2016 Election, Trump

John Lewis is Right…

       “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia

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John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, was beaten, bloodied, bullied and might have been killed while marching for voting rights toward the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. He knows a thing or two about standing up to evil.

John Lewis beaten by Alabama state troopers while marching for voting rights in 1965

When John Lewis said the other day that he did not consider the soon-to-be president of the United State “legitimate” he both stretched the bounds of political discourse and he spoke the truth. I’ll explain.

The comment from Lewis, delivered in his typically low-key, but straight forward way predictably teed up a good deal of outrage including, predictably, the kind of vitriol we have come to consider normal behavior on the part of the man who will be president in a few days.

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the Tweeter-in-Chief said in a pair of Twitter posts.

“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” he added. “Sad!”

           The man who will be president

Where to begin?

Well, how about beginning with pointing out that the original birther – our soon-to-be commander-in-chief – rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, not once or twice but repeatedly over many years. It was a monumental lie that he personally perpetuated.

             An extremely credible source…

Or we could begin with the fact that the nation’s intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia participated in widespread cyber crimes, as well as a propaganda and disinformation campaign and may have colluded with the GOP candidate’s campaign to assist with his election. To deny that this Russian activity influenced the election is to ignore that the beneficiary of the Russian help repeatedly cited information – by one count 164 times during the campaign – from Wikileaks documents, leaks undoubtedly facilitated by the Russians, to advance his campaign. You can check the videotape.

Or we could examine the fact that the president-elect mounted, as his tweets aimed at John Lewis make crystal clear, a race-based campaign that mobilized and gave voice to the nation’s white supremacist, immigrants hating alt-right elements in a manner unseen in American politics since at least 1968.

The next time you hear an apologist for the man who will be president say that a major element of his appeal was not about emphasizing race and social division, just reflect on the fact that he explicitly said, two months after his election, that a black congressman could only represent a district “in horrible shape and failing apart (not to mention crime infested).” Like his attacks on an American judge of Mexican heritage or a Gold Star mother and father who are Muslim, failing to see the attacks on John Lewis as profoundly racist is to look the other way at the hate and bigotry this man has put in the center of American politics.

John Lewis, by the way, represents the Fifth District of Georgia, most of Atlanta and home to the toney Buckhead neighborhood with a real luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, as well as the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the campuses of Emory and Georgia Tech Universities and the corporate headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. Nearly 60 percent of the district population is African-America, but as the Atlanta Journal points out if the president-elect “believes Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is ‘falling apart,’ then he believes Atlanta is falling apart.”

And, of course, it isn’t.

Emory University in the heart of district John Lewis represents

And then think about this: a truly legitimate president dedicated to the job of leading the nation and representing all its citizens might have devoted a few minutes of the last two months to a real effort to tone down the volume of division that he has placed front and center in our politics and our culture. But, of course, he’s not capable of such moral leadership. It’s almost enough to conclude that he is not, to coin a phrase, a legitimate president.

The dictionary definition of “legitimate” says: “conforming to the law or to rules.” Synonyms include legal, lawful, licit, legalized, authorized, permitted, sanctioned and my favorite – constitutional.

By the measure of most of the nation’s most authoritative experts on the Constitution, include White House ethics watchdogs for Presidents Bush and Obama, the new guy will be violating the Constitution the moment he utters “so help me God.”

Or, as the majority of us who voted for someone else last  November might express it, “so help us all, God.”

The president-elect made a mockery of “conforming to the law or rules” last week in a circus of a news conference where he and his enabling lawyers flaunted the Constitution and the long history of bipartisan presidential efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Genuine commitment to financial disclosure, avoidance of conflict and adherence to the Constitution might have gone a good distance to legitimizing a president who will enter office later this week with the kind of unchecked ethical baggage that makes Warren Harding look like a candidate for sainthood.

Harding’s Interior Secretary went to jail and his attorney general resigned amid corruption allegations.

But the big-shot-in-chief can’t be bothered with such “legitimate,” “lawful,” “sanctioned” or “constitutional” actions and that, among much else, does make him less than legitimate.

The critics will say that John Lewis has a duty to recognize the duly elected president even in the face of policy differences and the violation of decades of political practice. But neither patriotism nor moral clarity requires anyone to accept the unacceptable.

Besides the duties of a citizen aren’t really any different than the duties of a president. To be legitimate you must display legitimacy and when you have given a majority of the country reason to question your commitment to the rules, laws and the Constitution you don’t automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. You can win an election under our bizarrely undemocratic rules, but you still need to earn your legitimacy.

John Lewis is right, if not politically correct in calling the man less than legitimate. And as our thin-skinned new leader has so often told us being right is always better than being politically correct. Or as he might say: Get over it.

He will take the oath, assume the office, have the power, but he has made himself less than legitimate to a vast number of Americans and most of our friends around the world. He did it himself through his actions, words, insults, crudeness, rudeness, and by defying the rules and defiling the norms. He did it by lying about everything big and small, important and petty. He did it by dividing us in ways that no president has in generations. All this is on him. He did it. His illegitimacy is his problem.

All the tweets in the world will not make that John Lewis’ fault.

2016 Election, Reagan, Russia, Trump

Explaining Trump and Putin…

      “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Intelligence community report on Russian activity to influence the U.S. election

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WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.

On today’s front page of the New York Times 

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One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”

The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.

Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.

But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta in 1945

From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.

Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983

In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:

“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”

It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world. 

And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”

With Donald Trump one of the two most        powerful men in the world

Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.

And there is this tidy little summary of Russian efforts to destabilize western Europe as reported by Henry Porter in Vanity Fair:

“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region.   During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”

The next target – Germany’s Angela Merkel

There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.

 As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”

Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.

Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does. 

And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.

As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”

Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”

It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.

The young KGB agent

Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?

The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.

In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”

Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.

