Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Traveling in India: Learning Curves & Costanza

With all the news about the President’s trip to India, I recall my own trip almost exactly a year ago. In fact, I went to the Republic Day parade in Delhi and it was great although I was not invited to sit with the Prime Minister (a shocking oversight.)

So India was a blast, a fascinating place and I would go back in a second. But there is a learning curve. My most recent previous trip abroad had been to Greece for a conference. Greece is no problem. It is designed for tourism, English is abundant and it was great, easy, and wonderful. Yes there was a financial crisis, but it had very little to do with us. There appeared to be protests but they seemed pretty benign (we visited one.) We saw riot police around, but usually with their helmets off and lit cigarettes - which tells me either the riot is over or they aren’t really expecting one.

India is more difficult. Things don’t work the way you expect.

First, India has the potential to turn you into George Constanza - obsessed with small amounts of money and the location of acceptable bathrooms. This is not ludicrous.

(Actually now that I think about it, there was a Seinfeld where the gang went to India and George didn’t go to the bathroom the entire trip.)

The Marble Palace in Kolkata is a fascinating visit. It is the beautiful but decaying mansion of some 19th century landowners who bought just about everything they could in Europe. There is a huge variety of European art, of a great variety of quality. To go, one either has to arrange for a special permit beforehand or pay a bribe at the door. My enjoyment of this was not complete. Having diligently stayed hydrated I needed to use the facilities. Unfortunately the facilities available were not acceptable (putting mildly). So I tried to concentrate, but I think I got a bit less out of my visit than I would have otherwise.

After that visit, I had the driver take me to a luxury hotel where I could take care of things. Regardless, lesson learned, always have a “go” strategy.

The other thing is that as a tourist everyone you might is looking to make money off of you and you tip everybody - and often prices aren’t set - so there are minimal guidelines as to how much to tip. It is always, “As you wish.”

You leave your hotel to walk around, a dozen cabbies and rickshaw drivers begin calling for your business. If you stand still for an instant, someone will offer their assistance by shepherding you to a restaurant or store that they work with. (Side note, my wife and I are not shoppers. We don’t have the money for really nice stuff and we are not interested in accumulating junk. But everyone wants you to come by their store…)

Things in India are, on the whole, inexpensive. But the constant barrage of sales makes one extra cognizant of their money and thus less welling to part with it.

One example, we went to a world renown bird sanctuary near Bharatpur (which is a couple of hours form New Delhi.) We had a terrific guide who walked about five miles around the sanctuary with us, pointing our birds and snakes. It was really pretty great. He carried around his telescope and had a trick for placing the lens of a phone on the lens of his telescope for great close-up shots. (Side note: on hearing we were from Washington DC he was very familiar with the government shut-down and had many questions about it. The world can be an oddly small place.) So it was a great tour.

His rate was 250 rupee per hour ($4-5 dollars). So I estimated the total price would be 1250 rupee and I’d add a generous tip, maybe give him 1800 rupee for a great tour where we saw just about every bird in India (and some snakes - did I mention the snakes?) When we were done the total was 1800 rupee! He added 50 rupee an hour for carrying around the telescope and I rounded down to 5 hours while he rounded up. I gave him 2000 rupee and walked away a bit perturbed.

Which was a ridiculous way to feel! 2000 rupee at the then exchange rate was about $35 - a terrific price for a really incredible tour. But, having had people harp on me for tips and money, I was sensitive and didn’t want to be “taken.” Of course the reality was, I was going to be “taken” no matter what I did and what I paid.

That being said, the best forty rupee I spent in India was paying someone to go away. Across from our hotel in New Delhi was the Jantar Mantar, an outdoor astronomical observatory. For its time it was an extremely sophisticated laboratory which took precise measurements of the movements of the planets. I’ll be honest,I have no idea how it worked and I could read and re-read and probably never quite understand it. But it was fascinating, first as an effort to understand how the universe works and also as an odd surreal space.

