The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.

Bottom of the 9th

In retrospect, I guess there was no other way for the 2016 election to end than in a giant, flaming ball of confusion and with a razor-thin final result.

A week ago—hell, less than 72 hours ago—this race was over by every conceivable metric:  Hillary Clinton led in one national poll after another—sometimes by double digits—as well as in enough state polls to clear 270 electoral votes and keep right on chugging.  What’s more, Donald Trump appeared to have abandoned any residual interest in taking this election seriously, spending most of his days plugging his tacky products and incoherently whining about how the entire democratic process is fixed.

Hence every sensible political pundit predicting that, unless something very weird happens between now and November 8, Hillary Clinton will easily be elected the 45th president of the United States, and we will all be able to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

And then on Friday afternoon, something very weird happened:  The director of the FBI, James Comey, publicly revealed the existence of a mysterious set of emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer—emails that may or may not involve Hillary Clinton and may or may not contain classified information.

In other words, the entire 2016 election was brought to a screeching halt by the sudden appearance of a shiny object.

Will the nature of this object—whatever it is—prove decisive next Tuesday?  Everyone has a theory, but the truth is that we have no effing idea.  Maybe the electorate has already decided how it feels about the damn emails and this won’t change a thing.  On the other hand, maybe there are just enough undecided voters for this new “scandal” to tip the election in Trump’s favor.

The only thing we know for sure—other than that we don’t know anything for sure—is that James Comey’s disclosure is precisely the deus ex machina that Trump needed to remain even slightly competitive in this bizarre race, and now that it’s happened, Hillary Clinton’s presumed victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.

To which I humbly ask:  Isn’t this what we secretly wanted all along?  Namely, a wild finish to an equally wild campaign?  A Super Bowl decided in the final moments of regulation?  A World Series that goes to seven games?  The nail-biter to end all nail-biters?

Perhaps your first instinct to that question is to spit your coffee onto your computer screen and then slam the computer against the wall.  Believe me, I know how you feel:  The morning after Comey’s announcement, I found myself in such an existential panic that I wandered into a screening of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—two-and-a-half hours of psychological torture and hardcore lesbian sex—just to calm myself down.

But let’s not dance around the fact that we Americans have spent generations treating elections like sporting events, and that the worst thing a sporting event can possibly be is boring—particularly at the bitter end.

Ask any sports fan on Earth what he or she wants from a high-stakes competition and—to a person—they will all say the exact same thing:  “I just want the game to be close.”  Indeed, even if the contest involves the person’s home team and everything is on the line—cash, pride, emotional stability—raw excitement is on an equal plane with victory.  Winning may be the primary objective in the short run, but the thrill of losing in a memorable way is the stuff that dreams (albeit bad ones) are made of.  And while having your team win in a blowout is undeniably satisfying, it’s nothing—nothing!—compared to the satisfaction of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  (Here in Boston, for instance, 100 out of 100 Red Sox fans will affirm that beating the Yankees 4-3 in the 2004 ALCS was more gratifying than winning the World Series a week later in a clean, dull sweep.)

Does this same, slightly masochistic attitude apply to electoral politics?  Well, the media sure seem to think so, continually chasing whatever shocking plot twist comes down the pike in order to maximize ratings and keep anxious American hearts pounding.  Individual news networks may have a bias toward one political philosophy or the other, but when it comes to the news media writ large, the only bias that matters is the pursuit of sensationalism at all costs, and this requires that the race remain tight.

And yes:  Whether through the click of a remote or the click of a mouse, we, their dumb audience, eat up every last drop of it, breathlessly keeping up with every new “bombshell” development and working ourselves into a tizzy that—as Trump claimed on Friday—“This.  Changes.  Everything.”

In short:  Of course we are complicit in following politics the way we follow sports:  If we didn’t buy it, the media wouldn’t sell it.

The truth—the one we always know but rarely speak aloud—is that we will use almost any excuse not to talk about “the issues.”  For us, elections are primarily—if not entirely—about character, and in a race like this one—with two of the most distinctive characters we’ve ever had the misfortune to know—nothing is more compelling than the clash itself, and the thousand and one dynamics that are playing out at the exact same time on the largest stage in the history of the world.

Let’s face it:  The 2016 election has to go down to the wire, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth it.  It would’ve felt wrong—or at least anti-climactic—for this contest to have given us such a massive, continuous stream of material from the very beginning, only to end with a predictable and embarrassingly one-sided result.

Don’t get me wrong:  In a rational, moral universe, any presidential campaign that involved Donald Trump would’ve ceased being suspenseful the moment Trump became the Republican nominee.  Ideally, this race had no business being this interesting; by now, even a challenger as flawed as Clinton should’ve been ahead by at least 20 or 30 points.

Unfortunately, we live instead in the Land of Deplorables, where nearly half the country is prepared to vote for a confessed sexual predator just to avoid voting for a woman.  Until we grow up as a nation—and cease being so inherently polarized—we are fated to never have a lopsided presidential election ever again.  And if that’s the case, we might as well savor the intense, if nauseating, excitement of a contest that may not be decided until very, very late into the night of November 8, hoping—as we’ve never hoped before—that it will come out right in the end.

Thirteen Needles

Twenty-five years ago this March, two burglars made off with 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  To date, no one has ever been arrested in connection with the theft, and none of the stolen items has been found.

Until recently, I had assumed the nightmare scenario for the museum was that all 13 pieces would remain missing forever, despite exhaustive efforts over the last quarter-century to get them back.

