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The Origins of the Rancher Insurrection

Rage, Race and Violence on the Western Range

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and JAMES RIDGEWAY

In the mid-90s, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombings, James Ridgeway and I toured the interior West, interviewing ranchers in Nevada and eastern Oregon, who were engaged in an open war with the federal government over grazing and water rights. The ranchers had openly defied federal environmental regulations, built private roads and water structures on public lands and used bellicose tactics to hold off enforcement actions by rangers from the Forest Service and the BLM. One of the rebel ranchers we tried to track down has now become a cause celebre of the American right, Clive Bundy, who once threatened to “blow the fucking head off” of a BLM officer. Bundy’s racist comments have prompted some Republicans, including Rand Paul, to distance themselves from their gun-toting hero in recent days. A story in the New York Times quoted Bundy’s rancid views on African-Americans:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro…there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Bundy refused to see us, but a few of his cohorts, some of them adherents of the racist Christian Identity movement, were quite happy to explain their radical views over cups of bracing coffee in the dusty towns of the American outback.  This is a revised version of the original piece which ran in the Village Voice–JSC 

Out in the high desert of Nevada’s basin and range country, down roads with names like the Extraterrestrial Highway that run off into the sky, and where the hardscrabble rancher and the miner still call the shots, a full-scale insurrection was born.

You drive through this sagebrush landscape for miles and never see another car. Then, suddenly, you come across a man sitting by the side of the road, staring off into the distance of a bombing test range, watching for the latest incarnation of the Stealth bomber or maybe a UFO. This is Edward Abbey country, home to loners and drifters, people on the lam, desert anarchists.

In the corner of a Tonopah coffee shop, called the Station, next door to the incessant cacophony of a casino, where old ladies play the slots and men gather in clouds of ambient smoke around the roulette wheels, sat Wayne Hage, a top icon of the Sagebrush Rebels. Three years after his death in 2006, Hage remains a heroic figure for Western traditionalists in their fight against the evil doers in Washington and the environmentalist menace.

Here at the Station House, Hage sat, day after day, drinking bottomless cups of bitter cowboy coffee and looking out the window at the rusting remnants of mining derricks strewn across the town. Trucks thundered past, and in the sky, the odd Japanese tourist teetered precariously with his camera from a hot air balloon that carried him past the wonders of the old mining world, being celebrated at the annual Jim Baker Days, a weeklong drunkfest in honor of the miner who, the story goes, discovered Tonopah’s silver load when his mule kicked at him and dislodged some rocks that glistened in the sun.

Wayne Hage was the man to see if you really wanted to know what motivated the Wise Use Movement’s battle against environmentalists and the federal government. Hage was reluctant to meet on this blistering day in early June. He said he’d been hammered by the press too often, especially by the liberal press with an ax to grind against the Wise Users.

The Wise Use Movement consists of more than a thousand local organizations across the country, representing roughly three million people—people who fear the infringement of their property rights, mostly by what they see as oppressive federal government regulations. These are Palin people– rural, gun-packing Christians.

Some of these groups are simply out for money: they want the federal government to pay them considerable sums in exchange for changing traditional uses of their property that have run afoul of federal laws or even in exchange for cutbacks in the commercial use of public lands or resources. Custom and culture, they call it.

Other Wise Use groups have congealed as a political force to demand unrestricted access to federal lands, whether it be to log, run cattle, or for less than environmentally friendly recreational pursuits, such as off-road motorcycling or snowmobiling.

Corporate America has also invested heavily in certain factions of the Wise Use movement, using them as a grassroots stalking horse in their efforts to the preserve the archaic system of laws and regulations that allow them heavily subsidized entry to the natural wealth of the public domain. With the active help of Republicans in congress and a weak, conflict-averse executive branch , the big transnationals are intensifying their efforts to exploit the land, notably through the revival of gold mining and wide-spread oil and gas drilling.

The federal lands are at the center of a growing political struggle over the concept of property rights. Making up one-third of the nation, the public domain is by federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and encompasses what remains of the nation’s valuable minerals, old growth forests, native grasslands and the extremely valuable oil and gas reserves—from the Rocky Mountain Front to the outer continental shelf.

Although shown as a lush green on road maps, much of this territory has been grotesquely transformed over the last half century by big companies into kind of industrial wasteland, consisting of atomic and other bombing ranges, ammo dumps, military and energy facilities, strip mines, clearcuts, dammed, dredged and scoured rivers, and leaching mounds of cyanide. Still, though victim to decades of abuse and neglect, the public lands also hold the last remnants of wild America, its salmon and trout, elk, grizzlies, spotted owls and wolves, its ancient forests, deserts and mountains—the American wilderness.

