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History…

A great day for America with expansion of rights for same sex couples or a bleak day where the tyranny of five activist judges trump the political process creating a threat to democracy?

NBC photo

NBC photo

Take your pick: The profound political divides in the United States are to be found in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion granting Constitutional protection to those of the same sex who seek to marry and in the four dissenting opinions that blast that finding.

It’s dangerous to predict the historic importance of a single Supreme Court decision, but I’ll fearlessly hazard a guess that the decision on Obergefell v. Hodgesremember those names – will be remembered fifty or a hundred years from now along side Brown v. Board of Education, the historic decision that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional.

One major difference in the two decisions separated by sixty-one years is that Brown was decided by a unanimous Court, while Obergefell was decided by a Court profoundly divided. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s judicial leadership helped create that earlier landmark civil rights decision in 1954. Chief Justice John Robert by contrast wrote the dissent in a decision decided 5-4.

The opinion and dissents will be picked over and analyzed for years, but at first blush I am struck by two things: the Court majority’s embrace of marriage as a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (in the same way the Warren Court applied the Constitution to public schools) and the minority’s fierce condemnation of the Court’s overreaching by taking a divisive social and, to some, religious issue out of the hands of elected politicians.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy – the real Chief Justice at least on this issue – wrote in the Court’s decision: “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution [here Kennedy quotes from an earlier Court decision] “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”

Kennedy was truly eloquent elsewhere in his opinion in describing the institution of marriage, but the paragraph above is the heart of his argument – certain rights in our democracy and under our Constitution simply cannot be left to the “vicissitudes” of politics. Rights are rights, Kennedy says, the Constitution guarantees those rights no matter what a legislature in Idaho or an appeals court in Texas might say.

Roberts in his dissent seemed almost unable to restrain his contempt for Kennedy’s reasoning about fundamental rights. “Understand well what this dissent is about,” Roberts wrote. “It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Roberts and the Court’s other dissenters argued for leaving the decision to those Idaho legislators even at the risk of creating a vast and confusing landscape of law related to one of society’s most fundamental institutions.

[You might be excused for remembering that Roberts had no reservations about having “five lawyers” overrule the overwhelming majority of the United States Congress when the Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Emerson’s famous line comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”]

Roberts may have accomplished one thing with his passionate dissent – his opinion upholding Obamacare is suddenly off the front page. The staunch conservatives who criticized him yesterday for siding with the president on health care can now view Roberts as rehabilitated with his dissent on same sex marriage.

Justice Antonin Scalia, of course, went even farther in his dissent. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” Scalia wrote in his dissent, “every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.” In other words, in Scalia’s judicial view, nothing at all has changed since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House.

And there is more that I quote at some length because, well, because Justice Scalia is a man of words and often pungent, even nasty words.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic”, Scalia wrote. “It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; [as many of his dissents have been accused of containing] it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. ‘The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

Whew.

Remember that it was just over a decade ago that Karl Rove engineering George W. Bush’s two elections, at least in part, by embracing a strategy of placing polarizing anti-same sex marriage issues on many state ballots and endorsing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Since then opinion has moved so quickly on the issue that it was perhaps inevitable that the Court would follow that opinion and codify what a solid majority of Americans now embrace. Still that political evolution makes Justice Kennedy’s decision no less historic. As President Obama correctly noted after years of incremental change; change that most of the time seems so very slow to so very many, justice can come like “a thunderbolt.”

Another fearless prediction: When the history books record the importance of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the words “landmark” and “historic” will be attached. The decision will be remembered for expanding rights for a significant and deprived group of American citizens under their Constitution. Scalia’s dissent will be remembered, if at all, as an artifact of a different country and a different time and, of course, for its outrageous bombast.

Ask the nearest hippie.

 

America’s Great War…

The marvelous British historian David Reynolds argues in his latest book – The Long Shadow – which explores the lasting legacies of World War I, that every country has a national narrative about its “great war.”

Photo - The Telegraph

David Reynolds author of The Long Shadow. Photo, The Telegraph

For Great Britain the “great war” remains World War I, which is being commemorated right now with solemn ceremonies, television documentaries, a raft of new books and even government financed field trips by school children to France to witness first hand the trenches and cemeteries where many of a generation fought, fell and remain.

