Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
They Said It:
Not long ago, while visiting a friend at Oxford University, I found myself in a heated political discussion with a Scotsman. The subject of our dispute was the Iraq war, but the conversation turned toward the rise of latent anti-Semitism in once-respectable quarters of British opinion. Two years earlier, a story entitled “A Kosher Conspiracy?,” illustrated by a gold Star of David plunged into the heart of the Union Jack, graced the cover of Britain’s most prominent left-wing magazine, The New Statesman. Since then, the intellectual climate had only worsened. In response to my remark that many use the epithet “neocon” to describe Jews, my interlocutor replied, “I’d rather be an anti-Semite than a neocon.”
Today, no other political label gets thrown around as frequently, or with as much reckless abandon, as “neocon.” The most popular liberal blogs name and shame neocons, real or imagined, on a daily basis. The term is used in a fashion similar to the way “communist” was during the 1950s—an all-encompassing indictment—this time indicating an imperialistic and “warmongering,” even an “insane,” worldview. The anti-neocon fervor has reached truly McCarthyite proportions: just a few months ago, Steve Clemons of the left-wing New America Foundation argued in favor of “Purging the Neocons from the American Soul.”
James Kirchick, “The Anti-Neocon Fervor,” City Journal, November 6, 2007.
THE NEW POLITICAL PARADIGM AND THE NEOCONSERVATIVE PERSUASION.
Over the course of the last fifty years, very few political terms or phrases have been as misused and abused as the word “neoconservatism.” At first, the neoconservatives were really just dissident liberals, Democrats who objected to the excesses of the Great Society. Before long, however, they became the last bastion of sanity on the Old Left, the traditionalists and intellectuals who opposed the radical “New Left” and its shameful efforts to undermine the American effort in Vietnam and to parlay that loss abroad into a cultural, economic, and racial revolution at home. The neocons – like most of the rest of the country – thought the New Left was nuts. The difference between the neocons and the rest, though, was that they were once considered fellow travelers, which is to say that their abandonment of leftist demagoguery was all the more destructive and thus their “betrayal” was considered all the more acute.
Throughout the 1970s, as the Democratic Party drifted slowly but ever so surely in the direction of the New Left’s ideology, the neoconservatives moved far more quickly toward to heart of the conservative movement. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz emerged as leading critics of liberal domestic, economic, and social policy, while luminaries like Richard Pipes and Jeane Kirkpatrick did much the same with respect to foreign affairs, formulating a creed that both recognized America’s burden as a global moral force and advocated policies to ensure the successful bearing of that burden.
All the while, the Left and many on the paleo-libertarian and paleo-conservative Right seethed with anger at and contempt for these “new” players in the game. Some of the objections, particularly on the Right, were legitimate and based on longstanding conservative principles. Nevertheless, most of the contempt was laced with the world’s oldest hatred, Anti-Semitism and its attendant conspiracy mongering.
In the aftermath of 9/11, those opposed to neoconservatism became bolder and more aggressive, both in their criticism of the movement and in their anti-Semitism. Suddenly, the United States was at war with the Muslim world (George Bush’s insistence on a war with “terror” notwithstanding), which placed the United States in direct conflict with nations and peoples who also happened to be in semi-permanent conflict with Israel. As was their wont, the neocons advocated a robust and high-minded response to the attacks and to the question of Islamic radicalism more broadly. Those on the Left and on the far Right inclined to resent Israel anyway saw the American response as one directed by neocons (i.e. Jews) for the explicit benefit of Israel.
All of a sudden, there were “neocons” everywhere, affecting every policy, directing every action, all for the benefit of their “real” homeland, Israel. As the inimitable Mark Steyn noted, the Left focused its opprobrium not on the likes of Bush or Cheney or even Rumsfeld but on the “neocons” whom they saw as the real power behind the throne. “Wolfowitz is a demonic figure to the anti-war types,” Steyn wrote, “for little reason other than that his name begins with a big scary animal and ends Jewishly.” Robert Bartley, the late, great editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal, put it as follows in a 2004 column ostensibly about the kickoff of Lyndon Larouche’s presidential campaign:
“Just weeks after the LaRouche in 2004 campaign began nationwide circulation of 400,000 copies of the Children of Satan dossier, exposing the role of University of Chicago fascist ‘philosopher’ Leo Strauss as the godfather of the neo-conservative war party in and around the Bush Administration, two major establishment publications have joined the expose.”
So brags an article under the byline Jeffrey Steinberg on Executive Intelligence Review, a Web site devoted to the perennial presidential campaign of Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. This time around, Mr. LaRouche is running on a platform equating the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon with the 1933 Reichstag fire, set by Nazis so they could blame the Communists and take over the German government. . . .
