2020 Election, Andrus, GOP, Supreme Court

Old School Politics…

I worked for many years for a politician of the old school. Former Idaho governor and U.S. secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus practiced what is now clearly an old-fashioned version of politics. 

Andrus could be, and often was, a tough partisan, yet as a Democrat who served more than 14 years as governor during four terms spread over three decades Andrus never once had a Democratic majority in the state legislature. He had to practice the art of the possible and that almost always involved give and take and compromise. It is an old school notion to believe that it’s not a political disaster when you have to settle for half a loaf. 

Andrus had political adversaries, but few enemies. He counted among his closest political friends an old golfing pal and frequent partisan adversary Phil Batt, the conversative Republican who followed Andrus into the governor’s office in 1995. A long-time Republican state senator from Boise, H. Dean Summers, was on Andrus’s speed dial. Back in the day when Democrats had greater numbers in the legislature, if never a majority, Summers often helped Andrus pass his priority legislation. They were friends who could also make a deal. 

In 1974, when Andrus was trying to get a controversial nominee confirmed to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), a project requiring a handful of Republicans votes, Summers convinced his friend the governor that another Boise Republican, Lyle Cobbs, might be persuaded to support the controversial Democratic candidate, but only if the conditions were right. The condition that became persuasive for Cobbs involved his enthusiastic backing of legislation to make then-Boise State College a university. 

South Idaho Press, February 5, 1974

As luck would have it, or perhaps it was a matter of exquisite timing, a bill to rename the college was sitting on the governor’s desk when the PUC nomination came to the floor of the state senate. During the debate, Andrus, on a signal from his friend Senator Summers, placed a call to Senator Cobbs’ desk and reminded the Republican that his important Boise State legislation was awaiting executive action. Andrus hardly needed to say he was watching how Cobbs voted on his PUC candidate. 

Later, after Bob Lenaghan took his seat on the PUC and while Andrus was signing the legislation to create Boise State University, Cobb jokingly asked: “You wouldn’t have vetoed this bill would you, governor?” Andrus smiled and said, “You’ll never know will you, Lyle?” 

Idaho Associated Press story from February 21, 1974

The two politicians had effectively made a bargain. Andrus got what he wanted; Cobbs got what he needed. They trusted each other. 

For a politician like Cece Andrus there was no higher compliment to be paid to a fellow pol than to say, “his word is good.” I heard him say it a thousand times. It was one of many reasons he got along so well with Phil Batt. They could trust each other to stay “hitched,” as Andrus would say. You make a commitment to do something you do it. You shake hands on a deal and then you never renege. You give your word and stick with it. Even if it becomes uncomfortable. 

I’ve thought a lot about this old school approach to politics as I’ve watched Senate Republicans this week literally twist themselves into partisan pretzels in order to go back on commitments they made in 2016 not to consider, let alone vote, on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court candidate in that election year. 

No matter how they try to spin it, from Lindsey Graham to Mike Crapo, from Lamar Alexander to Mike Lee they simply aren’t keeping their word. Every Senate Republican save two has now said the principle they staked out then when a Democrat was in the White House doesn’t apply when their party controls who gets nominated to the high court. All are being accused of hypocrisy, but that word hardly does justice to the lack of character that allows politicians to do one thing when they want to prevent something from happening and the exact opposite when that position become convenient in order to arrive at a desired outcome. 

Graham, the slippery South Carolinian, will become the poster boy for the current Republican double-dealing. He is actually on tape on at least two occasions saying that the pledge he made not to consider Obama’s appointee in 2016 would apply to a Republican in exactly the same circumstances. “You can use my words against me,” Graham said. And then he went back on his word. 

Crapo and Graham and so many others have done the same. You’d be right to wonder if you could ever again trust their word on anything. 

Some years ago, I wrote a remembrance of Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, still the longest tenured majority leader in Senate history. I’d heard a story that Mansfield had once helped a freshman Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, as tough a partisan as ever prowled the Senate floor, get a fair shake on a piece of legislation. I wanted to confirm the story and arranged to speak to Stevens. 

Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader in Senate history

In a nutshell, Stevens had been promised by a senior Democrat that an amendment he wanted to offer to legislation particularly important to Alaska would be considered. But Stevens was busy in a committee meeting when the time came to offer his amendment and the courtesy of informing him was ignored. In short, a bond had been broken. 

Stevens, a man with a hair trigger temper, confronted the majority leader complaining – justifiably – that he’d been purposely snookered. As Stevens told me, Mansfield asked for a copy of the amendment the Alaskan had intended to offer, got recognized by the chair, interrupted the roll call and offered Stevens’ amendment as his own. It was adopted. Mike Mansfield, one of the most respected men to ever serve in the Senate, was not going to let a colleague down. The substance of the issue was entirely unimportant, but the principle that your word is your bond was absolutely sacrosanct. 

Ask yourself: Would you buy a used car from these guys whose word is so fungible? Would you trust a handshake deal with a Lindsey Graham or a Mike Crapo? When your word is worth so little your character is worth even less. 

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Additional Reading:

Some additional reading you may find of interest…

Thomas Mallon has a wonderful piece in the latest New Yorker, a look back at a presidential campaign exactly 100 years ago. The election took the country from Woodrow Wilson to Warren Harding. Voters were confronted with the political fatigue of the post-World War I period and a global pandemic and Wilson’s months of incapacity.

“When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to ‘normalcy.'”