War deaths from Great Britain, including those who died from disease and injury, were more than 700,000 from 1914 to 1918. The total reaches nearly a million when the soldiers of the empire are counted. The Great War, more even that World War II, remains a searing event in modern British history and memory.

America’s Great War…

In the United States, by contrast, the Great War remains, in Reynolds’ phrase, “on the margins of American cultural memory.” Our “great war” Reynolds correctly contends – the war that never ends for Americans – is the Civil War. More than three-quarter of a million Americans died. “More than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars.” Our great war re-wrote the Constitution, ended slavery, realigned American politics and touched, often profoundly, every family and institution in the re-united nation. It also caused the death of our greatest president and cemented decades of resentment and hatred in a sizable chunk of the population.

Confederate troops under their flag

Confederate troops under their flag

“Both the Union and the Confederacy,” the British historian writes, “claimed to be fighting for ‘freedom’ – defining it in fundamentally different ways…in retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861-1865 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘Southern strategy’ – not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008.” That pretty well sums it up.

Yet the legacies of our “great war,” engaged afresh in the wake of the recent horrible events in South Carolina, never seem to be completely acknowledged by our political leaders. The war, many seem to believe, can be rightly treated as a cultural artifact, a historic aberration or a mere blip on the national path to the perfect Union. But the war remains with us in big ways and small, including in the rebel flag.

South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol

As symbolically and practically important as are the call by the Republican governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds and the moves by Walmart, Amazon and others to quit selling Confederate-themed merchandize, the war over our great war, including its meaning and importance, will continue. The battle goes on, in part, because even a century and a half after the war ended our national conflicts about race, civil rights and national and state politics are fueled by two great and hard to combat realities – myth and ignorance.

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

Scarlett and her "boys of the Lost Cause..."

Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

The South lost the Civil War, but in very important ways won the war to define the conflict. The still greatest Civil War film, for example, is Gone With the Wind, a glorious piece of Hollywood myth making that helped ensure that Scarlett O’Hara’s love for her southern home, Tara, and her determination to survive evil Yankee depredations would frame our great war as a noble “lost cause” fought to maintain a genteel Southern culture. It’s all hooey done up in hoop skirts. Myth with a southern twang.

The noble Ashley Wilkes, a cinematic stand in for Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, was a traitor who took up arms against his country. Scarlett, the determined southern belle, aided and abetted the rebellion in order to maintain her piece of the South’s slave dependent economy. One commentator described Scarlett as the “founding Mother of the Me Generation,” unwilling to bother her pretty little head about anything beyond her own self-interest. An enduring line from the film, the Best Picture of 1939, is Scarlett’s dismissive line: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So it goes with our great war and its meaning.

As laudable as her actions are in calling for the flag to come down in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley still seems to embrace another great myth about the war. She said this week that some troubled souls, like the alleged killer of nine black Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, have “a sick and twisted view of the flag” and that those who simply respect southern “heritage” by displaying the flag are effectively victimized by those who embrace the banner as the ultimate racist emblem. This distinction is another myth.

The American Civil War was fought to maintain a way of life all right, but that “heritage,” that way of life, was all about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. While we’re taking down the Stars and Bars perhaps we ought to petition Turner Classic Movies to send Rhett and Scarlett off to a museum, too.

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

The myths about our great war also feed directly into a shocking degree of ignorance about the seminal event in American history. Numerous studies have shown that many students have trouble placing the Civil War in the right decade of the 19th Century and some, even at very  good public universities, don’t know who won the war or why it was fought.

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

As ignorance intersected with mythology over the decades the Civil War became about “heritage” and “culture” rather than violent opposition to African-American civil rights. Meanwhile, politicians from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond to Richard Nixon invoked “states rights” as a cause as pure as Jefferson Davis’ motives.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat who eventually became a Republican, denounced civil rights and espoused states rights when he ran for the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond’s campaign wrapped itself in the Confederate flag and won four Southern states and an electoral vote in Tennessee.

Even the great liberal Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance from race and civil rights while in the White House even when pestered to take action by his more liberal wife. FDR had no desire to upset the delicate balance of white political power below the Mason-Dixon line that kept southern Democratic segregationists in his party and in position of great power until the last half of the 20th Century.

