other things would split the Republican Party and would outrage non-Republican voters. And so, all they've got is radical do-nothingism. We assume that will eventually be unworkable, but it's not the same sort of thing as anti-abolition or anti-civil rights, so it's hard to say how soon.

Q: When is the killing of a political figure a murder rather than an assassination? What criteria would you apply to determine the correct term?

Also, what were the most impactful non-presidential assassinations in U.S. history?
S.R.G., Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

A: When he was a junior in college, (Z) asked that same question, wondering whether it was correct to describe the killing of the scholar and activist Walter Rodney as an "assassination" rather than just a "murder." And the professor (Merrick Posnansky) conceded that the term "assassination" is somewhat subjective, but that it usually implies: (1) that the dead person be fairly prominent, and (2) that the motivation be political, moral, or financial. (Z) has not heard a better answer in the nearly three decades since.

Here's our best shot at the 10 most consequential non-presidential assassinations (actually 11, for reasons that will become clear), with brief explanations:

  1. John Lennon (1980): A devastating blow to the Baby Boomers, and one that deprived the world of whatever art or music he might have produced had he lived, as he was just coming out of a self-imposed six-year retirement.

  2. Joseph Smith (1844): His killing drove the Mormons further West, caused them to turn further inward, and initiated a lengthy period of violence both against and by adherents.

  3. Lee Harvey Oswald (1963): His death helped fuel the Kennedy conspiracy theories, which led to (1) greater distrust of the government for some people, and (2) many other, non-Kennedy conspiracy theories. Some, or maybe even a lot, of that might have been avoided had Oswald lived and been able to fully tell his story.

  4. Malcolm X (1965): When he was gunned down by rivals in the Nation of Islam, it left the Black Nationalist movement without its most important leader, and most certainly radicalized and divided the members of the movement that he left behind.

  5. Harvey Milk (1978): He died just as the AIDS crisis was getting underway; those twin developments served to unify the gay and lesbian community (if not the BTQ+ community), and inspired them to be ever more insistent that their rights be respected.

  6. Huey Long (1935): His still-not-well-explained assassination weakened one of America's last political machines, ended the career of a U.S. senator who had presidential aspirations and, possibly most importantly, silenced a New Deal/FDR critic who just might have turned the South against the President. If that had happened, the U.S. might have been led into World War II by President Alf Landon, instead.

  7. Sitting Bull (1890): Technically, he was killed while resisting arrest. However, the federal government created circumstances in which that was likely to happen, and then the police made absolutely sure he took several shots to the head and torso after he was no longer able to resist. His passing removed the last great rebel leader among the Native Americans, and led directly to the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which was the end of the Indian Wars.

  8. Ronald Reagan (1981): Yes, he's presidential, but because he lived it wasn't an assassination. So, it's technically a non-presidential assassination. Or, at least, a presidential non-assassination. Anyhow, because this one and Sitting Bull are open to debate, we included 11 entries so you can still have 10 if you choose to reject one of the two debatable ones. The Reagan assassination attempt, though not successful, led directly to the creation and adoption of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the last major gun-control legislation to be enshrined into federal law.

  9. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968): Note that this is a list of the most significant assassinations, not the most important or admirable people who were assassinated. There is no question that King's death at the hands of James Earl Ray deprived the U.S. of one of its most charismatic and forceful leaders. However, King's most important work had been completed several years before his death, the country was on the cusp of a conservative backlash in 1968, and he was in poor health (especially his heart) and might not have lived much longer if allowed to finish his natural lifespan. For these reasons, his premature death might not have been as significant as you would otherwise think.

  10. Robert F. Kennedy (1968): As we have written several times, he probably wasn't going to be the Democrats' nominee in 1968. He started too late, and thus was in a hole too deep. However, at very least, he would have gone on to a long and productive career as a leader of the U.S. Senate, just like his brother Ted. Further, he was only 42 at his death, and so there's a very good chance he would have mounted another presidential run, perhaps in 1976, and would have been successful. If so, then there probably would have been no Ronald Reagan, since Kennedy would probably have been reelected in 1980, and Reagan would have been too old (73) and too far-removed from his time as governor by 1984.