It’s a very good read.


The Ginsburg Tag Team

Some months before she went on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the commencement speech at the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland and she shared the assignment with her attorney husband, Marty.

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg

Maxine Bernstein had a delightful piece recently in The Oregonian on how it went.

“Martin D. Ginsburg followed his wife. He shared how he started working as a tax lawyer at a New York law firm, then gave up the practice to teach tax law. He said he learned in both the practice of law and in teaching to use humor to help make messages stick, and he emphasized the importance of a lawyer’s professional responsibility.

“He shared how a senior litigation partner once called him into his office and shared a quote he lived his professional life by: ‘If someone goes to jail, be sure it’s the client.'”

Read the entire thing.


History According to Trump

I guess it’s a good thing we always fight over history, after all there is no one settled way of looking at events in the past. History is, or should be, based on verifiable facts, documents, first hand accounts and much more. It is not a political exercise unless partisan people try to make history partisan.

Pivot to the recent White House conference on American history. A distinguished historian, Ron Radosh – he taught at CUNY and has written extensively about American history – deconstructed the “conference.” It is a fascinating read.

“There are some important questions that deserve to be asked about the teaching of history and its contribution to creating a sense of citizenship, and the ways in which those two can be in tension with one another. But such questions went unasked at last week’s conference. The White House Conference on American History was anything but what the title of the forum announced. It was a publicity stunt, and the participants, including the two historians, were played by Donald Trump and his administration.”

The full piece from The Bulwark.


Burning Down the House

Speaking of good historians: Princeton historian Julian Zelizer has a new book that I’ve been reading, the story of how Newt Gingrich totally messed with Washington and the House of Representatives.

Jeff Shesol reviewed the book in the Washington Post.

“Gingrich had little interest in ethics, except as a cudgel. His own conduct, personal and political, was far from exemplary. But as Zelizer writes, he had ‘a central insight: the transformational changes of the Watergate era . . . could be used to fundamentally destabilize the entire political establishment.’ Post-Watergate reforms, designed to open up the closed doors of the Capitol and let the sunlight in, gave Gingrich an arsenal of weapons. Public hearings were an opportunity to drag reputations through the mud. Ethics investigations were a means to portray legislative dealmaking as a venal, vaguely criminal act. C-SPAN, a product of the reform movement, became a forum for character assassination, unfiltered, in prime time.”

The full review is here.

Thanks, as always, for reading. All the best.

Uncategorized

Ginsburg, the Senate and the Court

Courts are not leaders in social change. They follow after movement in the larger society. That was true with respect to racial justice. It’s true, now, with the women’s movement. It’s true with the LGBTQ movement. How long that discrimination lingered when people were hiding in closets. Change occurred only when they came out and said, “This is who we are, and we’re proud of it.” Once they did that, changes occurred rapidly.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Before the politics takes over completely – it might already be too late – let’s reflect on the person of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her remarkable story of courage and perseverance.

“Born the year Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady,” historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker, “Ginsburg bore witness to, argued for, and helped to constitutionalize the most hard-fought and least-appreciated revolution in modern American history: the emancipation of women. Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.” 

And as the Washington Post editorialized: “The America we inhabit today, where women fly military fighter jets, occupy a quarter of the U.S. Senate and account for half of all first-year law students, is a different and better — though still far from completely equal — nation, due in no small part to the courageous career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

There is much to be said – and celebrated – in the life of the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Better tributes than I can possibly offer had been made since her death on Friday. I recommend this, and this and this

The tenor of our times, sadly, means the celebration and mourning of the legendary RBG gave way almost immediately to the rank political rush to determine who might replace her. It is an unsightly, indeed gross example of how far into crisis our democracy has fallen. 

It shouldn’t be this way, it doesn’t have to be this way. Make no mistake if the effort to fill a Supreme Court seat moves ahead as it now looks likely it will – weeks before a bitter and contentious presidential election where the majority in the Senate also stands in the balance – the outcome will almost certainly spell disaster for the Court, the Senate and the country. 

It is a moment when democracy and fairness and the future demand something that seems wholly absent from our politics – restraint. 

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Given the current state of our politics, it is surprising – really surprising – to recall that Ruth Bader Ginsberg was confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1993 by the astounding Senate vote of 96-3

You read that right, three very conservative Republican senators – Helms of North Carolina, Nickles of Oklahoma and Smith of New Hampshire – voted “no” on her confirmation. The rest of the Senate said, yes. 

Associated Press story from 1993

Hard core conservatives like Orrin Hatch of Utah, Larry Craig of Idaho and even Strom Thurmond of South Carolina found the diminutive judge worthy of breathing the rarified air of the Supreme Court. 

Ginsberg’s confirmation when it finally happened was a big story, but not a huge story. The New York Times featured a photo of RBG on its front page – August 4, 1993 – but the full story was relegated to page eight in the “B” section of the paper. Not exactly high profile. 

The Times cover that day was given over to Bill Clinton’s struggle to pass his budget and tax plan and the looming genocide in Bosnia. The confirmation of arguably one of the most significant Supreme Court justices in America history was, well, kind of an afterthought. No one really believed that Ginsburg – scholar, advocate, respected judge – was not fully qualified by experience, character and temperament to serve. Her subsequent years on the Court proved the wisdom of that judgment

But now the political discussion is about whether the Court will have a 6-3 conservative majority, whether an anti-abortion, anti-Affordable Health Care Act majority can be created, whether the Court will be favorable to conservatives for a generation or more. Needless to say, this does not seem like the way a democratic system selects judges who will enjoy widespread public confidence. 