The Wise Use movement has created a profile of its enemy. They see themselves as being engaged in a high-stakes chess game with the elite legions of the environmental movement, who are covertly carrying out a sinister master plan, a vast socialist experiment to depopulate the rural West. As evidence they point to the Wildlands Project and to quotes from various greens calling for a 50 percent reduction in North America’s population by the year 2100. The Wise Use movement often suggests that the real goal of the environmental movement is to clear rural Westerners off the land, so the West can be turned into an “eco-theme park” for the pleasures of vacationing suburbanites.

In order to advance their socialist agenda, the Wise Users argue, environmental infiltrated the federal government. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the thinking goes, embedded key leaders into powerful positions inside the EPA, Interior and Agriculture Departments, and then, acting through their positions on government regulatory bodies, the environmentalists have set out to first reduce and then eliminate all grazing and logging on public lands and sharly curtail mining by driving up the cost of doing business.

Furthermore, Wayne Hage argued, through the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists have covertly turned fights over such seemingly innocent creatures as the coho salmon, northern spotted owl and gray wolf into national symbols of a broad land use planning instrument, a kind of bureaucratic club wielded against rural landowners.

Occupying a ranking position on the Wise Use movement’s enemies list is former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who initiated the National Biological Survey in 1993—known in the ominous parlance of the Wise Use movement as the NBS. “The NBS is fascist, man, it’s socialist,” proclaimed Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, based in Battle Ground, Washington. “These guys map your property with infrared satellite photos, looking for plants, you know, then they can actually come on your property without your permission. If they find one of those plants, you know you’re screwed worse than if they found dope.”

But, of course, in the minds of many of these Sagebrush populists, the real menace lies not with the environmentalists, but with the political and financial powers that prop them up. It is the big East Coast foundations who now provide the principle financing of the big green organizations that are pulling the strings. And who is behind these foundations? The Rockefellers, the Pews, the Mellons and other titanic American families made rich through the Standard Oil trust and the like. Through their securities portfolios, naturally, these foundations are interlocked with the multinational corporations that run the world, and who eye the public estate as a source of cheap wealth when times get hard. And thus it is, according to Hage and his followers, that the small rancher in the Interior West is driven off the land by Forest Service and BLM rangers who are nothing more or less than federal agents of the Rockefellers.

“It’s not some deep dark conspiracy,” Hage told us in 1994. “The information is out there for anyone to see. Most people don’t pay attention to economics. And when they do, they say, ‘My god, it’s one of those conspiracy theories.’ No, it isn’t. It’s just the record. So you have the environmental movement as a stalking-horse, used to carry out the transfer of property rights of individuals over to the hands of government and multinational corporations, which serve the interest of the old nobility under the monarchists. And look at who owns these damn gold mines out here in Nevada … foreign corporations.”

In 1991, Hage’s cattle were impounded and sold off by Forest Service agents after the rancher blatantly overgrazed his allotment on the Toiyabe National Forest in central Nevada. Hage promptly closed down his cattle operation and filed a $24 million suit against the Forest Service in federal claims court The suit, which became a cause celebre for the property rights movement, alleged that the seizure amounted to a “taking” of his property rights.

Hage wrote a manifesto titled Storm Over Rangelands, which presented his historical overview of the political economic of the western United States. Hage and his book have become part of a carefully crafted legend that occupies center stage in the Wise Use movement.

According to Hage’s interpretation of western history, the public lands were always meant to be sold off to private ownership—and even though they never were, the actual ownership at the end of the 20th century has become a mélange of various tangled interests, both public and private: the so-called split estate. In fact, Hage argued, there’s no such thing as “public” lands. Of course, that didn’t stope the government from expropriating them, nationalizing the lands over and over again.

As an example of this kind of thought lurking in the shadows of American history, Hage pointed to the career of Carl Schurz, Interior Secretary under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Hage wrote in Storm Over Rangelands that “Schurz’s efforts to prevent the establishment of private property rights on the public lands may have sprung from his socialist background. Schurz was a controversial German immigrant who had fought along with Karl Marx in the Revolution of 1848, came to America, was elected senator from Missouri and supported the radical Republican’s reconstruction plans.”

So, argued Hage, with the nation deeply in debt after the Civil War, the European banking houses, led by the Rothschilds, conspired with the federal government to use the western lands as collateral against repayment of the war debt. The government reneged on the Spanish land grants and sent the cavalry out to kill off the Indians, who had real and justifiable land claims, to clear away any obstacles to this loan repayment scheme. The European financial interests joined forces with the big East Coast families to build the railroads, control the new towns and farms and, through the American Cattle Trust, turn the livestock business into a huge monopoly.