  11. Medgar Evers (1963): In contrast to King, whose death came after the Civil Rights Movement had come to a close, Evers' death came at a very crucial time (June), just as the Movement was gearing up for the March on Washington (August), and for the push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers' violent assassination won a great deal of sympathy for the Movement, and may even have tipped the scales in favor of the Civil Rights Act.

If you think we missed someone, or mis-ranked someone, let us know.

Q: How important/significant was the anti-slavery issue prior to the Civil War in terms of it being a driver of national elections for President, Senate, or the House? Was slavery ever a king-maker or was it more a wedge issue of the day? M.O., Arlington, Virginia

A: Before we can answer, it is important to note two things. The first is that slavery ultimately became enmeshed with nearly every other issue of the day. For example, one major reason that many people supported the Mexican-American War (1846-48) was because they thought it would add territory amenable to the slave economy. And one major reason that many people opposed the Mexican-American War (1846-48) was because they thought it would add territory amenable to the slave economy. John C. Calhoun, James Polk, and Jefferson Davis, among others, were in the first group, while Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Quincy Adams were in the latter.

The second thing to note is that the abolitionists—the people who opposed slavery solely on moral grounds, and who wanted it to be outlawed immediately—were a small minority of voters, and were considered radicals. Most Americans who identified as anti-slavery were free soilers, which meant that they felt slavery was politically, economically, socially, and/or morally bad for America, but that it was legally protected in the Southern states. They believed that the best plan of action was to limit the institution to just those Southern states, leaving the territories for free, white labor (i.e., "free soil"), with slavery dying a slow, natural death.

Broadly speaking, most politicians tried to avoid the hot potato that was slavery in the early 1800s. That became less and less feasible in the 1830s and 1840s, after the Nullification Crisis and the fight over the tariff, and it became totally impossible by 1850 or so, after the Mexican-American War, the admission of California, and the collapse of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In the 1850s, slavery most certainly was a wedge issue, as politicians attacked each other for being too radical/not radical enough on the "slave question."

By that decade, slavery was also a king-maker and a king-breaker. For example, both presidential candidates in 1856, and all four in 1860, based their pitch on the notion that they, and they alone, had the correct answer to how to deal with slavery. Similarly, William Seward would certainly have been the Republican nominee in 1860, and would have been elected president, if not for his declaration that there was an "irrepressible conflict" between free and slave states. That was meant to curry favor with the left-wingers in the GOP, but instead served to convince moderate and conservative Republicans that he was too radical.

Q: Several times, you have written that the Allies' punishment of Germany after World War I led to the sequence of events that culminated in World War II. This is also what I remember learning in secondary school history class.

But I read somewhere in recent years (unfortunately I don't remember the source), that the role of the draconian reparations imposed on Germany is overstated. Some combination of facts like: it was normal for losers of wars in the pre-modern era, the reparations were mostly not paid anyway, and they were not large enough to have macroeconomic impact.

Can you go into that a bit more?
J.H., Boston, MA

A: Before and during World War I, the German government made very poor choices when it came to funding their war machine, suspending the gold standard, and then using their gold reserves plus massive borrowing in order to cover their bills. Most other countries imposed some sort of income tax (if they didn't have one already).

Once the war was over, the German government was left with massive debts, and no particular way to pay them. The reparations made the debt situation all the worse. And, having trapped itself, the German government made another unfortunate decision, which is that they started printing currency that was not backed by any resource in order to pay their bills. Unsecured fiat currency is the standard today, but it wasn't back then, when most other nations backed their money with gold. The situation teetered on the brink for a year or two, with both domestic and foreign bankers trying to prop up the German Mark, but eventually it spiraled into one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in world history. What cost 1 Mark in 1918 cost 10 marks by the start of 1921, 80 Marks by the start of 1922, 3,000 Marks by the start of 1923, and 1 trillion Marks by the start of 1924. Eventually, the German government was printing bills like this one:

A bill that says 'funfzig billionen Mark'

If you can't read German numbers, the bill says it is valued at 50 billion Marks, and was printed in November 1923. And it's even worse than you think: "billionen" in German means 1012, equal to "trillion" in English. Under these circumstances, the German government pretty quickly stopped paying reparations, particularly since the reparations had to be paid in gold, and Germany quickly ran out of whatever gold it had left. All of this served to drag Germany into the Great Depression several years earlier than most other countries.