The sainted Ronald Reagan, the modern GOP’s answer to Roosevelt, skillfully played the myth card when seeking the presidency in 1980. Reagan launched his campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County fair. Sixteen years earlier, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled in a 2007 column, a young New Yorker Andrew Goodman and two fellow civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a young black man, disappeared in Neshoba County. Their bodies wouldn’t be found for weeks.

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign

Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

“All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

“The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

States Rights…

Reagan used his Philadelphia, Mississippi speech – he was the first national candidate to ever speak there – to explicitly endorse “states rights” and blow the dog whistle of racial politics. Reagan made absolutely no mention of the still white-hot struggle in Mississippi for civil rights, while appealing to conservative white voters. Read the speech today with Reagan’s folksy references to “welfare” and “personal responsibility” and it is easy to see why his Republican Party cemented what appears, twenty-five years later, to be a permanent political deal with white southerners.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan said in Mississippi in 1980. “I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

The crowd of 10,000 voters – those who were there recall seeing no black faces in the crowd – knew what the candidate was promising and the “re-ordering” myth, at its heart a plea to return to – or maintain – a culture where the Confederate flag flaps in every southern breeze. It’s a small leap from Neshoba County in 1980 to the leader of the nation’s largest white supremacy group lavishing campaign money on Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress in 2015.

It is a moment to pause and praise the South Carolina governor for taking a decent and important step regarding that old and hateful flag. It would be easy to say the action is about 150 years late, but perhaps as symbols finally fall, even slowly, it will help to both destroy the myths and improve the knowledge about our great war. There is more to do.

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860

South Carolina in 1860

The next time you hear some politician proclaim fidelity to “states rights” or argue for the sanctity of the Constitution, remember that South Carolina, where our own great war began, rather skillfully and with no apparent irony invoked the Constitution in 1860 in an attempt to destroy the Constitution and leave the Union.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,” South Carolina declared in seceding from the Union just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected, “and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Our great war really was about ending human bondage and not merely Scarlett’s “heritage.” Both sides knew it then and we should know it now. It should be obvious that the flag hoisted by the rebels represents, even today, the bloody battle to perpetuate black Americans in slavery. The Confederate flag is simply a symbol of racism, bigotry and hatred and having it fly over a state capitol or adorn a license plate is deeply offensive and historically wrong.

A century and a half removed from our seminal event our great war remains shrouded in myth and buried in ignorance, but one need only read Lincoln’s greatest speech to better understand our true history and why we must – finally – come to terms with our great national catastrophe and its roots in white supremacy.

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war…”

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said in 1865, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Taking down the flag is important, but hardly the full answer to our troubled racial past and still troubled present. “The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American, writes in The Atlantic. “The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.”

Some Americans are still willing to “rend the Union” by perpetuating myths and playing on ignorance often while pursuing votes. That awful war never ends. Taking down the flag is a small step, but a correct one. Myths are dismantled and ignorance overcome, too slowly perhaps, but it must happen.

 

What We Permit We Promote…

What we permit we promote.

It has all become so predictable, the banality of mass death and guns and race in our exceptional nation.

It is so predictable...

It is so predictable…

The first reports still shock – briefly. How many? Is this happening again? Why?

The somber television announcers pronounce a people shocked. Round up the usual suspects for instant analysis. He had to be severely disturbed how else to explain it? The town – this time Charleston instead of Newton or Aurora or Binghamton or Ft. Hood or Tucson – mourns the preacher, the grandmother, the track coach, the innocent murdered in a church. By one count America has had at least sixty-one mass murders by gun since 1982 and the reaction has become so predictable.

What we permit we promote.

Some of us thought it might be different, finally, after all those little kids were killed in their school. The president, the one coming after all the guns, said it was a moment to come together and address the crisis. It wasn’t and isn’t again.

Obama-Charleston-Speech-VideoCharleston was the fourteenth time during his presidency that Barack Obama has issued a statement about a mass killing and the resignation in his most recent statement was perhaps also predictable.

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

But this too will pass. We all know “the politics in this town” are unable to deal with reality. The candidates will move on, unable and unwilling to risk, well, anything. And we will move on, too. Once again we’ll explain it away as the inexplicable action of a disturbed loner. Guns aren’t the problem. Some will change the subject by saying it was more proof of a sinister attack on religion or that race had nothing to do with it or that as bad as it was – and will be again – these are not the kinds of problems government can fix.

