Saturday, October 21, 2017

Television Review: 'The Vietnam War' by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

A Warped Mirror
Omissions and distortions mar Ken Burns’s Vietnam War, a missed opportunity to provide an historically honest look at the conflict.
October 20, 2017
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Ken Burns, from left, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Lynn Novick speak at PBS' "The Vietnam War" panel at the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Twenty-seven years ago, Ken Burns mesmerized American audiences with The Civil War, an 11-hour documentary that took five years to produce. Forty million Americans watched the initial airing, and many more watched reruns or read the companion book. The series rekindled popular interest in the Civil War, stimulating a flood of books and battle reenactments that continues to this day.
Burns and co-director Lynn Novick spent ten years and $30 million producingThe Vietnam War, an 18-hour, ten-episode production. Anyone tuning in to media coverage or attending one of the public panels featuring Burns and Novick is likely to conclude that the new documentary has equaled The Civil War in historical and artistic virtuosity. But if one listens to American or South Vietnamese veterans of the conflict—more easily heard today, thanks to the Internet—the verdicts are less complimentary.
During the months-long publicity blitz preceding the documentary’s release, Burns and Novick vowed that The Vietnam War would not malign American veterans of Vietnam or blame them for the war, as had happened so often in the past. Instead, the film would portray veterans as patriotic Americans who answered their nation’s call to duty. The documentary would support the troops, without necessarily supporting the war. As for the war itself, the production would not promote a particular viewpoint. “We don’t have an agenda,” Burns told the media. “We’re just umpires calling balls and strikes.” So why aren’t veterans as enthused about The Vietnam War as they should be?
The foremost reason is that Burns and Novick are not actually impartial referees, but instead use the documentary to promote an agenda, in ways glaringly obvious to veterans though not readily apparent to those too young to have lived through the war. Burns and Novick wish to show that America fought a war that was unnecessary and unwinnable, and that it did so out of national hubris.
With the consistency of a jackhammer, the documentary highlights the events most conducive to a negative interpretation of American involvement, while ignoring those supporting more positive interpretations. During 1962 and 1963, for instance, the Vietnamese Communists lost nearly every battle, yet the only battle from this period that Burns and Novick cover is the Communist victory at Ap Bac. Compounding the distortion, the documentary characterizes Ap Bac as historically representative.
During 1966 and 1967, American forces inflicted hundreds of lopsided defeats on the North Vietnamese, but the six battles that Burns and Novick feature in the episodes devoted to those years belong to a small minority of engagements where both the American and North Vietnamese forces suffered heavy losses. In the battles that it covers, the documentary takes little note of the heroism of American veterans, aside from a few fleeting references. Nothing is said of the 259 Americans who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, or the tens of thousands who won other combat awards, or the many more whose valor was recognized only by their comrades.
It’s as if a football team won 150 games, tied 10, and lost 2 over seven seasons, but its video chronicler focused only on the ties and losses. The players on that team would hardly be expected to view that videographer as their supporter, no matter how much he professed to be one, and no matter how often he claimed to have no agenda.
U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers generally committed more errors in the battles where the Americans sustained the most casualties; Burns and Novick consistently emphasize these errors as evidence that American military leaders were inept. John Del Vecchio, one of the finest novelists of the Vietnam War, blasted Burns and Novick for vilifying American officers in his online rebuttal of the documentary. “I wish here to openly thank leaders and commanders of 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) units from platoons to brigades for their leadership which was so vastly superior to what I’ve seen portrayed by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick,” Del Vecchio wrote. “Surely I was blessed to soldier under such NCOs and officers.”
Burns and Novick restricted their on-camera interviews to individuals who participated in the war, leaving out historians, aside from those who were also veterans. The first-person perspectives are highly valuable, but sole reliance upon them is problematic when it comes to larger issues of military strategy and politics. Most of the senior military and political leaders are now dead, and thus unable to respond to criticisms from the narrator, or from people who observed the war on the ground—where they could see the trees but not necessarily the forest.
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Among the disgruntled veterans featured so prominently by Burns and Novick, a favorite complaint is the fighting of battles for terrain that gets abandoned after the Americans gain control of it. The veteran of a fierce hill fight says, “To take tops of mountains in the triple canopy jungle along the Cambodian-Laotian border accomplished nothing of any importance.” Fighting for remote mountains made sense, though, if one took into account the constraints that U.S. political leadership imposed upon the war. President Lyndon Johnson prohibited his generals from conducting ground operations in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, based primarily on fears of Chinese intervention in the conflict. Given this prohibition, the U.S. had to choose between fighting for the remote hills or waiting for the North Vietnamese to move into the populous regions closer to the coast. Experience showed that when the North Vietnamese came near the population, the presence of civilians greatly impeded the use of American air power and artillery, to such an extent that defeating the North Vietnamese was at least as costly as defeating them in remote areas.
The fears that drove Johnson to confine the ground war to South Vietnam proved to be misplaced, according to what we have since learned about Chinese foreign policy and North Vietnamese strategy. The Chinese, it turns out, were not willing to intervene in North Vietnam or Laos, as they had done in North Korea in 1950. General Vo Nguyen Giap reportedly said that if the United States had conducted operations in Laos and North Vietnam, it could have stymied Hanoi’s war effort with 250,000 troops—less than half of what the United States ultimately deployed. It’s one of several instances where poor decisions by U.S. political leaders squandered opportunities to preserve South Vietnam at an acceptable cost. Other errors include the overthrow of Diem in 1963 and the breaking of promises to support and protect South Vietnam after 1972. The war’s outcome was not the inevitable result of superior North Vietnamese dedication or American arrogance, as Burns and Novick would have us believe, but of errant U.S. strategic choices—and, in the last case, the antiwar sentiments of American members of Congress.
Veterans also object to the production’s favorable depiction of antiwar activists. Burns and Novick lead the audience to believe that the men who stayed home and protested against the war were as well-intentioned as those who served in Vietnam, and were actually supporting the better cause. Their opposition is presented as principled revulsion at the war, untainted by selfish desires to avoid the dangers of military service. Veteran Charles Krohn,writing about the ninth episode as a guest contributor on Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog, lamented that the episode “favors those who opposed the war more than those who fought it. Soldiers’ sacrifices seem trivialized, compared to the energy and idealism of the demonstrators.”
Burns and Novick give inordinate weight to the words of antiwar veterans, with at least one-third of those appearing onscreen having expressed antiwar views or supported antiwar causes prior to filming. Few of the series’ other veterans express support for the war—at least not in the interview segments that were aired—even though supporters far outnumber opponents among the general population of Vietnam veterans. This distortion rankled the veterans whom reporter Tatiana Sanchez interviewed for a Mercury News article. “A lot of us have a tremendous sense of pride for what we attempted to do and defend,” said veteran Jim Barker. On the New York Sun websiteveteran and author Phil Jennings berates Burns for failing to include the huge numbers of veterans who “wholly supported the war, [were] proud to have appeared in arms, and sickened by the United States’ abandonment of its freedom-seeking ally.”
Many of the antiwar interviewees express disillusionment not only with the American cause in Vietnam but also with the United States more generally. Several state that the Vietnam War convinced them that the concept of American exceptionalism was a fallacy. This theme is a particularly sore point among veterans who believe that they fought in a worthy war for a worthy country. During a panel discussion on the PBS series at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vietnam veteran and historian Lewis Sorley said that Burns was “profoundly wrong” for “referring disparagingly to what he called Americans’ ‘puffed-up sense of exceptionalism.’” Sorely added, “Clearly, Burns does not much like America.”
Though Burns and Novick resisted putting historians on screen, they did make use of an historical advisory panel. Consisting almost entirely of scholars on the left, the advisory panel makes its influence felt throughout the production, particularly in those parts read by narrator Peter Coyote (himself an antiwar activist). Reviewers for NPR, NBC, and the Washington Post who lavished praise on Burns and Novick for their evenhandedness ignored the panel’s lack of balance; one suspects that they would have taken a different view of a supposedly neutral 18-hour documentary on abortion that relied almost entirely on historians who considered abortion morally repugnant.