Books

Read…It’s Good for You…

      “About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”

Report of the Pew Research Center

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Who doesn’t read books? Doesn’t everyone read books? Everyday? Who doesn’t use a library? Who can get along without books? Or libraries?

I can scarcely imagine going a day without picking up something to read – the latest non-fiction title that is making me think differently about the legacies of The Great War, or the Jim Harrison novel resting on my bedside table, or the slim volume of William F. Buckley’s essays that has been just about the perfect companion to fill a pleasant and informative ten minutes.

Who doesn’t read book? Or frequent libraries? Turns out about a quarter of the American population did not crack a book in the last twelve months. A Pew Research Center survey, not surprisingly perhaps, says less educated, more financially insecure Americans don’t read books and the same group fails to take advantage of the wonders at the local library.

Here’s a paragraph from the Pew report: “Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year [26 percent according to the survey] it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.”

I’m tempted to make some sweeping social comment about the non-readers and the fate of the country – Donald J. Trump, a kind of rich guy with time to burn never reads books, either – but I’ll resist the social commentary and merely observe that I can’t imagine a life without books. Those who don’t read – or visit the library for that matter – are simply missing out on one of life’s most rewarding and pleasant experiences – getting lost in a book. It is simply part of what makes life worth living.

So…eleven – why stop at ten – of the best books, in no particular order, that I read in 2016:

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates. A defining book on the still defining American issue – race. Coates’ book is a must read for those of us in the dominant culture who want to begin to understand what it’s like to live as a person of color in a deeply divided American society.

Custer’s Trials – T.J. Stiles. I thought I had read everything there was to read or that I needed to read about the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer, but Stiles, who won the Pulitzer for this book, showed me plenty of new material. He puts Custer in his times in a way no other book on Custer has and he doesn’t even write about the Little Big Horn.

All the Truth is Out – Matt Bai. This book came out in 2014 and received a lot of attention (that is clearly deserved), but I only got to it last year. Bai, a superb reporter and writer now with Yahoo News, tells the old story of Senator Gary Hart’s fall from the next president to a laugh line. You might think you know the Hart story, but I guarantee you won’t until you read this book. It also tells us so much about why politics and the media have become what they have become.

Spain in Our Hearts – Adam Hochshield. Another great reporter and writer tells the story of Americans enmeshed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It is a compelling and often tragic story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay – Michael Chabon. Comic books, Nazis, Gotham and a rip snorting good read. I could not put it down.

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes. The talented Mr. Barnes imagines the life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich who produced great music while constantly wondering when the KGB would come knocking at his door. The book is in part a meditation on how people behave in an authoritarian society under the constant threat of violence. Somehow Shostakovich lived in such a world – making many tradeoffs – and wrote his Fifth Symphony, one of the great symphonic works of all time.

The Immortal Irishman – Timothy Egan. Read anything the intrepid Tim Egan produces, including his weekly column in The New York Times. This wonderfully told story resurrects the legacy of Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, Civil War hero and Montana legend and in the process tells us much about the Irish diaspora and why we are all Irish, or want to be.

Prisoners of Hope – Randall B. Woods. We’ll see how much of Lyndon Johnson’s world remains after a new president and GOP Congress get down to business, but since 1964 we have all been living in a world LBJ made. Woods tells this powerful story with color and skill. Johnson emerges as a political genius and a deeply flawed personality and therefore is fascinating.

Bobby Kennedy – Larry Tye. Another fascinating and very complicated politician is treated both critically and with affection.

Finale – Thomas Mallon. This book offers another of Thomas Mallon’s deeply researched fictional takes on American politics and the book puts us right in the middle of the Reagan presidency. You’ll never think of Ron and Nancy quite the same way after reading this.

Dark Money – Jane Mayer. This book may be the best thing ever written about the deeply corrosive effect of vast money on our politics. Deeply researched and objectively presented it is difficult to read Jane Mayer’s awarding winning book and not be worried about our political future.

Go pick up a book and happy reading in 2017.

2016 Election, Catholic Church, Congress, Politics

The Great Decline…

     “Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”

Gallup survey, June 2016

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If you want to set off a spirited discussion at a family dinner or spark a debate around the office water cooler you need not go to the trouble of mentioning a Trump presidency, just mention Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest banks.

The big bank’s apparent wide spread embrace of various scams to create two million phony accounts in order to secretly squeeze bucks out of its unsuspecting customers is just the most recent example of the financial industry’s disconnect from the most basic notion of ethical behavior. It is a scandal that perfectly illustrates the great decline in public confidence in American institutions.

OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wells Fargo has taken a public relations beating as a result of the fiasco, but the former CEO still walked away with a $130 million dollar golden parachute even as 5,300 bank employees lost their jobs. The bank’s stock price has recovered nicely. Members of Congress are making noise while demanding more information from Wells Fargo about its response to what might safely be called fraud, but there seems little chance that any senior person at the bank will suffer much. Wells Fargo, like many of the big banks who contributed to the economic meltdown in 2008, will probably skate by paying a fine – de minimis likely compared to bank profits – but no individual is likely to get nailed for the flagrant misconduct.

Oh, by the way, only 27 percent of Americans according to a June Gallup survey have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks.

Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law

You can set off other kind of outrage by mentioning the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals that went on for years while various senior leaders of the Church did little or nothing to stop or hold accountable those guilty.  Even worse in a way was how some bishops covered the tracks of their own culpability. Catholics – I’m one – are particularly outraged because so little accountability has been doled out. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston during the worst of the scandals, was publicly shamed but still trucked off to comfortable retirement in a cozy villa at the Vatican. Presumably the Cardinal’s judgment day will come in another more decisive form.

Only 41 percent of those surveyed by Gallup expressed confidence in churches or organized religion.