To those of us who have lived this history over the decades, the notion of a Strauss conspiracy is totally unhinged. . . .
As one of the few people who ran with both neo-conservatives and the Wohlstetter circle, let me testify that they did not appear at each other’s conferences or dinner tables. But prominent members of each are Jewish. This is what the recent conspiracy charges are ultimately about.
Sometimes it is overt anti-Semitism; with “Children of Satan,” Mr. LaRouche has chosen an Aryan-nation phrase for Jews (descendants of Cain, who was the result of Satan seducing Eve, in this perfervid theology). At other times, often in the hands of accusers who are Jewish themselves, it is a charge of secret loyalties. The Jews, or Israel, or the Likud have conspired to take over American foreign policy.
This is the ugly accusation an alert reader should suspect in encountering the word “Straussian,” or these days even “neo-conservative” in the context of the Iraq debate. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle find their Jewish heritage a point of attack. But George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are gentiles. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell don’t look Jewish to me, but they also helped draft the basic statement of the Bush Doctrine, the September 2002 “National Security Policy of the United States.”
Clearly, the administration’s critics are anxious to seize any straw to discredit its success in Iraq, to leap to the worst possible construction of events. It was a “quagmire” when troops were slowed by a sand storm, now it’s “deception” because chemical weapons dumps haven’t been found. The impulse is so strong that Leo Strauss gets exhumed, words are twisted from their meaning, and the [New York] Times and New Yorker make common cause with Lyndon LaRouche.
What this means is that for the last 15 years, just about the only context in which neoconservatism has been mentioned is foreign affairs. Realists spend their days denigrating the mess in the Middle East and blaming the neos for creating it (rather than, say, Muhammed). Leftists and Right-wing cranks like David Duke wail and gnash their teeth about the “Jewish conspiracy” and insist that the United States is in trouble only because a cabal has willfully chosen to put Israel and its interests above America’s.
Unfortunately, this is not only ugly and nuts, but it wildly distorts the place of neoconservatism and its adherents in our political culture. As far as we’re concerned, the most important facet of neoconservatism is the fact that it is, almost by definition, not opposed to the state or its expanse. The original neocons were intellectuals, people with backgrounds in the liberal arts, academics who believed in the importance of philosophy but also in the pertinence of history. They were, after all, Democrats at one time – and at a specific time, during the original expanse of the administrative state.
On the conservative scale, neocons are at the opposite end from the libertarians. They are generally socially conservative and concerned about morality in contemporary society. They believe that government can and should help to direct and affect people’s lives. In a 2003 essay for his son’s magazine, the Weekly Standard, Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, discussed this often forgotten aspect of the ideology/movement thusly:
Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the “American grain.” It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing and could not care less about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies. . . .
This leads to the issue of the role of the state. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on “the road to serfdom.” Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his “The Man Versus the State,” was a historical eccentricity. People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government.
Regular readers may recall that we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the ultimate motives of the NeverTrump crowd. We understand their aversion to Trump and even, on occasion, sympathize with their plight. The Republican presidential primary this election cycle featured some of the most interesting, engaging, and effective conservatives on the national stage in some time. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker headlined what should have been a stellar cast of conservative presidential hopefuls. Instead, however, the media and the voters conspired to undermine the anticipated conservative presidential revival, leaving the GOP with a frustrating and potentially explosive mix: a right-leaning populist with a penchant for vulgarity.
Nevertheless, we’ve never quite understood the vehemence with which the NeverTrumpers have viewed their party’s nominee. Some bona fide conservatives – including our friend and the smartest economist we know, Steve Moore – signed on the Trump campaign in the hope of changing it from within. Others at least acknowledged that while Trump may be uncouth, he is hardly the first major party nominee to be so. Indeed, his general election opponent once took a tax deduction for donating used underwear to charity, in addition to being one of the most powerful enablers of and obfuscators for “Slick Willie,” one of the most vulgar human beings ever to darken the Oval Office. All of which is to say that while we may sympathize with the NeverTrumpers, we could never quite figure out what they wanted or how they intended to get it.
Well, we think we’re starting to understand now. Let us explain.
In the aforementioned essay, Irving Kristol attempted to dispel the notion that neoconservatism is a perpetual political force or even a political movement properly understood. A case in point is the careful phrasing used in the essay’s title, which Kristol explained this way:
A few years ago I said (and, alas, wrote) that neoconservatism had had its own distinctive qualities in its early years, but by now had been absorbed into the mainstream of American conservatism. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is that, ever since its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s, what we call neoconservatism has been one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently. It is not a “movement,” as the conspiratorial critics would have it. Neoconservatism is what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers, called a “persuasion,” one that manifests itself over time, but erratically. . . .