One veteran on the advisory panel, James Willbanks, submitted his resignation to Burns several years ago after seeing a preliminary version of the script that merely rehashed the antiwar movement’s narrative. Promising to take his concerns into account, Burns convinced Willbanks to stay on. To his credit, Burns included intermittent statements from Willbanks that provide valuable correctives to the production’s content and tone. Willbanks is seen disputing the notion that the “Tiger Force” atrocities were in any way representative of the conduct of U.S. forces in Vietnam. In the episode covering the 1972 Easter Offensive, Willbanks says that the South Vietnamese ground forces, not just U.S. air power, were essential to the defeat of the North Vietnamese. Unfortunately, these momentary expressions of views prevalent in the veteran community are overwhelmed by countervailing testimony and imagery.
The filmmakers’ bias is most evident in what is omitted. The documentary stresses the Communists’ success in marshalling Vietnamese civilians to move supplies and equipment during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 but makes no mention of the massive logistical support provided by the Chinese, including 1,000 trucks and tens of thousands of troops. This omission fools viewers into believing that the Vietnamese Communists were self-reliant, in contrast with the anti-Communists, who are depicted as puppets and dependents of the United States.
Narrator Coyote tells us that an international consensus held that Ho Chi Minh would have won a national election had it been held in 1956, as called for in the 1954 Geneva Accords. South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s refusal to participate in such elections, therefore, appears to have been an abrogation of the will of the Vietnamese people. What goes unsaid is that most South Vietnamese and American observers believed that Ho would have intimidated the North Vietnamese population into voting for him, which would have guaranteed his victory because the North was more populous than the South. In a subsequent segment, Burns and Novick criticize the Diem government for manipulating elections and winning 98 percent of the vote, but they’re silent on the North’s equally flagrant election-rigging.
The documentary accuses Diem of sending troops to round up Buddhists at their pagodas in August 1963, after he had promised to avoid repressive measures. His heavy-handed duplicity, it seems, precipitated the military coup that took his life. What’s missing here is the crucial fact that Diem authorized these raids at the urging of the same generals who later overthrew him. The generals turned against Diem because Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and an American press corps led by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan badly misread the situation and promoted a coup. The film also neglects to mention that the Buddhist protests persisted long after Diem’s death, convincing even their initial American supporters that the militant Buddhists were Communist pawns, rather than selfless champions of religious liberty, as American reporters originally portrayed them.
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The episode on 1966 includes clips of a congressional hearing in which diplomat George Kennan, founder of the American containment strategy, expresses doubt about the war’s value in containing Communism. “We would do better,” Kennan says, “if we really would show ourselves a little more relaxed and less terrified of what happens in certain of the smaller countries of Asia and Africa, and not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse every time these things occur.” Kennan, the film implies, viewed the war as hopeless, and saw withdrawal as the only viable choice. Most of the film’s heroes, in fact, allegedly recognized early on that the American effort was doomed, reinforcing the aura of inevitability that hangs over the production.
In truth, Kennan, like many others, was not adamantly opposed to the war, nor so confident of its outcome. In sections of his testimony that the film does not show, senators press Kennan to explain how the United States could extricate itself from Vietnam without doing great damage to American interests. Kennan acknowledges that he did not favor immediate withdrawal because it could facilitate Communist expansionism in neighboring countries and endanger world peace. He advocates a negotiated settlement that would allow the U.S. to withdraw without giving the appearance of selling out an ally.
In the most telling exchange, Democratic senator Frank Lausche of Ohio confronts Kennan on the question of how negotiations would produce the desired outcome. “Have not the U.S. government and the people of the United States,” asks Lausche, “probed every avenue through which there could be discussion toward reaching a settlement, and has there not been constant rebuttal of those efforts by China and by Hanoi?”
Kennan: “It is correct that we have gotten nowhere.”
When Lausche asks what the Johnson administration should do, Kennan says, “I would propose that we limit our aims and our military commitment in this area, that we decide what we can safely hold in that region with due regard to the security of our forces, that we dig in and wait and see whether possibilities for a solution do not open up.”
“There are many, many people who believe that this is exactly what our nation is trying to do,” Lausche responds.
Burns and Novick further mislead through selective use of tape recordings of the Nixon administration. Those who hear only the excerpts presented here will conclude that, for reasons of political self-interest, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were planning to stand by the South Vietnamese until the 1972 election and then cut them loose soon thereafter. Historian Luke Nichter, a leading authority on the Nixon tapes, has faulted Burns and Novick for excerpting “carefully chosen segments of the tapes to fit a preconceived notion, or a larger point sometimes taken out of context, while not giving evidence to the contrary a similar degree of attention.” As Nichter notes, Nixon often expressed multiple positions as he pondered an issue, and many of his words and deeds on the issue of South Vietnam suggested a commitment to the long-term survival of the Saigon government.
The documentary devotes five minutes to the story of the Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, photographed moments after an errant South Vietnamese napalm strike burned her skin during the 1972 Easter Offensive—one of the war’s iconic images. At the end of the segment, Coyote says that Kim Phuc “eventually left Vietnam and settled outside Toronto.” He does not mention that she fled Vietnam, seeking and obtaining asylum from its repressive Communist regime. A larger historical transgression is the film’s omission of the deliberate killing of civilians by the North Vietnamese during the same offensive. As South Vietnamese civilians fled south from Quang Tri for fear of a massacre like that inflicted by the Communists at Hue in 1968, North Vietnamese troops opened artillery fire on their slow-moving columns. Thousands of civilians were killed or wounded in these attacks. Likewise absent is any mention of the South Vietnamese civilians killed during the 1975 offensive, the estimated 65,000 South Vietnamese killed shortly after the war ended, and the tens of thousands who died in reeducation camps.
Burns and Novick repeatedly depict the South Vietnamese military and government as less committed to their cause than their North Vietnamese counterparts. Several interviewees invoke this alleged inferiority to argue that “we supported the wrong side,” evidently without concern that the other side was fighting for the pernicious ideology of Communism. As history has demonstrated repeatedly, commitment to a cause alone does not confer virtue. The Germans were more dedicated than the Poles in 1939 and the French in 1940, but no American would say that the United States should have sided with Nazi Germany.
At one point, Coyote notes that 250,000 South Vietnamese troops were killed in the war, but we’re never told why so many South Vietnamese were willing to die for a government as corrupt and unpopular as the documentary suggests. Whereas Burns and Novick explore the ideology of Ho Chi Minh at length, they ignore the nationalism and anti-Communism that motivated so many of South Vietnam’s leaders to fight to the death for their government. This disinterest in the South Vietnamese cause has galled South Vietnamese veterans as well as the Americans who fought alongside them.
“We, Vietnamese, have a crystal clear understanding of the reasons why we fought,” Nguyen van Thai and Nguyen Phuc Lien wrote in a blistering critiqueof the PBS series. “We fought because we understood the cruelty and dictatorship of the communists. We fought because we did not wish the communists to impose a barbarous and inhuman regime upon us. More than 1,000,000 people from North Vietnam fled their native land and emigrated to the South in 1954 in order to escape totalitarianism, which is ample evidence for this point. The second exodus of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s also corroborated this fact.”
The series disregards the Viet Cong’s massive loss of support in the war’s later years. In 1967, Communist recruitment of South Vietnamese youth began plummeting, and it never recovered. As the war turned increasingly against Hanoi, an estimated 200,000 of those supposedly zealous Communist troops defected to South Vietnam.
While no history of the Vietnam War can fully satisfy everyone, Burns and Novick could have achieved something close to the impartial account they promise, presenting facts and stories within their proper context and including contrasting examples that support the competing schools of thought on the war. They could have refrained from taking sides on controversies like the validity of the domino theory, the moral rectitude of the South Vietnamese government, and the merits of American exceptionalism. They could have sought advice from more than a handful of people who did not share their contempt for the war.
For evidence of what might have been, one need look no further than the Vietnam War exhibit that opened earlier this month at the New York Historical Society. As someone who served on the exhibit’s advisory panel, alongside many people with diametrically opposed viewpoints, I can attest that great effort went into ensuring the exhibit’s evenhandedness. Those dissatisfied with the polemical nature of the PBS series will find this treatment a refreshing and fair-minded alternative.
Mark Moyar is the director of the CSIS Project on Military and Diplomatic History and the author of six books, including Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: 'The Allies Strike Back 1941-43, The War in the West, Volume 2' by James Holland

