Drinking With: David Talbot

“Ron Conway is our Donald Trump,” David Talbot says.

We're having a beer — a Trumer Pils, in his case — outside the Precita Park Café on the north slope of Bernal Heights. Talbot is marveling about how Conway complained to HBO over the way Alexandra Pelosi depicted him in her documentary San Francisco 2.0, which left the network “running for cover and cowering.” (Conway's screen time is short, but he does state at one point that San Francisco is six square miles in size, which is wrong by a factor of seven.)

“Trump is more progressive than Ron Conway, who's a greedy thug,” Talbot says. “Trump actually has some charm around the edges. I've yet to see it in Conway. He just throws money at whoever he wants to defeat. He floods the zone.”

Talbot is (in his own words) a revisionist historian, the author of Season of the Witch (an account of San Francisco from the Summer of Love to the Feinstein mayoralty), a Bernal Heights resident, and the founder of Salon.com. He's recently become politically active at the local level again, with the aim of moving past our current period of “capitalist anarchy” and re-establishing San Francisco's place as the nation's incubator of progressive policy. My question to him was really about why he thinks Senator Rand Paul's presidential campaign seems to be sputtering when it looked for awhile like libertarianism was on the ascent in GOP politics, but it doesn't take much for Talbot to launch into a broadside against the mayor or his chief backer.

And he believes that John F. Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy, one whose tentacles not only pulled the gun but orchestrated the cover-up, too.

Talbot's latest book, The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government, elaborates upon a sepia-toned chapter in American history, the rise of a postwar elite that wields power irrespective of whichever party controlled Congress or the White House. Tracing the lineage of the national security state from NSA data collection and black sites back to Allen Dulles, the CIA's first head, Talbot shows how this unelected and unaccountable network jeopardizes American democracy, conspiring to assassinate JFK after his efforts to achieve lsting peace with Castro and the Soviets marked him as an “aberrant president who had to be removed for the good of the country.”

Talbot ticks off a laundry list of government sins that sound like hallmarks of the post-Sept. 11 political order, but points out that they've been going on for decades.

“Torture, assassination, black sites, mind experimentation, human experimentation, mass surveillance of private citizens: All that stuff didn't happen after 9/11, it originated during Dulles' era.”

What is Talbot's proof? For starters, he once interviewed a member of Lyndon Johnson's Secret Service detail, an agent who said that after leaving the White House, LBJ would query everyone around him for their opinion on what really happened. Charles de Gaulle apparently believed it, too. A failed 1962 attempt on his life (later chronicled in The Day of the Jackal) was so eerily similar to the November 1963 assassination in Dallas that it led the French president to conclude (as Talbot says) that “the right-wing security forces that tried to eliminate me succeeded in eliminating Kennedy.” And a Congressional committee in the 1970s determined that there had been a conspiracy, but was unable to produce the names.

It's curious to hear a dyed-in-the-wool lefty expressing sympathy for the nationalist de Gaulle, but The Devil's Chessboard is neither a work of glib contrarianism nor an academic tome destined for the shelves in the proverbial archives. It is, in Talbot's words, “an American Game of Thrones.”

And, he says, it's directly connected to Ron Conway and the $8 million Airbnb allocated to defeat Prop F.

“My sort of progressive dream is that there are a lot of the same battles going on in all these gentrified cities around the country, where the wealth gap is becoming more and more glaring, and people are up against the wall,” he says. “And you have to stand and fight or get crushed.”

What Talbot wants is what almost every progressive activist wants: For new waves of resistance to emanate from cities that are losing their souls, and create a new “Tea Party of the left that has more staying power than Occupy.” Except he connects it to more than just the livability of the Mission. (Talbot is not particularly optimistic about either Prop. F or Prop. I, the moratorium on market-rate housing in the Mission, although he thinks former Sup. Aaron Peskin has a shot at winning back his old seat.) For him, reviving the progressive left means electing politicians who exhibit concern for the impact of the tech boom, just as it means countering the subversion of democracy at the national level.

“Your generation has to be the one to say, 'Enough of this bullshit. We're all grownups now, we want the truth about our history,'” Talbot says. “It feels like an ancient time but it's all happening today still. They take us to wars whenever they want, and they don't tell us the truth. There's a direct line from Dulles to Donald Rumsfeld, to Dick Cheney, to John Brennan, our national security empire. That's the death of American democracy, as Ed Snowden tried to tell us all. If we let those people win, that's the end of American democracy.”

“It has a lot of relevance for today,” Talbot says. “And it's a hell of a story.”

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