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It’s the Judgment…

“Would you say that – Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy or not?” 

Question in August 20 Quinnipiac Poll of voters in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Only one in three voters in these key “swing” state said “yes” that Clinton was honest and trustworthy.

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The Summer of Trump has also been the Summer of the Server – Hillary’s server.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Democratic frontrunner and heir apparent has essentially squandered a long summer than might have been spent creating feel good moments of connection with voters from Portsmouth to Portland. Instead she – and we – have endured the steady drip, drip, drip of detail about her still unfathomable and still unexplained decision to use a private, non-governmental email server while she served as secretary of state.

“Whether out of pride, stubbornness or something else, Clinton has misread legitimate concerns about her private e-mail server and what they say about her,” Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post. “As a result, she has badly mishandled the issue. She has treated it almost solely as a legal problem (which it could be) rather than a political problem — just as she seemed to approach the promotion of her memoir of her tenure as secretary of state as a book tour rather than the start of her presidential campaign.”

The drip, drip, drip – it’s like a faucet that makes a noise in the night keeping you awake – is going to continue into the fall and beyond. Hillary has seen to that.

I try to spend as little of my time as possible thinking about email servers. I prefer to think about the baseball season, the next book I’m reading or red wine from Burgundy, but nonetheless I’ve been doing my share of server maintenance, thank you very much. I’ve concluded I’m less troubled by the allegations that some obscure, but classified State Department memo from our embassy in Djibouti ended up unprotected on Clinton’s server than I am about what the entire tiresome episode says about Hillary’s judgment. It speaks volumes.

Clinton  campaign logo

Clinton campaign logo

When Americans eventually get around to entering the privacy of the voting booth more than a year from now they’ll face a stark choice for president between two inevitably flawed human beings. Elections almost always come down to two less-than-perfect choices. Hillary Clinton may well be one of the choices and in the privacy of that polling place we’ll do the mental math on whether we are more comfortable with her, her history, her experience, her positions and, yes, her judgment than we are with this guy Jeb or Walker, Carson or, urgh Trump, or maybe someone else.

In the private deliberations that constitute the most personal aspects of the democratic process, we’ll decide which of the candidates we will be most comfortable with for the next four years. It’s always a bit of crapshoot. I think most of us make these decisions based on fundamental questions that we regularly apply to people we encounter in our daily lives. When we pull the lever or punch the ticket we want a sense that we can trust the president of the United States not to be stupid, or rash, or so removed from us and our lives that the most powerful person in the world simply can’t relate. In other words, we really want a president we can trust.

Which brings me back to that private email server. The fundamental questions about the Summer of the Server still hang in the air, including most importantly why? Why did she do it? Why go to all the trouble to circumvent the State Department’s own email system? Why hire your own people to manage that decision and then purge the emails not deemed “official.” Why? Why? Why?

And why, when it all began blowing up, why not deal with it forthrightly and candidly? Clinton’s belated explanation – really more a discussion than an explanation – of the computer decision was that she wished she would have done it differently. Really? Why differently? Because the entire episode has become a hassle that threatens to mess with your presidential campaign? Or was the decision just faulty judgment? Was the decision to go outside the regular email system just another decision like what to wear to the office or what to have for lunch? Clinton seems to suggest the decision received about that much consideration. But her explanation – or her expression of regret in doing it the way she did – doesn’t wash.

“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions,” Clinton told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in one of her very rare sit down interviews. “And I take responsibility and it wasn’t the best choice.” Clinton added that she used a private email set up when serving as a United States senator and just didn’t give the matter much thought. She should have and on that point judgment turns.

The only really plausible explanation for the private email is that Clinton did not want prying eyes to see her electronic communication. She can’t – or won’t say it – but that is the only reason for doing what she did and for creating one of the greatest self-inflicted political wounds in modern presidential history.

In the whole wide scheme of things, Clinton’s email issue may turn out to be a tempest in a crock pot – we still haven’t seen all the emails and probably never will – but as a glimpse into how a possible president of the United States makes decisions and evaluates issues it’s a picture window. Secrecy, legal arguments attempting to cover political problems and a raging sense of entitlement explain much of Clinton’s 40-plus years in public life. The email server is just the latest Exhibit A.