By Dr. Robert Smith
March 24, 2017

Just what the world needs, another book on World War Two serving as an anthology of sorts. Bookshelves and Amazon are littered with single to multi-volume works that if not turgid, offer little new in the way of scholarship or interest. The publicity for James Holland’s The War in the West World War Two trilogy boasted that it is “the second world war as you’ve never read it before.”  Well, for many it will be just that. It is without reservation that this reviewer can say that Holland’s works actually do meet this stringent test of “does the world need another such work.” It is indeed needed and wanted— especially if it is the trilogy that James Holland is currently writing. Holland’s newest work The Allies Strike Back is that rare World War Two anthology that is indeed a page turner. The first volume, The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941: The War in the West was a very pleasant surprise indeed. This reviewer first became acquainted with Holland after reading his book, The Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed the World. That was a more than pleasant surprise as it was more than simply a polished retread of the shopworn story of the Battle of Britain.

As in The Battle of Britain, what Holland excels at is combining great storytelling with good, solid research. Holland’s narrative is interspersed with numerous first person accounts that never threaten to overwhelm the main themes. His brilliant selection of these participants shed new light on how the war impacted the individual, from the North Atlantic, to the steppes of Russia, or the North African battle plain. Holland has six pages of principal characters. This reviewer researched one of Holland’s many characters, the French film actress Corinne Luchaire who was reputed to be beautiful, but was also a collaborator (as was Coco Chanel). After the war, the French executed her father for treason and sentenced her to the dégradation nationale, which revoked her political, civil, and professional rights. 
The Chicago Daily Tribune noted her death by “BEAUTY CALLED A QUISLING NO.1 DIES IN FRANCE.” It is those types of character thumbnails that make this truly a worthy read—it is not just about the Rommel’s of the war. It is entertaining, and unlike the first volume War in the West, which had some small factual issues, The Allies Strike Back does not readily suffer from that pain. However, there are some errors. For instance, Holland called the HMS Repulse a Renown-class battlecruiser a battleship in his discussion of its sinking on 10 December 1941. He referred to Henry Stimson as the US Secretary of State for War when he was the Secretary of War and claimed that Rommel took command of the Deutsche Panzerkorps in February 1942 when it was 1941. The reader will be more than pleasantly surprised at Holland’s treatments of Operation Barbarossa and in general the Eastern Front. Any more than a casual student of history knows how much archival material there is to draw upon, and with the temporary opening of the Soviet World War Two archives, the amount of material became much richer. Holland’s overall choices draw upon enough of the familiar to allow the casual reader to know where they are at in the war, but he goes beyond that for the more serious student.

Fairly or not, many informed readers judge new works on World War Two by new material, as time after time authors present the same images of American soldiers trudging up the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. It is difficult to think that the work is not going to be in essence a retread when the photographs and maps are yawn inducing for having been used seemingly infinitum in other works. Although the maps and diagrams chosen by Holland are in shades of gray and white primarily, they are of great interest. Some of his diagrams include the Luftwaffe Air Defense in the West, types of merchant vessels, the Murmansk convoy routes, and how ASDIC worked with the Hedgehog U-Boat weapon. Each one merits comments. The location of flying schools AND night-fighting schools are noted on the Luftwaffe map while the merchant vessel diagram allows readers to see the ship in their mind based on the author’s handy reference chart. The Murmansk convoy route shows the mean ice pack limits (a search of other books with such a map did not uncover similar features), while the ASDIC-Hedgehog diagram allows the reader to grasp how the two systems worked together to hunt and kill U-boats. Holland’s judicious use of facts like noting that in 1942, the Germans had seventeen different tank guns in productions, illustrates his sense of how an economy of scale haunted the Third Reich in the war of the factories.

Holland states in his introduction, “There is not, however the space . . . to give the War in the East the detailed attention it deserves.” This might give a reader the mistaken impression that Holland then in essence deals with the Eastern Front in an abstract manner. Far from it as Holland gives more time to it than was expected. More importantly, Holland briefly goes down the Third Reich War of Annihilation path in theory with its infamous “Hunger Plan,” with modern facts elaborated on in greater detail in the popular work Ostkrieg and the official German History of World War Two, Germany and the Second World War: Volumes IV and IV/I, The Attack on the Soviet Union. This is not the clean Deutsches Heer (German Army) fighting the good war against Asiatic Bolshevism to defend the west, a popular myth the Germans somewhat successfully “sold.”

What will really sell readers on the book, though, is the author’s command of the newer facts. It is an established fact that to motorize the Heer for the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Third Reich stripped conquered Europe of its vehicles. By the end of 1940, France, the most motorized nation in Europe, was down to eight percent of its prewar vehicles. Context matters and Holland provides that repeatedly, such as letting readers know that the Heer was invading the Soviet Union—which was ten times larger than France was—with an Army that was only slightly larger. However, the book contains some European and British colloquialisms that might throw a reader off, such as the use of the term “metalled roads” (unsurfaced), or worth a “punt” (bet). Field Marschall Erhard Milch, often portrayed as a buffoon and out of his league, readers learn was the only senior commander who, when Operation Barbarossa was finally given the green light, ordered new woolen underwear, fur boots, and sheepskins for Luftwaffe personnel. If anything, a recurrent theme of Holland’s is how well the Luftwaffe performed during the course of the war despite never getting an operational pause to catch its breath. Few readers realize that during the epic Battle of Moscow in 1941 thirty percent of Soviet tanks were British. Holland rightfully spanks the European-centric view of the German military and its civilian leadership for its conduct of the Battle of the Atlantic. Holland goes into some detail that a U-Boat had been successfully developed that could run underwater all the time, powered by hydrogen peroxide. This was a war game-changer, but the “Naval Staff demurred. The costs were too high; it might mean interrupting current U-boat production; and there was unease about its safety,”—this despite the fact that Allied airpower was now becoming a major factor in limiting U-boat operations.

Holland tells readers “Moscow was never bombed by anything close to a mass raid.” That is true within the context of what Germany would later endure from the RAF and the USAAF, but on 21 July 1941, the Germans bombed Moscow with 195 planes. His assertion that the “fully mechanized forces of theDeustche Afrikakorps would have been worth its weight in gold on the Eastern Front” is perhaps an overstated claim. Military history gamers always consider that tantalizing “what if,” but invariably reach the conclusion that the vastness of the Eastern Front would have swallowed up the Afrikakorps in a way to make it moot. His argument that Japan needed to strike for the resources of the Far East (true), the best of which lay in the hands of the British (true), the US (?), and the Dutch (true) is perhaps off in its inclusion of the Philippines for resources.

Holland pays just enough attention to some of the war’s less glamorous aspects like the war of the factories, from American production snafus to the evacuation of much of the Soviet heavy industry in advance of the German Army. He talks not only strategy, but also about culmination points in terms of Clausewitz. He even mentions that the refrain of the common German soldier “If th.e Fuhrer only knew,” a shield of sorts for Hitler, was lost once he took over command of the Eastern Front.

