Episode 04: Timothy Naftali
Timothy Naftali is NYU's clinical associate professor of history and clinical associate professor of public service, and director of NYU's undergraduate public policy major. He was the founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, where he oversaw the release of 1.3 million pages of presidential documents and nearly 700 hours of Nixon tapes.
Naftali is a regular CNN contributor, offering expertise in national security and intelligence policy, international history, and presidential history. As a TV commentator, he has appeared on more than 30 shows and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, and Foreign Affairs, among others. He has served as a historical consultant on television programs such as ABC’s Designated Survivor, and is the author of numerous books, including One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (1998) and Impeachment: An American History (2018).
Announcer [00:00:14] From New York University. You're listening to conversations hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry, and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.
President Andy Hamilton [00:00:34] We have with us Tim Naftali and Tim is a noted expert on U.S. presidential history, national security, intelligence policy. He's been the author of several books. Many of you will recognize Tim's voice or you will know his face if you saw it as he is a very frequent contributor to CNN and many other outlets on television and in the media. Most importantly for us at NYU, Tim is a professor here. He has a joint appointment as clinical associate professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Science and also as clinical associate professor of public service at Wagner. He is the director of NYU's undergraduate public policy major. Tim, it's wonderful to have you here to talk about politics and especially presidential politics.
Tim Naftali [00:01:32] President Hamilton thank you. Thank you for asking me to talk about things that I love talking about and care deeply about.
President Hamilton [00:01:39] Well, let's begin. And here we are. We are in the early stages of a presidential campaign. We are halfway through the first term of President Trump. As someone who's written extensively on JFK, on George H.W. Bush, on Richard Nixon looking at each of them through the context of their own rather disparate presidencies, where do you place the Trump presidency the two years that we've had of the Trump presidency and what are the headline conclusions we can draw?
Tim Naftali [00:02:21] Every so often a presidential candidate will promise a revolution. Not an armed revolution, but a change in the spirit, the mores and the policies of the incumbent or predecessor. So it is not unusual for American presidents to promise disruption. The current president's so-called hero, I'm not sure he knows that much about this particular president, but he often talks about Andrew Jackson. Before Jackson, there was Jefferson who led a revolution of mores and policy. In the more recent period, Ronald Reagan is noted for a revolution. So in that sense, it's not unusual in American history to have a president who comes in and says I want to change everything my predecessor did. Or almost everything. What is unusual about this disrupter is it is not clear what he wishes to replace what he inherited. What he wishes to replace it with. There is a sense of nihilism of destruction for the sake of destruction without the objective of a new approach to governance. Ronald Reagan who I think changed the way many Americans think about government wanted smaller government. And I think and this has not I think helped the American people gave the impression that government is generally the source of the problem, not the solution. But he didn't want to completely do away with it. He staffed the government and he looked for intelligent people to be in the government. And when people didn't work out, he removed them because they were incompetent. So even though he brought in a revolution, he did not want to undermine completely Washington and the sort of community of elites and professionals who direct federal policy. He wanted to change them. But he wasn't an opponent of if you will the Federal Society. Donald Trump, from his inauguration. Leaving aside the election, many of us who study elections think there's always a possibility of a pivot. You'll hear that word pivot, pivot. It means that someone will run promising a set of actions and using some language that they don't replicate once they have the power of the office because the office itself is an awesome thing. And you know there was a moment it was very brief when it seemed possible that like many of his predecessors Donald Trump would be affected by the August power and the responsibility the office. And to remember that is just to look at a photograph of Donald Trump sitting with Barack Obama during the transition. And Trump looks as if, President Trump looks as if he's a deer caught in the headlights. He seems dazed, confused, it's as if President Obama was explaining to him the real nature of the office that he unexpectedly won that he begins to think oh my goodness it's going to be a lot tougher. But then he gives his inaugural address. And his inaugural address is unusual. First of all, it doesn't mention any previous presidents. So it's as if like after Napoleon, like after the revolution in France they're changing the calendar. It's as if everything is going to be different because the first emperor has been selected. And from that moment on the president has acted as if everything that over 200 years of history all of the accumulated wisdom and accumulated norms and accumulated traditions that none of them mattered. And that all that mattered was his personal relationship with his base. And that's new.
President Andy Hamilton [00:06:13] But Tim isn't that an inevitable consequence? You started with Reagan and small government. We've then had the anti-Washington positions of people like George W. Bush. We've then had the Tea Party gaining its anti-Washington ground. Is Trump just an inevitable consequence of that trajectory of undermining everything that Washington works on.