Pick any of a dozen or a hundred other scandals: the revolving door that spins the former congressman from lawmaker to lobbyist to multi-millionaire, or the EpiPen manufacturer accused of gouging those who need the lifesaving medicine, or the recent story that Sinclair Broadcasting – the largest owner of television stations in the country and therefor a massive owner of the public’s airwaves – gave favorable and disproportionate coverage to Donald Trump during the campaign.

I could go on, but I also suspect you can easily come up with your own list of outrages. It does all accumulate. The confidence numbers for health care institutions, for example, are south of 40 percent, the media confidence numbers are in the very low 20s and Congress, well, Congress is in used car salesman territory checking in at a robust nine percent on the public confidence scale.

The verdict is clearly in: America suffers a crisis of confidence in basic institutions and it has been going on and getting worse for some time. The Gallup survey six months ago reported that only the U.S. military and the police have public approval numbers above 50 percent. Other institutions, political and social, that one could easily argue have long been at the center of American life are held in such low esteem as to call into question the essential institutional framework of our democracy.

But, wait just a minute. Institutions by themselves did not create this crisis of confidence. Institutions don’t either have or lack credibility. Institutions depend on people and we’ve been failing our institutions through neglect, ignorance and hubris. We are experiencing a crisis of institutional confidence, at least in part, because we are accepting standards from those institutions that cannot possible instill confidence.

I think this reality may go some distance in explaining the next president of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the disrupter-in-chief, has merely accelerated the deterioration – or out and out destruction – of long established norms, which I would argue has contributed over a long period of time to this erosion of confidence in a whole host of American institutions.

There is a myth that American institutions, political or societal, are “sturdy” and “resilient” all by themselves. They are not. Survival of institutions, particularly in a political system like ours that features both defused power and built in rivalries, not to mention considerable opportunity for corruption, requires more than rules. It requires adherence to a broad collection of often-unwritten requirements – norms – that function to uphold tradition, while reflecting common sense and well-established time tested approaches.

It has been a norm for more than 40 years, for example, for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their income tax returns. It’s not the law, but rather a function of how we once expected candidates to behave in a vital democracy. The norm was to reinforce transparency and discourage self dealing by folks in high public office. Until this year it was normal for all of us to see and evaluate for ourselves those revealing documents.

Public confidence: Nine percent

But the president-elect will sail into office next month having violated that norm and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems on the verge of considering a multi-millionaire oil executive to become secretary of state without forcing more than a cursory review of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. An institutional framework is thereby weakened and a long-time precedent set aside. It will be hard to get it back.

There is no absolute requirement that the United States Senate consider a president’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. They should. That would be normal, but Senate Republicans have exploited for months now all the possible wiggle room in the Constitution in order to deny even a hearing on the nomination of federal Court of Appeals  Judge Merrick Garland, a demonstrably qualified candidate.

They had the power to do it, so they did, while shamelessly arguing it was just business as usual. But don’t believe for a second that it is normal – or right. Stiffing a president – any president – on a Supreme Court nominee has now become the new normal.

American public schools, it is said over and over, are failing. But are they? There is wide discrepancy in performance from state-to-state or city-to-city, but the blanket indictment of “failing schools” often masks a fierce partisan battle over resources and governance. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, only 30 percent of American express “confidence” in public schools.

Republican legislators in North Carolina recently used a post-election special session to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many powers traditionally exercised in that state, including the power to appoint members of the governing board of the state’s university system. This was after North Carolina lawmakers aggressively suppressed or minimized minority voter participation in various ways. North Carolina legislators had the power to run roughshod over voters and political opponents so they did it, but it is not normal. It violates a basic sense of fair play and abuses the system’s unwritten rules about responsible political behavior. The situation in North Carolina is so far out of control that the academic and nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project classifies the state as no longer “democratic.” North Carolina’s scores for how it handles elections and registers voters compares, shockingly, to Iran and Venezuela. Meanwhile protesters objecting to the power grab were arrested.

In the flush of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 many congressional Republicans vowed to make him a one-term president and then proceeded to oppose virtually every move he made. That is not how the system is supposed to work. Of course there will always be bitter and passionate partisan debates about all kinds of things. Its fine to favor your candidate over the other guy’s candidate, but not OK to obstruct. We only have one president at a time and the norms of American politics require for partisans to work for solutions to big problems like, for example, a shocking lack of health insurance among millions of Americans. Politics involves resolving or mitigating the differences. Compromise has been the norm. The kind of blind obstruction Obama has typically faced is simply not normal.

Nor is it normal for a president to regularly resort, as Obama has, to “executive action” to carry out a policy agenda. His excuse for doing so – that Republicans failed to function normally – is understandable, but still not normal and over time it will only become more corrosive to our concept of confidence in political institutions.

It is not normal for a president-elect to engage in foreign policy while he is waiting to assume the job. It’s not normal, as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has, to embrace as “terrific” the Russian hacking of American emails in order to permit a foreign power to meddle in a U.S. election in favor of its candidate.

There is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in the country, widespread or otherwise, yet candidates and political leaders routinely call into question the validity of elections in order to score debating or partisan points. No wonder more and more people think the system is rigged.

Every politician without exception has a beef with the media. I’ve got my own beef – or a side of it. It is a story as old as the republic to dislike the scribing classes, but there has also long been an expectation that a free and vigorous press, even one occasionally wrong or unfair, is an absolutely essential check on corruption or improper exercise of power. When a politician rides to power in part by declaring reporters who expose his inconsistencies or question his logic “dishonest,” while never engaging in the substance of the reporting you get what we have – a decline in confidence in the media. As a result a bedrock institution of the American system is further diminished.

We have experienced a decline in respect for American institutions – and it’s about to get worse – in large part because we have allowed a deterioration in what I’ll call “standards of normal behavior.” Institutions fail to hold individuals personally accountable for outrageous or unethical behavior. Traditional political norms that offer no immediate political payoff are eagerly cast aside in favor of securing a short-term advantage. Opinions are shifted and shaped and passed off as facts in order to win a news cycle or a Twitter confrontation. It is not normal.