Consider what Clinton might have done and chose not to do when she left the State Department. She might have joined a prestigious university and lectured on international relations. She might have landed at a think tank where she could have penned her memoir and readied for another campaign for the White House. She might have emulated Jimmy Carter and humbly undertaken something like his global work for democracy and human health. The Clinton family foundation is certainly doing some impressive work, but Hillary is most directly connected to the foundation’s frequently questionable fundraising. Not three people in a hundred could tell you what the Clinton Foundation has actually done other than raise money enrich the principals.

The Hamptons vacation rental

The Hamptons vacation rental

The questions that surround the foundation’s money raising, particularly when that fundraising involved a once and future presidential candidate, were as predictable as the continuing questions about her emails ands servers. Clinton either missed the likelihood of scrutiny and scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation or she simply decided the millions she collected in speaking fees and foundation contributions were a price to be paid to enjoy a personal income that permitted her and the former president to recently plunk down $100,000 for a two week vacation rental in the Hamptons.

Whatever you make of the high dollar talks and foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, it’s clear the candidate chose the one path in her post-State Department career that was absolutely certain to bring her grief and scrutiny as she pursued the White House. Clinton chose to parlay her celebrity and contacts in order to cash in, when good taste, ethics and better political judgment might have counseled a much different approach.

It’s the Judgment Stupid…

 Arguably the biggest, most consequential vote Clinton cast in her single term as a senator from New York was to authorize George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq in 2002. That vote went a long way to costing her the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama brought up the subject time and again. It was then and remains today a judgment call that Clinton got wrong.

“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton said in May while campaigning Iowa. But in fact she persistently avoiding calling her vote a mistake until after she had lost to Obama and only admitted the error in judgment when, one suspects, she was again thinking about another bid for the White House.

Judgment is a funny thing. You know it when you see it. Lyndon Johnson pushing for voting rights legislation in the face of bitter opposition from southerners in his own party was not just a display of political courage, but an example of practiced political judgment. Escalating the Vietnam War was just the opposite. Ronald Reagan confounding conservatives in his own party on arms control, Harry Truman recognizing the State of Israel at the first possible moment and John Kennedy overruling his generals during the Cuban missile crisis are examples of judgment exercised in critical and enduring ways. It is what president’s do and what we hire them to do.

Hillary Clinton has a resume and history going for her. Her recent and enhanced appeal to woman voters still constitutes the real rationale for her candidacy. She may make it all the way, particularly given the opposition. Questions about her judgment may give way to loftier things, like whether the nation, at long last, is ready to embrace first woman in the Oval Office. But as summer turns to fall and the interminable campaign stumbles forward, Clinton stumbles right along limited in her ability to talk about real issues, while she deals with he judgment calls from the past.

The 3:00 am commercial from 2008

The 3:00 am commercial from 2008

Clinton’s most talked about television commercial from her 2008 campaign now strikes a sharp note with those of us who think she has a judgment problem. You may recall that commercial – a ringing telephone at 3:00 am with a voice over ominously suggesting that the person who answers a middle of the night call in the White House must be sober and experienced. The message, of course, was the Clinton was and Obama wasn’t.

Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe deftly responded a little over seven years ago to that commercial: “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002,” Mr. Plouffe said. “It was on the Iraq war – she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”

Plouffe added, “This is about what you say when you answer the phone, what kind of judgment you demonstrate.”

That really is the point and also why Clinton will continue to struggle to convince voters that her judgment is up to the job she seeks. Ironically, all of Clinton’s big problems – the email mess, her post-State Department speaking career and her vote on war with Iraq – are not issues manufactured by her legion of opponents. These are unforced errors, the worst kind in politics and almost always the product of a lack of judgment.

Suppose You Were An Idiot…

“Well I think he had really no choice. He’s doing very poorly in the polls, he’s a very low-energy kind of guy and he had to do something, so they’re spending a lot of money on ads.”

— Donald Trump quoted by Politico on Jeb Bush’s latest attacks.

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Suppose you were an idiot and suppose your were running for president, but I repeat myself.

OK, I appropriated that line from Mark Twain, but it so perfectly captures the Summer of Trump and besides I couldn’t help myself.

Over our long summer of political discontent focused on “anchor babies,” insults aimed at “losers” and women who bleed, well, let’s don’t go there, the vast Republican field of presidential candidates has allowed a low-class real estate developer whose only high office has been in one of his tacky office buildings to repeal the essential rules of politics. Maybe the cooler fall temperatures have finally caused them to wake up and stop the madness.

Jeb Bush - low energy or finally fighting back?

Jeb Bush – low energy or finally fighting back?