If Kristol is right this time – and we have no reason to doubt that he is – then the implications for American politics could be significant.
It seems, we think, that Kristol’s timeline makes a great deal of sense. The neocons first took to the national stage in response to the overt and aggressive Marxist takeover of the New Left, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The neocons opposed the violent attitudes of the New Marxists and their willingness to use “any means necessary” to achieve their desired ends. The neocons – who in an earlier life had been crucial players in the Civil Rights movement – objected to the Black Panthers who advocated violence in pursuit of their ends. In brief, the neocons opposed the radicalization and McGovernization of the Democratic Party. They made their positions clear and, in so doing, dramatically slowed the party’s inevitable drift toward Leftist radicalization. And then they mostly disappeared.
They appeared again, though, roughly a decade later at the end of the miserable and miserably muddled Carter administration. Again, they opposed Marxism, this time abroad, rather than at home, arguing against the conventional wisdom that détente and accommodation were the keys to global peace. They urged the United States to confront the Soviet menace, not necessarily on the battlefield, but on the more understated but nevertheless effective ground of muscular foreign policy and nuclear deterrence. They helped get Reagan elected. They helped him formulate his strategies for defeating the Soviets abroad and for whipping malaise at home. And then they disappeared. Again.
Once more, they were absent for a decade or more. They reappeared during the latter stages of the Clinton administration and stayed on into the George W. Bush years, urging both presidents to take a firm stand against neo-fascism in the Middle East and to advance American interests through strength abroad and growth-oriented economics at home.
To hear both the cranks and the mainstream media tell the story, you’d get the impression that the neocons took over Washington during the Bush years and never left. But this is more conspiracy mongering than actual historical fact. The truth of the matter is that the neocons helped the “compassionate” cons (e.g. Bush) and the erstwhile realists (Cheney and Rumsfeld) formulate the Bush Doctrine, and then they went away, as per usual.
Of course, that means that it’s been roughly a decade since the neocons “surfaced” to affect policy. And that, in turn, means that it is time, once again, for a revolution of sorts.
Consider, if you will, the most prominent men and women among the NeverTrumpers. Some are traditional Buckley-ite conservatives, reared on Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and, of course, Buckley himself. Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and a handful of others fall into this category. Some are social conservatives who oppose Trump’s gaudiness and vulgarity. Some are classic conservative misanthropes, who detest most politicians, but find Trump, in particular, especially loathsome. (Kevin Williamson, we’re looking at you!) Some are pseudo-libertarians, people like Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, who are running on the Libertarian ticket, but have no real fondness for “liberty,” only an aversion to Trumpian populism. And, of course, some – the most prominent and most outspoken of the crowd – are powerful and important neoconservatives. William Kristol, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, and Robert Kagan are but a few of the leading neoconservatives who have spearheaded the campaign to “save” the GOP from itself by undermining Trump.
Over the past week, we read a couple of different articles positing the future of the post-Trump Democratic Party, which makes sense since the Republican Party’s future is far harder to forecast at this point. The first of these was penned by the conservative author and entrepreneur Ben Domenech, and it posited an interesting if not entirely unprecedented Democratic future. He put it this way:
The worst case scenario for Republicans might be this: Trump’s latest hires, who seem less focused on winning the White House and more on what comes after, lead the Republican Party to split with the candidate and largely focus on protecting their Senate majority. In November, Trump loses in an election that is not close – say 6 points nationally – but is not so large a loss that Republicans are swept from power. The takeaway from McConnell and others is that not much needs to change – their majority was re-elected even in an awful year for the top of the ticket. Reince Priebus and the cinnamon gum swallowing Sean Spicer serve as sacrificial lambs. And a year from now, McConnell and the leadership in the Senate is making the strong case that what the GOP really needs to do to wipe the taste of Trump from their mouths is to work with President Clinton to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
If this is the course the party takes, there is a real risk of backlash, one where Trumpism supplants the ideological populism that has animated the party in recent cycles with a more inchoate nationalist populism unmoored from any principle. . . .
The opportunity this gives the Democrats is clear: they will have the latitude and incentives to expand their coalition, forming the equivalent of a new American Tory party. Socially liberal in the sense of redistribution and the occasional catering to identity politics appeals, Democrats will have the opening to become even more corporatist and pro-business, collaborating with groups and companies who find the Republicans too toxic to sponsor. This would give Democrats the freedom to ignore a number of their more radical members and just offer lip service to the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders, instead expanding their appeal to suburban voters who have proven more difficult to win in recent years. As the only globalist game in town, the elites will naturally sort into the Democratic coalition, which currently looks to dramatically expand its foothold among the college educated. Republicans will be left with a messy coalition patched together with duct tape, which cannot agree on just about anything, including on whether they agree.