An older gentleman joined us and began telling us about the Jantar Mantar. We had acquired a guide. It became quickly apparent that he was reciting to us what was on the plaques posted around the site. My wife does not brook being ripped off and we’d just been through the whole put-put shopping thing.

“I got this,” I told her. I went to our “guide” explained to him that we’d see the site on our own pace and handed him two twenties (which was worth about 75 cents.)

Money well spent.

Overshadowing my peevishness was the flat out there is simply astounding poverty. It is on an unbelievable scale. Every tour book will advise you to avoid beggars, not even to make eye contact as that just encourages them. Of course as a Westerner you stick out and are a magnet to all of them. At the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, waiting for my driver, a man with only one working limb (an arm) on an odd bike contraption tried to catch my eye. When I walked to another corner he followed. But I had been counseled, if I gave him money many more would come out of the woodwork. It was unbearable.

One quickly and simply has to come to terms. The poverty in India is bigger than you, it has causes that are complex and will resist simple solutions. Unless you are willing to turn your life around and become Mother Theresa, you simply have to ignore it. There is no way in your short trip that you can have the slightest impact and tossing your money around will only get you more unwanted attention. This is, unfortunately, the reality. When I spoke to Indian friends, they shrugged. They just ignore it too.

Of course Obama’s trip is a bit different than mine. The only person asking him for money was Prime Minister Modi and they have a lot to offer one another. Also, the President of the United States might be able to take a crack at helping to reduce poverty in this magnificent fascinating country. More power to him.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Paris Attacks: Terrorism, the Press & What's Next

Andrej Matisak, the foreign affairs editor at the Slovak daily Pravda, blogs at A Stamp on the World and asked me for some of my thoughts on the terrorist attack in Paris.

His questions are in italics.

President Fran├žois Hollande called the attack an act of terrorism. Without too much speculations who did it I think we can call an attack on media also the attack on freedom of speech. So in your opinion, how should media react, should there be some limits for example in depicting the Prophet? 

My response is below, but you can read some other responses here:
The freedom of expression is essential to a modern humane society. While one can sympathize with Muslim anger at negative depictions of Muhammad, there is no justification for violence. Most people have objects and individuals that they venerate, but part of being a member of an open society is accepting that what one holds dear and sacred may be an object of humor or scorn to others. Free societies offer innumerable legitimate means of protest. Perhaps the most significant means of protest is to simply ignore what give offense. 
Journalists and the media should stand firm and not bow before intimidation, although one can sympathize that they are worried about their safety. The story should be reported soberly and without hyperbole. These monsters were willing to kill people over some pictures in a magazine. This is a trivial reason – an excuse – for murder. That simple fact above all else should be highlighted and emphasized.
I know we should be careful to conclude anything at this stage, but what do you make out of these attacks in France? From your point of view, do you see an indication that this could be a bigger terrorist operation linked to AQAP (ISIS, maybe), perhaps even a sleeper cell (could they be more)?

My response is below, but you can read some other responses here including the thoughts of the always thoughtful Max Abrams:
We have conflicting claims that this was an AQAP operation and an ISIS operation. While the attackers were inspired by these groups, it is not clear whether or not there was external direction to this operation. It is also difficult to know if this is part of a larger plot and events could prove this analysis wrong. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be part of a larger plot. While French intelligence was caught off-guard by these attacks, they are nonetheless highly capable organizations. Stopping a specific attack requires a combination of skill and luck. However, as events unfolded it became clear that French intelligence knew a great deal about the perpetrators. Undoubtedly, suspect associates of the perpetrators will receive visits in the next few days to forestall follow-on attacks. If there were to be more attacks, they would have been launched already. Further more attacks may not be necessary. With a relatively small terror attack, the murderers shut down a great city and threw a nation into panic. Their goal was terror, and terror is what they achieved.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is a Pakistani Turnaround Possible?

Because it is Pakistan, my first thought about the school attack was cui bono? Did the Pakistani military engineer this to gain world sympathy, particularly as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and hence no longer needs Pakistan (and can thus deepen the growing alliance with India.)

