Looking at the Filibuster

December 23, 2010

In some ways, Congressional hearings are like Jack Horner’s pie – you never know what kind of plums you’ll pull out of them. Take Examining the Filibuster: Hearings before the Committee on Rules and Administration, United States Senate, for example. As in most congressional hearings, you’ll find lots of polite and sometimes humorous byplay by various Senators, a certain amount of disagreement about the nature and value of the subject at hand, a raft of expert testimony by academics and technical experts, and additional statements by interested parties. That’s what makes it so interesting to flip through one, and why I decided to see what goodies I could extract for the delectation of Government Book Talk readers.

A plum: Apparently the filibuster was not erected by the founding fathers as a way to safeguard the rights of the minority and guarantee careful deliberation of legislation. Originally, both Houses of Congress included a “previous question motion” in their rule books, which still allows a House majority to cut off debate. In 1805, however, neither body used the motion in this way and, at the urging of Vice President Aaron Burr in his capacity as President of the Senate, the Senate eliminated the previous question motion from its rule book – apparently without any real discussion. Even so, it was not until 1837 that the first real filibuster occurred. Another plum: the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, even though he represented the majority in the Senate for much of his career, was a passionate defender of the filibuster, proving that such issues are not decided simply on the basis of party, or majority versus minority.

You’ll find many such gems in the 656 pages of Examining the Filibuster. In addition to a great deal of information on the filibuster, cloture votes, and other such congressional arcana, it’s heartening to note that a fair number of Senators actually participated in these hearings, taking the time to mull over and address whether the filibuster still serves a need in the Senate and engaging in a reasoned dialogue about it.

You can read Examining the Filibuster here, get your own copy here, or find it in a library – and enjoy your pie, plum pudding, or fruitcake and have a great holiday!

Secret Codes and the Founding Fathers

November 5, 2010

Never say “never.” I recently blogged about Thomas Jefferson’s Library, a reprint of our third President’s library catalogue as recreated by his secretary, Nicholas P. Trist. I’ve always been intrigued by Trist’s subsequent checkered diplomatic career, so I added, “Trist later had a controversial career as a diplomat – if I ever find a Government publication concerning him, you’ll hear all about it,” assuming that the chances of finding a book like that were practically nil. Meanwhile, I had requested copies of a number of publications from the Center for Cryptologic History at the National Security Agency to blog about. After they arrived, I began thumbing through Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900. Of course, the title of Chapter 15 is “Nicholas Trist Code.”  That’s why I decided to discuss this book first.

Masked Dispatches presents some of the Founding fathers as active participants in spycraft. America’s first espionage code was devised by Benjamin Tallmadge, General George Washington’s director of secret service, for use by a spy ring set up in New York in 1778. Another chapter discusses Washington’s supplying of invisible ink to Tallmadge. What would Parson Weems have thought?

Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the world of codes and ciphers was a mechanical device – a wheel cylinder. Although not much came of this invention, which was developed some time before 1802, in 1922 the Army adopted a similar device, bearing out President John F. Kennedy’s White House remarks to a roomful of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Even less surprisingly, Aaron Burr, that brilliant and ever-controversial character, appears in Masked Dispatches, as does John Quincy Adams in his role as America’s representative at the Prussian court. While in Berlin, he developed a sliding strip cipher – apparently not the easiest device to use, but another tribute to early American ingenuity and aptitude for secrecy.

The book includes much more – a chapter on Civil War ciphers, the use of codes during the 1876 Tilden-Hayes Presidential election scandal, and several descriptions of State Department codes. Particularly intriguing are the many reproductions of the various codes and ciphers, so  puzzle lovers and would-be spies can spend hours encoding and decoding.

Masked Dispatches and other publications on the history of cryptology can be ordered from the Center for Cryptologic History area of the National Security Agency’s web site, or you can find it in a library. I’ll be blogging about some more of these excellent books in the near future.

Oh, wait, Nicholas Trist! According to Masked Dispatches, when he was Chief Clerk of the State Department, President James K. Polk sent him to Mexico as a secret agent in an effort to end the Mexican War. From Mexico, Trist wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan and explained his design for a code. It was a book code, but the title of the particular book he used was a mystery until the 1980’s, when shrewd scholarly detective work revealed that it was an obscure book on the Spanish language (Verdaderos principios de la lengua castellana by Joseph Borras). Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, but only after ignoring his recall by Polk. The President accepted the treaty but fired his emissary – and Trist didn’t even get paid for his time in Mexico!

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