Dave Leonhardt in the New York Times has an excellent rundown of Supreme Court politics since 1968 when Lyndon Johnson’s pick to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren was rejected by the Senate on grounds that Justice Abe Fortas’s ethical behavior disqualified him. Richard Nixon, instead, made the appointment after the election of Warren Burger and the Court began a long-term turn to the right. 

I won’t recount all the history here but will note that both parties have played this ideological game from at least 1968. In retrospect the bruising fights that kept Robert Bork off the Court and put Clarence Thomas on deeply shook the Senate. Each subsequent fight has its roots in the previous nasty confrontation.

As a result, the confirmation spotlight has shifted over time from questions of basic competency and experience to pure ideology. That Thomas and the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, were credibly accused of sexual misconduct further inflamed the process, with Republicans placing the conservative qualifications of a Court candidate over any possible question of character. 

So, both parties share the guilt for where we are, but there is little doubt that Republicans have played the Court games more astutely, more ruthlessly and with what now appears will be one of the most blatant examples of political hypocrisy in modern times.

All the efforts to parse and footnote the Republican position from 2016 when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused for eight months to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland can be reduced to one word – hypocrisy. Of it you prefer two words – shameless hypocrisy. 

(Writing in The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last, a conservative, offered another perhaps even more fitting description of GOP strategy. Republicans are, Last wrote, “deploying situational ethics in a nihilistic pursuit of power.”)

Yet, beyond the raw exercise of political power there are things even more important at stake. 

——

The most famous Court fight in American history took place 83 years ago this summer. Franklin Roosevelt, at the absolute zenith of his political power after a landslide re-election in 1936, decided to “pack” the Court. FDR wanted to install six new judges. The Court would have grown from nine members to 15 in one crushing example of presidential power. Roosevelt fully expected that fellow Democrats who dominated the Congress – 76 Democrats sat in the Senate – would happily go along. Many Democrats, after all, owed their political careers to the powerful man in the White House and Roosevelt seemed to command public approval for virtually whatever he wanted to do.

But rather than bend to the president’s will, a move that would have drastically remade the Court and fundamentally called into question its independence, indeed legitimacy, Democrats rebelled. 

The leader of the Senate opposition to Roosevelt’s power grab was a tough, independent progressive Democrat from Montana. 

I wrote a chapter on this fight in my 2019 biography of Senator Burton K. Wheeler. Wheeler, like all politicians, had complicated motives for opposing the extremely popular president of his own party. He disliked Roosevelt personally and politically. Wheeler harbored presidential ambitions. He was given to waging high profile battles, even if the odds seemed long. The guy had courage and conviction. 

Still, the verdict of history gives Wheeler not only a win for stopping Roosevelt’s court packing, but also, I believe, for saving the Supreme Court. He correctly saw that by not tempering his ambitions and by exercising the political power that he clearly possessed, Roosevelt would in effect make the Court subservient to the executive. Balance of power would have been dinted or likely destroyed. 

In this cartoon from 1937, Wheeler is rolling the bowling ball of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes at FDR and his attorney general Homer Cummings – National Portrait Galley collection

Wheeler understood that the Court as an institution was more important than any political moment, that the integrity of the Court and the Senate were fundamental to a functioning democracy. 

Roosevelt was furious. He took out his displeasure on those who opposed him, including Wheeler. But by exercising the restraint that Roosevelt ignored, I would argue, American democracy was actually strengthened. The integrity of the Court was preserved. The Senate’s ability to restrain a powerful president was strengthened. The system worked. 

Contrast that with Donald Trump’s comments on Monday: “When you have the Senate, when you have the votes, you can sort of do what you want as long as you have it.” 

Conservative judicial scholar Adam J. White, who has heartily supported Trump’s judicial picks up to this point, puts a fine point on the moment: “Indeed, when the constitutional crisis of our time is a crisis of the failure of self-restraint, that crisis will only end when one side restrains itself at the very moment when it cannot be restrained by the other side. For Republicans, that moment is right now, and the fact that self-restraint would be so painful is itself the best evidence that self-restraint is so necessary.”

The Supreme Court has long been politicized. Judges are, after all, the products of the political process. Neither side in our politics sees the Court in anything other than starkly political terms. The atmosphere is beyond toxic, which is precisely why those in power – with the absolute “right” to act – need to step back. 

We face the political equivalent of the nuclear deterrent strategy of “mutually assured destruction.” A Republican effort to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg in this way at this time will almost certainly prompt an equal or greater response. Democrats are already calling for “packing the Court,” adding hundreds of new ideologically chosen judges and mandating judicial term limits, among other things. 

What needs to happen – and I’m in no way optimistic it will – is a step back from the certainty that already stressed democratic institutions will be horribly damaged if this unfolds the way it appears it will. 

The word is restraint. A fundamental principle of democracy is that people in power must act in ways that preserve and protect the integrity of the institutions entrusted to their care. Having the power to act sometimes demands not acting.

In our lifetime there has never been a better moment to pause, consider and practice restraint. 

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2020 Election, Climate Change, Fire Policy, Pandemic, Trump

Disbelieving Ourselves to Death…

If you could choose just one moment from the last week to capture the utter unreality of our time – and our politics – you could do worse than looking at the highlights of a baseball game played last Monday in Seattle. 