However, from a new book that tries to make sense of the Gardner heist and its aftermath, I realize there is an eventuality that is even worse:  What if the stolen paintings no longer exist?  What if they have long been buried or destroyed and all the inquiries into their whereabouts have been in vain?

It’s a terrible thing to consider—something, no doubt, that the FBI and museum officials have tried very hard not to consider—but we must entertain the possibility in light of the facts.

Admittedly, when it comes to this story, facts of any kind have been awfully hard to come by.  The FBI took charge of the investigation from the start and has been very careful not to disclose anything even slightly interesting about its findings.  That the case remains elusive after all these years only serves to heighten the intrigue into what is already one of the most compelling grand thefts in modern times—and certainly one of the strangest.

It was in the early hours of March 18, 1990—just as St. Patrick’s Day was winding down—when two men in police uniforms and fake mustaches talked their way into Ms. Gardner’s stately treasure house, tied up the night watchmen and proceeded to plunder their way through the museum’s storied galleries, crudely cutting paintings from their frames and leaving piles of broken glass everywhere.

Among the items they stole were The Concertone of only 34 surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer—and Rembrandt van Rijn’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which, apart from being utterly stunning, is notable as the only instance in which the great Dutch master painted the sea.

The thieves also made off with (among other things) two additional Rembrandts, five drawings by Edgar Degas, paintings by Édouard Manet and Govert Flinck and (for whatever reason) an eagle-shaped bronze finial from atop an old flag.

All told, the 13 works are estimated to be worth around $500 million.  On that basis, it is considered the greatest art heist of all time.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read, in the newly-published Master Thieves by retired Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, that the whole caper was likely planned, executed and covered up by a bunch of ignorant, reckless idiots.

Say what you will about the art world’s evil, twisted black marketeers, but at least they treat their stolen property with respect.

If Kurkjian’s reporting is to be believed—a reasonable bet for a newsman with more than 40 years’ experience and three Pulitzer Prizes to his name—the Gardner heist contained no such James Bond-like elegance.  Rather, it was simply and tragically a consequence of an epic Boston gang war in the late 1980s.  Really, it had nothing to do with art at all.

Kurkjian’s hunch—derived from an apparently credible source—is that a mid-level mobster named Robert Donati carried out the robbery with an associate to facilitate the prison release of a key member of his tribe.  That is, he intended to use the near-priceless artwork as a bargaining chip with the authorities:  If they would agree to set his jailed friend free, he would arrange for the safe return of the art.

Fair enough, except for two unexpected developments.  First, the heist immediately became a major world news event, with not one, not two, but 40 FBI agents assigned to the case, following every conceivable lead.  And second, roughly a year after the theft, Donati, the alleged mastermind, stepped out his front door and was stabbed 21 times by assailants who have never been identified.

So what happened to the paintings in the period in between?

The trouble, as Kurkjian explains, is that mobsters like these have a way of not telling each other what they’re up to.  For all sorts of reasons—most of them involving simple greed or self-preservation—key details about major scores tend not to leak out into the greater mob community.  Indeed, even within more intimate criminal “families,” no one goes out of their way to volunteer information that could lead to double-crossing or glory-taking somewhere down the line.

What may well have happened, in other words, is that Donati panicked in light of the robbery’s wide publicity, hid the artwork where it could never be found and then got himself murdered without bothering to mention the buried treasure’s whereabouts to anyone who might still be alive.

That would certainly explain the amazing fact that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting of any of the 13 pieces in the last 25 years—a highly improbable feat had the paintings been freely bouncing around the criminal underworld, as many assume they have.

And so the ultimate hindrance to recovering the Gardner stash may not be a lack of cooperation from the alleged burglars’ surviving comrades, who famously pride themselves on not being “rats.”  It may be that these unsavory characters have been telling the truth the whole time:  That nobody knows nothin’.

It may be, then, that the world’s most devastating art heist was orchestrated for no good reason, with no beneficial results—not even for those who did it—and with no happy ending.  A disparate set of masterworks may have been buried, burned or otherwise disposed of without anyone even realizing it, and we may never know for sure whether the search is worth continuing.

That said, it is a great credit to our civilization that we haven’t given up after all this time; that the case is still very much in the news; that the museum is offering a $5 million reward and legal immunity to anyone who assists in the art’s recovery; that we recognize the intrinsic value of great art and have a wing of the FBI (albeit a small one) devoted solely to such recoveries.  That the Dutch Room at the Gardner Museum still displays the empty frames on its walls, figuring that sooner or later they will once again be filled.

Master Thieves—required reading for anyone with an interest in this case—filled me with much more despair than hope, even as its author maintains some optimism that at least a portion of the Gardner plunder will someday rise from the dead.  He trusts, as do the authorities, that there is at least one living person with an idea of where the paintings might be, and might be persuaded to divulge such intelligence under the right circumstances.

I hope so, too, but from Kurkjian’s own reporting, I worry that we’re facing a haystack without any needles.  That the reason no one has seen the missing art is that it no longer exists.  That not all mysteries can be solved—including ones worth half a billion dollars.

The most revered of the missing Gardner pieces—the Rembrandt seascape—depicts a famous event from the gospels in which Jesus calms a great storm by performing a miracle.  If we are ever to set eyes on that mesmerizing scene again—along with the 12 others—a miracle might be the only thing for which we can hope.