It was, after all, that great hero of environmentalism, geologist Clarence King, explorer of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the father of the Smithsonian Institution and Geological Survey, the very father of federal science, who secretly sent his geology students from Ivy League schools to rustle cattle for his own profit on the western plains during summer vacation, abetting his huge cattle operation.

As time went on, according to Hage’s history, western lands were set aside through the conservation movement, starting with Yellowstone National Park, then Yosemite. These shrines to conservation were, according to Hageian theory, part of a vast project of “nationalization,” the equivalent, Hage wrote, of the “crown lands” in England.

Hage also contemptuously cites how the Taylor Grazing Act, which organized and regulated public land grazing during the 1930s, “created the collateral base for funding of Roosevelt’s New Deal.” According to Hage similar expansions of federal authority over western lands coincided with the Vietnam War (Wilderness Act).

Hage was one of the leaders of a group called Stewards of the Range, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, and founded by Hage’s attorney Mark Pollot, a former assistant secretary of the Interior under James Watt during the early Reagan years. During his tenure at Interior, Pollot authored Executive Order 12630, which required the federal government to attest that all federal agencies compensated landowners if federal regulations or actions infringed on property rights. Pollot’s group, Stewards of the Range, became a legal battering ram in the ranchers’ running resistance against federal authority, backing, for example, Cliff Gardner’s willful trespass of his cattle on lands of the Humboldt National Forest in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.

* * *

A thousand miles north in the posh Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington, are the officesof the group that published Hage’s manifesto: the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The group is run by Ron Arnold, the man who coined the term “eco-terrorism,” and his business partner Alan Gottlieb. Together they served as the field managers and media packagers for the property rights movement.

Arnold was a former draftsman for Boeing, a public relations man for different companies, a writer and film-maker, while Gottlieb made his money (lots of it, too) from direct mail operations for Republican candidates, and most significantly, from gun groups, including the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Bear Arms. Gottlieb also published a magazine called Women and Guns.

The Wise Use movement is a significant popular grouping. “There are 1200 to 1500 groups we can identify,” said Arnold. “Few of these groups ever got any real money from big corporations. Neither are they especially aligned with small business. In fact, probably a third of our members are housewives.” Altogether, Arnold and Gottlieb estimated that there are as many as three million people on their mailing list.

Much of the Wise Use movement has a strong, though peculiar, libertarian bent. “There’s a strain that runs through it that is upset with government interfering in their lives,” said Gottlieb. “Not just libertarian or conservative, but an awful lot of people who are to the left of center and they are very upset with the government telling them what to do.”

These people are the proto-tea-baggers, a strange mix of populists, anarchists and libertarians. “It’s a diverse collective,” Arnold said. “For example, I’m pro-abortion and Alan is not. I’m for legalization of marijuana. We never got into immigration. We did try to see if there was a bridge between the Wise Use groups and the gun movement. But, no. Wise Use people pretty much support gun right. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Gun rights people don’t do much for the property rights movement. And that’s the part that pisses me off.”

Even though the Wise Use movement may attract people form diverse political and ideological heritages, it was also lustily embraced (and some might say co-opted) by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey’s anti-government revolution of the 1990s. Today the Wise Use movement nestles among the rightwing organizations and tendencies of the post-Bush Republican party on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the south and the mountain West. But it can be an uneasy alliance.

It is a world that Ron Arnold knows very well. During the early 1980s, Arnold was brought in by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation to write a glowing authorized biography of James Watt, then viewed by the media and most of America as a kind of neo-fascist, born again lunatic from Wyoming.

Watt, of course, was the messiah of the Sagebrush Rebellion, the precursor of the Wise Use movement, which helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Once installed Reagan began talking about privatization of public lands and Watt soon had people thinking he would sell them off to the highest bidder.

But, according to Arnold, shortly after Watt took over at Interior, he told the more radical factions of the Sagebrush Rebels (folks like Wayne Hage) to knock it off. Privatization was scrapped,” Arnold recalled, “because Watt and the others discovered that you can’t sell off what you don’t own. If you try to auction off pieces of ‘public’ property, you can’t do it because the ownership is split. There are so many stratifications you could never figure out who really owned what. So notions of ownership looked more and more like a commons than a capital asset.”

Among many in the Wise Use movement, however, there is a deeper feeling of betrayal associated with Watt’s abbreviated tenure, a belief that Watt came to be entranced by the corridors of power, that he was seduced by the sense of control he had over the public lands. As an example of this, hard core rebels like Hage pointed to the “good neighbor policy,” developed by Watt, which allowed the governors of the western states to work with the Interior Department in developing policy for federal lands, a gutless retreat from the core principles of private property rights.