It’s reported that the “low energy” Jeb Bush, the one-time GOP frontrunner and former governor of Florida, has finally decided to take off the kid gloves – they must wear them up at the Bush estate in Kennebunkport – and start hitting back at the man who has been “emasculating” him for weeks.

“Look, Jeb Bush was a very successful governor,” says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, “he’s a thoughtful man, he was a good, conservative governor. But every day, Donald Trump is emasculating Jeb Bush, and Republican primary voters are not going to default to the establishment candidate who is being weakened by these attacks that go unresponded to.” Bingo.

At least since June most of the Republican field, and many observers (yours truly included) have maintained that Trump’s half-life as a contender would last about as long as his hairdo in a windstorm. But the big boor kept on boring, tapping into the deep resentment and, of course, nativism that has come to define those who populate the outer planets of the GOP solar system. In retrospect it should have been obvious that someone in the massive Republican field would vault to the front of the pack by channeling the anger that has fueled so much of the over the top opposition to Barack Obama for the last seven years. Trump, as my father use to say, may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid and he has tapped that deep vein of resentment, even hatred, directed toward Washington, immigrants, the Kenyan-Muslim president, Wall Street, organic food and, who knows, maybe even Megyn Kelly. She is a card-carrying member of the elite, after all.

Until Jeb Bush realized that “staying under the radar” was a political path back to forever being referred to as the younger brother who couldn’t cut the Republican mustard, Trump has completely dominated the political summer. He did so because he is different, which is more than just loud and offensive. He has ridden the crest of a wave of mostly white, middle class resentment about a country that is changing rapidly in a way that many Americans must find downright scary, even scarier than a bloviating real estate developer.

Mr. Charm's Twitter photo

Mr. Charm’s Twitter photo

As numerous commentators have pointed out, Trump is just the latest incarnation of the “outsider” in American political history, the out sized personality willing to rhetorically attack the status quo, while offering little more than fire, brimstone and bluster. George Wallace played the part in 1968 and later. Huey Long in the early 1930’s did the same. Long was probably never a serious national threat to Franklin Roosevelt, but for a few brief moments in 1934 and before his death in 1935 he must have seemed a real threat. Ross Perot, Henry Wallace, Jesse Ventura and a host of lesser names have regularly appeared to appeal to the thirty percent or so of Americans who are always really pissed off about something.

What has been different with Trump is his mastery of the new tools of political communication and, of course, that the American public has never been subjected to such a full-fledge narcissist for such an extended period of time. Talk about different. Trump has been able to sustain his summer run with crude but effective marketing skills, four-minute hits on cable television, late night tweets that become early morning headlines and lately Instagram mini-commercials that may have been the catalyst convincing Jeb to jab back.

Every Trump tactic is just like the man: over the top, mostly devoid of fact, nasty and guaranteed to generate lots of attention. That’s the point – attack, attack, attack. Trump’s aggressiveness on the offensive – both meanings – makes General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign look like a low energy loser.

One of the oldest rules in politics is that the attack gets the attention, while the major policy speech gets ignored. Trump understands that rule and has been on the attack constantly since he joined the Republican race. Another old rule, especially true for Jeb Bush, is the fact that any political attack gone unanswered is an attack believed. When Trump repeatedly refers to Bush as “low energy” – essentially a wimp – and a “loser” who is “weak” he is really attacking Bush’s character rather than his policy positions. It’s a brilliant strategy that Bush had better match tweet for tweet.

So put me down in the camp of those, like Steve Schmidt, who think Bush had no choice but to get down in the hog swill with Trump. His task is very complicated, however, because of the dynamics of the Republican electorate. Bush wants to pull some of those thirty percent or so of really unhappy Republican voters over to his cause, but even more realistically he needs to present himself as a tough, decisive alternative to the loudest mouth in the race. Bush’s strategy of going after Trump is right, but the quality of his message and execution of his plan will determine if he has enough of the political attack dog in him to make the strategy work. I have my doubts.

Bush’s first major push back against Trump was ripped from the oldest and moldiest Republican playbook. Bush called The Donald a “liberal” and highlighted the nice things Trump has said over time about the Clintons. If Trump were a conventional politician that line of attack might have some legs, but the issues with Trump aren’t based on policy or anything that has to do with facts and reason. The disaffected won’t quit liking Trump because he got Hillary to his latest wedding or has had more positions on abortion than he had neckties. The Republican Party might reject him, however, if he starts to be seen as lacking in the essential quality that measures the ultimate success of any American president.