The A’s and Mariners split a doubleheader, but the images that linger from the game have nothing to do with home runs or great defensive plays. The dystopian scene that persists is the reality that the game was played in an empty stadium where seats were filled with smiling cardboard cutouts not fans, with many players wearing face masks and wondering why the games had been played at all. 

The stadium was filled with smoke, not fans

“I think it was OK breathing, but we definitely noticed it,” Mariners centerfielder Kyle Lewis told reporters. “The sky was all foggy and smoky; it definitely wasn’t a normal situation, definitely a little weird.” True statement. 

The Seattle skyline – and every skyline from L.A. to Missoula – was obscured by a mile’s high worth of smoke. The air quality this week in four major western cities is among the worst in the world, all brought to the Seattle ballpark and your lungs by the catastrophic wildfires raging from southern California to the Canadian border, from the Oregon coast to Montana.

The West is burning. The pandemic is raging. The climate is cooking. And a sizable percentage of Americans are willingly suspending their disbelief about all of it, still enthralled with the smash mouth nonsense of the biggest science denier since Pope Urban VIII in the 17th Century decreed that Galileo was wrong and the Sun really does orbit the Earth. 

Pope Urban VIII, an earlier science denier

The suspension of disbelief, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1817, is a necessary element of fiction, or perhaps more pleasingly, poetry. It demands, Coleridge said, that we “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” 

You have to want to do this suspension of reality business since it really doesn’t come naturally. A reflective human reaction to things that just don’t seem true is to question what you hear or see. Not anymore. We have reached our “Duck Soup” moment and we are living the line delivered by Chico, one of the Marx Brothers in that 1933 movie: “Well, who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?”

When told by the secretary of the California Natural Resources department, Wayne Crowfoot, that the record three million acres burned so far this year in that state required a response that goes beyond managing vegetation, the president of the United States blithely mumbled: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” 

Crowfoot pushed back gently on the science-denier-in-chief saying, “I wish science agreed with you.” But like the surly guy who has to win every argument at the neighborhood bar – back when the neighborhood bar was open – Donald Trump said, “I don’t think science knows actually.” 

Undoubtedly, his many supporters celebrated more of their “poetic faith” even though every eighth grader in the American West knows more about forests and fire than our president from Queens, the same guy who predicted repeatedly that the virus would “just go away.” 

To hear the president on the campaign trail, cheered on by nearly every one of the intellectually bankrupt elected officials in the Republican Party, the pandemic is over, the economy is roaring back and radical thugs are coming to a suburb near you. Reality that doesn’t depend on suspending disbelief would be, as James Fallows wrote this week in The Atlantic, that “Trump is running on a falsified vision of America, and hoping he can make enough people believe it to win.”

The Trump campaign flew into Nevada a few days ago to rally with hundreds of supporters packed shoulder to shoulder in a building in Henderson. The event took place in defiance of not only the state of Nevada’s prohibition against such large gatherings, but the clear guidance of Trump’s own science and medical experts. But, then again, they are all probably “elitists” from liberal colleges and universities. What do they know? 

The Nevada rally and subsequent campaign events in Arizona and elsewhere came at the same time as the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book, in many ways, like all Woodward books, a Washington insiders’ version of the presidency as a decades long exercise in suspended disbelief. There is, however, one thing different about this Woodward book. He’s got the tapes

Back in the spring when Trump was daily trying to happy talk his way through the pandemic he said on April 10: “The invisible enemy will soon be in full retreat.” Three days later he spoke by phone with Woodward who recorded the conversation with Trump’s full knowledge and confirmed that he had been lying to all of us for weeks. “This thing is a killer if it gets you,” Trump said on April 13, “if you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance.” Trump went on to call the virus that once was magically “just going to go away” a “plague.” 

Trump campaign rally in Nevada violated the state’s ban on large gathering and defied the president’s own science advisors

In an earlier interview with Woodward in February Trump called the virus “deadly stuff” that was “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

At least two things are happening here. Trump was caught in real time lying about a pandemic that will soon have claimed 200,000 American lives, shutdown schools and businesses and devastated the economy in ways we can’t yet imagine. By his ignorance and malevolence, the president, and those most guilty of aiding his mission of chaos and death – read congressional Republicans – continues to wreak havoc on every single one of his constituents. It should go without saying that it didn’t have to happen, and it hasn’t happened in most of the rest of the world. You can look it up. 

Second, the president and his pathetically craven enablers are waging a massive propaganda campaign in an effort to win an election, relying on huge doses of magical thinking larded with suspended disbelief. 

So, sure, Trump’s doing a superb job. It’s going to get cooler and magically that smoke once it’s gone will never reappear. The “deadly stuff” is nothing to fret about. I mean, after all, who ya gonna believe: A guy who lies for a living or your own eyes?

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Additional Reading:

Some other stories I found interesting this week. Hope you enjoy.

A Nation Derailed

Like most of you, I haven’t been traveling much lately. But long-time readers probably know that I am a big fan of train travel. My last rail trip was almost a year ago now from Montreal to Halifax on an overnight sleeper train. I loved it. 

So, I found this piece by Lewis McCrary a fine primer on why the rest of the world has decent – or in some cases outstanding – rail service, while the U.S. limps along with our sadly underfunded Amtrak system. You can read the story as a metaphor of source for failed American leadership, or at least misplaced American priorities. 