We tend to take for granted that American “institutions,” including all the institutions that buttress a free society, can weather any storm. We’ve muddled through for nearly 250 years, after all. But perhaps we’ve just been both lucky and good and continued muddling depends on both factors continuing to favor us.

Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond authored a persuasive and sober piece in The Atlantic back in October – before the election – in which he argued that we have rarely had reason to doubt American resilience – until now.

“Democracies fail,” Diamond wrote, “when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”

Diamond recalled Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel – It Can’t Happen Here – published in 1935 just as Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and Huey Long promised to run for president. “For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here,” Diamond said. “If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.”

The first step in stepping back from the edge is to insist – individually and collectively – that long-established traditions of accountability, transparency, fair play and commitment to country over partisanship are again treated with the respect they deserve and the future of the country demand.

We have entered a period where American institutions of every type will be challenged as much as any in modern time by a political class with less respect for norms, traditions and facts than any since perhaps 1860. The challenges come at precisely the moment when those institutions are weaker and less respected than they have ever been.

Not a happy thought for the New Year, but I think patriots will fight back against this reality. At least I hope so. It will be the defining struggle of the next four years and beyond. Each of us will decide how – or whether – to engage in the struggle. No institution will save us.

Romney, Trump

The Shaming of Mitt…

       “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country. My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”

Mitt Romney announcing the end of his campaign to be Secretary of State

———-

I have never had much truck for Mitt Romney. He always struck me as a stiff suit filed more with ambition than anything really important. Then a few months ago I took a second look at the chiseled millionaire and thought – briefly – that I had been wrong to write him off as an opportunistic lightweight. Turns out I was right the first time.

Romney’s essentially opportunistic nature led him to a run for the Senate in Massachusetts years ago against Ted Kennedy. Romney’s basic strategy was to shape his positions in order to get to the left of the man who was his generation’s paragon of liberalism. He failed. Kennedy humbled him.

Humbled…again

Undeterred Romney returned to capture the governorship of his adopted state and then governed as a genuine Northeastern moderate. What the hell, the guy was a Republican liberal back when we had such an endangered creature.

He wasn’t anti-environment, he supported Roe v. Wade and the health care plan Romney championed was essentially a state-level version of the Republican-hated Obamacare. But when the “savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics” ran for the White House he had to reverse course and move sharply to the right. He discovered the pro-life movement and had to spend most of his campaign explaining why his state level Affordable Care Act really wasn’t nearly identical to the ideas his opponent, Barack Obama, championed. Obama humbled him.

Romney might have run again this year, but probably knew that his time had come and gone. Nevertheless Romney emerged briefly – and facetiously it turns out – as a serious person, once again a political player. When he called come lately Republican Donald Trump exactly what he is, a dangerous man, Romney was back in the game. It turns out that was an act, too. Romney’s last act.

The man who will soon be president could not abide the Romney criticism and, of course, he struck back. Mitt had “choked like a dog,” Donald J. Trump said, and he was “stiff.” Well, I agree with Trump about that much.

Using his favorite attack tool – Twitter – Trump left no insult behind. “Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy.” That was after Romney called Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” unfit for the presidency and back when I was doing my own reassessment of Romney. I should have saved the energy.

“When Mitt Romney asked me for my endorsement last time around,” Trump Tweeted, “he was so awkward and goofy that we all should have known he could not win!”

With his forceful indictment of Trump earlier this year it seemed for a brief time that Mitt Romney was finally caving to principle. But for Mitt flirting with principle was both short term and an aberration. Romney, as so many others have, soon came to grovel before the most unqualified, ignorant and dangerous man to win the White House since, well, maybe since ever.

Romney said in June that he found Trump “so troubling, and I know a lot of folks are saying, ‘Mitt just get off your high horse on this and get behind the guy.’ But these things are personal. I love this country. I love the founders. I love what this country is built upon and its values and seeing this is breaking my heart.”

Romney was visibly emotional and appeared to tear up when making the remarks. But all that emotion soon enough gave way to enabling – Trump enabling.

A few days ago Romney tucked his political tail between his legs and slinked into Trump Tower to be interviewed to be The Great Man’s Secretary of State. The cringe worthy photo of the two men at dinner with Reince Priebus should be widely re-produced and mailed to every politician who cavalierly sells out principle in the name of ambition. That photo will be in the dictionary next to the definition of “humiliation.”

Frog legs and crow. Did it taste like ashes?

Romney later posted on his Facebook page that it had been a great honor to be considered for the top job in the Trump Cabinet, but of course it was all a sham and likely everyone knew it but Mitt. Trump was slapping Romney around in public said Roger Stone, a man almost as reprehensible as Trump, in order to “torture” him for daring to speak ill of the Authoritarian-in-Chief.

What a spectacle. Mitt participating in his own public humiliation. Sad. Shows what craven ambition can do to a person.

Mitt Romney, the guy who has always placed his aspiration above all else, might have ended his public life as one of the genuine truth tellers about Donald Trump. He might have been remembered as a person of principle with the guts to call out a charlatan. Instead he allowed the petty, little, mean guy who will become president play him like a fiddle. Trump humiliated him. It has become a pattern for Romney.

Once you surrender principle and put your character in hock to pursue a personal desires, particularly in the face of great evidence and despite your own words, there is no going back. When – not if – Donald Trump gives Mitt Romney cause again to speak  truth about our new president Romney will be silent. He will have no choice. He caved when character counted and got nothing to show beyond a very public lesson in dishonor. Anything he might ever say about the future of his party and the presidency will now be seen through the filter of the pained expression on Mitt’s face while Trump shamed him – publicly and repeatedly.