The administration of George W. Bush also proved to be a disappointment to the aspirations of the Wise Use ultras. While giving lip service to the Wise Users, his Interior Department, headed by Watt protegé Gale Norton, rapidly began cutting one sweatheart deal after another with the big oil and gas companies and mining operations and the property rights agenda stalled once again on the doorstep of power.

* * *

Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Wise Use movement was building a great deal of political momentum. Then suddenly it had to backpedal furiously to get away from both the militia and county supremacy movements, which threatened to drag them onto the dangerous edges of the anarchist right.

Political investigators, such as Tarso Ramos and David Helvarg, linked some elements of the Wise Use movement to both the racist Posse Commitatus and the militias. Ramos and Helvarg highlighted the role some of the Wise User leaders have played in the National Federal Lands Conference, headquartered in Bountiful, Utah. Ron Arnold, for example, once served on the board of advisors of the Conference and Wayne Hage served as its former president. The Conference was a leading force behind the county supremacy movement in the West.

More to the point, the Conference enthusiastically endorsed the creation of the militia movement in its October 1994 newsletter, urging interested individuals to get in touch with, among others, MOM, the Militia of Montana. The article argued that militias are needed to defend states from an overbearing federal government poised to enforce “seizure orders which can be enacted with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen,” plunging the nation into “an absolute, marital law mode of repression.”

Arnold bristled at questions about the Conference, saying he cut all association with it years ago. He had a right to be concerned. With this one article, investigators, journalists and opponents of the Wise Use movement have been able to tar them as little more than a collection of pistol-packing whackos, aligned with the most paranoid and dangerous elements of the far right.

Part Two: On the Firing Line

Scanning the Sunday New York Times during the summer of 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush read how an Idaho rancher had threatened to slit the throat of Forest Service ranger Don Oman, who had decided to reduce the number of cattle grazing on several allotments in the Twin Falls District of the Sawtooth National Forest. Bush ordered a Justice Department investigation. A White House aide called Oman and said the president wanted the ranger to know he wouldn’t tolerate harassment of federal workers.

Five years later times had changed drastically. At the half-way mark of Bill Clinton’s term in office, threats against federal employees working in the rural west had become commonplace. Many Forest Service and BLM workers had to travel in pairs, maintaining constant radio contact with ranger offices. Their families routinely received death threats aimed not just at the workers, but also at their children.

In the face of these rising tensions, President Clinton reacted in a markedly different way than his predecessor. His administration placed a gag order on Forest Service employees talking about their harassment, ordered line officers on the public range to quit complaining and retreated from legal confrontation with violent anti-government vigilantes.

After the Oklahoma City bombings, the situation across the whole of the West became more tense. “There’s more people now kind of watching their backs,” said Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer. “You pull into a rest stop driving from Spokane to Seattle and you park away from the other vehicles. That kind of thing.”

At public meeting in December 2004, one man told Zimmer he was going back to his truck to get a gun. Another threatened to rope him to his pickup and drag him through town. The situation got so bad that the Washington state Department of Ecology removed state logos from many of its trucks and cars.

In the mountains outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, a rancher by the name of Cliveden Bundy decided to excavate a gravel quarry on public lands. When BLM rangers came out to the site to halt the unauthorized mining, Bundy threatened to “blow [their] fucking heads off.” Bundy wasn’t arrested. Indeed, he continued to mine gravel and threaten BLM officials.

“The BLM and Forest Service managers pushed the Department of Justice to act, but the Clinton administration was loath to respond in an aggressive manner,” said Jeff DeBonis, a former Forest Service worker who founded Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“The most they were willing to do was to belatedly file civil suits,” said Andy Stahl of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “The problems seemed to lie with top-level managers in the Forest Service and in the office of general counsel of the Department of Agriculture, some of whom were sympathetic with the claims of many of these ranchers and county leaders.”

Even more damaging, while the Clinton administration’s weak civil suits reasserted federal control over the public domain rangelands, everyone knew that Clinton’s own public lands administrators had floated a plan to turn millions of acres of federal land back to the states—a position that only encouraged ranchers and other dissidents to up the ante and increase the tension with federal employees working to enforce environmental regulations on the public estate.

At a community meeting in Billings, Montana in the summer of 1995, the 12-year-old daughter of an Interior Department worker in the West told Clinton that she was frightened. “What can you do to protect my dad?” she asked. Clinton delivered his classic, noncommittal response. “The most important thing we can do to make your father safer is to have everybody in this room, whatever their political party or views, stand up and say it is wrong to condemn people who are out there doing their job and wrong to threaten them.”

