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Saturday, May 27, 2017


I am put in mind about the story of The Little Juggler.  What can I possibly add to the celebration of the flood of news that keeps me, and tens of millions of others, glued to our TV sets or IPhones?  I have never even met a newspaper reporter, although a good college friend went on, after we had lost touch, to work for the TIMES.  But there is one aspect of this complex story that fascinates me, and a personal experience from thirty years ago may illuminate it a bit.  I refer to the leaks.

In 1986, I spent five weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa lecturing on Marx in the Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits.  The chairman of the department was Jonathan Suzman, the nephew of a famous anti-apartheid activist Member of Parliament named Helen Suzman.  The Suzmans were a wealthy family, and Jonathan belonged to a toney downtown private men’s club called the Rand Club.  After I had been there three or four weeks, he invited me to dine at the club with him and a small group of prominent men – some bankers and corporate executives, the editor of one of the leading English language newspapers [not The Daily Mail.]  I borrowed a tuxedo [only the third time I had worn one] and went off to see how the one percent lived.  There were six or eight of us in a private dining room, served by quiet, efficient, deferential Black men doing their best to be invisible.

At this time, the government was carrying out active raids against groups of fighters based in Botswana who were members of the military wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto we Sizwe.  The newspaper editor gave those of us at the dinner some not-for-publication information about bombing raids carried out by the South African air force against suspected camps inside Botswana.  A lively discussion ensued about whether the raids would be successful, where they would strike next, and the size of the rebel forces.

I sat there, utterly mystified by the ease with which these men spoke about secret matters in the presence of Black waiters, who, during the conversation, continued to refill our coffee cups and clear away dishes.  Then I realized the truth: these smart, well-educated, politically clued up men simply did not see the waiters, they did not exist for them save as extensions of their dining needs.  It was exactly like Mitt Romney’s famous 47% remark, made at a supposedly closed dinner and recorded on a cellphone by one of the waiters.  Since I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, I amused myself by wondering which of the waiters was the ANC operative charged with reporting everything that was said at the dinner.

As the flood of leaks continues, I find myself wondering who is doing the leaking.  There were very few people in the Oval Office when Trump blurted out top secret information to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister [the Oval Office, I am told, is actually not very big, and will not hold large gatherings.]  The leak must have come from one of those few people present.  You do not need to conduct an extensive investigation to make a short list of suspects.  Are there people working in the White House who are as invisible to Trump and his “senior advisors” as those waiters were to my dinner partners at the Rand Club?  Some flunky must be tasked with actually typing up the notes taken by some other flunky at the meeting.  My understanding is that when a new administration come into office, everyone in the old White House right down to the chef, the bathroom attendants, and cleaning staff is fired and new people are brought in.  These leaks must be coming from supposed loyalists.

As our distinguished President likes to ask, What the hell is going on?


Unknown said...

The White House staff is not completely cleared out when administrations change. The Washington Post frequently publishes stories about the retirement of an employee who had served several presidents. The top positions usually change--even the chef. But the people who vacuum the rugs, do the laundry, take out the garbage don’t change. The same is true of some of the more clerical positons. White House butlers typically stay on--Duke Ellington’s father was a White House butler under a number of presidents. There would have been many opportunities to leak.

That said, it might well have been someone further up the chain who leaked--it would have to have been someone who realized the significance of what Trump told the Russians. This is likely true as well as the leak about Trump telling that thug in the Philippines about the location of the nuclear submarines.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is fascinating. Many thanks for the clarification.

s. wallerstein said...

I was a newspaper reporter for several years, so now you've met one online.

mesnenor said...

In the specific case of the blabbing of top-secret intel to the Russians, it may well be someone on Team Dump who was trying to do damage control. If secrets were blabbed and the fact wasn't leaked, then the fact that the Russians know about the blabbing and the general public does not becomes yet another piece of kompromat that the Russians have over Dump. And that extra kompromat could be potentially more damaging in the long term than the damage from the leak in the short term.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

mesnenor, you have a twisted mind. Ilove it! :)

David said...

The Comey firing makes a lot more sense now: it was Kushner, according to a leaked story mentioned in Elizabeth Drew's NYRB column, who advised Trump to fire Comey. Kushner has a lot to fear from the FBI.

Cynical Lawyer said...

Obviously I was not there at the Rand Club and have never met any of the people who were, but I think it's possible you aren't being cynical enough about this kind of thing. In that context, if you are a right thinking person, blabbing — or getting someone to blab — about the government's plans to a bunch of clubbable guys in front of the help is one of the easiest and safest (for you) ways to get the information to the ANC.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

All things are possible, of course. I can only say that thirty years of experience in South Africa does not incline me to interpret the event in that way. But what do I know?

s. wallerstein said...

I've never been to South Africa, but I've spent most of my life in so-called Third World societies, in Latin America. In my experience, as Professor Wolff observes, people, even ostensibly progressive people, do not see the "help".

David Goldman said...

This provides a fascinating alternative explanation for the leaks:

"The story had multiple sources. I know one of those sources. He can only be characterized as an ardent Trump supporter who desperately wants the president to succeed. But as more than one member of the Trump White House realizes, sometimes the president will not take advice. Sometimes the president treats suggestions as criticism. More often than not, the president is vastly more interested in what the media says about him than what his advisers in his employ say to him.

"White House staff have ample incentive to leak to the press when they believe the president needs to pay attention or be admonished. This was the case with the source I know. He was not in the Oval Office while the Russians were there, but he was involved with the matter and participated in conversations leading up to and after the conversation with the Russians."