Without question, Holland’s writing style is among the more engaging out there, drawing the jaded World War Two reader into this work. There is little question that both his narrative skills and his research are both top-notch. The real treat for the both the casual reader as well as acolyte of World War Two history is Holland’s astute eye for building new facts and analysis into a fresh revisionism of World War Two history that has had times almost approached insufferably unassailable myth. For readers who like fresh history with an abundance of new facts, this book should merit high consideration

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Uranium One Means Mueller Must Recuse Himself from Russia Probe

By Roger L. Simon
October 18, 2017

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Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein

At the end of their lengthy editorial regarding the new Uranium One revelations --  "Team Obama's stunning coverup of Russian crimes" -- the New York Post editorial board writes:
Until September 2013, the FBI director was Robert Mueller — who’s now the special counsel probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It’s hard to see how he can be trusted in that job unless he explains what he knew about this Obama-era cover-up.
I'll go the Post one better. Virtually whatever Mueller has to say about his involvement or non-involvement in this metastasizing scandal, he must recuse himself immediately for the most obvious reasons of propriety and appearance. Frankly, it's outrageous that he, Rod Rosenstein, or anyone who even touched the Uranium One investigation now be involved with the current probe -- unless the real name of the FBI is actually the NKVD.  This is not how a democracy is supposed to work, even remotely.  Forget transparency -- this was deliberate occlusion.

The collusion Trump & Co have been accused of is chickenfeed compared to twenty percent of U.S. uranium ending up in Putin's hands under the aegis of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder, the latter two members of CFIUS (the inter-agency committee that reviews the transfer of U.S. companies to foreign entities and was then chaired by Timothy Geithner).  We have heard disturbing allegations of this for some time, via "Clinton Cash" and even from the New York Times, but the new disclosure that a 2009 FBI investigation of this possible nuclear deal uncovered kickbacks, money laundering, and bribes from the Russian company involved (Rosatom) and yet it still was given the go-ahead by the Obama administration is -- I can think of no better word -- appalling.  How could it have come to pass that this occurred?  Why are we supposed to believe anyone now?

On Wednesday, Senator Grassley asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “What are you doing to find out how the Russian takeover of the American uranium was allowed to occur despite criminal conduct by the Russia company that the Obama administration approved the purchase?"

Evidently, not much.  At least so far. In fact Sessions said that Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein, who led this long-hidden investigation, should "investigate himself."

No, Jeff.  You may have properly recused yourself from the Russian investigation, despite Trump's criticism, but this one is your job.  You run the Department of Justice and therefore the FBI.  Something is rotten as much as it ever was in Denmark.  Indeed it's worse, since nuclear weapons were not even dreamed of in Hamlet's time.  So don't be like Hamlet.  Act now.

For starters, Mueller must step down.  We cannot have an investigation of this magnitude that half the country will completely disrespect -- and for increasingly good reason.  History will mock it, also for good reason.  On top of that, with our country as split as it is, the results could be catastrophic.

Equally important, the reputation of the FBI must be resuscitated.  Speaking entirely as a private citizen, I do no trust the FBI anymore. To be honest, it scares me. And I am certain I am not alone.  It feels like an often-biased organization so bent on self-preservation that it hides evidence and lets the powerful off the hook. That's the royal road to totalitarianism.  No, it's not the NKVD yet.  No one that I know of is being hauled off in the middle of the night.  But very few of us know what it is really up to, how it makes its frequently dubious decisions, or whether it is working for the good of the citizenry at all.  Almost everything we learn of its investigations is so heavily redacted, no one but one of the myriad leakers seems to know what it means -- and they're usually lying.  This, as they say, will not end well.

People can dismiss my view by claiming I am a right-wing ideologue, but the problem transcends administrations, as have FBI directors.  Something is wrong with the system.  No one seems to be watching the watchers, from the FBI to the NSA.  Other than Senator Grassley, will anyone have the guts to save us?

Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media.  His latest book is I Know Best:  How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If  It Hasn't Already.  Follow him on Twitter @rogerlsimon.


How an FBI Uranium investigation was corrupted to protect the Clinton’s Russian connection.

By Daniel Greenfield
October 19, 2017
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presents Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red button that is supposed to say 'reset' in Russian. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Hillary is demanding to know the truth about Trump and Russia. The truth is that every accusation about Russian ties that Hillary and her associates have hurled at President Trump is really true of the Clintons.
In ’14, Hillary Clinton made headlines by comparing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hitler. But if the Russian strongman really was ‘Hitler’, what did that make stooges like Hillary, Bill and Barack Obama?
Five years earlier, Hillary had been posing with a ‘Reset Button” with one of Putin’s henchmen. But Hillary was bringing a lot more to the meeting than a mislabeled button pilfered from a swimming pool. The ‘Reset’ had the same pattern as other Clinton scandal: a shadowy foreign financial pal with an agenda, the Clinton Foundation being used to launder money and a government cover-up.
Officially, the ‘Reset’ was pushing Obama’s nuclear arms reduction plan and a joint effort to address Iran’s nuclear program. But the nuclear materials that truly interested Hillary Clinton weren’t in Russian missiles or in Iranian reactors, but in the ground in Kazakhstan. By the time Hillary showed off the ‘Reset Button’, the Clintons had been enjoying a long relationship with Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining mogul. Giustra had moved tens of millions into Clintonworld and Bill built up his profile in Kazakhstan.
But by ’09, the Clintons had a lot more to trade on than a Senate seat and ex-presidential prestige.
When Secretary of State Clinton unveiled the ‘Reset’, the unspoken truths outnumbered the spoken platitudes. Some of the unspoken truths were obvious. Hillary Clinton and Obama would break with Bush’s criticisms of human rights in Russia. From now on, they would have nothing to say about it.
The man who allegedly agreed to that dirty deal was Michael McFaul who is currently bashing President Trump for being “soft” on Putin. 
But the bigger unspoken truth was that Giustra’s company had been bought by Uranium One. And the Russians were sniffing around Kazakhstan. Either the Russians would get Uranium One. Or they would expose the dubious ways that Uranium One had gotten its Kazakhstan mining rights. But if Rosatom, a Russian government corporation, bought into Uranium One, it would need approval from State because such a deal would provide Russia with control over more than 20% of America’s Uranium supply.
Good thing, Uranium One and Putin had a friend in Hillary Clinton. And not just Hillary.
Uranium One and Rosatom didn’t just need the State Department. They also needed the Justice Department to turn a blind eye. And they got that too from Attorney General Eric Holder.
The same year that Hillary brought over her ‘Reset Button’, the FBI was investigating a top Rosatom figure in America for racketeering, extortion, bribery and money laundering. The investigation was supervised by the controversial current Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe who has his own financial ties to the Clintons. The investigation dragged out for five years. Just enough time for the Rosatom deal to be approved. When the charges were brought in ’14, the Russians had gotten it all. And the charges were a whitewash that ignored the most damning accusations. Especially those involving the Clintons.
Holder’s DOJ, like Hillary’s State, signed off on the Rosatom-Uranium One deal despite the ongoing investigation. Holder and his associates at the DOJ kept the investigation under their hats. The trails leading to the Clintons were closed off. And the nails were hammered in hard to keep them closed.
“Victim 1”, the FBI’s confidential witness in the case, was an American businessman who was making payments to a Rosatom figure. He knew firsthand about the Russian efforts to influence Bill and Hillary, and through them, the Obama administration, but wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Instead Obama’s DOJ threatened him with criminal charges if he revealed what he knew. And what he knew included comments by FBI agents about political pressure from the DOJ during the Uranium One-Rosatom approval process.
Meanwhile, during the approval process, Bill Clinton was getting paid $500,000 by a Russian bank with Russian government ties, even as his wife had the power to block a deal by Rosatom. While Clinton and Obama cronies are scurrying around to tie Trump to Russia, their own bosses were giving a Russian state corporation whose branches included the nuclear weapons complex access to our nuclear materials.
And Rosatom is also involved in Iran’s nuclear program. The same program that Clinton and Obama cronies are desperately fighting to save by preserving Obama’s blank check for Iran’s nukes.
Not only did Obama and his people at the DOJ and FBI turn a blind eye to Russian nuclear malfeasance in America, but they covered up evidence tying that malfeasance to the Clintons, and then threatened an informant to protect that cover-up. Democracy really does die in darkness. Just ask the media.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is demanding information from ten federal agencies. And, as usual, the Clinton and Obama loyalists embedded there will obstruct and subvert any effort to learn the truth.
Fast forward to ‘14. The Russians had taken complete control of Uranium One a year earlier. By the end of ’13, the fiction that Uranium One was anything other than Rosatom had ended. And with the approval of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the Russians no longer needed the Clintons. And so the Reset Button was pushed again. And Hillary’s old sugar daddy was now Hitler.
Charges were finally brought in the Rosatom case. Though these charges carefully avoided the crucial deal period. And Hillary was finally free to denounce Putin now that the money wasn’t coming in.
What a difference a year makes. What a difference a deal makes.
Once Hillary lost the election, her operatives cobbled together the myth that blamed her defeat on a Russian influence operation that had had actually targeted viewpoints across the political spectrum.
But Hillary knew better than anyone how easy it was for the Russians to influence Americans.
The millions flowing to the Clinton Foundation bought not just silence, but complicity. And by corrupting the Clintons, the Russians had also managed to corrupt multiple levels and figures within the government. Including the Justice Department and senior leadership within the FBI.
"The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them," Lenin had once allegedly quipped.
It’s unclear if the capitalists will, but the socialists have certainly proven themselves eager to sell.
Having betrayed American national security in the Rosatom deal, the Clintons and their allies are busy accusing President Trump and his associates of their own crimes. They were the ones who took bribes. They were the ones who subverted the Justice Department to protect their Russian ties. They engaged in obstruction of justice to the extent of threatening a witness with criminal charges if he spoke out.
And they did it while nuking American national security in order to satisfy their own shameless greed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Secret Lives of Leonardo da Vinci