Tim Naftali [00:06:41] Well, there is a debate in history, and my training, my professional training is in history about the host concept of inevitability. But I learned in graduate school the phrase "overdetermined" which means that it's really likely it's going to happen. I think that it is really likely that at a certain point because of the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a threat, because of the weakening of the Islamist threat, that Americans would be motivated to choose someone for reasons other than they were presidential. Because the definition of presidential in the Cold War meant somebody you trusted with the nuclear button. So you combine that with the nature of social media and the information system that has arisen pell-mell really since the late 90s and you had if you will a petri dish that could produce a Trump presidency. We never knew when it would happen but it was possible. Whether it was inevitable? Let's just say it was likely.
President Andy Hamilton [00:07:50] We've had a period now of what seventy-five years of relative peace. Some bumps along the way, but relative peace of the Western world. So you're suggesting that this is almost getting back to a consequence that's almost a consequence of that period of calm.
Tim Naftali [00:08:11] Yes and I think and I hope one of your guests in the future will be a sociologist or an anthropologist. But I think that we need to be thinking deeply about the relationship between governing elites. And when I say elite I don't necessarily mean that they have a lot of money. What I mean are people who have decided for one reason or another to be in our "great major" here at NYU and to study public policy and to do public service. And the people that they are responsible for and whose lives presumably they want to help. There's been a widening of the conversations between these two groups such that there's no longer a national conversation. We have these siloed conversations and I'll give you a perfect example of it. Free trade. Free trade became popular among the left and right in the government. That was almost a consensus in the governing world in the 90s. It starts in the 60s and I'm talking about the United States. But by the 90s, there is a sense among Democrats and Republicans (the ones that had power) that free trade was the way to go. What was promised to the public was a bit of a fantasy. I'm not saying that free trade isn't a good idea. I studied economics. I believe in free trade. But free trade has costs. And you can't tell people that everyone is going to benefit equally. And you also have to tell people that they may have to move. Free trade works because of the free movement of goods, services, and capital. Human capital. You can't promise people they can live in northern New York forever and expect to benefit from the economy that's going to be created from free trade. We didn't do that. And so as time progressed and as the threat from another state or non-state actor declined, people began to say well these elites are promising us things. Yes, we're protected but now maybe let's look at what they're promising us. And he found a wanting. And that was an opening to someone like Trump. Now we've seen this before. In the early 90s we saw a movement that was anti-free trade. And it was sort of the reform...
President Andy Hamilton [00:10:29] We've just had the death of Ross Perot.
Tim Naftali [00:10:30] That's when Ross Perot, was the leader of that. His basic approach was anti-free trade and he was making many of the arguments that Donald Trump makes today. He didn't get traction. He got 18, 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 in part because of the collapse of sadly of the Bush administration, the first Bush administration. I say sadly because it was a better administration than its PR at that point. But Perot was if you think of it as that first run. Perot faced a unified Republican and Democratic elite that were both arguing for free trade. The Clintonistas were pro-free trade. Now, the mood has changed, and Trump took advantage of a reluctance that the American people have long had to embrace free trade.
President Andy Hamilton [00:11:22] How do you see the link between the style, the rise, the impact of President Trump and other disrupters, populists leading obviously European we've got the Five Star Movement in Italy, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom has embraced that strong voice and populist position.
Tim Naftali [00:11:49] Well, I see this as an as a global wave. I am reluctant to call it populism because that implies that all of these leaders are representing a very large group of people. I think they are personifying anger and resentment but I also think they're gaming the system for power. You can be a populist and want to change institutions to better serve the people. For example the populists in American history in the late 19th century, they wanted currency; they wanted credit. These were mainly farmers that were having difficulty dealing with the banking world. So they actually wanted a proliferation of currency. They wanted the government to print more money and they wanted money to be based on both silver and gold. The point was they didn't want to destroy the banking system. They wanted it to work for them. So you can be historically a populist and not be a disrupter of institutions. What we are seeing sadly is a wave of authoritarian thinking which requires the subjugation of institutions for the sake of unitary actors. Why are we so vulnerable to that? I would argue it has to do with three factors. 1. the information culture and its vulnerabilities. I'll get to that in a moment. 2. the unequal distribution of the benefits of the post-Cold War globalization of our systems. And 3. the rise of charismatic individuals who are untethered for various reasons to the set of principles that drove the globalization that we saw post-1989. By the way, you'll notice that I don't say left and right. The commitment to globalization was a shared commitment. Now, there were differences but those differences were not great. So those three factors. Now, the number one factor, the Information System is peculiarly vulnerable to interference. Now I'm not going to say that Russia is responsible for populism, or what I would call disruptism. But Russia, which is one of my specialties at certainly one point was the study of intelligence and deception. The Soviets tried very hard to mess with American domestic history, domestic affairs. They weren't that successful. There is a tradition in Moscow trying to do this. They are much better at it now because the information systems are easier to control than they were in the Cold War. So I think that you have on the one hand you have this growing resentment and anger because elite promises were not met by reality, and you have a vulnerability created by the Web social media world, and you have bad actors like Russia and other political factions who are willing to take advantage of that. That is a toxic brew.