Were the reparations solely responsible for the disasters that befell Germany, then? No, but they were certainly an important part of the equation, as they drained the German economy of whatever gold it had remaining. Further, the reparations were part of a broader effort by the U.K. and France to humiliate the Germans and to rub their noses in the dirt. That most certainly helped give rise to the emotions that Adolf Hitler rode to power.

Q: A while back, you listed the worst people in history, and you rightly had Hitler at the top of the list. Around that time, my wife and I started to re-watch the Netflix show "The Crown" where, in one episode (spoiler alert!) former king Edward VIII, through some recently found documents, was shown to have had deep contacts with the Nazis starting in the late 1930s. At the end of the episode, there were photos of the real former king in company of prominent Nazis and even inspecting storm troopers. His defense was that he wanted to stop the seemingly inevitable war through some back-door negotiating.

The show paints Edward not as a clumsy negotiator but, in fact, as a straight up Nazi sympathizer. His wife, Wallis Simpson, was also suspected of being in bed (literally apparently) with the Nazis.

If true, by 1937, who on Earth could have been that naive? Is Edward VIII widely considered to have been a Nazi sympathizer?
F.H., St. Paul, MN

A: As to people who supported Hitler in the 1930s, we will note three things: (1) Germany was a mess in the 1920s (see above), and it appeared to outsiders that he'd done a heck of a job of righting the ship; (2) There were many people who rose to power in the U.S. and the world with hateful or demagogic rhetoric (how different were some of the things Hitler said from some of the things that white Southern politicians said about Black people?); and (3) many people, in both the U.S. and elsewhere, either shared a generally anti-Semitic worldview or, at least, tolerated others who felt that way. For a great many people, Hitler did not cross the line until he (1) started a war, and (2) began a program of mass extermination.

As to Edward, he certainly was a Nazi sympathizer. However, it was never clear how far those sentiments went (was he OK with the Holocaust?), and the royal family and the British parliament did not care to find out, or to have him making the wrong kind of headlines. So, he was appointed governor of the Bahamas, and parked there for much of the war, effectively sidelining and silencing him.

Q: I have some questions about the attack on Pearl Harbor: Did anyone in the Roosevelt administration know prior to December 7, 1941, that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, or is this a completely debunked conspiracy theory? Did the Japanese think that the U.S. wouldn't declare war on Japan after the attacks? What were the Japanese hoping for? And why did Adolf Hitler declare war on the U.S. shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor? Germany was already at war with the U.K. and the Soviet Union, so a war against the U.S. should have been the last thing he needed. And what would have been the outcome of World War II if Hitler hadn't declared war on the U.S.? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: (Z) once discussed the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory with Robert Dallek, who won the Bancroft Prize for Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, and so has some knowledge of the subject. The conspiracy theory is primarily based on four notions: (1) FDR was maneuvering to get the U.S. into the war, (2) Pearl Harbor finished the job for him, (3) the U.S. had intercepted messages indicating when and where the Japanese would attack, and (4) the attack was surprisingly ineffective, militarily. These things are all fair assertions.

Considering this information, it seems like the conspiracy theory has a lot of merit. But it actually doesn't. To start, the intercepted messages were encoded and were written in classical Japanese (think Shakespearean English). So, they weren't decrypted until several days after the attack.

Second, the American failures on that day can be explained very easily, primarily as the product of arrogance/racism. U.S. leadership did not imagine that the Japanese would be able to improve the range of their planes from World War I, and so the U.S. Navy was patrolling at a range of 300 miles, looking for planes that, as it turns out, the Japanese had improved to have a 500-mile range. Similarly, FDR and all the admirals and generals did not believe the Japanese would dare to attack the United States' most powerful naval base (Pearl Harbor) and so were watching other bases, like Midway, much more closely.