We’ll talk about it on the Sunday shows. By next week the blood on the hands of the gun lobbyists will be wiped clean again and we’ll be reminded sternly that the Constitution protects our right to die in a church during a prayer meeting. Someone will invoke the Founders and someone else will remind us that a right invented by five conservative justices on the highest court in the land allows more handguns to exist in America than there are people in America. We should arm the preachers. That’s the answer.

The prayer vigils will be painful, but not so hopeful. We’ve done it so often before. The funerals in a few days will signal that we really can move on. The debate will soon enough take place about whether the young man who did it should die too. But soon his name and his actions and his .45 caliber handgun will fade away. It’s so predictable. It has happened before. Nothing more to see here. There is nothing to be done

What we permit we promote.

“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity,” the Economist notes, while the rest of the world stares gap jawed at our exceptional country.

“The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualized and then blend into the background noise. That normalization makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.”

Soon enough the painful and poignant stories about the victims will fade with only their families and friends left to wonder. The curious, deadly, hateful mix of violence and racism and guns that cut a gaping wound across American life and has since our beginnings will remain. It is so predictable.

What we permit we promote.

 

Neither a Ford Nor a Trump…

There is a very simple explanation for why people who have displayed some success in business rarely make it to the big time in politics. The skill sets for the two callings don’t match very well.

Not the C-Suite

Not the C-Suite

Many Republicans like to talk about how they will take real world business experience and apply it to government, but they rarely get the chance because running a campaign and governing require dramatically different talents than running a meeting of the board of directors and hitting quarterly financial targets.

Politics at some level is about opening up and acting like, if not actually being, a real person. Orders issued from the business C-suite about sales targets and monthly financials give way to nuance and persuasion of the public arena. Politics often involves ambiguous and even contradictory objectives. Business rarely involves either. A candidate is in the fish bowl with issues like character and personality constantly under review. A CEO answers quietly to a board and if the CEO desires he or she can avoid the press and the public at will. The mindset and the skillset for the two occupations are very different as President Mitt Romney can tell you.

Still the myth of the business leader turned president persists.

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

Briefly in 1924, a period of rapid economic expansion, the most famous business leader in the country seemed poised to capture the White House. Henry Ford, it was widely believed, could do for the federal government what he had done for Detroit. Calvin Coolidge, an accidental president, was in the White House due to the death of Warren Harding. The colorless Coolidge seemed little match for the man from Dearborn who had not exactly invented the assembly line but had been wildly successful in adapting it to modern manufacturing. The Model T Ford had helped revolutionize transportation and was affordable enough that owning a car was within nearly everyone’s reach.

Even the great humorist Will Rogers “nominated” Ford for president saying there was no reason not to put a Ford in the White House since they were everywhere else in the country.

The Ford for President boomlet blossomed quickly and collapsed just as fast when the automobile magnate proved to have no affinity for the “soft” talents of meeting real people and explaining where he stood on the issues. Like many people who are successful in business and get to the top either by their own ambition or by being chosen, Ford couldn’t imagine actually trying to convince people to vote for him. He never did really run, wanting to be appointed instead of elected.

Despite the obvious advantage of great name recognition Ford also had as historian Joseph Kip Kosek has written, serious liabilities. Like an earlier version of Donald Trump, Ford had a “weakness for conspiracy theories,” Kosek notes. “Before The Donald’s perplexing sympathy for the birthers was Ford’s perplexing suspicion of the Jews.  In his magazine, the auto magnate disseminated a variety of anti-Semitic writings, including the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, Ford was the only American praised by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.  Being an anti-Semite did not necessarily disqualify one from high office during this period of resurgent nativism, but Ford’s enthusiasm along these lines would undoubtedly have been an embarrassment.”

Think of the truly great American presidents – Washington, a farmer and military leader; Lincoln, a lawyer; and Franklin Roosevelt, another lawyer with substantial family wealth – and you find almost no real “business” experience.

Truman and his business partner in Kansas City clothing store

Truman and his business partner Eddie Jacobson in their Kansas City clothing store

The same can be said for other “great” or “near great” presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Harry Truman failed as a haberdasher. Ronald Reagan’s business experience consisted of serving as a paid spokesman for General Electric. John Kennedy, a critic might say, never worked a real day in his life.