It’s all about the guy’s character. Bush needed to get under than mop of orange hair and tweak – and tweet – The Donald’s outsized personality, his enormous ego and his inability to let any slight go unanswered.

Trump is the grade school bully who couldn’t be stopped by appeals to reason or by complaints that he broke the rules or by tattling to the playground teacher. You have to shame him and call him what he is – a man whose ego and self-regard are so outside the realm of normal human interaction that he is dangerous, to himself, the Republican Party, the country and more.Reagan - There you go again

Bush needs to dust off Ronald Reagan and say “there you go again…” when Trump unloads and Trump will keep unloading because he can’t help himself. Jeb might even anticipate a Trump attack on him by making the attack himself. “Donald says I’m low energy, and I admit that I like to sleep at two o’clock in the morning rather than sit up inventing nasty things to say about people.”

A more direct line would be to simply say: “Trump is erratic, undisciplined, a hothead, an egomaniac completely full of himself. He may have the right character to succeed in the unethical world of New York real estate where you buy and sell contacts with mayors and governors, where people cheat and cut corners to get ahead, but he lacks the character to represent the American people.”

I’d never refer to Trump as a “reality television star,” since that gives him too much credit. He’d always be a “frequently failed real estate developer.” I’d point out that some of the great companies in America have declined to work with Trump because he lacks honesty and character. “Trump’s made a career out of being a bully when American needs a leader.”

Belittle the man where it hurts him the most: his mattresses are uncomfortable, his ties are badly constructed (I’ve never had one, but I bet they are), the towels in his hotels are too small, he’s getting old and can’t chase younger women any longer so he’s decided to run for president.

Trump would come back, of course, from such an attack with a discourse on how successful he has been, how rich he is, etc., but Bush will need to stay focused on the great man’s character, which even those who current support him must know is hardly a match for any president since Warren Harding.

Bush is an inherently clumsy candidate who often seems unsure of what he wants to say or what he really believes, but the circumstances of the Summer of Trump and his declining poll numbers have now pushed him into a strategy he might have wisely adopted weeks ago. Trump reminds us that attacking is often succeeding in politics and he who would attack also needs to defend.

Bush had better jump in with both feet and start landing some haymakers. Such are the moments that define candidates. Can Bush be a better retail politician than he has been? Is there any fire in that gut? Is there any ‘there’ there? With regard to Trump, can he finally find a language to point out what most of the country already knows?

Sometimes you just need to call the schoolyard bully a jerk and hit him upside the head with your lunch box.


Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

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Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


Six Books for the Dog Days…

Two brothers who changed the world, a submarine commander who helped propel the United States into the Great War, a writer who delved deeply into the lives of the people next door by drawing upon his own complicated experiences, the lives of the Gipper and de Gaulle and a wild and fascinating story of an astronaut left behind on Mars. Some of my summer reading and a half-dozen suggestions for the dog days.

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The Brothers Wright

The Brothers Wright

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The brothers who, if not exactly invented flight, refined the theory and technology that created the modern era were, amazingly, bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio. The outstanding narrative historian David McCullough captures all the failures and triumphs of Orville and Wilbur, while never stinting the human side of what they set out to do – create a dependable aircraft that would revolutionize the idea of human flight. The Wright Brothers is not the very best of McCullough – I still love The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback – but it’s a great tale well told.

The same can be said for Erik Larsen’s Dead Wake, the story of the last crossing of the massive British passenger liner Lusitania. Most everyone knows the broad strokes of the story. The luxurious ship, the biggest and fastest of the day, sets out from New York bound for Liverpool during the tense days of World War I in 1915. The German government took out ads in New York papers warning passengers that they traveled at their own risk through waters patrolled by commerce raiding German U-boats.

Dead WakeThe big ship sunk twenty minutes after being torpedoed off the Irish coast with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The sinking, not surprisingly, created an international crisis and came close to drawing the U.S. into the war. The Kaiser secretly ordered his navy to avoid passenger liners after the big ship went down, but when the Germans re-introduced the policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” early in 1917 the United States declared war. Even knowing how this story ends has not prevented Larsen from producing a page-turner. He is particularly effective in describing the cramped and dangerous life of the thirty-four crew members aboard U-20, the sub that sank the Lusitania.