“Since its beginnings 40 years ago, Amtrak has insisted that it can become a self-sustaining operation, largely based upon claims like those made in 1971: in high-traffic, high-density corridors like the Northeast, there is sufficient consumer demand that passenger rail can operate at a profit. There has always been some truth to this line of reasoning, but it ignores a question that is at the heart of interstate transportation policy, both for highways and railroads: who pays the enormous costs of building and maintaining infrastructure? Interstate highways were only made possible through large federal subsidies—handouts not unlike those that created the grand railway network in the late 19th century.” 

Read the whole piece


Joan Didion on Bob Woodward 

I confess I have never been a great fan of Bob Woodward’s thick tomes on Washington politics. Few can argue with his role – and Carl Bernstein’s – in exposing the crimes of Watergate, but his books have often been the product of absolutely conventional D.C. wisdom, frequently based on his access to key players who, if they play the access game skillfully, usually come off looking OK.

It’s also always bothered me that often Woodward’s books rely almost entirely on unnamed sources. Footnotes matter, after all. 

And almost always Woodward becomes, as he has recently, a big part of the story. Yes, I think he erred in not revealing a lot soon what Donald Trump was telling him about the virus.

Fear – the new Bob Woodward book

Still, the latest Woodward is a bit different. He has hours of tapes of Donald Trump. No anonymous source, but the source. Still, with all the hype over Rage, the latest Woodward tome, it strikes me there is less here than meets the eye. It is, as I point out above, no great scoop that Trump is a habitual liar.

The great Joan Didion was not a Woodward fan either and in 1996 she did a rather epic takedown of the Washington Post reporter/editor. It’s worth revisiting. 

“Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play . . . What seems most remarkable in this new Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

Here’s the link.


After the Gold Rush 

In September 1990 – thirty years ago – Vanity Fair magazine published a long piece by Marie Brennan on a New York developer and his then-Czech wife. 

Donald Trump and then-wife Ivana in 1990

The story was an early taste, actually a hearty gulp, of the man who now sits in the White House. Reading it today is a little like having a look three decades ago of what the future would look like in 2020. Brennan wrote:

“I thought about the ten years since I had first met Donald Trump,” Brennan wrote. “It is fashionable now to say that he was a symbol of the crassness of the 1980s, but Trump became more than a vulgarian. Like Michael Milken, Trump appeared to believe that his money gave him a freedom to set the rules. No one stopped him. His exaggerations and baloney were reported, and people laughed. His bankers showered him with money. City officials almost allowed him to set public policy by erecting his wall of concrete on the Hudson River. New York City, like the bankers from the Chase and Manny Hanny, allowed Trump to exist in a universe where all reality had vanished. ‘I met with a couple of reporters,’ Trump told me on the telephone, ‘and they totally saw what I was saying. They completely believed me. And then they went out and wrote vicious things about me, as I am sure you will, too.’ Long ago, Trump had counted me among his enemies in his world of ‘positives’ and ‘negatives.’ I felt that the next dozen people he spoke to would probably be subjected to a catalogue of my transgressions as imagined by Donald Trump.”

Read the whole thing if you have a strong stomach. 


The Nazi Menace

I just finished a fine new book by historian Benjamin Carter Hett, a scholar of modern Germany who teaches at CUNY. It’s called The Nazi Menace and focuses on the event immediately leading up to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. It’s a fine book and I recommend it to anyone wanting a firmer understanding of these central events in 20th Century history.

Another historian I admire, Fredrik Logevall, reviewed the book for the New York Times.

“For the Western leaders and their populations, the second half of the 1930s represented, Hett argues, a ‘crisis of democracy.’ In the minds of influential observers like Churchill and the American columnist Walter Lippmann, it seemed an open question whether the major democracies could respond effectively to the threat from totalitarian states that were primed for war and had ready access to resources. Could Western leaders mobilize their competing interest groups and fickle constituents to support costly overseas commitments? What if these same constituents fell under the sway of fascism, with its racist and nationalist appeals?”

Read the review here.


Thanks, as always, for following along. Be safe and be well.

2020 Election, Lincoln, Politics

Is America Obsolete?

What if the American experiment has reached its sell by date?

What are the chances the 244-year run of “the last best hope on earth,” as Lincoln said, is not just in twilight, but already too far gone to save? 

Lincoln’s hope for the world depended on, he said, “plain, peaceful, generous, just” actions by Americans who profoundly disagreed about big issues but were still bound together by a common purpose – to be part of a country bigger and better than its differences.

The “last best hope on earth” or the end of the American story?

What if the United States of the 21st Century is not the place Lincoln thought it to be, but just too big, too diverse, too divided, its population too invested in tribal loyalties and hatred, too eager to condemn, too sure of its own righteousness and too certain of its disdain to survive? What if our 244 years of failing to really confront the original American sin of permitting, indeed encouraging, human bondage has finally visited a reckoning on us? 

What if the parallel crisis of race, pandemic, economic and climate upheaval is just too much for our inadequate leadership, our fractured social compact and our wildly differing views of reality to handle? 

What if surviving world wars, economic collapse, including a decade-long depression, a deadly pandemic a hundred years ago and the catastrophe of civil war in the 1860s was just part of a trial run for ultimate failure in the 21st Century? What if “the last best hope” isn’t? 

I confess that I have never before, even in the abstract, really considered that the end might come. The United States is, after all, as we used to tell ourselves, “the indispensable nation.” The “greatest country” on the planet. We had the biggest economy, the best health care, the most freedom. We are, or we told ourselves we were, “exceptional.” 