Pakistan is a lush garden for conspiratorial thinking and it begins to rub off on those who study the place. More than a few Pakistani commentators have insisted RAW (India's intelligence agency) or some other outside power must be behind this. The reasoning being that Muslims cannot kill Muslims (spurious since across the world we see exactly that happening constantly.)

But, as the Egyptian polymath Tarek Heggy observes, in a statement all too appropriate to Pakistan:
The undemocratic rule contributes with his ideas, statements, and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his won shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements rather than on the real reason… conspiracy theory renders them [the people] defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against...
Conspiracy is unlikely. The attack was on an army school, indicating the army itself is vulnerable. That would be a bridge too far for the brass of Rawalpindi.

That the Pakistani Taliban would carry out such an attack indicates that the military's offensive may be working - although these things are hard to know with any certainty. It is probably true that the Pakistani Army is causing mass casualties where it is fighting in the FATA, shelling, bombing and yes killing large numbers of civilians. That of course does not justify terrorism.

This has echoes of the Beslan attack in Russia. I for one have little sympathy for The Russian government across the board (I am grateful every day that my great grandparents had the sense to get the hell out of that place and come to the United States of America!!!) and they did terrible things in Chechnya. But Russian parents are like parents everywhere and one hates to see them lose their children. So I have great, great sympathy for the parents who lost children - AND the people of Pakistan in general.

Is this the event that will galvanize Pakistan to root out the deep deep cancer of terrorism?

It’s awfully pretty to think so. But there have been plenty of other mass attacks in the past decade, if they did not inspire the country to get its act together, it is difficult to see what would. (I’m not alone in my pessimism.)

In fairness to the Pakistani military, the mountains of FATA have been harboring outlaws since the dawn of civilization. But that is where sympathy for Pakistan’s rulers ends. They have continually fostered Islamist terrorists as proxies in their endless war with India and their desire to undermine any kind of effective government in Afghanistan.

Further, Pakistan has continually chosen to devote its national wealth to the military in order to challenge India. The military dominates Pakistan’s politics, allowing them to grow wealthy on the eternal war with India, although in fairness Pakistan's civilian elites aren't much better. This has systematically robbed the other critical needs of the nation. While news reports often focus on madrassas educating radical cadres, Pakistan’s public education system is no better. It is also underfunded, leading to high levels of illiteracy. Critical infrastructure such as the water and electrical systems are steadily decaying - endangering agricultural and industry. Pakistan is already a poor country, and the prospects for any kind of turn-around are dim.

While FATA is the center of a Pashtun insurgency, Karachi, Pakistan’s main port, largest city, and economic engine, is riddled with crime and violence. There are also regular massacres of Pakistan’s Shia minority by large well-armed gangs/political parties.

In the past Pakistan had an impressive Westernized elite. There continue to be a deep bench of Pakistani technocrats. But the very social fabric is challenged by Pakistan’s Orwellian blasphemy laws in which any criticism of Islam can bring criminal charges. Once the accusation is made, the accused (well before any trial) risks being murdered by vigilantes. This is terrible for Pakistan’s small non-Muslim minorities. But it will soon begin to shape discourse in all sectors and chill any dissent or discussion outside of very narrow and radical bounds.

I have every sympathy for the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, without better leaders and a dramatic shift in national purpose - which would require political courage and wisdom of the highest order - I don't see what can truly better their lot and free them from the endemic violence and poverty in which they are mired.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Angling Havana: Reverberations in Tehran, Miami and Beyond

Big news one the Cuba front - I'm not really a LatAm specialist (I've dabbled), but this one has a lot of angles. I wrote a short piece for Discors, which is posted below, but it primarily focuses on the U.S. domestic politics angle. So first a few observations on the international affairs side.

Iran Angle
One of the big issues in negotiating with Iran is that they don't believe the U.S. is capable of making a deal. Opposition in Congress etc. will torpedo any agreement made with Washington, and leave Iran in a weaker position. This allows Iranian hardliners who oppose any deal with the U.S. to shrug off any progress made in negotiations.