Third, the inefficacy of the Japanese attack can also be explained, not due to American trickery, but to Japanese mistakery. The Japanese, thinking that battleships would be the key to naval warfare (as they had been for half a century), chose to attack on a day when the American battleships were in port. However, it turned out that aircraft carriers would quickly supplant battleships, and the American carriers were at sea that day. Further, the Japanese concentrated their fire on ships, and left the dry docks (repair facilities) largely unharmed. This allowed repairs to commence within mere hours of the attack. And finally, because the first two waves of the Japanese assault worked so well, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo speculated that a trap had been laid, and withdrew. Had he kept attacking, he might have inflicted a much heavier blow.

Fourth, and most importantly, there was nothing FDR could have done to prevent the attack. And there was no benefit to him to allowing the U.S. Navy to get caught with its pants down. Either way, it would have been enough to draw the U.S. into the war. And so, if FDR knew what was coming, he might as well have warned base commander Admiral Husband Kimmel.

As to Japan's thinking on that day, it is easy enough to decipher. They knew the U.S. was on the cusp of joining the war, just as it had once been on the cusp of war with Spain in 1898, and with Germany in 1917. And the Japanese leadership took note that the incidents that pushed the U.S. into war in those cases (an accident on the U.S.S. Maine and an intercepted telegram, respectively) benefited the Spanish and the Germans very little. The Japanese assumed, almost certainly correctly, that the U.S. was so close to pulling the trigger that nearly any provocation—another shipboard accident, another intercepted message, some other perceived offense—would finish the job. So, Japanese leaders figured they might as well get some use out of the incident that actually lit the fuse, in contrast to the Spanish and the Germans. They made this decision knowing full well that an American declaration of war would be nearly instantaneous.

As to Germany, that's the hardest of your questions to answer. Those who were in Hitler's inner circle weren't even 100% clear. It appears that (1) his head got so big he thought Germany could take on the world, (2) he quite liked the legitimacy, as he saw it, that came from being at war with the world's three mightiest powers (U.S., U.K., U.S.S.R.), and (3) he presumed that the U.S. would eventually end up fighting in Europe anyhow.

If Hitler hadn't declared war, it likely wouldn't have changed things all that much. Pearl Harbor caused the U.S. to begin rebuilding its land forces, but unlike the naval forces, they weren't actually ready for action until late October/early November of 1942, nearly a year after the Japanese attack. And in the almost-a-year that passed, it's quite likely that the U.S. and Germany would have ended up declaring war against each other, for one reason or another.

Q: Has the U.S. actually won a war since World War II? Korea, Vietnam and now Afghanistan. G.M., Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

A: It is true that the enemy did not surrender in any of those three conflicts. It is also true, however, that the U.S. achieved its aims in Korea (halt the spread of communism) and Afghanistan (reduce the power of the Taliban, prevent further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil). Those aims may have been unwise, or the price of achieving them may not have been worthwhile. However, the point is that some people could consider one or both of those wars to be a "win."

And, in any event, the U.S. certainly won the Persian Gulf War.

Q: I share your opinion of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—two very decent people. But do you really feel that they deserve to be called "model citizens in just about every way" because, in part, they attend church regularly? Could they also be model citizens, in your view, if they weren't church-goers, or if they didn't, in fact, believe in God? Just curious. B.L., Hudson, NY

A: We do not believe that everyone who goes to church is a model citizen, or that everyone who skips church is not. We were just giving brief reminders of the key, relevant aspects of the Carters' lives. We assume their biographies are well enough known that people read "attend church regularly" and understand it to mean "they give of their time to teach Sunday school, they try to follow the teachings of Jesus, and they refused to be part of a church that practiced racist and/or anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments." Similarly, we assume that when people read "they give their time to charity," they are reminded that the Carters build houses as part of Habitat for Humanity, they founded the Carter Center, etc.

Q: In your alternate history, where Hillary Clinton won in 2008, you do not mention COVID-19 as a factor in the 2020 election. Why? Do you speculate that there would have been no pandemic, or that it would not have been a factor in the election? J.L., Chicago, IL

A: The latter.