Jay Begley’s biography of novelist, poet, critic and essayist John Updike came out last year, but I didn’t discover this gem until this summer. Literary biography can be tough and dense stuff, but Begley has produced a nuanced and often fascinating profile of the prolific Updike who died of cancer in 2009. I had the good fortune to spend a fascinating day with Updike when he visited Boise, Idaho some years ago and Begley captured all the charm, humor, self-awareness and occasional darkness of the writer that I observed for a few hours.

The young Updike at work

The young Updike at work

The critics either love or hate Updike, but I suspect we’ll be reading him long after many of his contemporaries are dead and gone – and not just for the sex. If you liked Updike’s Rabbit or his many, many great pieces in The New Yorker, you’ll enjoy Begley’s even-handed, but not uncritical assessment of the man and the writer. It’s the best kind of literary biography and it is simply called Updike.

I keep reading about American presidents, because I can’t seem to get enough of the details about the central character in all our politics. I eagerly approached H.W. Brands’ big door-stop of a biography of Ronald Reagan hoping that the talented writer and researcher had finally produced “the” great book on the Gipper. I was disappointed, but still recommend the book as a basic “life” of the consequential and controversial 40th president.

If you’re looking – as perhaps I was and still am – for a historian to really explain Reagan, you’ll be disappointed. Brands is a great story teller, like his subject, but what seems to be missing is an effort to place of Reagan in the larger context of 20th Century American politics. Was he the Republican FDR? Was he the last of an old type of Republican or the first of a new type? Did Ronnie make Goldwater conservatism popular, or was his personal magnetism more important? We’ll wait for another book to grapple with those kinds of questions.

Reagan - A LifeBrands gets all the basic stuff of Reagan’s remarkable political life jammed in this book and for a general reader wanting a breezy survey of his presidency Reagan – A Life will do the trick. Brands has touched broadly on the memoirs and news accounts of the Reagan era, but I’ll keep hoping for someone to make the deep dive into the archives, the papers and reports of the Reagan presidency in the way McCullough has done for Harry Truman or Robert Caro for LBJ.

I’m guessing most Americans know little about Charles de Gaulle, the one-star French general who nearly singlehandedly created the idea of “Free France” once the Nazis had overrun and occupied his country in 1940. Some may vaguely recall that Mon General came back to power in the late 1950’s and found a way to extricate France from a bloody civil war in Algeria, re-wrote the French Constitution and ruled the country with a firm hand, a huge ego and a domineering personality for a decade. Today it is not an overstatement to say that de Gaulle, and the myth of de Gaulle, is at the very center of French politics and culture. Some contend his memory shadows over France as Napoleon’s once did.

Mon General

Mon General

There is hardly a town of any size in France without its Place de Gaulle or Boulevard Mon General. The modern French political state is covered with de Gaulle’s fingerprints. After reading Jonathan Fenby’s superb biographyThe General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved – I started to understand what de Gaulle means to France – and the world. De Gaulle’s personal story – wounded and captured in World War I, fleeing the Fall of France in 1940 to fight on in Africa and eventually in Europe, retirement to write his memoir (which is excellent, by the way), his return to politics with fights with the U.S. over NATO, nuclear weapons and France’s place in the world – is equal to the life of a Churchill or an Eisenhower. The General, as large in death as he became in life, must rank in the top tier of “most important persons” in the 20th Century. Fenby, a British journalist, obviously admires de Gaulle, but sees him in all his haughty and magnificent glory.

When de Gaulle was finally finished in 1969 he remarked to an aide:”The French want to get rid of de Gaulle today but you will see the growth of the myth 30 years from now.” About that, like so much else, Mon General was correct. De Gaulle’s was a great and important life and Fenby has written about it with style, grace and historical context. If you want to understand France a little better, you need to understand de Gaulle a little better.

Finally, for something completely different: an American astronaut left behind for dead by his mates on desolate Mars. Andy Weir’s smart, hilariously funny and scientifically detailed novel would typically be the last thing to get placed on my bedside table. Science fiction, space travel, etc. is just not my thing, but I absolutely loved The Martian.

MartianAs Weir says of his best-selling novel: “After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, [astronaut] Mark [Watney] finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

“Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.”

No spoiler alert. Read the darn book to appreciate the twist and turns that propel the novel and make you at one with this poor bastard stuck on Mars.

As amazing as is Weir’s book, the story behind the story is nearly as amazing. The Martian begin as a serialized, self-published story on Weir’s website, free to anyone who wished to download the novel. Fans soon begged for an e-reader version, which Amazon insisted must cost 99 cents. Thousands downloaded the book, an agent called and Random House decided it might sell in a print addition. It did, as in bestseller lists. Matt Damon will star in the movie that is out this fall.