But now we see it was all a lie. We told ourselves stories about how great things are and we believed our own press releases. We said the American system – checks and balances, fair and free elections, holding people accountable, the “rule of law” – could be shaken from time-to-time, but would endure. The idea, we told ourselves, was that our very special Constitution would protect us from crooks and charlatans and despots. Congress would exercise its independence and hold a chief executive who got too big for the Constitution accountable. After all, Republicans told Republican Richard Nixon that the jig was up, and he had to go. The system worked. Back then. 

What is really in the American DNA?

Not to worry, we convinced ourselves, American ideals, perhaps never fully realized, like the “all men are created equal” language not really applying to all persons, would still, by hook or crook, prevail.

We got this covered we assured ourselves. A momentary blip in the body politic and before you know it, we’ll be back on the path to perfecting “a more perfect union.” But we aren’t on that path. Our current path is down a long, dark alley were division and discord seem to be the only truly exceptional things about the country. 

As Thomas Geoghegan recently put it perfectly: “we are at a moment like the one the country faced in 1932 – there is not just fear and uncertainty and a sense of being unmoored but also the doubt that our form of government is capable of coping. In a way it is even worse: unlike in 1932, the plot against America is already in full swing, and we as a people are even more uncertain of who we are.” 

A thing to remember about the United States is that it’s just an idea, and an idea built on a very flimsy foundation. It’s not the laws and the Constitution that ultimately matter, but rather that people – citizens and their leaders – will decide, even when it means acting against immediate self-interest, that they will still act in good faith. The idea is that respect for the norms of a democratic society will be observed and that decency will ultimately prevail, even if observing the norms and behaving decently mean that my side is going to lose some of the time. How obsolete that seems today

If America is not to pass away into something Lincoln would not recognize, that Franklin Roosevelt would find repugnant, that General and President Eisenhower would reject, we need to recapture a shared sense of national purpose

We can begin with a fundamental question. What do we really stand for? It’s not that we stand for any one president or any one political position, but what is really in the American DNA? 

The Catholic scholar Thomas Levergood takes me back to my own belief in my church’s social message, which is to search for and find “the common good.” Levergood recently defined the idea in an essay in the Jesuit journal America: “In a specific sense a common good refers to something that can only be shared in common and cannot be divided in pieces and be possessed by individuals or smaller groups. It is a common end achieved through common actions.”

Levergood continues: “It is in plain view that many of our fellow citizens are so frustrated with our political system that they have fallen for populist rhetoric to condemn all ‘politicians’ or government itself as evil. (Others are taking out their frustrations by tearing down statues.) This situation derives not from bad ideas or faults in the American people but rather from lacking the common good of a functioning political system.” 

We fix what ails America and avoid obsolescence by rededicating ourselves as citizens to creating a functioning political system that aims squarely at the common good, not what’s good for a Republican or a Democrat, a socialist or a libertarian, a conservative or a liberal, but an American. 

Deirdre Schifeling, who heads an organization dedicated to expanding voting rights, recently told The Guardian she believes this election marks a tipping point in America, a moment in which the country, having been jolted out of its complacency, will rebound. “Faith in our democracy is at an all-time low and that is very dangerous. Now the work begins on fixing it.”

Let’s hope she’s right. And let’s find our common purpose before it’s too late. 

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Additional Reading:

A collection of pieces I found of interest this week and I hope you will, too.

130 degrees

The climate crisis came home to us in western Oregon this week. The worst and most deadly fires in recorded memory destroyed homes and businesses and brought death – not to mention vast layers of smoke – to often wet and green Oregon.

If you any longer think that climate change is a hoax, I have some air for you to breath on the north coast. And then read this piece by Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books. Absolutely frightening.

Drought, high temps, wind and fuel load have made fires disastrous in Oregon

“Depending on the study, the risk of ‘very large fires’ in the western US rises between 100 and 600 percent; the risk of flooding in India rises twenty-fold. Right now the risk that the biggest grain-growing regions will have simultaneous crop failures due to drought is ‘virtually zero,’ but at four degrees ‘this probability rises to 86%.’ Vast ‘marine heatwaves’ will scour the oceans: “One study projects that in a four-degree world sea temperatures will be above the thermal tolerance threshold of 100% of species in many tropical marine ecoregions.” The extinctions on land and sea will certainly be the worst since the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid helped bring the age of the dinosaurs to an end.

Quite a legacy to live to the kids and grandkids. Read it all here.


The Truth is Paywalled, the Lies are Free

Nathan J. Robinson, writing in Current Affairs, has a really good and provocative piece on access to information. He notes that quality sources of information – the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Review, Times of London, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, among others – have their content (for the most part) behind a “paywall,” while “BreitbartFox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars” are free!

You do get what you pay for (this site not withstanding).

Robinson is really arguing for a system of uniform, free access to all kinds of content that doesn’t screw over the producers of the content. Worth your time.


Joey Biden, He Could Really Talk

The late Richard Ben Cramer wrote what political junkies (like me) consider the best presidential campaign book – ever – called What it Takes.

It might just be the best political book ever. Cramer focused on the candidates who ran for president in 1988, including a guy named Joe Biden.

Trust me, it’s worth your time.