It seems to us that the only world leader who has been booted out of office due to COVID-19 is Donald Trump. He may well be joined by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil next year. What these two men have in common is that they downplayed the pandemic, to the point of ignoring it, and many of their citizens paid with their lives. Narendra Modi is also in this group, but he is not up until 2024, barring a snap election.

We conclude, then, that the pandemic only seriously harmed those leaders who really, really botched it. Had anyone other than Donald Trump been elected in 2016, they would not have dismantled the apparatus created to deal with pandemics, and they certainly wouldn't have engaged in mass denial, while politicizing the wearing of masks, deliberately propagating bad information about treatment, etc. So, we don't think it would have been a defining issue in that hypothetical election.

Q: I was intrigued by your response to a question posed by I.K. in Queens as to what would have happened had Hillary Clinton been the 2008 Democratic nominee instead of Barack Obama. I've got two questions based on this.

1. Who do you think Hillary would have picked as her VP? I think she might have gone with Obama as a way to unify the ticket and give him an opportunity to gain some executive experience to prepare for another presidential run in the future. In fact, that was being considered in reality in 2008.

2. Where you wrote about Obama being the Presidential nominee in 2016 and 2020, who do you think he would have picked as his VP?
R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: We will start by observing that, in reality, they both went with sitting U.S. senators. They clearly wanted a partner in governance and someone who could be their "point person" on the Hill. So, we will assume that in our alternate history, each would still have stuck with a U.S. senator.

In Clinton's case, Obama wold have been a very likely, very party-unifying, very glass-ceiling-breaking choice. So, we think he would have been the favorite. That said, in reality, she chose a generic white guy in Tim Kaine, at least in part to try to avoid a ticket that was too "radical" and too "different." So, she might have conceded that a woman and a Black guy were a bridge too far. In that case, maybe she goes with Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, or even John Kerry. It's also not impossible that she picks Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, as a gesture of unity. Hagel, of course, did end up serving in Obama's cabinet.

In Obama's case, he definitely wanted a milquetoast white guy to keep voters from freaking out too much. In either of those contests, he might have gone with Chris Coons of Delaware, or Bill Nelson of Florida (though Nelson was out of office by 2020), or Harry Reid of Nevada (though Reid was also out of office by 2020), or possibly Chuck Schumer. And if you'd like a dark-horse pick, how about...Joe Manchin?

Q: As a late tribute to pride month, let's get the definitive (V) and (Z) ranking of presidents from the most handsome president to the least. J.M., New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada

A: The problem is that holding past presidents to modern standards of handsomeness is probably not fair, since they were of course products of their era. Plus, how does one compare, say, Rutherford Hayes to Benjamin Harrison, since they both look the same?

Here is what we are going to do instead. We're going to give a list of 10 presidents who were considered to be of above-average handsomeness in their time, and then 10 who were considered to be not-so-handsome.

First, the hunks, in chronological order, with brief comments:

  • George Washington (at least, before the smallpox left his face scarred)
  • Andrew Jackson (tall, thin, and very confident)
  • James K. Polk (despite the mullet)
  • Franklin Pierce (considered by many to be the best-looking president of all time)
  • Chester A. Arthur (a fashion-obsessed dandy)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (very athletic, knew how to carry himself)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (very patrician)
  • John F. Kennedy (young, with a dazzling smile)
  • Ronald Reagan (movie-star looks, literally)
  • Barack Obama (see Jack Kennedy)

Now, the not-so-hunks, in chronological order, with brief explanations:

  • John Adams (round, ruddy face)
  • James Madison (short and scrawny)
  • Zachary Taylor (slovenly)
  • Abraham Lincoln (considered uncommonly ugly in his time, until he grew the beard)
  • Andrew Johnson (squinty eyes, also slovenly)
  • Woodrow Wilson (long, narrow face; awful teeth)
  • Calvin Coolidge (always looked like he'd just finished sucking on a lemon)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (big nose, receding hairline, crude)
  • Richard Nixon (jowls and five-o-clock shadow made him look sneaky, which he was)
  • Donald Trump (fake tan, bad combover)

Watch for another belated-tribute-to-pride-month answer next week.