Mitt Romney had his moment and spent it on a dinner of frog legs with Donald Trump at a Michelin three star restaurant in Trump Tower. Romney went to that dinner to eat crow and surrender his pride. Then he said all that Trump demanded of him. Then he posted on Facebook what a great honor it had been – to be humiliated by a man he knows is unfit.

You almost wonder if Trump also stuck him with the dinner check.

2016 Election, Trump

Regularizing the Irregular…

 

          “I’m gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump: This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth, and in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”

Senator Ted Cruz in May before endorsing Donald Trump in September

————

As opportunistic politicians go it is not an overstatement to say that Texas Senator Ted Cruz occupies a niche all his own on the scale of opportunism. Cruz, a Republican who condemned Donald Trump as harshly as any – remember the president-elect accused Cruz’s father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination and insulted Cruz’s wife for good measure – made a show of opposing Trump at the GOP convention and then totally capitulated to him.

Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace
Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace

Cruz is a fine example, maybe the best example, of what I’ll call “the regularization” of the man who will be president.

For the last year and a half Republican presidential candidates, most establishment media, and Hillary Clinton embraced the fiction that Donald J. Trump could be dealt with by conventional political methods. They all blew it.

Republicans “Regularized” a Man They Detest…

Republicans, like Ted Cruz, thought if only they could get Trump in a one-on-one situation they could finish him off. That belief resulted in one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in politics. The Republicans candidates who were maneuvering to be the last man standing against Trump spent weeks attacking each other rather than going after the clear frontrunner. Only when it was too late did anyone try to take down the leader. It was amazing and oddly it served to “regularize” Trump as the face and voice of the Republican Party.

Trump could claim and, of course, did that he beat them all, but those who lost to him let him off without a real challenge out of fear they would alienate his core supporters. Now he owns them all.

The media for the most part treated Trump as an outlandish, but not wholly different character in American politics. By the methods of false equivalency Trump’s abjectly irregular methods – threatening to jail his opponent, cavorting with Russia, refusing to release his tax returns, lying about everything under the sun – were balanced against Clinton’s emails and untrustworthiness. He was regularized.

Media "regularization" of the most irregular candidate in modern times
Media “regularization” of the most irregular candidate in modern times

Media attention was lavished on Trump, certainly in order to driving ratings, but also because many in the media seemed to think his own words would do him in. The coverage of his campaign, often live coverage of his rallies, served to regularize him as just another politician with a big following.

Admittedly this guy said outrageous things, but Trump was still just a variation on an old campaign theme. To many in the media he was a politician, but he isn’t, of course. Trump is a phenomenon, a media and self-created personality, a cult of personality really, and wholly unlike anything we’ve seen before.

As the campaign post mortem is conducted it is also becoming clear that the Clinton campaign, fixated on re-fighting the campaign of 2012, never got what was going on with Trump. They thought, as the media did, that Trump’s outrages would sink him, Democrats would turn out and Clinton would slip into the White House to begin Barack Obama’s third term.

The Clinton team used all the old tactics – television, policy pronouncements, debate traps – while never confronting their own candidate’s huge shortcomings or the opponents appeal. They fundamentally treated Trump as just another wacky Republican, but of course he is not just another Republican.

The regularization of Trump, from Cruz’s eventual capitulation – Cruz actually said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” but then he did – to Clinton’s treatment of his candidacy as an aberration that would be disposed of with talking points and policy papers now reaches an entirely new level as Trump measures the White House drapes.

I’ve heard it said that Trump in office “will behave pretty much like a New York-style Republican” and that he will inevitably come around to the norms of political Washington. It’s said that Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally and therefore we should, too. Actually being able to take him seriously, but not literally and having him morph into a New York-style Republican would be, under the circumstances, a highly desirable outcome for the country and the world.

But it seems just as likely those expectations are as unfounded as the notion that Ted Cruz would, just once, take a pass on political opportunism. The odds aren’t that great.

After making the mistake for the last 18 months of thinking that Trump is just another politician, many are about to double down on that calculation. He’s not a regular politician in any way, which of course is part of his appeal, but even more fundamentally he harbors no regard for any norm of political behavior and that ultimately makes him both completely unpredictable and entirely dangerous.

Here’s the Worry…

The president-elect is a deeply flawed human being with a serious personality disorder. He is obsessed with himself. There aren’t enough binders inside the Beltway to brief him, that’s how little he knows or cares about policy. He makes it up every day and the organizing principle is simple and always has been: he will do what is best for Trump.

Reading Trump’s life story – there was plenty of opportunity to do so during the long campaign if anyone wanted to do so – reveals a person unmoored from the norms – that word again – that govern most of the rest of us. He’s different. Special. Better in all ways. He has the best words. He’s the greatest. No one – ever – has come to the American presidency with such a glaring image of himself as a savior, while portraying the country as being in the final stages of destruction.

Why would Trump start behaving differently now that he has reached the pinnacle of a life that is all about him, his words, his image of himself? The answer is – he won’t.

The first rule of living under an autocratic, it is said, is to believe what the autocrat has said and promised.

Here’s the worry: Every president is challenged every day in a thousand ways. If the campaign revealed anything about Trump it was that he doesn’t suffer criticism or rejection well. He lashes out and punishes. He’s a bully, even when the offense is small or particularly when it’s valid. With Trump every confrontation becomes a question of who wins and who loses. To “regularize” the president-elect you must now embrace the idea that all his bluster, his threats and, yes, all his hatred will suddenly disappear. Somehow you have to believe a man who has never behaved differently will now behave differently.

President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist
President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon

And, of course,  the president-elect spent the Sunday morning after his unexpected election bashing the New York Times on social media, but only after sending his chief surrogate out to the talk shows to threaten a siting United States senator who has been sharply critical of him.

Then in the afternoon he named Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist, a guy who runs a white nationalist website that routinely traffics in outrageous conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic and anti-gay hate speech. Regularize that, America.