“Joe did not stutter all the time. At home, he almost never stuttered. With his friends, seldom. But when he moved to Delaware, there were no friends. There were new kids, a new school, and new nuns to make him stand up and read in class: that’s when it always hit—always always always. When he stood up in front of everybody else, and he wanted, so much, to be right, to be smooth, to be smart, to be normal, j-j-ju-ju-ju-ju-jus’th-th-th-th-then!

“Of course, they laughed. Why wouldn’t they laugh? He was new, he was small, he was … ridiculous … even to him. There was nothing wrong. That’s what the doctors said.

“So why couldn’t he talk right?” Read the excerpt here.


She laid waste to a “dozen-odd writers and artists

I really loved this piece in the London Review of Books, a book review really of works by and about Maeve Brennan, a long-time writer for The New Yorker. It was said Brennan “could stop traffic” and was the inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

An iconic photo of the writer Maeve Brennan by Carl Bissinger

“At the New Yorker, with her ‘longshoreman’s mouth’ and ‘tongue that could clip a hedge’, she made her opinions known. Daphne du Maurier was ‘witless’, Jean Stafford her ‘bête noire’. Brennan immediately set her sights on grander things than the fashion notes and short reviews she’d been hired to write. In 1952, her first story appeared; two years later, she had a piece in ‘The Talk of the Town’, the section of the magazine over which [William] Shawn kept the tightest of reins. Brennan’s male colleagues, including [the cartoonist Charles] Addams, Joseph Mitchell and Brendan Gill (all of them her lovers at one time or another), joked that she had served her apprenticeship in hemlines. But it was the ability to spot the difference between ‘beige’ and ‘bone’ at fifty yards that made her a natural diarist. John Updike said her ‘Talk of the Town’ pieces ‘helped put New York back into the New Yorker’.”

Good stuff.

Thanks for reading. If you know someone who might be interested in these weekly posting please let me know or have them sign up at the website.

Stay safe. Be well.

Uncategorized

Trumpism or Democracy…

Historians on American political history will spill a lot of ink over the next couple of decades as they try to make sense of how the Republican Party in a virtual wink of the eye became the party of Donald Trump.

That the transformation of the party happened so quickly – a political movement that as recently as 2012 championed free trade, sought to widen its appeal to Americans of color, venerated the free market, embraced quaint concepts like congressional oversight, rejected government by executive order and stood convinced of the evils of a conniving Russian dictator – is an historical curiosity. 

Political parties evolve, after all. Republicans once embraced the sunny, “shining city on a hill” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the “compassionate conservativism” of George W. Bush. Now the party of deficit hawks controls the White House and the Senate and, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, also presides over a government debt that “is on track to exceed the size of the economy for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, a milestone not hit since World War II that has been brought into reach by a giant fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Donald Trump debates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in 2016, back when most GOP officeholders held nothing by disdain for the man who now owns their party

And to be fair to historic transformations, Democrats were once defined, before they shook off the stain by embracing civil rights, as a party of segregationist southerners. Democrats, profoundly shaken by the failure of their elites to prevent the American tragedy in southeast Asia, for a time swore off military intervention until most in the party supported George W. Bush going into Iraq

Still, the bobs and weaves of Democrats have been subtle compared to the GOP. Despite the preferred Trump rhetoric that nominee Joe Biden is captive to the radical left wing of the party, the reality is that Biden defeated handily the candidate of the “radical” left in the primaries and he’s rejected the most left leaning policy positions, including a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Biden has succeeded where Republicans who once loathed Trump have failed. He has pushed back against his own extremes. 

That the Republican party’s elected officials – almost to a person – countenanced the transformation of their party, indeed embraced it – is the more interesting question and the more difficult to answer.

One explanation holds that the party’s base came to disdain, after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the so called political “elites,” the people who led the country into a disastrous war in Iraq and couldn’t keep Democrats from passing the Affordable Care Act, which almost every Republican officeholder, and of course Trump, said should be repealed and replaced by a vastly better approach. 

You might remember that Trump said during a July 19 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he would be signing of a “full and complete” health-care plan within two weeks. Of course, it was just talk in the same category as Mexico building a wall, being tough on Putin, presiding over the greatest economy ever, releasing his tax returns and draining the swamp

So, the party’s base rejecting traditional Republican positions for fanciful predictions, conspiracy theories and overt appeals to white nationalism goes some way to explaining the Trump takeover. But how to explain the vast wake of condemnation by Republicans of Trump before he finalized the leveraged takeover of the GOP in 2016? 

Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of Trump then: he is a ‘pathological liar,” ‘utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” and “a serial philanderer.” 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” who should be expelled from the party. For emphasis, Graham added a prophetic prediction. “Any time you ignore what could become an evil force, you wind up regretting it.”

The list goes on and on. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo said Trump was ‘unfit” and rejected his “disrespectful, profane and demeaning” behavior. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner called Trump’s “flaws … beyond mere moral shortcomings.” Utah’s Senator Mike Lee dismissed Trump as “a distraction,” the same word used by Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. Former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said Trump was “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit.” 

That Trump withstood this intraparty shellacking is simply astounding, but nowhere near as astounding as the willingness of elected Republicans to now embrace what they once so forcefully abhorred. The fullness of the capitulation was in technicolor display at the recent Republican National Convention where for the first time in the party’s long history no party platform was adopted beyond a statement that the party stands for whatever Trump wants to do. 