Walter Isaacson’s biography portrays a man obsessed with knowledge and almost impossible to know.

October 16, 2017

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In Renaissance Florence, a number of designated boxes placed throughout the city allowed citizens to make anonymous denunciations of various moral crimes—in 1461, for example, the artist-monk Filippo Lippi was accused of fathering a child with a nun. But the crime that the government was really trying to control was sodomy, so notoriously prevalent that contemporary German slang for a homosexual was Florenzer. The common nature of the offense did not erase the threat of serious consequences. In 1476, Leonardo da Vinci, on the verge of his twenty-fourth birthday, was named as one of four men who had practiced “such wickedness” with the seventeen-year-old apprentice of a local goldsmith. There is little doubt that Leonardo was arrested. Although any time he may have spent in jail was brief, and the case was dismissed, two months later, for lack of corroborating witnesses, he had plenty of time to ponder the possible legal punishments: a large fine, public humiliation, exile, burning at the stake. It is impossible to know if this experience affected the artist’s habit, later cited as a mark of his character, of buying caged birds from the market just to set them free. But it does seem connected with the drawings he made, during the next few years, of two fantastical inventions: a machine that he explained was meant “to open a prison from the inside,” and another for tearing bars off windows.

These drawings are part of a vast treasury of texts and images, amounting to more than seven thousand surviving pages, now dispersed across several countries and known collectively as “Leonardo’s notebooks”—which is precisely what they were. Private notebooks of all sizes, some carried about for quick sketches and on-the-spot observations, others used for long-term, exacting studies in geology, botany, and human anatomy, to specify just a few of the areas in which he posed fundamental questions, and reached answers that were often hundreds of years ahead of his time. Why is the sky blue? How does the heart function? What are the differences in air pressure above and beneath a bird’s wing, and how might this knowledge enable man to make a flying machine? Music, military engineering, astronomy. Fossils and the doubt they cast on the Biblical story of creation. “Describe,” he instructs himself, “what sneezing is, what yawning is, the falling sickness, spasm, paralysis, shivering with cold, sweating, fatigue, hunger, sleep, thirst, lust.” He intended publication, but never got around to it; there was always something more to learn. In the following centuries, at least half the pages were lost. What survives is an unparalleled record of a human mind at work, as fearless and dogged as it was brilliant. And yet, despite occasional jottings—a grocery list, a book to be borrowed—these notebooks were in no way a diary or a personal journal; they contain none of the self-exploration of Augustine or Thoreau. Consumed with the desire for knowledge, Leonardo told us more about the world than seems possible, and next to nothing about himself.

His biographers have a hard time, at once starved and overwhelmed, tasked with constructing a man around the spectacular evidence of this disembodied mind. The paintings offer little more in the way of knowledge. Arguments persist even about the identity of the woman known as Mona Lisa, or why Leonardo never delivered the portrait to the husband who commissioned it, if indeed it was her husband who commissioned it. Our deepest sense of this most famous artist remains subject to change. The systematic publication of the notebooks, beginning in the late nineteenth century, tipped our understanding of his goals from art toward science, and opened questions about how to square the legendary peacefulness of his nature with his designs for ingeniously murderous war machines. More recently, the sensationalizing notion at the center of Dan Brown’s mega-selling book “The Da Vinci Code”—that one of the apostles depicted in Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” is actually, and visibly, a woman—connects him with our current preoccupation with gender fluidity. And this sense of connection isn’t entirely imposed. Leonardo’s works do show a striking fixation on androgyny, a term often used about his figures—a fixation that became unignorable with the rediscovery, in the nineteen-nineties, of a long-lost pornographic drawing. Is there nothing in Leonardo that can’t be found once we start looking? Who will he be for us today?

Walter Isaacson, at the start of his new biography, “Leonardo da Vinci” (Simon & Schuster), describes his subject as “history’s consummate innovator,” which makes perfect sense, since Isaacson seems to have got the idea for writing his book from Steve Jobs, the subject of his previous biography. Leonardo, we learn, was Jobs’s hero. Isaacson sees a particular kinship between the men because both worked at the crossroads of “arts and sciences, humanities and technology”—as did Isaacson’s earlier subjects, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. For all the unfamiliar challenges this book presents, in terms of history and culture, Isaacson is working a familiar theme. As always, he writes with a strongly synthesizing intelligence across a tremendous range; the result is a valuable introduction to a complex subject. He states right off that he takes the notebooks, rather than the paintings, as his starting point, and it isn’t surprising that he has the most to say when he slows his pace and settles into a (still brief) discussion of optics, say, or the aortic valve. The most sustained and engrossing chapter is largely devoted to Leonardo’s water studies—vortices, floods, cloud formation—and depends on one of the remaining complete notebooks, the Codex Leicester. The codex is currently owned by Bill Gates, who (as Isaacson does not point out) had some of its digitized pages used for a screen saver on the Microsoft operating system.

Isaacson’s Leonardo is a comparably modern figure, not merely “human,” as the author likes to point out, but a blithe societal misfit: “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” True enough, although Isaacson sometimes strains the relatability. His Leonardo is lucky to have been born illegitimate—because he was not expected to follow his father into the notary business—and lucky, too, to have been only minimally educated, in math and writing, rather than schooled in the Latin authors reserved for youths of higher rank. Untrammelled by authority, he was free to think creatively. As for being easily distracted, Isaacson warns that a young Leonardo today might well be medicated out of his creative urges. Beneath its diligent research, the book is a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it. Isaacson’s answer, repeated like a mantra, lies precisely in the Leonardesque (or Jobsian) refusal to distinguish art from science, observation from imagination, and to attain a “combinatory creativity.” And this goal isn’t just the prerogative of genius; we can all approach it.

The most up-to-date if occasionally dismaying aspect of the book is its framing as a self-help guide, along the lines of “How Leonardo Can Change Your Life.” Isaacson explains that, while working on the book, he taught himself to be more observant, and it isn’t hard to respect his good intentions—he mentions sunlight, eddying water—until he writes, “When I saw the hint of a smile come across someone’s lips, I tried to fathom her inner mysteries.” One hopes that she shook him out of it. Fortunately, the book contains several clear and absorbing pages about the “Mona Lisa” ’s famously mysterious smile, particularly in relation to Leonardo’s studies of lip muscles, which he dissected, and drew, alternately, with skin on and skin off. Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life, which is rewarding even if it doesn’t set you on the path to enlightenment.