In a few weeks when he finally gets his hands on all the levers of power you have to believe that a “regularized” President Trump will be able to resist the temptations of great power that men of vastly more accomplishment found difficult to avoid when they held the job. Will a President Trump avoid reaching into the FBI or the CIA or the IRS to deal with a critic? With a white nationalist whose “media” empire regularly attacks Muslims and gays and women soon sitting a few feet from the Oval Office will Donald Trump bring America together?

To “regularize” the president-elect, as journalist Masha Gessen, a close observer and critic of Vladimir Putin, has written, is to suddenly accept that “Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.”

To believe that is simply the triumph of hope over experience. Accept it at your peril.

 

2016 Election, Clinton, Trump

Missed it by a Mile…

     

        In midtown Manhattan, Amtrak train conductor Joe Mazzola, 35, said that many of his fellow rail workers, all of them unionized, were voting Trump. He said he was sick of what he called corrupt, inept politicians. “I’m done with all this crap. I love my country but our government, uh-uh,” he said.

 Quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail

———-

Well, put me firmly in the company of the legions who missed this thing by a mile. In the grey light of the morning after it seems both historic and surreal. It is impossible not to conclude that something has profoundly changed in American social and political life. We had the change election few saw coming. Now what?

As regular readers know, I’ve been dissing and dismissing Donald J. Trump for a year and a half. “Manifestly unfit’ was one of the milder things I alleged. I still believe that – perhaps more than ever – but today my mind drifts on to other, perhaps even bigger things.

The President-elect claims his mandate
The President-elect claims his mandate

If the president-elect attempts even a quarter of what he has proposed – abandoning existing trade deals, going squishy on NATO, overturning the Iranian nuclear deal, drastically reducing taxes, undoing Wall Street financial regulations, building his wall, weakening libel laws, replacing Obamacare, banning Muslims, using torture on enemies, indicting his opponent – you need to ask how the implementation of those objectives might alter the fundamentals of the 240 year American experiment?

Historical Parallels? Not in America…

To those looking for historical parallels, something I always attempt, you won’t find them, at least not in the United States. At a critical moment when the fragile bonds that have held together the American experiment – reverence for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law and the legal system, the influence of “the establishment” – were broadly discarded in favor of a man with what can only be described as harboring authoritarian tendencies. When we needed a Lincoln and his better angels we got “lock her up.”

The United Kingdom’s decision earlier this year to split from the European Union marked the unmistakable rise of a new phenomenon in western liberal politics – the radical populist, anti-immigrant, anti-elite, mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more crowd. The Trump victory brought the passion home. The ugliness of the campaign from both the candidate and some of his followers, the anti-Semitism, the disdain for women (particularly her), the boasts and the bald faced lies were never, we now know, going to be enough to derail a man tapping into deep anger.

He knew something, or at least mobilized something, that amounted to screaming “the hell with all of this.” Once revered and protected institutions from the Catholic Church to the military suffered his denunciations. Heck, Trump picked a fight with the Pope and claimed he knows more than the generals. Turns out he really could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lost a vote.

So, sorry there are no American historical parallels and no parallels of any kind that provide comfort. For parallels we need to go to Europe in the 1920s or to a South American dictatorship any time.

The toxic brew of nationalism, white identity, economic and social dislocation, fear of the present and deep anxiety about the future has nearly always resulted in the rise of a strong man with all the answers. America, until Trump, had resisted such folly. Now we’ll see how this turns out.

Their tests will come...
The tests will come…

One particularly critical question the day after is whether the “regular” Republican enablers of Trump – Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Richard Burr, and all the rest of these “elites” now safely returned to power – will do what they inevitably will be called upon to do and what they so cleverly avoided during Trump’s rise and during their own struggle to remain in power.

Some of them may harbor the belief, still, that they can “work with him” or regularize his behavior. Not likely. And then what? Will they place position and power over country? This has always been the greatest question in a constitutional democracy: when do you stand up to great power? There will be a reckoning for all of them and for all of us.

I’m reminded of the old adage that America can always be assured of defeating any foreign enemy. After all we took care of the Nazis and Imperial Japan and once upon a time helped break apart the Soviet Union, but that the real threat to America will come from within. The ultimate unraveling of the country will come not through an invasion of Syrian refugees, but by a gradual or not so gradual abandonment of our imperfectly lived ideals.

Concentrated Power…the new American norm…

We are, for example, a good way down the road toward an ever more powerful American president, and in this regard Barack Obama followed George W. Bush in actually expanding the unilateral power of the executive. Where do we go with a man who campaigned with the authoritarian pledge that only he could fix what is wrong with the country? What are the real and practical constraints on the actions that lurk behind such boasts? Who protects the people from the president? Surely we will find out.

We have a Republic, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, “if you can keep it.” We’ll see about that – again.

Franklin: A Republic...if you can keep it
Franklin: A Republic…if you can keep it

A reckoning is in order as well for all of us – yours truly included – who blithely went along with the fiction that nothing had fundamentally changed in the land that once elected a Reagan and an Obama. Too many of us bought the fiction that it would be enough to beat a skilled mass media marketing expert by nominating the ultimate technocratic insider, a consummate member of the elite.

You also don’t beat a celebrity TV star who long ago mastered the dark arts of media manipulation with an opponent who has a tin ear for authenticity and has been relentless defined, often by her own missteps, as dishonest.

The Clinton candidacy wasn’t even close to being enough to head off the heat of the half of the country that feels aggrieved by almost everything. It was always also going to be a stretch to replace the first African-American president with the first woman president and it turned out exactly so.

It is often the case in our politics that defeat brings out something in the defeated that had it been more obvious earlier might have changed the course of history. So it is with Hillary Clinton. “Scripture tells us,” Clinton said in her concession statement today, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

Clinton’s statement was profoundly patriotic, wholly gracious, bravely optimistic and seemed more genuine that most of her poll tested speeches during the long and awful campaign.