President Andy Hamilton [00:15:25] I'd like to ask a couple of questions just following on about leadership and the way in which the changing world is affecting leadership. And I once heard a former ambassador, an American ambassador to Moscow say that readily available plane travel utterly changed the role of the ambassador because every U.S. president would want to fly themselves to Moscow or to London or to Paris to engage in a negotiation or a major issue. And thus the role of the ambassador to some extent was diminished and the role of the leader themselves in a sense with social media with the 24-hour media cycle. To what extent are we seeing now a fundamental change in nature even of a cabinet government? You know it's striking in this era of President Trump and his constant tweeting how much of American policy or at least American positioning seems to be coming from him at 3 o'clock in the morning rather than coming from the Secretary of State, of the Secretary of state of the environment, Secretary of Energy, and they are coming directly from the boss through this power of instant communication to the electorate.
Tim Naftali [00:16:48] I wish to apologize for the segue but I'll get back to answering your question. One of the points I make in class, to all of my classes, is that this is a wonderful time to be a young person. Because you are in a way that is not true for your professors when they were your age. You are a curator of not only your own experience. We're always curators of our own experience. But you're a curator of information in a way that others weren't. You have access to more information, you have fewer obstacles, but it also has a burden. In the past, you would go to other people to get reading less. You can, you still do to do well in your exams, but your access to information is something that is beyond the imagination of people of a certain generation. What that means is that presidents can talk to you directly. And they could before, Franklin Roosevelt, the fireside chats. That was an innovation because though he wasn't the first president to use a radio, Calvin Coolidge who was known as Silent Cal, did speak a few times. He used the radio. But it's Roosevelt who revolutionized this and actually became the first personal president. When Roosevelt died many of the people who were interviewed said they felt they'd lost a member of their family. That's remarkable for a political leader. So the idea of a personal connection between the leader and the people is not new. What is new is that the president can plot out other sources of information by delegitimating it. And we have a president now who has two objectives. The first objective is to create a reality, an example that will not be as recent when this is aired, but that the president made a mistake about where hurricane Dorian would go. And instead of admitting that there was no way it was going to go to the western side of Alabama on the western side of Florida. He produced, I think he produced, but anyway somebody produced a hurricane map that indicated the possibility. That's an example of creating an alternate reality and that is a consistent characteristic of this president. And that's really he's taking it to a new level. Presidents have spun before this. But there's another side to it which is the delegitimization of people of other sources of information but the presidency. Calling the press the enemy of the people, calling certain organizations in the press. You've mentioned my appearance on CNN and CNN is one of the targets. New York Times, Washington Post, places where there could be legitimate news that would not be what he wants the public to read, delegitimating it in the beginning so that when they do come up with bad information about the administration, he can say I told you; don't believe them. So what we have here in this new information environment is a masterful and malicious magician. And it is a result, I think of the fact that we are all our own curators. And it's just not happening here. And I think that this is opening the door to the kind of personal rule in places with weak institutions that we've seen in in in the earlier part of the 20th century. I'm not going to use certain words to say it's a certain kind of political authoritarianism. You don't need to use the word. What it is though is a breaking down of institutions and the leaders saying I understand you. I work for you and those who oppose me don't. Trust me.
President Andy Hamilton [00:20:58] You know one thing that's to me being rather remarkable in these last months and years has been a focus on the rise of the special adviser, and the role of the special adviser in influencing the behavior of the head person, the boss. And so the question for you Tim is give me some sense of the historical perspective. When I look at Steve Bannon in the early months of Trump, now Steve Miller. In the UK we've got Boris Johnson and the evil genius as he's called of Dominic Cummings. Is that something new as a result of this changed media and immediate connection climate that you're describing or is it always been that way?