The second piece was written by Michael Tracey, a journalist and researcher, and was published in the New York Daily News. Tracey is a Lefty, and so his essay approaches the question from the opposite perspective from Domenech’s. Nevertheless, he too worries about a “fusion party” pairing Hillary’s with NeverTrump former Republicans. To wit:
Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a TV ad that should give pause to anyone hoping to avoid foreign policy catastrophe in coming years. As part of her ongoing effort to court disaffected Republicans, independents and assorted apolitical centrist types, the ad featured a number of purported experts solemnly attesting to the unreliability and volatility of Donald Trump.
Among these characters was Max Boot. One of the chief intellectual architects of the Iraq War, Boot has emerged from richly earned ignominy and ostracization to enjoy a sudden career revival, in large part thanks to liberals eagerly touting his Trump-bashing op-eds and media appearances. The logic behind lavishing Boot with such effusive praise, these Dems presumably reckon, is to show that hostility to the wildman GOP nominee crosses party lines. . . .
Liberals likewise have taken to feverishly sharing blusterous anti-Trump columns written by Robert Kagan, another agitator for the Iraq invasion. It wasn’t so long ago that these very same liberals would have regarded men like Kagan and Boot as pariahs — intolerable scoundrels who put the country on the path to war under false pretenses.
Kagan has hosted official fundraisers for Hillary, extolling her foreign policy acumen and predilection for deploying military power abroad. His wife, Victoria Nuland, is seen as a contender for a top administration job — perhaps even secretary of state. This all unfolds while the country Kagan lobbied to invade remains gripped by horrendous turmoil and bloodshed. . . .
Trump may pose certain unpredictable dangers, but the dangers posed by re-empowering the neoconservative ideologues who brought about the Iraq invasion are already known. There’s no guesswork involved — we have incontrovertible proof of their destructive potential.
We’ll be honest with you: we don’t know Michael Tracey from Adam. We’ve never read anything else he’s written and we have no immediate plans to do so. His indictment of the dastardly neocons is not only ideologically blinkered, but is also precipitated more on indoctrination than on any realistic reading of history, and relies more on flat assertion than actual argument. Nevertheless, we think he has the better of the argument as to what the post-election Democratic Party might look like.
For starters, the American Tory party that worries Domenech is one that sounds like it would work in theory but has already failed miserably in practice. A socially liberal, fiscally conservative party would, of course, be a slow-motion disaster that would do little more than alienate and enrage the already alienated and enraged populists on both sides of the aisle. Moreover, it would be premised on the notion that social liberty – gay marriage, greater access to abortion, “free” contraception, etc. – would be enough to placate the freeborn American people and keep them happily gelded on economic matters. This is, more or less, the Johnson-Weld ticket’s dreamworld. It is also the basic framework of the “liberalitarian” fusion (i.e. liberal + libertarian) that was supposed to be inaugurated along with Barack Obama. It didn’t work then, and it wouldn’t work now. All of the political energy in the country is ANTI-corporatist. And strengthening the corporatist power of the center-Left Democrats would only intensify that energy.
On the other hand, the historical situation seems almost to cry out for a neoconservative revival. As in the late ‘60s, the Democratic Party is being pulled aggressively to the Left, not just because of populist concerns, but because of hardcore Marxist agitation. In the grand scheme of things, even Bernie Sanders and his tiresome soft-leftie Bernie-bots are non-entities, useful distractions from the real agenda of the real movers and shakers on the far Left.
Consider, for example, the cause du jour on the Left, the “Black Lives Matter” movement. To the naked eye, BLM looks like a natural and understandable, if somewhat overwrought reaction to the problems associated with being poor and black in the age of overaggressive and militarized police forces. Indeed, a recent survey showed that a majority of young, voting-age Americans see BLM as the legitimate expression of black frustration. Fifty-one percent of 19-30 year-olds support the movement, while only thirty-five percent oppose it.
But do these people have even the foggiest idea what BLM really is? We doubt it. Perhaps they should read a recent report from Anne Sorock and her research-centered Frontier Lab. According to Sorock, et al. their research shows that BLM is anything but a grassroots movement:
Black Lives Matter as a movement represents the hopes and dreams of leftist organizers who shared with us that, until now, they had never felt such a sense of hope and excitement that their goal – as one operative put it, “total social upheaval,” and “systemic change” — could be realized in their lifetime. From veteran agitators like the Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers to a new crop of social-media-wielding female and LGBTQ leaders, Black Lives Matter is encapsulating the hopes and dreams of multiple generations of progressives in a way, they say, no movement has before.