The heightened animosity toward the federal government in the West stemmed, in part, from the increasingly powerful property-rights movement, sometimes generically referred to as the “Wise Use” movement, consisting of a commingling of corporations, small businesses and landowners who argued that businesses should be compensated for any reductions in the commercial uses of public lands caused by the enforcement of environmental regulations.

On the further fringe of the property rights fight resides a much smaller but vocal group of people who think that the federal system of public lands (national forests and grasslands, national parks and wildlife refuges and BLM lands) are a constitutional fraud and rightly belong to the states and counties. These people tend to view federal workers who oversee public land policy as trespassers on their property.

All told, the public domain occupies an enormous part of America—up to one-third of the nation—and contains virtually all of the old-growth forest, salmon habitat, wolves, grizzlies and free-flowing rivers. It also harbors most of the unexplored oil and mineral reserves. The property-rights and county supremacy movements have powerful allies among the conservatives in Congress and in western statehouses, who strongly argue for a return of federal powers to states and local governments.

While property rights arguments are often couched in the name of returning decision-making power to local governments, in fact, this strategy plays directly into the hands of big transnational corporations, anxious to obtain unfettered access to federal timber, minerals, oil and rangeland.

For the most part, the federal workers in the rural West are unarmed and traditionally rely on cooperative argrements with local law enforcement officials and on other armed personnel within their own agencies. Harassment of a federal employee is a felony carrying a maximum fine of $250,000 and three to ten years in federal prison.

* * *

The epicenter of the range rebellion of the 1990s was in sparsely populated southwestern Nevada. Almost all the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government and outside the mining town of Tonopah, in addition to ranching and mining, the main source of livelihood is the nearby bombing test range.

The BLM office in Tonopah was located in a Quonset hut near an old mining site south of town. Here in the summer of 1995 we met Theodore J. Angle, the agency’s area administrator, who was responsible for overseeing 6.1 million acres of public lands in two vast Nevada counties. Angle had worked in Tonopah for eight years, most of the time “enjoying pretty amiable” relations with county governments. Much of his time had been consumed with developing the comprehensive land use plan for rangelands, keeping detailed counts of cattle that graze there and the environmental effects of livestock grazing on fish, wildlife and the desert’s varied plant life.

In the early 1990s, federal officials finally began to readjust the number of cows permitted on each grazing allotment in order to begin rehabilitating battered rangelands. Cows were to be fenced out of riparian areas. In some cases, reductions of as much as 40 percent of the permitted cattle were recommended.

It was at this point that anti-government tensions came to the boil, as local ranchers resisted the planned reductions on their grazing allotments. In an act of defiance, some ranchers actually increased the number of cattle they were running and allowed them to graze in prohibited areas. In response, the feds seized cattle belonging to one big rancher, Wayne Hage. Hage, in turn, shut down all operations on his ranch and sued the government in federal claims court, asserting that it “had badgered him right out of business.”

Relations deteriorated further when Nye County commissioners, who were at the forefront of the county power movement, sent county workers out to reroute an old road across federal lands. Forest Service agents attempted unsuccessfully to block the county’s bulldozers. Driving one of the Cats that day was Richard “Dickie” Carver, a Nye County commissioner and long-time friend of Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior Secretary. Carver and Babbitt spoke affectionately of one another, especially about their years in fighting off the Central Utah water project.

Shortly after the bulldozer confrontation, Nye County officials sued the Forest Service rangers who tried to block their illegal road-building project. The suit also lodged an outright challenge to the federal government’s control over public land in the county.

Despite repeated requests for criminal investigations by Forest Service officials, no harassment charges were filed against Carver, who threatened to use force if ever challenged by federal law enforcement officers in the future. Instead, six months after the encounter the Department of Justice had only responded with a meek civil suit against the county.

“I can’t speak for the Department of Justice,” Jim Nelson told us. At the time, Nelson was the outspoken supervisor of the Toiyabe National Forest. “They make their decisions and we have to live with them. Six months passed after the Nye County incident before anything was filed. And that was just a civil suit. Dick Carver sure seemed empowered by that. And the rest of those county supremacy folks did, too. This was all happening in an extremely tense situation. These county supremacists have taken advantage of people. They fed them a line that has no legal merit. They’ve incited violence.”

Imagine, if you will, how quickly and with what force the feds would have responded had an Earth First!er made similar threats against, say, Glen Canyon Dam and workers at the Bureau of Reclamation.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

James Ridgeway, the author of Blood in the Face, a book that chronicles the far right during the ladt quarter of the 20th century. He also is producer of the documentary by the name along with Anne Bohlen and Kevin Rafferty.