In presidential elections since the Civil War only one major party candidate – Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940 – was nominated without prior political experience and on the basis of his business resume. Willkie lost.

Two modern presidents with business experience, Herbert Hoover, the mining engineer and George W. Bush, owner of a baseball team are ranked by many historians as among the worst American presidents. Both men had prior political experience as did Romney –  a business guy with a degree from the Harvard Business School who struggled mightily to connect with real people.

By contrast, as the New York Times’ Tim Egan pointed out back in 2012, “The biggest job creator of modern times, Bill Clinton, wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a cooked derivative. His business experience was nil, but he had governing smarts, and his instincts were usually right. Under Clinton’s watch, the United States added 23 million new jobs — this after he raised “job-killing” taxes on the rich.”

Just about says it all...

Just about says it all…

Which brings us to Trump and a couple of predictions. Trump is clearly a clown, but also a brilliantly cynical self-promoter. He is the combed over personification of the old line that any PR is good PR as long as they spell your name right. The New York Daily News covered both bases with its front page on Trump’s bizarre announcement of candidacy, which the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said, “had the feel of a lonely bar patron’s monologue to the captive saloon keeper.”

Here’s the first prediction: Trump will suck a good deal of the media air out of the Republican pre-primary primary over the next few weeks. His crazy antics will generate laughs, puzzlement and lots of Facebook traffic. The comic relief will be briefly enjoyable, but won’t do the GOP prospects any good in the long run particularly if he shows up at one of the early debates. Trump may just reinforce the notion that the modern Republican Party isn’t the party of Reagan or Eisenhower, but rather the party of out-of-touch vanity candidates – think Herman Cain – who play to the worst and narrowest instincts of the Tea Party crowd.

IMG_2659Ultimately, The Donald will not really run. He’ll stay in the race long enough to stroke his enormous ego and pump the ratings of a future television show. A key requirement for a real presidential candidate is that they file a personal financial disclosure statement, something Trump will never do. He can wave around a sheet of paper claiming his net worth to be something close to $9 billion, which is highly doubtful, but Trump will never open up his secretive and shaky financial house of cards to real scrutiny. That would be the kind of attention Trump would avoid like a stiff breeze (that would muss his locks).

Americans rarely, in fact almost never, elect a person with genuine business experience to the highest public office. We like to think we have a personal connections with our presidents and usually select them based on their judgment, likability and life experiences. A little class doesn’t hurt either.

Using that rating system Crazy Donald Trump will be just the latest to prove the truism that perceived success in business is not a winning ticket to the White House; a reality TV show perhaps, but not the Oval Office.

A Warm Bucket of…

I’ve spent a good part of my life in politics accumulating a collection of one-liners and memorable stories uttered by politicians. My collection isn’t built on just any old one-liner or story, of course, but rather the type of memorable phrase that escape the lips and immediately begins haunting the speaker. You know the kind.

Remember Bill Clinton’s infamous line when questioned about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky – “It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.” That line will be in Bubba’s obit – guaranteed.

Mules-skinner Moses

Mules-skinner Moses

Back in 1929, the U.S. Senate was debating a trade bill (history does repeat) and a feisty, outspoken senator from New Hampshire uttered one of the great lines in American political history. Republican George Moses, a spokesman for eastern business interests and the Senate president pro tem, had become increasingly upset with the western “progressives” in both political parties who consistently opposed conservative economic policy, including what became the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff legislation. In a speech to a group of manufacturing executives Moses, who was known for his quick wit, thought he was getting off a funny line at the expense of the progressives when he said, “the sons of the wild jackass now control the Senate.”

Progressive Republicans like Idaho’s William Borah and Nebraska’s George Norris didn’t get the humor and with Moses presiding in the Senate and therefore unable to respond, they slashed away at the conservative Republican. Moses was accused of insulting certain senator’s mothers. He was blasted as a shill for big business. One wag nicknamed the senator “Mule-skinner Moses.” Moses lost re-election in 1932 in no small part because of his “jackass” line. A popular political book in the early 1930’s took its title from Moses’ effort at a put down of the progressives and it is still a fun read.

