Author Archives: Kathy Olmsted

May 29, 2009, 2:53 pm

California’s crisis and the collapse of the Republican Party.

Louis Warren once again helps us understand the historical roots of California’s current crisis. Thanks, Louis.

California’s crisis is such that the number one manufacturing and farming state is unable to sell its bonds. As I explained in my last post, this condition stems in part from constitutional requirements of the supermajority.

Some commentators on the right prefer a different explanation. This is the useful canard that California is congenitally left, and that liberal policies lead inevitably to financial collapse.

To be sure, the left is not blameless in this debacle. But much of California’s political upheaval of the last decade and a half has been driven by the collapse of the state’s once-formidable Republican Party. Alarmingly, national Republicans now seem to follow their lead. Progressives may think this cause for celebration – - but if the Republican…

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May 28, 2009, 10:27 pm

Mission to Moscow.

On this day in 1987, a West German teenager flew 400 miles across the Soviet Union in a small plane to land at the heart of what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire.  He said he wanted to strike a blow for world peace, and, bizarrely enough, he succeeded.

Mathias Rust was a 19-year-old bank clerk in Hamburg when he got his idea to deliver a 20-page manifesto on world peace to Mikhail Gorbachev.  He hoped that he could prove the good intentions of the Soviet Union, and thus help end the Cold War, by flying unmolested over its territory.

He started his odyssey by flying to Reykjavik, the site of the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit a few months earlier.  Reagan’s rejection of Gorbachev’s offer to rid the world of nuclear weapons had depressed Rust, but then spurred him to action.  After visiting the site of the conference, the young pilot flew to Helsinki, filed a fake flight…

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May 24, 2009, 1:11 pm

War and remembrance.

On this day sixty-five years ago, American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and began the long process of pushing the Germans out of Italy.  In American military history, the invasion is known as a poorly executed near disaster.  In my family’s history, it is remembered as the moment when my father came to terms with the role of  chance in an individual’s life.


April 19, 2009, 9:20 am

‘Just plain wrong.’

On this day in 1993, the FBI assaulted the fortress of an apocalyptic Adventist sect near Waco, Texas, and a fire broke out that killed at least 80 children and adults. Two years later, an American militia sympathizer exacted what he saw as revenge by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people, including children in the day care center.

The Waco confrontation had been building for months. The leader of the cult inside the fortress, David Koresh, was preparing for the end times by stockpiling illegal weapons, which were delivered by UPS trucks. One day, a package broke open, and the UPS driver called the feds. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms planned a raid on the compound in February, but word leaked out to Koresh’s followers, known as the Branch Davidians. When the ATF charged the fortress, the Davidians met them with a hail of gunfire….

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April 8, 2009, 12:01 am

Castro: Not dead yet.

On this day in 1962, two CIA officers met in New York with Las Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli to discuss plans for assassinating Fidel Castro. Roselli, an illegal immigrant from Italy who had worked for Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s, shaken down producers in Hollywood in the 1940s, and skimmed the profits from casinos in Las Vegas and Havana in the 1950s, promised the CIA that he could find someone in Cuba who would be willing to kill Castro for the right price. The April 1962 conspiracy involved poison pills, which distinguishes it from the other CIA plots against Castro using poisoned cigars, bombs, exploding seashells, deadly fungi, LSD spray, mafia hit men, depilatory dust, and poison-filled syringes disguised as ballpoint pens.

The plots against Castro began in August 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, when some CIA officials decided to try to “undermine Castro’s…

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March 8, 2009, 7:52 pm

Seed mistrust, sow misinformation.

On this day in 1971, a group of activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole about a thousand government documents with a mysterious notation, “COINTELPRO.” The public revelation of these documents ranks with the Pentagon Papers as one of the most significant exposés of government secrets in U.S. history.

The burglars, who have never been identified, entered the two-person office in Media as much of the nation was huddled around television sets to watch the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. The activists did not fully understand the documents they found, but they quickly decided that the public had the right to see them.

About two weeks later, two prominent antiwar lawmakers and reporters at major newspapers received copies of the files in plain brown envelopes. Most of the recipients accepted the FBI’s judgment that the files were “secret”: the…

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February 16, 2009, 1:30 pm

“This state is days away from a financial collapse.”

In the latest news in the California budget saga, the state Senate is still one vote shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass the budget.  Last night, as he finally ended the weekend lockdown and let his members go home for a few hours, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg got angry at State Senator Sam Aanestad in particular and the Republicans in general:

February 14, 2009, 5:05 pm

Decline and Fall.

California’s lawmakers meet tonight to try to resolve the worst budget crisis in the state’s history.  For more than six months, the majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have tried to win the support of three Republicans in each house of the Legislature, which they need for the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote to approve the budget. As a result, the California budget has been held hostage for more than half a year by six members of the minority party.