However, by quickly doing a 180 on US-Cuba relations, the president is demonstrating that he can make things happen - if the other side will play ball. The Iranians should take note, the president can make a deal, U.S. policy can change. But it won't if they aren't ready to deal.

(There is definitely evidence that they are all hard-liners who are just playing us. That's another issue. I still believe the U.S. should negotiate in good faith. That way, if/when negotiations fail, the U.S. is in a stronger position to garner international support for further sanctions and - if necessary - militayr action.)

National Security
My good friend BJ Tucker, an insightful analyst who has followed Cuba carefully, notes that without a superpower patron, Cuba is not a major strategic problem. However, they punch well above their weight in penetrating U.S. intelligence. In his own post on Discors he wrote:
Cuba may be a small nation with limited convention military power and a minuscule economy, but it compensates rather skillfully for these shortcomings by aggressively engaging in espionage against its larger neighbor to the north. In fact, Cuba ranks in the top five among nations that aggressively target the U.S. 
Beyond the Myers and Montes cases, Cuba has worked with Iran in cyber-espionage related activities, and most recently hosted Russian signals intercept vessels. Cuba is also known to provide intelligence collected on the U.S. to third parties. 
The totality of these cases requires the U.S. to dedicate substantial resources to counter these activities – resources that could be employed elsewhere against larger foes. A normalization of relations will not stop Cuba from collecting on the U.S. However it will slowly change target prioritization and veracity of Havana's collection efforts.
As a guy who studies national security decision-making, it is important to note how issues - even small ones - can clog up the process and devour high-level time and energy. Short-term, Cuba will take up a lot of time as the relationship is reorganized. But long-term this will free important resources both at the working levels in the bureaucracy and at the top levels of the National Security Council.

Also, U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been an irritant throughout Latin America. A minor Cold War holdover that got in the way of doing business. With this removed, the U.S. may be better positioned to cooperate throughout the hemisphere. Also, Latin America generally feels ignored or bullied by Washington (and with some reason). Undertaking a major initiative in which the U.S. changes its policy will be a generally positive step.

Cheap Oil
Mexico may be collateral damage of cheap oil - Cuba may be a gift horse. Cheap oil leaves Venezuela struggling and will little extra cash to throw Havana's way. This loss of a patron, may have left Havana far more willing to talk seriously with the U.S.

Cheap oil is going to have a range of complex effects, some good, some ill. The longer it goes, the more comples the impact.

Domestic Politics in Cuba & the US
Finally, there are the questions of how this will affect Cuba and the U.S. For that, here is my post in Discors:

First and foremost, it is wonderful that Alan Gross is home, free, and re-united with his family. There are many terrible things happening all over the world. But one tragedy is over. 
The strategic implications of a new relationship with Cuba are not enormous. Still, it will remove and ongoing irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America and a distraction from more serious national security concerns. Castro and company remain thuggish kleptocrats, but this will be an important test case for the power of an open economy to transform an autocracy. Hopefully the lot of the Cuban people will improve. 
The implications for domestic policy in the United States are interesting. President Barack Obama could certainly use a win, and this is precisely the sort of game-changer that presidents are uniquely capable of creating. Future presidents will undoubtedly appreciate that this annoying Cold War holdover no longer crosses their desk. 
But the new relationship with Cuba may cast a shadow on 2016. The diehards of Miami’s Little Havana will never forgive any Democratic nominee for opening up to Cuba. But imagine Clinton vs. Bush, with Miami's Little Havana as a key battleground? Shades of 2000? How did Cuba become such a central player in our political clan warfare? Will history repeat itself, this time as a farce?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Valerie Jarrett: Nothing New (or bad) About White House Courtiers

Five Myths about Valerie Jarrett? It makes her sound like BigFoot or Chessie (the sea monster that haunts the Chesapeake Bay, of course)? Usually this Washington Post feature is reserved for a major issue on the public agenda – like military suicides or the efficacy of sanctions. Somehow, the doings of a White House staffer are worthy of this great attention.