What’s more, he brings news. Five hundred and sixty-five years after Leonardo’s birth, in 1452, we at last know who his mother was. Her first name, Caterina, was previously all we had, although it had been assumed that she was of lower station than Leonardo’s father, Piero, who left the tiny Tuscan town of Vinci for bustling Florence around the time his son was born, and married a highly respectable woman within a year. Speculation about Caterina has been rampant. Mark Lankford’s “Becoming Leonardo” (Melville House) builds on theories that she was a slave, possibly of North African origin, thus adding “mixed race” and “cross-cultural” to the artist’s twenty-first-century credentials. Isaacson, though, relays the findings of a new work of documentary scholarship, Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti’s “Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting” (Oxford), which establishes Caterina as a sixteen-year-old orphan from a neighboring hamlet, quickly married off to a local farmer to avoid awkward situations. But many questions remain. Did the boy ever live with his mother? Whom did he love, and who loved him? Being illegitimate was not a disgrace; although the status carried legal limitations, Leonardo’s baptism was a well-attended event, and he seems to have grown up mostly with his father’s family, while Caterina (who soon had other children) lived a short distance away. Still, he was a country boy of few prospects. Left-handed, he had trouble writing except in reverse, from right to left, each letter backward on the page—perhaps a trick he’d taught himself to keep from smearing his ink, or for keeping secrets, but a habit that no one seems to have bothered correcting. All he could certainly do was draw.

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Mona Lisa

He moved to Florence to live with his father at about the age of twelve, shortly after Piero’s wife and their only child died. The exact year is uncertain, as is the year, not long after, when he became an apprentice in the workshop of Verrocchio, a leading artist and his father’s client. The city must have been a revelation to Leonardo: enormously wealthy, with numerous palazzi built by the newly dominant business class, room after room to be filled with art. There were more wood-carvers in town than butchers, and the streets were a living gallery of works by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi—the revolutionary generation that had just passed. Verrocchio provided a practical education, not only in painting and sculpture but also in metalwork and engineering. And Leonardo, even in his teens, made a strong impression. He was reportedly a boy (and later a man) of exceptional good looks and grace, and art historians have conjectured that he might have posed for Verrocchio’s delicate, curly-haired bronze David, described by Isaacson as “a slightly effeminate and strikingly pretty boy of about fourteen,” whose face bears the hint of a smile. The identification is appealing (if not the established fact that Isaacson ultimately suggests). Most fascinating, however, is the way that Leonardo transformed this lightly boyish charm into a radiantly pure yet sensual ideal of male beauty.

He had an affinity for angels. In Verrocchio’s painting “The Baptism of Christ,” the Master’s hardy, pug-nosed angel seems to stare in wonder at the rapt creature beside him, one of the earliest works of Leonardo, its noble profile trailing a cascade of golden curls. The divide between the two is technical as well as imaginative: Leonardo used oil paint, not old-fashioned egg-based tempera, and applied it in multiple thin layers, each a luminescent veil, so that his angel appears to be modelled in light. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first authoritative biographies of Renaissance artists, in 1550, claimed that Verrocchio gave up painting when he saw what his pupil had done, an exaggeration meant to stress the unprecedented nature of Leonardo’s genius, and of the generation he introduced.

Yet Leonardo’s reputation, unlike Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s after him, was slow to rise. He does not seem to have been conventionally ambitious: he stayed with Verrocchio for roughly a decade, far longer than the usual term, both working and living with the Master. Another angel he painted in this period, part of an “Annunciation” now in the Uffizi, was distinguished by scrupulously naturalistic bird wings. Although they were crudely overpainted sometime later, one can make them out, short and strong: real wings to give fantasy flight. Clearly, Leonardo’s mind was already roaming beyond the studio.

He was still living with Verrocchio when he was charged with sodomy in 1476. As soon as he was cleared, he left town for a year, to work on a project in Pistoia. Some have speculated that the charges caused a break with his father—who, by now remarried, went on to have several legitimate sons. Others have wondered if the accusations (there was a second one, soon after the first) contributed to the evident disfavor of Florence’s most important patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Although Leonardo had already produced his first indisputable masterpiece—a poetic portrait of a local banker’s daughter, Ginevra de’ Benci, which is now a treasure of the National Gallery in Washington—and had established his own studio on returning to Florence, his name was notably absent from a list of the best painters in the city that Lorenzo provided to the Pope, in 1481. (Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio were among those who made the cut and were hired to paint the walls of the newly built Sistine Chapel.) But there were other possible reasons for the omission. Leonardo had never painted in fresco, the durable technique favored for wall paintings. And he was already known for leaving things unfinished. Indeed, by 1483, he had abandoned two important commissions and departed for Milan. He was thirty years old, and had accomplished little. In a long and detailed letter that reads like a job application, he offered his services to the local ruler, Ludovico Sforza, as a military engineer. As a seeming afterthought, he mentioned that he could also paint.

A chariot fitted with enormous whirling blades, slicing men in half or cutting off their legs, leaving pieces scattered; guns with multiple barrels arranged like organ pipes to increase the speed and intensity of firing; a colossal missile-launching crossbow. Leonardo made many such frightening drawings while in the employ of Ludovico, who gained the title of Duke of Milan only after poisoning his nephew, some years later, but who effectively served in that role throughout the seventeen years that Leonardo spent in the city. Partly because Ludovico’s claim was shaky, Milan was under frequent siege by rival powers, and Leonardo offered him skills—“I have methods for destroying any fortress or redoubt, even if it is founded on solid rock”—that seem both opportunistically savvy and fantastical, rather like the drawings. He had never demonstrated any military skills before, and his intention in these drawings remains a matter of dispute. Was he an unworldly visionary or a conscienceless inventor? Isaacson wants it both ways: “I believe his proposal was serious,” he writes of the fearsome crossbow, pointing to some thirty preparatory drawings, yet he believes that the design was nevertheless “a work of imagination rather than invention,” for the plain reason that it wouldn’t have worked—and didn’t work, even when constructed by modern engineers, for television, in 2002. This argument blurs the question of intent, but suggests the complexities involved in making any moral judgments about the man.

It was a new life in Milan, which is perhaps just what Leonardo wanted. He was not put to work on military matters, or indeed on any major project, for years—his first job was to fix a plumbing problem—but he proved his worth by designing the elaborate pageants that were a hallmark of Ludovico’s regime, a theatrical form of family propaganda. This sort of work, however, was ephemeral, and has left almost nothing behind, to the immense regret of art historians, who have often fretted that he was wasting his time. Yet Leonardo appears to have been content. The hedonistic court life suited him: he became something of a dandy, dressing in pinks and purples, satins and velvets, his hands scented with lavender. He completed portraits, much admired, of Ludovico’s mistresses, and set up a workshop that turned out devotional pictures for a wealthy clientele. He enjoyed the company of colleagues in widespread disciplines, from architecture to mathematics. Even the damp Lombard weather seems to have suited him; its blue-gray mists, so different from Tuscan sunlight, become the weather of his paintings. And it was in Milan that he began to keep notebooks. Kenneth Clark, whose book on Leonardo, written in the nineteen-thirties, remains indispensable, observes that the range of his activities led him to write down his ideas, in his strange right-to-left script, and to annotate his drawings, beginning with simple pieces of machinery and ending with the world.

“Thief liar obstinate greedy”: with these four exasperated words, written in 1491, after a decade in Milan, Leonardo described the figure with whom he had the most enduring relationship of his life. Gian Giacomo Caprotti was ten years old when he entered the workshop, the previous year. A poor boy of extraordinary beauty, he was brought in as a servant, probably also as a model, and to be trained as a painter—he later had a modest career—and stayed for twenty-eight years. He seems to have resembled one of Leonardo’s angels. Vasari wrote about his beauty and particularly about his “lovely curling hair which Leonardo adored.” Since, however, he was in the habit, early on, of stealing purses, silverpoint pens, and anything else he could get his hands on, Leonardo gave him the nickname Salaì—Little Devil, more or less—and that is how he has been known to history.