The three female founders of the movement have made it clear, and the message has seeded itself as far down the chain as the operatives we spoke with, that Black Lives Matter is the vessel through which all progressive causes can flow. LGBTQ, illegal immigration, abortion, and countless other causes are simmering just beneath the public face of the focus on police violence. Even police violence flows neatly, according to Black Lives Matter, into economic violence — wage issues, workers’ rights . . . The panoply of leftist groups come together under this banner.
Recently released emails that were hacked from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation confirm the nature and the intentions of the BLM movement. As you probably could have guessed, the organization is anything but grassroots. It has been supported lavishly by the likes of Soros and Open Society and has just secured significant ongoing funding from the Leftist Ford Foundation. All this for an organization that calls Israel an apartheid state, that seeks American divestment from Israel, that demands reparations, that seeks “economic justice” for black people, and that agitates for greater political power.
The Democrats are inextricably linked to these hardcore lunatics – at least for the time being. A new, centrist Democratic Party, led today as it was in the early ‘70s by the neoconservative intellectuals, could help the party peel away from the radicals and establish a centrist base that would dominate politics in the new era (and in our new political paradigm). A project dedicated to the cautious and orderly distribution of state resources in the interest of the common good would appeal not only to Hillary Clinton’s big money donors on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but to the neoconservative intelligentsia as well. Recall that Irving Kristol stated that neocons “are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these [state] services,” and “do not feel . . . alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.”
The wild card in all of this, we think, is Hillary herself. If one assumes that she will be the next President of the United States – and there really is no reason to assume anything else at this point – then she will have to make some very serious decisions about her presidency very quickly. We know already that she is a committed hawk, albeit a somewhat confused and imprudent one. We know as well that her husband’s presidency was characterized by his “triangulation,” which is to say his rejection of the far Left and the intentional positioning of his policies between both the Left-wing and Right-wing extremes.
Furthermore, we know that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was the ideological power behind Bill Clinton’s throne, is the intellectual heir of the early Democratic neoconservatives. The DLC was founded in 1985 by Al From, a longtime Democratic operative. From modeled his organization on an earlier group, Senator Scoop Jackson’s Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), which was created to distance the party from McGovernite Leftism. Among the early members of the CDM were such luminaries as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Ben Wattenberg – neoconservatives, one and all.
When Hillary (presumably) takes office next January, she will already have made a great many decisions about the direction of her presidency. For the entirety of this campaign, she has been running hard to the Left, trying to keep up with not just her rival, Bernie Sanders, but the man she hopes to succeed, Barack Obama, who served in the Senate with Sanders, but was still considered farther Left than the old socialist. That said, presidential campaign promises are known for their disposability, if nothing else.
As Hillary starts her transition, as she begins to put together a White House staff and a cabinet, she will also show her hand. If she sticks with the Leftists; if she pulls in more people from John Podesta’s Soros-funded Center for American Progress; if she maintains the promises of her campaign, then the new Democratic Party will be much like the current one, a chaotic jumble of hard-Left drivel, economic illiteracy, and foreign-policy incoherence.
If, however, she revives the DLC and staffs her administration with more alumnae of her husband’s presidency and fewer from Obama’s, then she likely has chosen the less ideological, practical approach to the new political realignment.
For Republicans, we think that this latter possibility is the, by far, the greatest risk. If Hillary Clinton has the guts and the ability to pull it off – both of which are still in question, her likely looming presidency notwithstanding – then she can turn the Democratic Party into an electoral powerhouse for at least a generation. The best part for her is that she doesn’t really need to have the skill or intelligence to pull this off. The neoconservatives will bring that with them as part of their once-a-decade revival. All she has to do is fend off the far Left and then sit back and let those smarter and more amiable do what they have always done.
It’s funny. Today the word “conservative” is nearly universally associated with the Republican Party, but that wasn’t always the case. Up until the late 1970’s, conservatives played a significant role in the Democratic Party as well. That ended when the Democratic Party did to these conservatives what they did to Reagan; it left them. That’s not say, however, that there can be no reunion. You see, the Republican Party is in the process of leaving them as well. And we suspect that some of the NeverTrumpers are anticipating a return to their ancestral partisan home. Hillary Clinton makes that possible. But only time will tell if she is smart enough to sit back and allow it all happen.
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