Sen. William E. Borah

Sen. William E. Borah

Borah isn’t much remembered any more, but the Idaho senator had a sense of humor. Calvin Coolidge once invited him to the White House to gauge whether Borah might accept nomination as vice president. Coolidge reportedly asked Borah if he were interested in a spot on the Republican ticket. “Which spot, Mr. President,” Borah replied. He stayed in the Senate.

Not all one-liners are disasters by any means. Some of the best lines are those that employ self-deprecating humor. Ronald Reagan mastered the difficult political art of using the one-liner to poke fun at himself and in the process defuse some of his own vulnerabilities. Reagan once quipped that he’d left strict orders to be rousted from sleep if there was ever any international crisis, “even if its during a Cabinet meeting.” Priceless line.

John Nance Garner, a crusty Texan who served as speaker of the house and was vice president during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms, is mostly remembered for comparing the vice presidency to “a warm bucket of spit.” The word Cactus Jack actually used was not “spit,” but something even less attractive – piss.

Jack Garner and FDR discuss a warm bucket of something...

Jack Garner and FDR discuss a warm bucket of something…

Garner’s earthy comment about the vice presidency, probably first made in the 1930’s, has now entered political lore, but apparently the line was rarely quoted prior to Garner’s death in the 1960’s. The “warm” whatever was considered a little too colorful until more recent times.

Speaking of which, Lyndon Johnson famously said it was impossible for him to fire FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and that he would keep Hoover “inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in.” LBJ, who disparaged nearly everyone, reportedly said of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, that “All that Hubert needs over there is a gal to answer the phone and a pencil with an eraser on it.”

Bob Dole, another great political wit, said as he gazed on presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together at a White House event: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.”

John McCain a while back called fellow Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul “wacko birds,” a not bad variation on “a wild jackass.” Still I wish McCain would have channeled George Moses and at least called the insufferable Cruz “a son of a wacko bird.”

Dick Cheney get mad at Senator Patrick Leahy some years ago and dropped the “f-bomb” on the Vermont Democrat – on the Senate floor not less – telling Leahy he “could go f-himself.” Leahy responded by saying Cheney was “having a bad day” and the senator added he was shocked – shocked – that such language was used in the Senate. First time Leahy heard that term, I guess. A Cheney spokesman said the two pols had “a frank exchange of views,” which is political speak for they hate each.

Huey Long doing what he did best - talking

Huey Long doing what he did best – talking

Huey Long, the one-time governor and senator from Louisiana, displayed contempt for both national political parties in the early 1930’s. Long once said the Republicans and Democrats reminded him of the old patent medicine seller who had two different bottles of elixir for sale. Each medicine was good, but different. One was named “High Popalorum” and the other “Low Popahirum.” One bottle came from the bark of a tree skinned from the top down and the other from bark skinned from the roots up. And that, Long said, was the difference between the two parties – one was skinning from the ear down and the other from the ankle up.

On another occasion Long said, “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” Sounds like something Elizabeth Warren might say, but I’m not sure she has a sense of humor.

Humor is a great leveler in politics, but the storyteller needs to be careful lest the line that seems perfectly fine before it leaves your mouth lands like a cannonball.

Sen. Mark Kirk before his foot reached his mouth. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Sen. Mark Kirk before his foot reached his mouth. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

The very latest addition to my collection of one-liners comes from freshman Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a politician facing a stiff challenge to his re-election. Kirk was asked about fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, a never married bachelor, who is now running for president. Graham said he’d figure out the first lady role, assuming he has the chance, by calling upon his sister and a stable of friends, a kind of rotating list of first ladies.

Kirk, trying to be funny, told an interviewer: “I’ve been joking with Lindsey…did you see that? He’s going to have a rotating first lady. He’s a bro with no ho.” Kirk helpfully added, “that what we’d say” on the predominately African-American south side of Chicago.

Rick Perry’s “oops” quote seems appropriate. Kirk apologized and Democrats pounced bringing to mind one of the great political observations uttered about politicians by a non-politician.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot,” Mark Twain wrote. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

 

Death Leaves a Heartache…

Any death, it is said, diminishes all of us and we instinctively know the wisdom of that truth even if we rarely acknowledge the diminishment. Whether it’s a refugee fleeing the madness in Syria or a homeless person under a bridge death is the great equalizer and the one absolute all of us share.