It also appears, as the Washington Post has reported, that The Martian has been a huge PR Godsend for NASA, which still says a manned mission to Mars is the agency’s next big goal. It should be.

Weir’s book is far out, as in the fourth planet from the Sun, but also seriously plausible. He digs deep for facts and reasoning to make the case that his hero can actually figure out a way to survive on the surface of Mars and Weir infuses the narrative with quirky and irreverent humor that will have you laughing out loud and demanding to read a passage out loud to anyone nearby. It’s that good.

As my son said, “we’ll see how Hollywood can screw up” a really fine and entertaining book.

See you at the library.

The Lessons of Carter…

“I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” – former President Jimmy Carter on his campaign to wipe out the parasitic disease that has historically afflicted millions in Africa.   

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It took Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer to show me what is so sorely missing from American politics – humility and class; lack of self-pity and abundance of humor.

Mention Carter at a dinner party or a ball game and you’ll almost certainly get some spirited conversation going. The comment will likely range from “the worst modern president” to “a smart guy just not up to the job” to the “best ex-president we’ve ever had” to “history will treat him pretty well.”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The news conference last week where Carter calmly, factually, stoically and with humor and grace discussed his cancer, its treatment and his long life was a sterling reminder for me of what a fundamentally decent and quintessential “American” man he is and has always been. Who in the current field attempting to grab the brass ring of the presidency has even a fraction of Carter’s self-awareness and humility?

When asked if he had any regrets, Carter said he wished he might have been smart enough to have sent another helicopter on the hostage rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Had that mission succeeded – a crash in the desert doomed the chance – Carter would have had his Bin Laden moment and might well have won re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. A less secure, less comfortable-in-their-own-skin public person would just have said in response to that question – “Regrets? I have no regrets…”

During the run-up to the remarkable election of 1976, I interviewed both Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Fresh out of college, I was working at a small radio station in eastern Iowa when Mrs. Carter came to town. In her own quiet and persistent way Rosalyn was pursuing the breakthrough “Iowa strategy” that allowed a little known Georgia governor to launch a successful presidential campaign. Carter was the first to understand that Iowa’s quirky caucus system could be a launching pad for a little-known candidate. I don’t remember what I asked the spouse of the candidate in the fall of 1975, but I do remember her poise and kindness. She had all day, or so it seemed, for a bumbling young radio reporter.

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

By early 1976, I had moved to television and to Idaho, and Carter made a stop in Boise while campaigning for votes in that state’s caucus. I distinctly remember elbowing into a hot, sticky and very crowded meeting room at the old Holiday Inn near the Boise airport to watch Carter meet the press. After answering the obligatory questions from the traveling press corps – I particularly remember a hectoring Sam Donaldson of ABC – Carter took time to do one-on-one interviews with we locals. I think I asked a probing question about whether the candidate thought he could win Idaho’s caucus vote and, of course, he said he could. He didn’t. Favorite son Senator Frank Church entered the race and won Idaho.

Still my memory of Carter all these years later – and of also of President Gerald Ford, who I also interviewed in 1976 – is that of a low-key, thoughtful, decent men in control of their egos and motivated, as we hope all candidates are, by the right reasons.

Carter’s quiet and controlled personality was once mocked by many who saw the Georgia peanut farmer as out-classed by the Georgetown set, but they had it wrong. Carter possessed real American values. He regularly taught Sunday school, – he still does – built homes for Habitat for Humanity and carried his own suit bag off Air Force One. The same quiet, understated, but effective approach has marked the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which has focused on health issues in Africa and the advancement of peace through democratic institutions around the world.

Carter in Nigeria

Carter in Nigeria

Carter’s post-presidential good work earned him a Nobel Prize and with nary a hint of scandal about money or purposes.

Carter’s after White House life stands in stark contrast to the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Carter has let his good work speak for itself, while the Clinton’s work is subsumed amid the flaunting of their big money connections and holidays in the Hamptons. Humble it isn’t and Carter could teach them a thing or two if they where humble enough to listen.

Faced with one last and inevitably losing fight, Jimmy Carter has again struck a grace note, as his one-time speechwriter James Fallows has observed. “The 1970s are so dis-esteemed,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “and Carter has been so vilified (in counterpoint to the elevation of Reagan), and the entire era is now so long in the past, that many people may wonder how Carter could have become president in the first place.”