Why is California the only state besides Rhode Island and Arkansas to require a supermajority to pass its budget? As Fred Silva explains in this excellent article in Western City magazine, the two-thirds requirement emerged out of a state funding crisis in the Depression.  After voters rejected an initiative authorizing an income and sales tax, public officials wrote a constitutional amendment that…

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January 7, 2009, 2:34 pm


After writing a prompt for a paper based on one of Eric’s books, I decided to google it and found this.  You can buy a term paper on Murdering McKinley for $20.95 per page; rather steep, I thought, but then graduate-level papers are even more.  My prompt is quite different than the one offered by the site, but the company will write a paper to fit the assignment if necessary.  I wonder what Eric would charge.

Every quarter I refer at least one student to judicial affairs for this sort of thing.  But the plagiarism-industrial complex is getting so sophisticated that it’s harder and harder to outwit the cheaters.

December 3, 2008, 7:24 pm

Pumpkins and treachery

Sixty years ago today, the House Un-American Activities Committee announced that Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Soviet spy, had produced physical evidence of a ring of Communist spies in the New Deal. He had plucked this evidence — rolls of microfilmed documents — out of a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. (Chambers had actually hidden the papers in a dumbwaiter for a decade, and just moved them a few days earlier to the pumpkin, which allegedly he saw as a safer hiding spot.)

The Pumpkin Papers, as they were quickly dubbed, included documents in the handwriting of former State Department official Alger Hiss and former assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White.  Neither man was still in government at the time, and the documents were more than a decade old.  But they did indicate that a handful of New Deal bureaucrats had stolen information for Moscow.  In…

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November 25, 2008, 5:14 pm

Shredding the Constitution: The Prequel

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced that rogues in the White House had secretly diverted money from arms-for-hostages trades with Iran to the CIA’s rebel army in Nicaragua.

Investigators for Attorney General Ed Meese found the so-called “diversion memo” in the offices of National Security staff member Lt. Col. Oliver North.  North had tried to destroy all evidence of the diversion, but his shredder had jammed.  When he came back the next day, he found investigators in his office.  After they left with the memo, he returned to shred some more.

As all devotees of the Iran-contra affair know, North had been running two secret operations out of the Reagan White House.  He had sold arms to the government of Iran as part of a scheme to win the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon; and he had taken this money, along with other funds, and given it to the contras…

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November 24, 2008, 4:27 pm

President’s Slayer Shot in Dallas

On this day in 1963, Jack Ruby shot accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, thus providing material for thousands of conspiracy theory books (including mine).

Ruby, the owner of a strip club in Dallas, said he was distraught by the tragedy of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and especially by its effect on Jacqueline Kennedy.  He had visited the Dallas police station a couple of times during the 48 hours since Kennedy had been shot, milling around with reporters.  On November 24, he wandered into the city jail basement just moments before the police moved Oswald to the county jail.  As the prisoner moved past, Ruby lunged forward and shot him in the stomach:’s murder of the man who had earlier shouted “I’m a patsy” caused millions to suspect a wider plot.   Although the government’s official…

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November 12, 2008, 12:57 pm

How he got that story

On this day in 1969, the nation learned that the U.S. Army was investigating accusations that Lieutenant William Calley had murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968.  The Army called the location of the massacre “Pinkville.”  The Vietnamese knew it as My Lai.

The soldiers of Charlie Company had charged into the hamlet looking for Viet Cong.  They found only civilians.  “It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids,” said one witness. “As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”

Despite the absence of enemy soldiers or weapons, the soldiers began a frenzy of killing.  They set fire to huts and then shot the residents as they ran out; they herded the villagers into groups and machine-gunned them; they tossed grenades at the people who tried to hide in ditches.  …

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October 24, 2008, 10:01 am

A mysterious something.

On this day in October 1923, a committee in Stockholm met to consider giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to Frederick Banting, one of the discoverers of insulin.  The Nobel committee’s decision the next day to  honor both Banting and another researcher so infuriated Banting that he considered giving the prize back.  The fight between the prickly Banting and University of Toronto Physiology Professor John Macleod over the Nobel Prize was just one of the many strange and remarkable aspects of the discovery of insulin, a scientific breakthrough that saved the lives of millions of diabetics all over the world and helped usher in the modern era of medical research.

Banting, who would become the first Canadian to win the prize, and Macleod, a Scotsman, were jointly honored for the discovery of insulin the previous year. A struggling surgeon with no research experience, no doctorate, and…

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October 23, 2008, 2:54 pm

Lessons of history

On this day in 1941, the Senate approved a $6 billion supplemental Lend-lease bill, thus bringing the United States closer to joining the war that was consuming the rest of the world.

The original Lend-Lease Act, passed in March 1941, gave President Franklin Roosevelt the power to lend, lease, or otherwise dispose of food, ammunition, and arms to any country he deemed essential to the defense of the United States.  By the fall of 1941, those nations included the Soviet Union and China as well as Great Britain.  By the end of the war, the US would give more than $49 billion to more than 40 nations under Lend-Lease.

Many members of Congress had predicted dire consequences if Lend-Lease became law; indeed, the debate shows elements of what Richard Hofstadter famously called the paranoid style. Despite Roosevelt’s insistence that the law would help the country avoid war, the…

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