As near as I can tell Republican officeholders essentially ignored Trump’s coronation for a second term, a spectacle conducted on the White House grounds in clear violation of a law on the books since 1939, while giving a quiet pass to his nonsense about having defeated the pandemic and that he will bring the economy back – a second time. The COVID-19 death toll by election day, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, will likely be close to 250,000 Americans with an unemployment rate in double digits and vast economic transformation underway whose scope and duration are impossible to predict. 

Of Idaho’s federal officeholders, only Simpson had a comment about the GOP convention. He praised not Trump’s Castro-length acceptance speech, but the address of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, one of the least offensive appearances during the entire gruesome spectacle. Otherwise the speeches, the lack of a platform, the future direction of the party of Trump and the policy void brought only silence. 

“Like every person, Trump has his flaws,” a top aide to an Idaho Republican told me recently, before adding “however actions speak louder than words.” A true statement that, and the “Trump has his flaws” comment came before the president explicitly refused to condemnunlike Biden – his supporters including the 17-year-old gun totting urban guerrilla who is charged with two murders in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

If the country survives this election, if the nation survives Trumpism, the Republican Party will be a relic for historians to pick over. As the conservative columnist Mona Charon wrote this week the “true dereliction by Republican elites has come after Trump’s triumph, with their cringing accommodation of his escalating offenses. Only Republicans were in a position to affect Trump’s conduct. Any criticism by Democrats would be dismissed as partisan sniping. Only members of his own party could have upheld crucial standards of democratic governance, and they failed.” 

It is increasingly clear: America can have Trumpism or democracy, the two co-existing together is as unbelievable as what has happened to the Republican Party.

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Additional Reading…

Some items I’ve come across recently and found valuable. You may, as well.

Reform, Don’t Destroy, the Filibuster

I’ve been a big fan of Norm Ornstein for a long time. I’m also an historian of the U.S. Senate. The two passions come together in Norm’s current piece in The Atlantic – “The Smart Way to Fix the Filibuster.”

Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

The political left in America wants to eliminate the filibuster and I have to admit I see the point, but I also think the Senate is the great, unique (and flawed) institution in our federal system. And, yes, (unpopular opinion) the filibuster has its place, even though its unfortunately has been badly and tragically misused. Norm has a fix in mind.

“The destruction caused by Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, to our health, environment, economy, and political system, is unprecedented. Undoing it will not be easy no matter the rules or the political composition of Congress. But changing the rules in the Senate is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement to making progress. Fortunately, there are options besides complete elimination of the filibuster rule.”

Read the very thoughtful insights from a great observer of American politics.


Portland and the Pro-Trump Protesters

Protests in Portland, Oregon are as frequent as cloudy days and as ubiquitous as coffee shops. And, yes, there has been some senseless violence, ugly destruction and recently a tragic death. Also many, many peaceful protests demanding racial justice.

What is less well understood about Portland is that various right wing groups are now often showing up – armed – looking for a confrontation. From The Guardian:

“[Recent] events in Portland once again drew the attention of the far-right Proud Boys, who are promoting a rally in the city on 26 September. Further truck rallies are now advertised for 7 and 19 September.

“Saturday’s event was organized by a man presenting himself as ‘Alex Kyzyk’ on Facebook, but whom social media materials, a business website and public records reveal to be Alex Kuzmenko, who has owned real estate and development companies near Boise, Idaho, where he organized a previous, similar rally.”

It is a frightening development. Read the full story.


How Violence Effects the Vote

One more piece here on the politics of violence. This from Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, who writes regularly for the Washington Post. Gerson makes the case that there is no equivalence between the presidential candidates when it comes to how they address violent protest.

“With the support of his party’s establishment, Biden is willing to criticize the hard left even as he is willing to call out police misconduct. Trump, in contrast, has adopted a policy of no enemies to the right. It doesn’t matter if you are a white nationalist, a neo-Confederate, an anti-immigrant zealot or a QAnon true believer; support for Trump is redemption in Trump’s own eyes. In the process, Trump is normalizing beliefs and behaviors that are favorable to the growth of violence.”

Read the full piece.


Philadelphia, 1948

And finally, a really great piece of writing by A.J. Liebling from The New Yorker in August 1948. Liebling, as only he could, covered the Republican and Democratic conventions that year, both held in Philadelphia.

One of the great images in American political history

This, you’ll recall, was the “Dewey beats Truman” election.

It was hot in Philly, a fact, Liebling notes, that every story about the conventions seemed to report in detail.

“The weather situation could have been entirely covered by the addition to the weather box on the first page of some such simple note as ‘Temperature in Philadelphia yesterday: Max. —; Min. —.’ This would have saved many tons of newsprint and God knows how much ink. The interviews with button salesmen and shoeshine boys, the pictures of three young ladies from Wisconsin or four from Kentucky, the column-and-a-half stories about the free compacts distributed at Dewey headquarters, and the like, all derived from what has become a newspaper tradition—devoting labored attention to insignificant details of important events.”

Enjoy.


New book coming…

I’ve been reviewing the page proofs this week of my next book coming early next year from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Tuesday Night Massacre tells the story of four U.S. Senate races in 1980 – the year Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter – that featured for the first time the widespread use of so called independent expenditure campaigns. These independent campaigns, freed to raise and spend unlimited money thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, served to nationalize every subsequent Senate contest and, I believe, helped “radicalize the Republican Party,” while contributing to the dysfunctional Senate we are hampered with today.

More on that soon.

Thanks for following along here and make sure you have a plan to vote. It really never has been more important.