Stephen Hawking: a brilliant scientist, a flawed man

Stephen Hawking

It was impossible not to be in awe of the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who, after leading one of the most remarkable lives of the past century, died on March 14 at age 76. Over the course of his decades-long career, Hawking made a long series of earth-shaking discoveries about the nature of the universe; he developed complex and extraordinarily important theories about singularities, black holes, quantum mechanics, and a number of other perplexing aspects of modern science, and he won a long list of major prizes in his field, plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, which was presented to him in 2012 by Barack Obama. 

In addition to doing vital scientific work, Hawking was a first-rate and immensely successful popularizer of scientific ideas, writing books like A Brief History of Time (which stayed on the London Times bestseller list for five years after its publication in 1988 and was ultimately translated into more than 35 languages) and giving talks and lectures around the world in which he did his best to explain his complex insights to members of the general public.

The young Hawking

And he did all of this while suffering from one of the most cruelly debilitating disorders known to man, motor neuron disease (also known as amyotropic lateral sclerosis, ALS, and Lou Gehrig’s disease), which caused him to undergo a very public physical deterioration that ultimately resulted in nearly total paralysis. It is impossible to watch the 2014 feature film about his life, The Theory of Everything, in which the young Hawking was played by actor Eddie Redmayne, without feeling extraordinary empathy for Hawking’s suffering and admiration for his courage and tenacity. Expected to die only a few months – or, at most, a couple of years – after his diagnosis at age 21, he ended up defying all expectations, living longer with ALS than anyone ever had before.

With President Obama

Hawking was, in short, an extraordinarily remarkable man in many ways. To quote from President Obama’s comments at the 2012 medal ceremony: “From his wheelchair, he has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit.” But there is at least one major blot on his memory. As Judy Siegel-Itzkovich wrote after his death in the Jerusalem Post, he “apparently had a love-hate relationship with Israel – the affection from the 1970s until about a decade ago, and the disaffection more recently.” We will look more closely at this lamentable failing on Thursday. 

The Rev. Jackson’s Cuba sojourns

June 26-27, 1984, Havana, Cuba --- Jesse Jackson smokes Cuban cigars with Fidel Castro during a controversial visit to Havana in June 1984. Jackson, a candidate for President of the United States, caused a stir in the U.S. government and press by visiting with the Communist leader. --- Image by © Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Fidel Castro, June 1984

Jesse Jackson is such a patently unsavory creature – a shameless race hustler, an inveterate shakedown artist, a hardcore anti-Semite (remember “Hymietown”?), a sleazy player posing as a man of the cloth – that his coziness with the Castro government should hardly seem a surprise. Yet it’s important that this aspect of his slimy character not be lost in the mix.

27 Aug 1984, Havana, Cuba --- Original caption: Reverend Jesse Jackson (L) is seated next to Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro during negotiations for the release of a group of prisoners to Jackson. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Jackson and Castro, August 1984

For one thing, unlike other useful Castro stooges, Jackson hasn’t just visited the island prison once or twice. Over the decades, he’s been there so many times – and met Castro so many times – that it’s hard to come up with an exact count. On a couple of these visits he attempted to secure the release of political prisoners, but any objective observer of his career would find it difficult to see these supposedly humanitarian efforts as anything other than cynical bids for attention, power, and positive PR. They were, in any event, clear breaches of the Logan Act of 1799, violation of which is a felony. (In addition to Cuba, Jackson was able to persuade the governments of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia to release prisoners at various points in the 1980s and 90s – actions they presumably took because his involvement enabled them to receive very prominent and very positive press in the U.S. while making the U.S. government itself look impotent.)

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Jackson and Castro, 1993

Anyway, here’s a brief overview of Jackson’s Cuba adventures. In 1984, while he was running for President, he flew to Havana, where Fidel Castro welcomed him at the airport and, according to BBC correspondent Alastair Cooke, was treated “as if he were already president of the United States.” Giving a speech at the University of Havana, he shouted “Viva Fidel!” and “Viva Che Guevara!” He raised his fists: “Long live our cry of freedom!” During that trip, Castro praised Jackson as “brilliant” and “sincere,” a man full of “honesty” and free of “demagoguery.”

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Okay, he didn’t really say that, as far as we know. Jackson at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, 2013

Jackson didn’t return home alone: he took back with him to the U.S. sixteen American and seven Cuban political prisoners whom Castro had released as a sort of gift for the good reverend. (Castro himself said that he had made the gesture “as a result of Rev. Jackson’s visit. I did it for him and for the people of the United States.”) 

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Alastair Cooke

Upon their arrival at Dulles Airport, one of the released Cuban prisoners, Andres Vargas Gomez, an anti-Castro activist who’d been incarcerated for 21 years, spoke to reporters. He didn’t have kind words for either Castro or Jackson. “To go to Cuba to join in a moral offensive with Fidel Castro,” he said, referring to Jackson, “is more than morally offensive, it is a moral offense.” Cooke called the prisoner release “a very small price that Castro has to pay for helping to advertise among his people, and other Central American peoples, the fact that here is an actual candidate for the presidency of the United States, who is as much against the Central American policies of the detested Reagan as they are.” Jackson, pronounced Cooke, had been “used”; he was “a patsy” who’d made it “all the harder” for the U.S. government to improve relations with Cuba.

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Jackson at a religious service in Havana, September 2013

Oh, and let’s not forget that this patsy, this serial violator of the Logan Act, this man who shouted “Viva Fidel!” at the University of Havana in 1984 became, in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration’s house preacher. During the Lewinsky crisis, he reportedly prayed with Hillary and gave Bill “emotional solace and political advice” (not necessarily in that order). In 2000, President Clinton actually presented this champion of Castro’s dictatorship – who as recently as 1993 had vacationed in Havana and hung with Castro – with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award citation stated that Jackson “has preached a gospel of hope, unity and responsibility and has helped establish common ground across lines of race, class, gender, nationality and faith.”

U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (C) walks at the National hotel in Havana September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
Back at the Hotel Nacional, 2013

In September 2013, Jackson went to Cuba yet again. He wanted, he declared, to try to secure the freedom of Alan Gross, an American who’d been imprisoned there since 2009.  This time, however, Castro didn’t deign to meet with him; perhaps he’d decided that Jackson’s star was on the wane and his Logan Act violations were no longer the front-page news they’d once been. (Gross was finally released last December.) But Jackson’s time wasn’t wasted: during the same visit, he met with leaders of FARC, the far-left Colombian terrorist group, and gave a talk advocating actions against the U.S. economic blockade. 

Jackson claims to be delighted at the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. But is he? When every American can legally travel to Cuba, who’s going to care anymore when he makes the trip?