Tim Naftali [00:21:48] It's always been kitchen cabinets and special advisers. We worry about them when they're disruptors. Sometimes they're institutionalists. Sometimes they believe in the better angels of a certain society and at that point we sort of applaud them. These special advisers seem to have hatred for the give and take that one expects in a republic or constitutional democracy. Their objective is to paralyze it and make it impossible. It's like someone who plays a sport. And if they're going to lose the game they're going to break the leg of the referee. They're going to do something to make sure the game doesn't end rather than saying oh I'm going to lose this match, this game but I'm going to work harder and I'm going to win the next one. That's what makes these special advisers unusual. Look, presidents have been seeking special connections and special sources of information throughout the modern era. John F. Kennedy used his brother Bobby to meet secretly with the Soviets. He bypassed his own ambassadors. His ambassadors didn't even know in the beginning about these meetings. Richard Nixon used Henry Kissinger and bypassed the experts, the China experts in his own government in order to do what he felt was necessary. And he did it secretly until he was ready to tell the world in 1971. So it is not unusual for there to be special access for certain individuals. But we as analysts and historians and citizens should be prepared to assess the costs of that special relationship in terms of the consequences. So far the consequences in the Trump era have been painful disruption of alliances with traditional allies, horrible scenes on the border-confinement of children, separation of children from their parents, uncertainty at home as to whether we have a government that will treat all Americans regardless of race or religion the same. These are the consequences of the power I believe of those close to the president. And there's something else to be kept in mind. I believe that during the Cold War the United States was lucky. The world was lucky that despite the fact that partisanship continued, a group of men (would have been nice if a woman too had been elected) were elected who were serious about the office, and understood the serious consequences of being responsible for the button. That was not inevitable. And some of them were better informed than others, but Ronald Reagan who is often criticized for being ill-informed took his job seriously. And the mark of I think of very successful leaders is that he changed his mind. He changed his mind on the Soviet Union when he understood that Gorbachev wanted reform. It wasn't inevitable that the United States would be led by a serious leader. We now have someone who seems not to be serious and he's surrounded by very serious advisers with axes to grind.
President Andy Hamilton [00:25:15] One casualty of this period and it's a casualty that we see daily in the political process is the loss of the skill, the ability to seek compromise, to seek consensus. The ability of leaders to change their mind, to reach out to opponents in other countries. Is that something you think is being irretrievably damaged?
Tim Naftali [00:25:42] I think the answer for the United States, the answer is not irretrievably. I'm a hopeless optimist. I mean I think if you, I don't think you can be an effective teacher if you're cynical. And so I'll admit to everyone I have a lot of some idealism at least. It started in the 1990s. This shift against compromise begins in the middle 90s and it happens because George Herbert Walker Bush violates his pledge-the no new taxes pledge. How about that for a single causal explanation. Probably many my colleagues are going...but let me put it this way, I think it's highly important to understand that the Republican Party which had never embraced that Bush, they were more ideological. And that Bush was viewed as a good government Republican who was a pragmatic Reaganite. Anyway, when he violates that pledge and raises taxes, many in the party structure, the young members in the party structure said never again. And when he goes down to defeat in 1992, the party begins to rethink what it's all about. And one of the things that was a constant in American politics to that point was that the Democrats controlled Congress. The Senate went back and forth occasionally but not often. It's basically the Democrats and by the way, that doesn't mean that liberalism dominated politics because you had conservative Democrats. But Democrats controlled Congress. There was a shift of old conservative Democrats to the Republican Party and the Republican Party had this dream of becoming the majority party. And people like Newt Gingrich made the argument that we have to see our party as a flow-through from the people to Washington. We have to make clear we're not an elite. We're not Berkin conservatives. We're not going to be representatives of the people who go to the capital learn what they need to learn and then decide on behalf of the people. No, no, no, we're going to let the people tell us exactly what we're gonna do and we're gonna have a contract with those people and if we break that contract we should expect to be primaried out and replaced by someone more loyal to those promises and one of those promises was no new taxes. Now that very approach to government introduced inflexibility because basically what you're saying is if you compromise you are part of the Washington elite, that culture, that cesspool, you're not doing what the people want you to do, those who sent you there. So the beginning of this inflexibility is in the mid-90s. You still had some of the old good government Republicans there. After the Great Recession of 2008, there was a huge shift, understandably huge huge trauma. There was trauma and many people were angry and they had every right to be. And they were angry about the way in which there seemed to be a bipartisan approach to the recession that involved saving the banks. And they thought you're sending our tax dollars to save the banks. And I don't see a single banker taking the perp walk. I don't see a single one of them going to jail. I think there is an elite in Washington. They say they're Republicans and Democrats but they're all the same. And that leads to the Tea Party. And so what that does is it returns, it's the same argument as the mid-90s but with more ferocity adding to even more inflexibility. So what you have is a Republican Party whose leaders have won their power by being inflexible. You can't ask those people. I mean you should try, but you can't expect those people to compromise.
