Thursday, June 25, 2009

From Michael Winship

I Can See Tehran from My House!

By Michael Winship

Being a total history geek, I confess that there's almost nothing as entertaining to me as a good historic house tour. It's a great way to get a feel for how someone from the past lived his or her life. I realize that this nerdish interest would seem to indicate that conversely, I have no life of my own, but bear with me.

An hour or two spent at Teddy Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill home on Long Island, or Mark Twain's rambling riverboat of a house in Hartford, Connecticut, or even Chartwell, Winston Churchill's home in the Kentish countryside of England, is an ideal portal into the mind of an historic personage and the times in which they lived.

A large part of a recent weekend in Chicago was spent visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's home and office in nearby Oak Park, Illinois, and the mansion of a 19th century industrial tycoon whose daughter made miniature dollhouse recreations of homicide scenes, published in a collection titled, "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death." You can't make this stuff up.

Luckily, my girlfriend Pat and my sister Patricia are as nerd-like as I am, so on a beautiful spring Saturday last month, while visiting my sister upstate, we drove over to the home of William Henry Seward in Auburn, NY.

Seward served as Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state - and Andrew Johnson's, too, that hapless Tennessean who succeeded Lincoln after the assassination and came within a whisker of being convicted in the Senate after impeachment by the House of Representatives.

On the evening of Lincoln's murder, Seward also was attacked, targeted for death by one of John Wilkes Booth's accomplices. He survived a vicious stabbing and lived for another seven and a half years. On display in the Seward House is a tiny scrap of bloodstained bedsheet from the night of the assault.

The trappings of the home are evidence of an educated and well-traveled man of erudition, imagination and especially foresight, for it was Secretary of State Seward who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867.

He paid $7.2 million for it - almost two cents an acre -- and was attacked by politicians, the media and the public for a foolish waste of government money - a "polar bear garden," critics called Alaska - "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox." Of course, now the sound you hear is Seward's ghost laughing all the way to the Federal Reserve.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alaska's statehood, and so Governor Sarah Palin arrived for a visit to Auburn and the Seward House just a couple of weeks after we were there. Presented with a picture of Seward negotiating the Alaska deal, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported Palin said to the surrounding crowd, "They're looking at a globe and they're pointing to Alaska in this painting, and I'll betcha anything what Seward was pointing out was: 'Lookie there, you can see Russia from Alaska.'"

More likely, Seward was saying something like, "Now can I go to bed?" The Alaska treaty was quickly negotiated during an all-night session at the State Department when the czar's ambassador, Baron Edward de Stoeckl, interrupted Seward's Friday evening whist game to tell him he suddenly had his government's approval to make a deal. Staffs were hastily assembled and the papers signed by 4 a.m. on March 30.

I was struck by the speed with which Seward pulled this off, especially in contrast with the deliberate pace President Obama has taken with regard to the Iranian elections. But they're really not all that different.

Consider that when Seward and the Russians pulled their all-nighter it was a time when global communications were slower. It would be a while before news of the treaty reached the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

The Transatlantic Cable was finally in place - just -- but communications back and forth with Russia were slow. In fact, a company had just abandoned a scheme to extend telegraph lines from California to Alaska, then across the Bering Straits into Siberia.

It would be more than a year before the House of Representatives allowed the check for the purchase to be cut. So there was plenty of time to mull over the ramifications of the treaty - and Seward, a knowledgeable and cautious diplomat, had been in talks with Russia about Alaska off and on for years.

President Obama said about Iran at his Tuesday press conference, "We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not." In comparison to Seward's time, news travels in a nanosecond today. All the more reason to consider even more carefully before making decisions, especially ones that could hurt the very democratic cause you support and which will be manipulated by the Iranian government for its propaganda purposes no matter what.

At a private fundraiser for the Seward House, the Associated Press reported that Governor Palin had "sharp words" for Obama's national security policy but it was a week before the Iranian elections and she has since had little or nothing to say about the situation there - as opposed to Republican leaders in Congress and other neo-cons who have lashed out at the President's caution. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like," said South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, and
Senator John McCain announced, "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election, and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."

All well and good, but as Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution writes, at Foreign Policy's website, "The fact is, no matter how much Americans like to think they are the ones shaping events in Iran, it's just not true. The dramatic events in Iran have been wholly internally driven. They are the product of three decades of semi-competitive Iranian elections, a sophisticated population that warily guards its limited rights and freedoms, the tensions of a longstanding elite power struggle, and the ever-important force of unintended consequences --among other factors."

GOP leaders who question and challenge President Obama's Iranian strategy thus far would well remember their late Republican colleague William Henry Seward's calm prescience in the face of opposition. As an admirer wrote, he was "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints." That's how history is made.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at