It seems fair to assume that they became lovers when Salaì was in his teens. Another of Leonardo’s early biographers, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, writing in about 1560, invented a dialogue between Leonardo and the Greek sculptor Phidias, in which Leonardo replies to the question of whether he and Salaì ever played “that ‘backside game’ which Florentines love so much” with a boisterous affirmative: “Many times!” By way of explanation, he recalls Salaì’s beauty, “especially at about fifteen.” Modern scholars have identified a number of drawings presumably of Salaì, mostly at a later age, when the hair is still curly but the chin is weak and the flesh already somewhat slack. If he does not entirely impress us, though, he continued to impress Leonardo, whose most touching portrait shows the maturing man sketched lightly, almost absentmindedly, around a drawing of the human heart.

It was while he was making notes on the flight patterns of birds, and particularly the fork-tailed red kite, that he was reminded of an early experience, and wrote the only passage about his childhood in the notebooks. Disregarded until Freud wrote a small book about it, in 1910, the passage still commands attention. In this memory—or, as Freud suggested, this fantasy—a kite flew down on the artist in the cradle, “and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.” Freud was apologetic about pointing out that the fantasy “corresponds to the idea of an act of fellatio,” which readers might well consider a grave insult to the artist, although “tradition does in fact represent Leonardo as a man with homosexual feelings.” Feelings that, Freud believed, did not have a sexual outlet: the very existence of the notebooks, in his view, was evidence of the redirection of Leonardo’s sexual energies into his obsessional researches. Leonardo himself was not a stranger to such thoughts, writing, in one of the notebooks, “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality.” It is impossible to know if he was alluding to the experience of an afternoon or of a lifetime, but it isn’t hard to imagine what he would have made of Freud’s assertion that he had never known sexual passion.

Freud’s study has been discredited on many counts, the most profound being his theory that the “psychical genesis of homosexuality” lies in a boy’s erotic attachment to a too-loving mother. Working backward from this theory, he concluded that “poor, forsaken” Caterina must have lived alone with her son for at least the first three years of his life. Surprisingly, the most admirable of Leonardo’s modern biographers—Serge Bramly, writing in 1988, and the richly nuanced Charles Nicholl, writing in 2004—while hardly uncritical of Freud’s analysis, consider his thoughts about the artist’s relationship with his mother to be of enduring value. Isaacson is almost refreshing in his sweeping rejection not only of Freud but of any attempt to psychoanalyze a man who lived five hundred years ago (although he occasionally bends his own rule). As he sees it, the bird, tail and all, reflects nothing more than Leonardo’s interest in flight. Whether or not this is true—who can say?—it is good to have a major biography that (at last) presumes no need to put forth a reason for the artist’s sexuality.

Long before Freud, critics noted that Leonardo painted figures that displayed what Freud called the “blissful union of the male and female natures.” The ravishing angel in each of the two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks,” commissioned in Milan, is a clear descendant of the early Florentine angels, and confounds any attempt to assign the figure a pronoun—perhaps conveying a theological ideal as well as a personal one. In fact, the preparatory drawing, used for both figures, is of a woman. (Michelangelo elided gender in a comparably obsessive way: his heavily muscled female figures—the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine Ceiling, Night in the Medici Chapel—were clearly modelled on men, as the drawings attest.) In more openly erotic territory, Leonardo’s late painting of St. John the Baptist is notoriously epicene (Isaacson writes of its “come-hither naughtiness”) and some have seen it as an idealized Salaì. Stranger still, there is a resemblance between this St. John and the woman in the painting often called the “Nude Mona Lisa,” who sits with breasts exposed, against a misty landscape, turning to look the viewer in the eye. At least eight copies of this softly smiling, seminude portrait exist, in emphatically Leonardesque style, and a finished drawing may show the Master’s own corrections. Evidently, his studio fed an appetite for more than Madonnas.

But no one was prepared for the emergence, in 1991, in New York, of a drawing of a hollow-eyed, wingless angel, a sure but dissipated cousin to these other figures, sporting both the suggestion of a woman’s breasts and a huge erection, just slightly blurred where attempts to erase it had failed. Playful caricature? Hermaphroditic pornography? Isaacson suggests both, but even a thick volume devoted to the drawing, edited by a leading Leonardo expert, Carlo Pedretti, fails to provide any answers. One story has it that the drawing was part of a secret cache of obscene Leonardo material held in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. The works were allegedly stolen, in the nineteenth century, prompting not legal prosecution but relief.

It was often Leonardo’s ambition that kept him from completing things, or that ruined the things he completed. A bronze horse that he designed for Ludovico was so enormous that it proved impossible to cast; Ludovico finally dispatched the raw bronze to a neighboring state to be turned into cannons, in preparation for a threatened attack by the French. It may have been Ludovico’s fear that the French would make off with “The Last Supper” that caused Leonardo to execute the painting directly on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that Ludovico had chosen for his tomb. Again, the scale was enormous—twenty-nine feet wide, fifteen feet tall—and Leonardo was in a predicament about technique. He liked to work slowly, to rethink, to add layer upon layer, none of which was possible with fresco, which dried quickly and bonded to the wall. Yet he wasn’t sure how to make his preferred medium—oil paint—bond successfully. Experimenting, he concocted a mixture of oil and tempera, and, sometime around 1495, he went to work. Using everything he had learned, in years of study, about anatomy, perspective, light, color, and the physical manifestations of human emotion, he painted one of the world’s most celebrated masterpieces, completed by early 1498, and flaking off the wall by 1517. Leonardo was alive then, and would have known.

The French were unable to pry the painting from the wall, it’s true, although they gave it serious thought almost as soon as they stormed the city, in 1499, driving Ludovico out. They were more successful, however, with the painter. Leonardo was soon on cozy terms with Louis XII’s occupying force, earning unspecified “obligations to His Majesty the King of France.” It was only the threat of Ludovico’s return that made him leave the city and go back to Florence, where he made the acquaintance of an even greater master of Realpolitik, Niccolò Machiavelli. At the time, Machiavelli was an envoy for the Florentine Republic, negotiating to keep the infamous warlord Cesare Borgia from attacking the city. It seems to have been under Machiavelli’s auspices that, in 1502, Leonardo became Borgia’s military engineer. He inspected fortresses, made maps, and designed weapons—he may also have acted as a spy for Florence—as Borgia conquered towns through central Italy in a trail of slaughter that rattled even Machiavelli. Leonardo lasted eight months in the job.

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The Last Supper

Back in Florence, where the fame of “The Last Supper” had spread, he was greeted as a great master come home. Crowds flocked to see a new work on display; he turned aside commissions from the titled and the rich. But he accepted the commission for a patriotic battle scene on a wall of the city’s Great Council Hall and completed a preparatory cartoon that was among the most powerful works he ever made. “The Battle of Anghiari” has been viewed as both a monument to the passions of war and a passionate antiwar statement: men’s faces savagely twisted, horses tearing at one another’s flesh, one horse screaming in pain, like something out of a Renaissance “Guernica.” Just as he was readying himself to work on the painting itself, though, the city government commissioned Michelangelo to paint another wall in the same room, deliberately spurring a competition between Florence’s two greatest artists.

Michelangelo loathed Leonardo. It’s clear from their work why they might not have got along. Michelangelo’s hard-edged line, even in painting, was sculptural, and deliberately antithetical to the softened atmospherics that Leonardo pursued. But the animus was also personal. Michelangelo, then in his mid-twenties, was gruff, hardworking, ill-kempt, and, by his own account, celibate, because of what appears to have been his severely repressed and spiritualized homosexuality. At one point, he insulted Leonardo on the street, with a taunt about the bronze horse that had been left unfinished, reportedly leaving Leonardo standing red-faced. The witness to this incident found it worth noting that Leonardo, ever beautiful in his person, went around Florence in a rose-pink tunic, and it is irresistible to infer how irritating Michelangelo must have found the older artist, with his peacock clothes and his perfumed air, and with what now amounted to an entourage of swankily dressed assistants.