It started with Noam Scheiber of The New Republic who wrote a lengthy profile entitled The Obama Whisperer describing her as an all-powerful aide/alter-ego who was deeply attuned to the President’s thoughts. It was a good readable piece.

This triggered a cascade of follow-ups, one saying she is the source of all of Obama’s problems and must go. There is the counter-argument that all of this agita is due to her being a woman of color. If she were a man, her doings would be unremarkable. There were others. Finally, the U.S. Department of Journalism The Washington Post, had to set the issue straight with its Five Myths.

There is nothing new under the sun. Every President has a couple of close aides with whom they discuss everything. Carter had his Georgians, particularly Hamilton Jordan. Reagan had his Californians, Clinton had the Little Rock Crew, and Bush Jr. had his Texans, particularly Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. There are a lot more examples. This goes back to Andrew Jackson and his “kitchen cabinet” if not before. What exactly these aides with lofty, but often vague, titles do varies from President to President. Michael Deaver, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, was in charge of the President’s time and mood. Reagan, as an actor, didn’t like to make trouble on the set and was very agreeable. But the demands on a President’s time are infinite, Deaver helped to make sure he wasn’t over-booked. If that sounds minor, consider, time is a President’s most valuable commodity and Deaver helped protect it and make sure it wasn’t wasted.

A little academic theory, Richard Neustadt talked about the President as an actor in bureaucratic politics in which he has to bargain and negotiate (including with his own cabinet members.) An important augmentation and counter-point to this theory is court politics. Really important people usually have a couple of close aides, a court, which serves them directly. In the words of former Kennedy White House aide Dan Fenn:
It strikes me that the need for a personal staff, a court if you will, derives precisely from the fact that leaders feel they must have some people with whom they do not have to negotiate, deal, and exchange favors.  The whole power environment within which the leader operates is dominated by that phenomenon…  More of these relationships is exactly what the leader does not want and need.  If he or she is to “enhance the capacity to rule,” to use Prof. Neustadt’s phrase, there simply has to be at least a handful of people around on whom that leader can rely.  They serve as friends, as confidants, as vessels into which anger and frustration can be safely poured.  When they operate outside the command post, the chief has to have a basic confidence that they are dealing with people and issues as he would be dealing with them if her were talking on the telephone or writing the memorandum.

Valerie Jarrett’s job is to take care of stuff to the President – including talking to him when he needs to talk. Every President has aides like that. She is  - and this is not meant pejoratively, since every President needs them – a courtier.

The central genesis for all of this talk about Jarrett is not really her. Obama has not worked out and those who placed such high hopes in him are looking for a cause. Is there a shadowy White House aide who is whispering into the President’s ear and keeping him from doing what really needs to be done (or egging him on to do what is unwise.) We went through this with Bush 43 and the persistent rumors about Cheney and Rove. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now.

There is always the idea that if the “boss only knew” what was really going on and wasn’t shielded from the real world by aides they would set things right. In politics there is usually the myth that a few tactical adjustments and the President would be doing great. People love to talk tactics, but there are big structural factors lined up against Obama. He hasn’t always played his cards well, which contributed to the big electoral defeat. But the truth is Presidents almost always get creamed in midterms and in this case the electoral map favored Republicans. More broadly, Obama faced a Republican controlled house that had few incentives to cooperate. That is the hand he was dealt. What political capital he had he spent at the beginning on Obamacare (for better or worse – history will judge). Could he have sold it better? Could he have managed various crises better? Would that have made any substantial difference? As Hemingway ends The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