Q: As an active Wikipedian, I was pleased to read that (Z) is not totally hostile to Wikipedia, the way some academics are. I wonder how (Z) rates Wikipedia in the context of the question from J.A. in St. Petersburg, who seeks "slightly more than capsule-sized biographies of all the Presidents."

For example, to take the leading man of the July 3 mailbag, James Buchanan, the text of his bio without the footnotes and so forth, is about 20 printed pages, with the sections on the 1856 campaign and his presidency totaling eight pages. For the reader who wants more, there are also links to related Wikipedia articles, such as one giving greater detail about his presidency, and another with a fuller account of the Lecompton Constitution he supported. Would (Z) care to offer an assessment of whether Wikipedia is a good choice for a lay reader who's not writing a paper, and who just wants to be informed?
J.L., Paterson, NJ

A: Wikipedia is a fine choice for this purpose. Because there are a lot of people interested in presidents, the articles get a lot of attention, so it's hard for total crap to find its way in there. And because it's a group effort, the articles are generally pretty consistent in terms of format, content, quality, etc. There are plenty of encyclopedias of presidents out there, and they tend to be inconsistent, particularly if the editor does not manage his or her contributors effectively.

Q: Since you talked about Shelby Foote in the previous Q&A, and since J.B. in Hutto mentioned a lot of writers in the lengthy letter last Sunday, but not William Faulkner, I had a question about him.

He's my favorite writer, hands down (and that includes all French writers). I mean, I really worship him: I don't use the word genius very often, but in his case, I do. I just can't stand Ernest Hemingway (his style makes me puke), I like John Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor and other writers, but I think no one even comes close to Faulkner. However, he seems to be the Lyndon Johnson of American literature: People don't mention him very often, or he sometimes seems to be simply forgotten. Hence my question: Is it problematic in the U.S. today to be a huge fan of Faulkner, the Mississippian who often writes about "magnolias and moonlight," to borrow (Z)'s expression? As a man of his origins and his time, is he a victim of "presentism"? Please enlighten me.
E.K., Brignoles, France

A: Sensitivities are very high today. In The Netherlands, there was a story this week about how some universities have discouraged the reading of Dracula because it may trigger people with eating disorders. And there are undoubtedly people who find Faulkner problematic, either because he sometimes romanticizes the South, or because he was, while not a segregationist per se, not terribly enthused about integration.

As we have written, we are generally not fans of holding people from past eras to present-day standards. Further, a reprehensible artist (not that Faulkner qualifies for that label) can still make good art. There's also a line between enjoying a problematic artist's art, and actively supporting or promoting that artist. For example, Roman Polanski is clearly a horrible person, and buying tickets to any new movies he directs, or hosting a Roman Polanski film festival, tacitly supports his behavior. On the other hand, buying the DVD of "Chinatown" seems OK to us, since he does not directly profit from that.

We would guess that Faulkner's relatively low profile today isn't really due to politics, but to (1) his being somewhat inaccessible to modern readers, and (2) his having been imitated by many successors, such that he doesn't seem as fresh or inventive as he once did.

Q: Is longitudinal sampling common among pollsters? Thursday's item that notes the 10% telephone response rates made me wonder why a pollster can't assemble a representative sample that will reliably complete surveys in exchange for a few dollars a month. Why didn't the invention of Nielsen families solve this problem? S.J., Sacramento, CA

A: There are some longitudinal polls, but they have some significant challenges associated with them. First, they're quite expensive, since you have to have extra people in case some disappear/drop out. Also, if your original sample is not actually representative, you're kinda stuck. And finally, people who are chosen to participate often cease to be representative, because they adapt their behavior based on being a poll subject. For example, someone chosen to participate in a presidential poll may start paying closer attention to the political news. But the biggest issue is really that if a pollster gets an unrepresentative sample one time, it means one bad poll. An unrepresentative sample that is polled every month might give a consistent—and wrong—result and end the pollster's career.