But for this American, at least for today, my optimism is muted. Oh, I accept the outcome, while not liking it, because we have only one president at a time. But accepting the outcome of an election is a good deal different than believing that the long American experiment will rumble steadily on.

I study history. I know the country has endured many things and triumphed through many, many trying times. I hope to high heaven it will again, but I’m not quite there today.

 

Baseball

Fly the W…

 

      “People ask me a lot about the values I got from playing (there) for so many years. The value I got out of it was patience. A lot of people these days are not very patient.”

 — Ernie Banks

———

Many of my best baseball friends – maybe most of my real baseball friends – are fans of that team from the north side of Chicago that once upon a time hadn’t won a World Series since the last time William Jennings Bryan was on the ballot.

Fly the W...
Fly the W…

These fans are true fans. There is not a sunshine patriot among them. They have never folded their tents nor tucked away their loyalty when the harsh winds of autumn turn brown the ivy on that outfield wall. They solider on through winter with warm anticipation for another spring when again, hope becomes eternal.

They smile when reminded of goats and geeky guys wearing headphones. They laugh at ‘wait until next year’. They have their favorites: Santo, Banks, Williams, Sandberg, Fergie or Zim. They can remember the first time and every time they crowded into that old cathedral at 1060 W. Addison. Many of my best baseball friends are in a way, spiritual. They accept with Grace that when it was meant to be, it will be.

Many of my best baseball friends have known only the wait and the expectation and the hope of a series. Their mom’s and dad’s or granddad’s knew the wait, too. They’ve been close a few times only to see the favorites blow it or jinx it or kick it away. But they never give up. Other fans come and go. Those other fans can’t remember the right fielder is this year or they have ceased to care if the bullpen is thin. Other fans have other teams and hopes and disappointments and victories. Many of my best baseball friends have just kept the faith long past when they had reason to do so.

As the late, great Bartlett Giamatti, once our commissioner and still our bard, wrote of baseball fans: “Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

Many of my best baseball friends never grew out of sports. They were not the tough among us devoid of illusion, just the loyal, the hopeful, the determined among us. They were tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. And now – this day – they have finally found that perfect green field, in the sun.

For years and years and years they will remember the bottom of the 10th, in Cleveland, in November when all the best friends cried and hugged and lived that experience they have always known would happen – someday.

Someday is today.

Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

2016 Election, FBI, Montana

Round Up the Usual Suspects…

    

       “Amusing thing about Comey debacle is that there were still Ds (and now Rs) who are delusional enough to imagine the FBI might be apolitical.”

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation

———-

Many Democrats are shocked and many Republicans gleeful at the news that Hillary Clinton’s emails, thanks to a letter sent by the director of the FBI to several members of Congress, have again surfaced as a big issue at the 11th hour of the presidential campaign.

The Clinton campaign termed the public disclosure of the new information, which apparently had not yet been seen by the FBI and may or may not be relevant to Clinton’s ongoing email problems, was “inappropriate and unprecedented.

Inappropriate perhaps, unprecedented hardly.

FBI Director Comey
FBI Director Comey

At the time FBI director James Comey wrote his letter to Congress exposing the need to investigate emails found on the laptop of a Clinton aide who is married to a creepy former Congressman under investigation in an unrelated matter (involving sex, of course) the Bureau had not received a search warrant to even look at the laptop in question.

Cries of foul have dominated the news cycle, interspersed with shouts of “lock her up” and official hand wringing that the FBI has violated its own standards stipulating the avoidance of injecting itself into the last stages of a political campaign.

American Myth: The FBI is Above Politics 

Whatever your views of Clinton’s email habits or the propriety of the FBI director going public with scant information about what might or might not be involved in the emails on aide Huma Abedin’s creepy husband’s laptop you should disabuse yourself of the notion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ever been “above” politics.

Politics is baked into the DNA of “the Bureau” and has been since a young J. Edgar Hoover tried to smear a United States senator who was investigating the Department of Justice in the 1920s.

Young J. Edgar Hoover
Young J. Edgar Hoover

“Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner wrote in his meticulously researched book Enemies – A History of the FBI.

“Hoover was not a monster,” Weiner said. “He was an American Machiavelli…a masterful manipulator of public opinion. He practiced political warfare and secret statecraft in pursuit of national security, often at the expense of morality.” Hoover ran the Bureau for 48 years, intimidated six presidents and used and abused power in the name of national security. Hoover’s name is on the side of the building in Washington, D.C. that houses the organization he built. His DNA is the FBI.

As we approach the end of the worst presidential campaign in my lifetime – I don’t say that lightly – Americans cling, at least some of us do, to a belief that the professed standards of American life and American institutions is really the norm, but occasionally we are forced to confront that the “standards” often don’t meet the reality of what is actually happening.

The Art of the Political Smear…

The American image of the FBI is the upright Eliot Ness (who was actually a prohibition agent) rounding up the bad guys, gunning down Dillinger and more recently battling terrorism. That’s the standard. The historical reality is something altogether different. And before you conclude that I’m issuing a blanket indictment of the FBI and everything its ever done, I’m not.

The history, however, does point to a law enforcement agency that from its earliest days has been deeply enmeshed in the country’s politics, often in extremely unsavory ways. The current director is a product of that culture and his violation of the “norms” associated with law enforcement investigations is of a piece with the history of the agency he leads. Some examples.

FBI critic Max Lowenthal
FBI critic Max Lowenthal

In the early 1950s a long-time critic of the FBI, Max Lowenthal, a brilliant attorney who conducted Congressional investigations and advised Harry Truman, published a book entitled simply The Federal Bureau of Investigation. As scathing indictments go Lowenthal’s book, carefully researched and largely based on written records, was pretty tame stuff even as it asked serious and important questions that amazingly remain pertinent today.