The key to answering that question, Fallows said, and I agree, is contained in Carter’s approach to his own discussion of his perilous health and his exemplary life. If you haven’t seen the clip you should. This is the way real people talk minus the calculation and self-centeredness of political life.

The common narrative around Carter’s presidency is that he failed, but history, which rarely treats one-term presidents well, will record that the power of his will brought Israel and Egypt to peace at Camp David and his Baptist sense of right and wrong helped power the controversial decision to relinquish to the Panamanians the canal we once stole fair and square. Completion of the Alaska conservation legislation – during a lame duck session of Congress no less – will forever rank as one of the greatest conservation accomplishments by any administration. Carter’s focus on human rights in foreign affairs, again much mocked during his tenure, still demands, as it should, a central place in American policy.

Carter with Egypt's Sadat and Israel's Begin

Carter with Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin

But here is the real measure of Carter: his quiet, thoughtful approach to public life during his presidency and after is a genuine model for how to behave in the public arena. He would never have won a shouting match with a Christie or a name-calling contest with a Trump. Today we identify political leaders by their cult of secrecy and sense of entitlement, their self-absorption or that all-too-familiar strut of self-assurance without the burden of accomplishment. Carter was – and is – different.

America suffers a civility and humility deficit. It’s reflected in our politics and our popular culture. There is a coarseness, a meanness, an emptiness that sucks the air out of what is really important. The insufferable Ted Cruz, for example, a man with more self-regard than public accomplishment, waited hardly a day after Carter’s cancer announcement before taking to the stump to lambast the former president’s record. Nice touch.

Carter said he’s at ease with whatever comes, his faith intact, thankful for friends and for his vast and important experiences. We all reach this point eventually, staring our own mortality full in the face and most, I suspect, would hope to exhibit Jimmy Carter’s sense of peace about a life of purpose, meaning and service. 

For one, brief moment last week Jimmy Carter reminded us what a well-composed public life can look like. It’s not about bluster and bling, not about the nasty and fleeting. It is about decency, composure, respect, modesty and, yes, good humor. God knows we need some more of all that and a 90-year old man with brain cancer reminds us that he has done his part to try and help make all of us a little better. We should all be so lucky. 


Playing Not to Lose…

Hillary Clinton is campaigning as if she were running out the clock, trying not to lose rather than playing to win.

North Carolina's Dean Smith

North Carolina’s Dean Smith

The late, great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was one of the great innovators in basketball. Smith, who died earlier this year and will long be remembered – especially by Duke fans – as a nice guy who rarely finished anywhere other than in first place.

Smith pioneered the use of analytics to assess the performance of his teams. He once said he would have been happy being a high school math teacher. His players adored him, even when he pushed them mercilessly during practices because he also praised and encouraged them lavishly during a game when everyone was watching.

Fellow coaches revered him and adopted his lessons. Every player on the bench got to his feet, for example, when a teammate left the game and Smith’s players knew they were expected to help a teammate to his feet after that teammate took a charge.

The Coach – or Candidate – as Innovator…

Coach Smith was also a very political man in a low-key, but effective way. He said late in his life that North Carolina would never have accepted him had they known how liberal he was. I doubt Hillary Clinton is much of a basketball fan, but the great Coach Smith could probably tell her a thing or two about the danger of going too soon into the political equivalent of the four-corner offense that Smith pioneered.

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute during a game last season

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute to the great coach during a game last season

The four corner offense was Dean Smith’s brilliant strategy to hold on to a lead by killing the clock – holding the ball, passing, cutting, passing, cutting, passing and never looking to score. It was offense by playing it safe and often it worked just as planned. In the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 1982, Smith’s team held the ball and a one point lead for the last eight minutes of the game before defeating Virginia. The final score was 47-45 and that game helped usher in the college basketball shot clock that essentially made Smith’s hold-the-ball offense obsolete.

Clinton’s flat, joyless, dull campaign, insulated from any meaningful contact with the press and featuring only tightly controlled interaction with voters is a strategy to run down the clock. Designed to be risk free, it is really the type of political effort that induces unforced errors.

Hillary: The Inevitable…Again

Clinton is presumed, apparently by her handlers and by herself, to be so far ahead of her Democratic challengers that she can coast to victory and then glide into the general election. To mix the sports metaphors, she could be using the primary as a political spring training to get in shape for the long regular season, but rather than taking extra batting practice she’s jogging out on the warning track. Clinton partisans proclaim how different things are this time than when she employed essentially the same approach and lost in 2008. But there is little evidence that Clinton’s “new” political approach is anything new, at all.