President Andy Hamilton [00:29:42] This tone of inflexibility, the style that's disseminating from the White House, we've discussed its impact on the Republican Party. Let's talk about the Democrats. We are in the early stages of the Democratic nomination process we have quite a large number of potential nominees still in the race. How do you see that changing style in Washington and in the wider country inflexibility and stark rhetoric? How do you see that affecting the Democratic nomination?
Tim Naftali [00:30:19] Let me tell you how observers are thinking about it and then we'll discuss the implications. So what became popular, and I still see this trope is that there are different lanes in the Democratic primary campaign. You have the socialist social democrat, the you know Occupy Wall Street lane that was dominated, actually he was alone in that lane by Bernie Sanders in 2016. But now Elizabeth Warren arguably is in the same lane. Then you have the Clinton sort of good government triangulation-not conservative but pro-free trade lane and that one I'm not sure who's left in that lane. Well, we'll see who is and maybe may become Kamala Harris a little I don't know. It's unclear to me whether Cory Booker is in it. And then the third lane is the new, the sharp new, great new leader lane. The Obama Lane. And who is going to capture the imagination? And the argument is is that in the end, you're going to have just three options. I should have you know I should have mentioned Biden for the Clintons slash because Biden is certainly not the new young thing lane. And so that is the way people have thought about it. But I'm not sure that's helpful frankly because I don't think primary voters sit down and say well "OK. All right I'm going to...Yeah...This is the one...This is the socialist that I want." They don't think that way and I don't think they can be divided, I don't think the electorate can be divided on the Democratic side that way. What we are seeing right now is a debate about first principles in the Democratic Party. This is a fertile moment. They have to figure out what they believe in. If you don't accept the orthodoxy of the Clinton/Obama years. President Obama was a globalist. He was in support of free trade. He creates the TPP with the help of the New Zealanders and the Kiwis and others. So you have that set of ideas. And then you have the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. Don't forget that even though Trump is not a thinker he has found an emotional intelligence. He is connected to an emotional intelligence which the Democrats if they want to do well in Ohio and Pennsylvania and in Wisconsin and Michigan, would be foolhardy to ignore. So I think what we're seeing right now is a huge debate. Now one thing that is clear is that all the Democrats are concerned about climate change. And oddly enough that used to be a point of some intersection between the governing elites, not between Congress and the presidency. But George W. Bush, while he was not a committed environmentalist, didn't have any doubts really in terms of climate change. But now we have a government, an executive that is absolutely not only climate skeptic but is doing the absolute opposite is actually increasing the amount of carbon in the air. I think you can count on the Democrats, whoever is the nominee, making the environment something that they will deal with. Whether it's a carbon tax or cap and trade that is their approach and both have implications for policy we don't know yet. But that we can expect. But whether they are protectionists and whether they believe in the redistribution of income and by how much and what they think of regulations that is what we're watching. It is a very exciting time to be watching what's going on the Democratic side. I will add one more point. You will hear again and again "electability." You will hear people particularly supporters of former Vice President Biden saying what is most important is that we, the Democrats defeat Donald Trump. Electability is an interesting term. If we were having this conversation in 2007 and we were asking about electability on the Democratic side who would have said, Barack Obama? Who would have said, Hillary? So I anticipate that is an elastic term that's going to be redefined over and over again.
President Andy Hamilton [00:35:11] Let me finish with a question. Your classes, the discussions you have with NYU students, how do you inspire them, challenge them to raise the level of debate, to increase the societal trust in facts in evidence and the things that are being diminished?
Tim Naftali [00:35:33] I try to make a couple of points. One is that they have agency, that they have power. One of the things I do with students is I often show them material that has been recently declassified or released and I say "you know what, you could write an essay in my class that is publishable because everything up to now didn't have that information and you're as smart as any of us." So the first thing I tell them is that if you are an empiricist if you care about data, you can change the world. Don't assume that everything has been decided and figured out. So I try to tell them the power of data. That's one. The second thing is I tell them that there are cycles of despair and hope and opportunity in our history, in American history. And that Americans surprise themselves. They also disappoint themselves and it's up to them to determine whether the future is a cycle of disappointment or happy surprise. This country is far more flexible and malleable than they think. And finally, I tell them, I remind them that their elders make mistakes. And as long as their elders admit those mistakes everybody can learn from them. And that they have an opportunity to make their own mistakes, but to make those mistakes in a way that is helpful to themselves and society they have to do their homework, and they have to know things and knowing things is the way to start the process of analysis.
[00:37:12] The power of knowledge and education.
President Andy Hamilton [00:37:15] Yes!!
[00:37:15] Fabulous. Tim Naftali thank you very much. It's been fascinating.
Tim Naftali [00:37:19] Thank you very much, President Hamilton. My pleasure.
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