Lowenthal asked, for example, to what extent “a federal police agency is needed for the curbing of crime,” what the proper functions of such an agency might be, and what in an open society are “the possibilities and methods of controlling the police agency.”

Perhaps Lowenthal’s most telling question – remember he was writing nearly 70 years ago – hangs unanswered and ominous over the last days of this awful campaign: what is the “impact of a central police force on American society?”

Here’s what the FBI did to Max Lowenthal.

Knowing that his book on the Bureau was about to be published, Hoover, working with the leadership of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), saw to it that Lowenthal was denounced on the House floor. His publisher was pressured to abandon or at least not promote the book.

Then, just as the book finally went on sale, Lowenthal was subpoenaed by HUAC to answer question about his alleged associations with various leftist or Communist individuals or groups.  Lowenthal testified, under oath, in a private session that under committee rules was to remain confidential. Of course it didn’t remain out of public view, but was leaked to newspaper reporters almost certainly by the FBI.

There was nothing incriminating in Lowenthal’s testimony, but Hoover and Bureau had achieved their objective, linking the lawyer and civil libertarian with the on-going Communist witch-hunt that would eventually vault Joe McCarthy to national prominence. What better way to discredit a FBI critic that to suggest he was a Commie and, of course, Lowenthal was Jewish which made him doubly suspicious.

Lowenthal’s book never became the best seller it might or should have been, his impeccable reputation was sullied in a thousand newspapers and, of course, Hoover stayed on the job until Richard Nixon’s administration.

King, and the Klan and Mark Felt…

The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King
The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King

American history is replete with other examples: the FBI spied on Dr. Martin Luther King and threatened to expose his ex-marital affairs, the Church Committee in the 1970s exposed the Bureau’s domestic spying – a program called Cointelpro – on anti-war activists and civil rights advocates, FBI informants were implicated in Klu Klux Klan violence in Mississippi in the 1960s, including the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.

And, of course, it was FBI deputy director Mark Felt who was Bob Woodward’s Watergate “deep throat,” a man whose leaks of information about Nixon’s embrace of corruption helped alter history. But its also worth remembering that Felt acted in part out of revenge, or something like revenge, after being passed over for the top job in the Bureau.

“Unprecedented?” Not at All…

One more example from the long history of the FBI proves that Director Comey’s letter to Congress which has roiled the last days of the campaign is not, as the Clinton camp has maintained, “unprecedented.”

In 1924, Montana Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler won Senate approval for a wide ranging investigation of alleged corruption at the U.S. Justice Department. Wheeler’s real target was Republican Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a close associate and political fixer for former President Warren Harding. Daugherty had stayed on as attorney general when Calvin Coolidge became president upon Harding’s death in 1923.

Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924
Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924

When Daugherty got wind of Wheeler’s investigation, coming on the heels as it did of an even more sensational probe of political corruption – the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal – conducted by Montana’s other senator, Thomas J. Walsh, the attorney general dispatched Bureau agents to Montana to gather “dirt” on both senators. Hoover was an eager participant in the scheme even down to instructing agents on how they should file their field reports so as not to reveal that they were in Montana on a political fishing expedition.

With the help of a less-than-scrupulous U.S. Attorney in Montana, the Bureau’s agents concocted a story that Wheeler, an attorney, had improperly used his political office to enrich himself and a wealthy Montana client. A Montana grand jury – the foreman was a old political adversary of Wheeler’s – indicted the senator just as he was concluding his own investigation of the attorney general and just as he was about to join the third party Progressive ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

The Senate’s own investigation exonerated Wheeler, but the legal case went on for months, tarnishing Wheeler’s reputation, before a Montana jury returned a not guilty verdict. One juror joked that the jury would have returned its decision more quickly, but they were incensed enough with the government’s prosecution of the case that they took extra time in order to stick the feds with the cost of dinner.

Harry Daugherty was forced to resign and Wheeler’s investigation, while not producing a spectacular smoking gun did paint a stark picture of a fundamental unethical attorney general surrounded by a pack of unsavory cronies bent on enriching themselves in government service. Of course, Hoover escaped the blame and kept right on being Hoover.

New Yorker cartoon
New Yorker cartoon

Jim Comey, the FBI director, has gotten himself in a political pickle and if the Wall Street Journal’s reporting over the the weekend is to be believed he has also shredded his own credibility within the Bureau and ignited a vicious internal feud. Meanwhile, the FBI is leaking like a galvanized bucket hit by buckshot.

Maybe Comey was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but in one fell swoop he has, as J. Edgar Hoover did time and again, put another big, smudge mark on the Bureau.

Comey is learning an old lesson: it’s impossible to be above politics when  you act like everything is political. His job isn’t to avoid criticism, which he’s clearly failed to accomplish in any event, but rather to stay above the fray and maintain the credibility of a professional. Instead he’s taken the FBI – again – into a political swamp. It’s an old story.

You can, take your pick, be shocked or gleeful about Comey’s last minute letter, but you shouldn’t be surprised.

 

Baseball

They Gotta Win…Really

       “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.”

One-time Cleveland Indians owner Bill “Rhymes with Wreck” Veeck

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The Cubs vs. Indians World Series is a welcome break – distraction – from you know what and since Americans love an underdog both teams have some claim to being the sentimental favorite. The Cubs, naturally, get most of the attention since a century-plus of futility that may soon be broken is indeed a great storyline.2016worldseries-logo

Just to put this whole thing in perspective, Teddy Roosevelt, not a baseball fan if I remember correctly, was in the White House when the Cubs last hoisted the World Series flag. I wonder if TR even noticed? He was probably too busy carrying a big stick and swimming in the Potomac.

The Cubs have been absent from the World Series since 1945, longer than some teams have been in baseball, and while Cleveland has played in the fall classic more recently the Tribe has not won a world series since Harry Truman was in the White House.