And that’s the final point – for all of her access, the stories about her don’t seem terribly significant. (Nothing against Ms. Jarrett who is obviously a capable and impressive person.) But I got that she clashed with Rahm Emmanuel (who didn’t?), gave the stink-eye to an important speaker, and called Donna Brazile during the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Let’s take the last issue, because it is the classic Presidential problem. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t cap that damn oil well. Obama was little more than a spectator, but he had to look like he was doing something. So Jarrett called Brazile, a party politico with roots in NOLA. The White House looked like it was doing the kinds of things the White House is supposed to do. White House courtiers often play the biggest role not on the big things, but on the little things, because sometimes even the President can only control the little things and when the President is dealing with big things someone else needs to mind the little things.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veterans Day Reflection: Binding the Past & Present

Yesterday Blogs of War ran the following short piece I wrote in honor of Veterans Day:

On June 5, 2014 I visited Fort Bliss’ Highlander Field in El Paso, Texas to watch as the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, of the 4 Brigade Combat Team, of the First Armored Division (Old Ironsides) said farewell to its commander Lt. Colonel Ronny Johnson and welcomed its new commander, my friend of over two decades, Lt. Colonel William Adler.

The battalion is known as "The Regulars” because in the battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812, while wearing the uniforms of American militia, they surprised the British by pressing their attack rather than collapsing. The British general supposedly yelled, “Those are Regulars, by God!”

The story may be a myth. The only witness was the 4th battalion’s commander, future President Zachary Taylor. But myths exist to show us deeper truths. Regular is synonymous with ordinary, even dull. But in this context it is high praise. It means that they were professional soldiers.

A battalion consists of 300-1000 soldiers. Coordinating several hundred people to perform complex and timely operations is no small feat. Achieving this feat under the harrowing conditions of combat is a challenge of the highest order. There must be no illusions. This is what the military does. Both the brigade commander and outgoing battalion commander stated, "The battalion's mission is to be prepared to deploy globally to kill the enemies of the United States."

To carry out these missions successfully, to be professional soldiers, to merit being “Regulars” is a mark of excellence.

In peacetime, soldiers prepare for war, practicing their craft. Hopefully, their skill will deter enemies, but history suggests otherwise.

Procedure and training guide the hand and sharpen the mind. Great business leaders cite the importance of mission in motivating people to achieve. How much more true must this be, when the business is one of dealing and suffering death?

The change of command ceremony, albeit brief, reaches deep into time to nurture this sense of mission. It is a living reminder to the unit’s soldiers of the unit’s traditions, past and honor - the sense that they are marching in a long line of history.

When the incoming and outgoing commanders reviewed the troops they were following a tradition established by Alexander the Great. At the end of the ceremony the soldiers paraded off the field, this reflected a newer innovation, from the Middle Ages.

At the heart of the change of command ceremony is the “passing of the guidon,” the unit’s colors. For Roman legions, medieval knights, and musketeers a unit’s standards showed the commander’s location so soldiers could rally to their leader. Now the standards serve a less practical, but still essential purpose of symbolizing the unit's honor. The announcer explained, "The commander may die, but the colors continue."

In the modern Army, personnel move to new units at regular intervals. In a few years no one currently associated with the Regulars will still be a Regular. Yet the unit will continue. If the battalion commander is the head and the command sergeant major is the heart – the colors are the unit’s soul, the ineffably quality that makes something unique and allows excellence.


Allow me to add a few personal notes. I met Bill (Lt. Col. Adler) and his wife Alice as an undergraduate at Emerson College over twenty years ago. They are just fantastic people. One tiny example, as I was driving to the Change of Command Ceremony, I received a text from Alice, making sure I was ok and wasn't having a problem getting there. She was on point for one of the biggest moments of her husband's professional life (and which is a pretty big deal for her too). She had people and an reception to organize. But she found time to check in on me! I'm pretty sure I would have forgotten me under those circumstances, but I'm not Alice.

At the party that night, I was treated like a visiting celebrity - even though the day was about Bill. 

Bill, a thoughtful, smart guy, is achieving his life's dream. Commanding a battalion is the sweet spot. It is the highest level of command where you are still in touch with the troops and personnally engaged in the action. He wanted to be Army when we were in undergrad when the rest of us wanted to be directors, radio DJs, and stand-up comedians. For most of us, dreams collided with reality and came out worse for wear. But Bill made it!