Hillary Clintonmwalks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clinton has lightened up a bit lately on the vice-like control that has been a hallmark of her approach to politics, but she still gives the impression she is trying to prevent a mistake rather than win an election.

Politico’s Rachael Bade reported recently that Clinton went through all the motions at a cattle call Democratic event in northeastern Iowa, but rather than work the crowd and shake every hand in sight she briefly mingled and “then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.”

Her husband would still be in the room, waving off aides trying to get him moving, while he schmoozed and charmed voters. Not Hillary’s style.

The Clinton campaign launched a $2 million television ad buy recently in Iowa and New Hampshire that featured two well-produced, but strangely cold-blooded ads that were all about how Hillary’s mother had been such an influence in her life. I don’t doubt the genuine feeling, even passion, behind the message, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched the spots that Clinton can’t even talk about her mother without a tightly scripted pitch.

Still from Clinton TV spot

Still from Clinton TV spot

The commercials were designed to illustrate the human side of the candidate, to “re-introduce” the one person in the race – maybe Trump excepted – who we already know really, really well.

The latest commercials focus on the perseverance and courage of Dorothy Rodham and feature Clinton saying, “this is why I do this…” You can almost see the candidate and the ad maker huddling over a script parsing every word trying to gin up maximum emotion. A less controlling campaign and a more natural politician might have just let the camera roll, while the candidate talked from the heart about her mom, but that is clearly not Hillary’s style. She is so controlled she has become what Trump never will be – bland.

When Clinton enjoyed a big lead over Barack Obama back in 2007 she was content, way beyond the point she should have been, to play it safe and sit on that lead. She went into the four corners and lost any political momentum and then the Democratic nomination. She seems to have learned little from what must have been an extremely painful experience and failing to learn lessons in politics is often deadly.

Hitting the Delete Button…

The Clinton email saga has been the one consistent message swirling around her candidacy for months now and we may just be seeing the beginning. Clinton’s approach to campaigning – slow, measured, risk averse and secretive – is mirrored in her mostly ineffective response to the news that she used only a personal email set-up during her years as secretary of state.

So far she has offered no believable explanation as to why she went to all the trouble to work around the government’s own email system other than to say it’s no big deal and amounts to a would be scandal dreamed up by nasty partisans determined to attack her. That has essentially been Clinton’s response to every criticism dating back to the Rose Law firm and Whitewater.

One suspects she hasn’t offered a believable rationale for the email situation because there is no believable rationale. She went off the government system, installed her own private server managed by her own private contractor because she didn’t want to leave an electronic record of her correspondence that might one day be fodder for attack. It has now become clear that several key Clinton staff members used the same approach and now with the FBI involved there will be certainly more questions about whether information of a sensitive national security nature was compromised.

It all begs the question – why? And that question demands a follow-up: why stall and dither and hedge on dealing with the controversy? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?

The conventional political wisdom remains, even as poll numbers tighten and her favorable numbers tank – voters increasingly think she is about as trustworthy as Trump – that Clinton can’t possible lose the Democratic nomination. Under this theory her fundraising, her potentially historic status as the first woman president and her last name will ultimately carry the day.

The New York Time’s in-house conservative columnist Ross Douthat made his own fearless prediction this way: “Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.”

Maybe. But it has also become clear that Clinton is no where near the natural political animal her husband remains and, in fact, she may be one of the worst candidates in terms of basic political skills of any “sure” winner in recent American political history.

Some other observers contend it is already just too late to depose Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but just see what happens if the email issue, or some yet unnamed scandal, reveals more and more vulnerabilities. And what happens if Clinton stumbles badly in a face-to-face encounter with Bernie Sanders or, heaven forbid, during an interview with a tough reporter.

Playing to Win…

When Dean Smith finally brought his four corner offense to near perfection, the NCAA changed the rules in a way that destroyed his strategy. Holding the ball would no longer work, so the great coach did the only sensible thing – he adapted. The great coach designed new strategies based on a new and different game and Smith’s Tarheels kept right on winning.

Politics isn’t basketball, of course, but politics, like the hoops game, is always about adapting, moving and being willing to call an unusual play that catches an opponent flat-footed. Dean Smith mastered the four corner offense and then when he needed to do something different he did. As one of his players said when reflecting on his methods, “He never coached not to lose. He coached to win.”

The Democratic frontrunner is playing not to lose and she may find that is a sure fire way not to win.