Leonardo seemed to delight in adding fuel to the fire. Some months before Michelangelo was commissioned to paint alongside Leonardo, in early 1504, there was a meeting to view his nearly completed statue of David and to decide where in the city it would stand. All the important artists in town were present—Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi (child of the artist-monk and the nun)—but Leonardo alone objected to the figure’s exposed nudity, and pronounced the need for “decent ornament.” A tiny sketch he made on the spot shows the statue with its offending member neatly hidden by what Isaacson describes as “a bronze leaf.” It’s hard to believe that the man whose notebooks contain a section, “On the Penis,” in which he argues against “covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony” was truly offended by what he saw. Yet his objections prevailed. The genitals of the marble colossus were covered, and stayed that way for some forty years.

It isn’t hard to imagine the defiant mood in which Michelangelo set about producing his rival cartoon for the Council Hall. Instead of a battle scene, he depicted a whole troop of naked, twisting, posing, and extremely well-muscled men, who are caught bathing in a river just as the battle alarm sounds. (As Jonathan Jones notes, in “The Lost Battles,” this work, like Leonardo’s, quickly became a school for younger artists.) But, before Michelangelo could begin to paint, the Pope summoned him to Rome for another commission. Leonardo had seen enough to comment on certain artists who made figures so conspicuously muscled that they resembled “a sack of walnuts.” Still, he was nonplussed by the aggressive younger artist, and was temperamentally ill-suited to this sort of head-on competition. Worse, he had continued to experiment with materials, and as he worked he discovered that, yet again, the paint was not adhering to the wall. When Michelangelo suddenly returned, in 1506, Leonardo abandoned the project and fled back to Milan. As it happened, Michelangelo, consumed by other tasks, never even began his painting. All that remains of either work are a few sublime preparatory drawings—the monumental cartoons are both lost—and later copies.

Among the paintings that Leonardo took away with him was the portrait later known as the “Mona Lisa,” begun around 1503 and soon admired for its astonishing naturalism. Although most scholars agree that it represents Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a local silk merchant, there is no consensus on why the artist chose such a comparatively lowly subject when he was evading requests from the Marchioness of Mantua. As for the “Mona Lisa” ’s haunting smile—“Mona,” a contraction of “Madonna,” is a title akin to Lady or Madam—it, too, remains a mystery. Was Leonardo recalling his mother’s smile? Or Salaì’s? Both theories have been proposed. Or was the smile just a clever allusion to the fact that the lady’s last name, Giocondo, means “cheerful”? (In France, the portrait has always been known as “La Joconde.”) Whatever this portrait meant to Leonardo—the biggest mystery of all—he chose never to relinquish it, but went on, year after year, adding small perfecting strokes and glazes. Nonetheless, he increasingly turned away from painting, anxious to complete his studies and to order the contents of his notebooks. He was in his fifties and feared that he was running out of time.

In Milan, he acquired the services of another beautiful boy who became central to his life. Francesco Melzi, however, was in every other way Salaì’s opposite: aristocratic, educated, serious, a devoted amanuensis, and ultimately something of a son. When political changes forced Leonardo to leave Milan in 1512, he (and Salaì) stayed with the Melzi family outside the city, before moving on to pass three mostly miserable years in Rome. His reputation for not finishing things meant that he no longer received big commissions, a situation that he generally felt as a relief, except when confronted with the galling achievements of Michelangelo and Raphael, in their positions as favorites of the Pope. (It was one thing to be free from unwanted work, another to be ignored.) Although he was universally revered, Leonardo still needed money, and so required a patron with more patience than this class of person usually displayed. Fortunately, Francis I, the new King of France, just twenty-one years old, was eager to import Italian art, and very much in the market for a grand old man of the Renaissance. All that Leonardo needed to supply, in exchange for a stipend and a small château, was his wisdom.

We get a last glimpse of him in 1517, well ensconced in France but frail, when the secretary for the Cardinal of Aragon recorded a visit. Leonardo is still in possession of a portrait of “a certain Florentine lady,” and two other paintings that appear equally impressive. He shows off his notebooks, calling them “an infinity of volumes,” and the account continues, “If these were to be brought to light they would be both useful and delightful.” None of the notebooks had been brought to light by the time Leonardo died, in May, 1519, at the age of sixty-seven. Instead, the task fell to Melzi, who inherited most of Leonardo’s estate, the notebooks included. He managed to organize the notes on painting, and did his careful best—the selling of pages did not begin until after his death—but was finally overwhelmed. A single lifetime was not enough.

We get a last glimpse of him in 1517, well ensconced in France but frail, when the secretary for the Cardinal of Aragon recorded a visit. Leonardo is still in possession of a portrait of “a certain Florentine lady,” and two other paintings that appear equally impressive. He shows off his notebooks, calling them “an infinity of volumes,” and the account continues, “If these were to be brought to light they would be both useful and delightful.” None of the notebooks had been brought to light by the time Leonardo died, in May, 1519, at the age of sixty-seven. Instead, the task fell to Melzi, who inherited most of Leonardo’s estate, the notebooks included. He managed to organize the notes on painting, and did his careful best—the selling of pages did not begin until after his death—but was finally overwhelmed. A single lifetime was not enough.

Melzi was with Leonardo at the end, but Salaì was living in Milan. He had left the entourage on its way to France, and, despite reported visits to Leonardo, it has been easy to assume a serious break. Leonardo, in his will, left Salaì only half of a property he owned near Milan, leaving the other half to a favorite new servant. Many biographers, including Isaacson, assume that Salaì was essentially cut off. The will, moreover, makes no mention of the paintings, an omission that has been the source of much scholarly agitation. A document detailing Salaì’s effects, made out after his death, only five years later, lists a number of paintings identified by Leonardesque titles (“La Ioconda”), but leaves it unclear whether these were originals or copies. Isaacson concludes, somewhat rashly, that Salaì (in his late thirties) “lived up to his reputation as a sticky-fingered little devil, one who was somehow able to get his hands on things.”

But another document, not discussed by Isaacson, suggests a happier possibility. Brought to light in 1999 by the scholar Bertrand Jestaz, it shows that, in 1518, while Leonardo was still alive, Francis I’s treasurer in Milan issued a small fortune to Salaì in exchange for a group of paintings. According to Jestaz, the sum involved was so large that they can only have been Leonardo’s originals; several of his paintings did indeed enter the King’s collection and are now in the Louvre. (The ones still in Salaì’s possession at his death fell steeply in value soon after and were surely copies.) The art historian Laure Fagnart plausibly concludes that Leonardo left so little to Salaì in his will because he’d already provided for him very well.

Salaì’s reputation has never been the best, and Isaacson’s suggestion hardly does further damage. But the two interpretations say very different things about Leonardo. No one believes anymore that a great artist must be a saint, and there are many things we will never understand about the man. The way that he treated the grownup child who had been the love of his life, as that life was coming to an end, may not be on the same moral plane as the issues raised by his machines of war, but it offers at least one answer to the question of who Leonardo really was.

Leonardo seems to have found peace in his final years, closely attended by the young King—who lived in a château just a few hundred yards away—organizing court celebrations and pondering geometric puzzles to his heart’s content. His last certain work was not a painting, or even a drawing, but a party he put on in his gardens, in honor of the King, in the summer of 1518. There was an enormous canopy of sky-blue cloth decorated with gold stars, supported on columns covered with ivy. There was music. A spectacle titled “Paradiso” was performed, with players costumed as the planets, surrounded by the sun, the moon, and the twelve celestial signs. Four hundred torches were set burning, so that, as a letter-writer of the time recalled, “the night was chased away.” And in the morning all of it was gone. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the October 16, 2017, issue, with the headline “Angels and Men.”
Claudia Roth Pierpont has contributed to The New Yorker since 1990, and became a staff writer in 2004. She has written on numerous subjects, ranging from Ballets Russes to the Chrysler Building to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Pierpont is the author of “American Rhapsody: Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building,” “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books,” and “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World,” a collection ofNew Yorker essays about the lives and works of women writers, including Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, and Zora Neale Hurston, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Pierpont has received a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, of the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.