Finally, the picture above is from Reyes Photography, but Alice Adler is a terrific photographer.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reason and the White House Astrologer

Joan Quigley, an astrologer who advised Nancy Reagan, died recently. While Quigley played a big role in scheduling and made MichaelDeaver’s life difficult, she didn’t have any policy influence. Still, for some this was taken as the absolute epitome of the ludicrousness of the Reagan presidency. But perhaps something deeper and more interesting was going.

Richard Neustadt, the renowned scholar of the presidency, and not inclined to be a friendly judge of the Reagan administration, was surprisingly forgiving about Nancy Reagan seeing an astrologer, observing:

Nancy was perhaps that rarity, a disinterested advisor. …her husband’s closest associates, however valuable or liked or even loved, were to be sacrificed, in her view, from the moment their continuation on the scene could compromise the President’s public relation. In concern for his physical safety, she did something Regan (out of office) characterized as silly: consulting an astrologer about her man’s engagements where the White House had discretion in setting of a date-silly, to be sure, though possibly no more so than the whims of staff, or press, or partisans, or family quite traditional in such decisions.

We imagine President’s being in control, but in many ways they are as subject to the whims of fate as anyone. A combination of duty and other people’s schedules drive their day. Nancy Reagan adored her husband and was terrified that he might be assassinated. What could she do? Did consulting an astrologer and manipulating dates give her a sense of control, which in turn brought a modest peace of mind – allowing her to help her husband?

Maybe. Is it terrible that Nancy Reagan turned to astrology, which of course has no credible scientific basis? I don’t see why? Reason rejects astrology, but reason offered Nancy Reagan no comfort about her husband’s safety. Could security experts have briefed her and tried to convince her he would be safe? Sure, but why should she believe them since an assassin got through once before? Maybe she could have had a doctor subscribe some anti-anxiety medication, it would have been cheaper (Quigley was paid $3000 monthly) but would it have had a better result?

Astrology and its many cousins fill a need. We can decry this as superstition, but is that completely fair? Certainly there are people taken in by hucksters – but it is tough to believe such people won’t find some other way to bankrupt themselves. For others, who spend a little money on occasion, it does little harm and may even do some good.

In the Richard Ford novel The Sportswriter Frank Bascombe visits a fortune teller, explaining:

But where else can you get, on demand, hopeful, inspiring projections for the real future. Where else, on a windy day in January, can you drive out beset by blue devils and in five minutes be semi-reliably assured by a relative stranger that you are who you think you are, and that things aren’t going to turn out so crappy after all?

Science is a tremendous, awesome thing, grounded on hard findings that have been rigorously tested. It has made our lives safer and more comfortable in astounding, endless ways. But sometimes it does not provide the comfort we need. We may, in this age of “big data” be moving towards analytical understanding of the affairs of the heart. So be it. But understanding something emotionally painful may not be much help working through the emotional pain.

Science may very well tell us that rationally we are tiny specks in a vast uncaring – but marvelous – universe. I personally am filled with wonder by much of it, but staring into infinity can be exhausting for all but the bravest. Sometimes, we crave small comforts and the assurance that infinitesimal speck we may be – there is some hope and purpose to us after all.

Since we are talking of astrology, I should be give the final words to my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies. In What’s Bred in the Bone the main character’s lover, a well-educated woman who is researching a book on astrology offers to give the main character a reading. She explains, “A horoscope means someone is really paying attention to you, and that is rarer than you might think.”

Later, when giving his reading and he complains about it being “far too vague, too mythological,” she replies:

I’ve told you already; it’s a way of channeling intuitions and things that can’t be reached by the broad, floodlit paths of science. You can’t nail it down, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for brushing it aside. You can’t talk to the Mothers [that character’s term for archetypes] by getting them on the phone, you know. They have an unlisted number.