Q: This is a question regarding a very recent poll by Rasmussen. I always try to do my own research on these things, but could you please help by providing your thoughts on the poll? I find it hard to accept that 58% of voters believe that "the media are truly the enemy of the people." K.F., Madison, AL

A: We cannot take this poll seriously.

First, because it's Rasmussen.

Second, because they are willing to provide their results, but you actually have to pay to see the crosstabs. That means that they are trying to sell you subscriptions, a goal best served by producing shocking results that make you curious to see more details. It also means that their sample and their data cannot be scrutinized.

Third, because they are willing to share how their question was worded: "Do you agree or disagree with this statement: The media are 'truly the enemy of the people'?" However, in the writeup in the Rasmussen press release, they write: "58% of Likely U.S. Voters at least somewhat agree that the media are 'truly the enemy of the people,' including 34% who Strongly Agree." How do you get into degrees of agreement if the question only asks for a yes/no response? Further, how can you "somewhat agree" that the media is "truly" anything? You can't mix superlatives like that. That's like saying "60% of the time, it works every time."

In short, we'll take a hard pass on this one. It's nonsense.

Q: Your knowledge of civil procedure is surprising. You don't have law degrees. What gives? S.S.L., Norman, OK

A: We're not sure exactly what item or items you're referring to. However, (Z) once had a conversation with a friend who is a doctor, and that friend said that a reasonably well educated person, who is reasonably capable of inductive and deductive reasoning, could handle 80% of the patients a general practitioner sees. What you're paying for is the person capable of figuring out which cases are the ones in the 20%, and what needs to be done in those instances.

What we are trying to say is that the basics of civil procedure are, we think, pretty accessible. It's when things get tricky that you need an actual lawyer. Or someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Q: I have a certain fondness for numbers (probably one of the reasons I enjoy your site) and was wondering if you kept track of how many readers participated in the search for album names and songs. R.R., Chewelah, WA

A: About 300 people e-mailed in; undoubtedly some larger number played along and kept it to themselves.

Q: In your self-biographies, one of you is big on confectionery. What is (Z)'s go-to recipe for a mean chocolate chip cookie? J.L.G., Boston, MA

A: (Z) forgot that was there. He has tried many recipes and, at risk of being boring, there is a reason the original Toll House recipe put chocolate chip cookies on the map in 1938, and still remains famous.

That's probably not that useful, so allow us to also relate that Betty Crocker's peach cobbler recipe is very good and very easy to execute, though it works better with brown sugar than white. You can also easily swap in other fruits, though switch back to white sugar if the brown sugar is a poor match (brown sugar and blueberries don't really go together, for example).

This Coca-Cola cake recipe is also excellent. Just take note that when it tells you to add the "soda" in Step 3, it means the baking soda and not the Coke. If you screw that up, the cake won't rise, and you'll be left with Coca-cola brownies.

And finally, if you are gluten-free, this peanut-butter cookie recipe is really, really easy and is quite good.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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Jul09 An Artful Solution?
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Jul08 House Group Approves Senate's Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
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Jul07 It's Adams' Apple
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Jul07 RNC Hacked by the Russians
Jul07 How Greedy Is Too Greedy?
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Jul07 Mary Trump: Ivanka's Less Loyal than Weisselberg
Jul07 Happy Anniversary, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter!
Jul06 Gang Warfare
Jul06 What's the Plan for the 1/6 Commission?
Jul06 How Not to Respond to Being Prosecuted
Jul06 Breyer Clerks Up for Next Term
Jul06 An Interesting Election in Saxony-Anhalt
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Jul05 DeSantis Is Preparing for 2024--Very Carefully
Jul05 Republicans Are Testing New Attacks on Biden
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Jul04 Sunday Mailbag
Jul03 Saturday Q&A
Jul02 RIP Voting Rights Act, 1965-2021
Jul02 Pelosi Makes Her Picks for 1/6 Commission
Jul02 A Win for Biden (Not That Anyone Will Notice)
Jul02 Weisselberg Surrenders, TrumpWorld Spins
Jul02 At Least It's Not Just a Blog...
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Jul01 Report: Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg to Be Charged Today
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