Great wealth or rarified position might set you apart in life from those without either, but we all end up in the same place.

Death is news. A typhoon, a shooting or a capsized boat in some far away place catches our attention, perhaps for only a moment, and we pause to think of those touched by the mortality we all share and then, as we must, we carry on with life.

John Nash - the brilliant mind

John Nash – the brilliant mind

Occasionally the reality, the sadness, the finality and yes, even the hope of the great equalizer touches us more profoundly, more personally. We lose a friend or a friend loses a parent. Someone we admire – a John Nash, the Nobel winning mathematician – or someone worthy of our contempt – a Tariq Aziz, the cynical apologist for Saddam – dies and we mark the passing.

The passing of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau last week was such a moment for me even though I know those involved only from long distance and by observation.

Beau and Joe Biden

Beau and Joe Biden

Young Biden just forty-six years old, died of brain cancer leaving a wife and two small children. He’d been attorney general of Delaware and served an Army tour in Iraq. By every account he was a truly exemplary young man. The outpouring of condolences and support for the Biden family was of such a magnitude that in their home state, the family published a full-page thank you in the state’s largest newspaper. The gesture was so classy, personal and obviously heartfelt that it will make you cry.

Joe Biden has often become and not always unfairly, a political punch line, an old school pol that works a room by slapping backs, kissing babies and occasionally tripping over his nearly always moving tongue. He has the gift of gab and unlike so many people who have spent their lives in full public view, Biden seems to relish being where he is. It was painful, moving and somehow also profoundly uplifting to watch the grieving and sorrow of such a public man done in such an obviously authentic and personal way. Biden has had more than his share of the sorrow of unbearable parental loss.

Joe Biden, 1972

Joe Biden, 1972

When Biden, the ridiculously young senator from Delaware, was sworn in back in 1973 he took the oath at the bedside of his son Beau who was still recovering from the injuries he sustained in the automobile accident that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter. One photo from that day shows four-year-old Beau with his left leg in traction and his single parent dad hovering nearby. Biden wrote to one correspondent that he doubted he would ever get over the loss or understand why it had happened. Now he must endure it all again.

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden's funeral

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden’s funeral

In his moving and plainspoken eulogy for Beau Biden last Saturday, President Obama said this: “We do not know how long we’ve got here. We don’t know when fate will intervene. We cannot discern God’s plan. What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. We can teach them to have broad shoulders.”

How awful to lose a child and Joe Biden has lost two.

A remarkable informal talk the vice president gave to families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan went largely unnoticed back in 2012, but to listen to the speech now in the context of more unthinkable loss for Biden is, well, stunning. Only the hardest heart would not be moved and impressed by his understanding and empathy.

“No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter,” Biden told the military families as he recounted his own Catholic struggle to overcome being “mad at God.” Biden said the loss of his wife and daughter made him understand how someone confronted with such loss and grief could contemplate suicide.

“Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts,” Biden said, but “because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get – never going to be that way ever again.”

Writing recently in The New Yorker Evan Osnos observed, “In a town [Washington] where ‘family’ is often brandished as a political prop, the Bidens have never attracted a cynical reading. In their tragedy, their striving, their survival and their improbable optimism, the Bidens are a deeply American family—a clan that, even as it edged into privilege, has never looked out of reach or out of touch.”

Such loss as Joe Biden has sustained, one suspects, never goes away. It is amazing when we take time to stop and think about it that the resilience of the human spirit allows us, somehow, in the face of such tragedy to struggle on. That kind of human spirit was evident with the Bidens over the last week.

Joe Biden, the gabbing politician with the flair for saying things that get him in trouble, will never be a laugh line for me again. In a business that so often and so completely lacks “authenticity,” the guy has proven at his most vulnerable moments that he is the real deal. His loss is ours. He’s a dad hurting as only a father (or mother) can. His grace and candor in handling the worst kind of loss a parent can imagine, let alone experience, is not just ennobling, it is a testament to how good people carry on when unthinkable things happen to them.

As the old Irish prayer says:

Death leaves a heartache

no one can heal;

Love leaves a memory no

one can steal.

I’m praying for those Bidens.