2020 Election, Biden, Books

Joe and Jill…

From this morning’s Politico Playbook:

“Today marks the beginning of the post-Trump era in American politics. To the extent that he still has political currency, it dwindles every day as Jan. 20, 2021 draws closer. Members of his own party are already suggesting his time is up. His staff is looking for new jobs. Markets are looking up, and analysts say it’s because of the expected calm in U.S. politics. In the U.K., government officials are now saying the Trump era was not good for them, and they vow to forge a good relationship with Joe Biden.”

“Around the world and at home, Trump has been written off.”


Many political consultants, journalists, students of how campaigns win and lose – political junkies in other words – consider the late Richard Ben Cramer’s book What It Takes: The Way to the White House to be the very best single book about the meat grinder we put people through who aspire to the highest office in the land. 

Richard Ben Cramer published his classic in 1992

Cramer’s celebrated volume – I’ve written about it before – is a doorstop of a book, ringing in at 1,047 pages even without an index and footnotes. It’s a classic of what was once called “the new journalism,” the kind of reporting that gets to the granular detail of candidates and campaigns. The book still inspires writers of political history.

Cramer’s focus was on six men who ran for president in 1988: two Republicans, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush and four Democrats, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and, yes, Joe Biden. 

I took down my well-thumbed copy of What It Takes on Saturday night shortly after Biden made the speech he’s been hoping to make since at least 1988. I wanted to revisit Cramer’s insights into Biden, and particularly a concise little section of the book that deals with the Biden marriage. It seemed especially relevant given what Biden said in his “victory” speech about his wife Jill. 

 “Folks, as I said many times before, I’m Jill’s husband,” Biden said to the raucous crowd assembled in Wilmington, Delaware on November 7. “And I would not be here without the love and tireless support of Jill and my son Hunter and Ashley, my daughter, and all our grandchildren and their spouses and all our family. They’re my heart. Jill’s a mom, a military mom, an educator.

“And she has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does. It’s who she is. For American educators, this is a great day for y’all. You’re gonna have one of your own in the White House. And Jill’s gonna make a great first lady. I’m so proud of her.”

Most everyone who has been paying attention knows that just before Christmas 1972 Biden’s first wife, Neilia, died in an automobile accident along with the couple’s daughter, Naomi. The two Biden sons were seriously injured but survived. Biden had just been elected to the United States Senate and, not surprisingly, the tragedy, as he would say years later, altered his world forever

Whatever your politics, I defy you to read the chapter in Richard Ben Cramer’s book – he titled it simply “Jill” – and not get a little misty. It starts on page 712 and ends on 714. The punctuation is unusual, signaling pauses and reflection, more like someone speaking than writing, which is perhaps why Cramer’s descriptions ring so true. 

Jill and Joe Biden

“It was a couple of years after Neilia died,” Cramer wrote, “before Joe ever got himself back. Not that he was a basket case. Thirty-two years old, a Senator, rising star in the Party…that was fine.” But, as Cramer put it, there was “a hole in his life.” 

People encouraged him to go out, meet other people, but Biden insisted on being a father first…and last. Being a politician was just his day job. 

“He tried to go out, tentatively…it was hard. In Washington, he felt…well he had to go home. In Delaware, it was almost too close. Everybody knew, or thought they knew. Not to mention, all those eager …well, Mrs. Johnson thought her daughter would make a perfect match for a Senator…”

Meeting Jill Jacobs – she was 24 years old teacher – was a serendipitous thing. Joe saw a photo of her – “she was blond, young, smiling…she was gorgeous.” Biden’s brother “knew someone who knew her” and got Joe her number. He called her. She broke a date to see him for dinner. Biden showed up in a suit, bought dinner and afterward escorted her to the door and they shook hands. 

“She hadn’t gone out with a guy in a suit for – probably since high school.” And Jill told her Mom: “My God, I think I finally met a gentleman.” 

After the second date, “he called and told her he didn’t think they should date anyone else…after two dates! Then he wanted to bring the boys. Then he wanted to take her out with the family, the brothers, Val [Biden’s sister], his folks…that’s where Jill held back. She didn’t want to get involved with the family, to feel she was under inspection. Only later she figured out: Joe didn’t want an inspection. It wasn’t any special trip for here to meet the family. The family was how ‘we Bidens’ lived.” 

Cramer’s description of Jill Biden: “She could talk with anyone. Not that she believed everyone. No, she believed what she believed. She had backbone. She was private – Joe liked that, her cool way of hiding the girl inside, and the old hurts…he could see that. She had that way of looking at you, to make sure you meant what she thought was so funny…and then that quick shy smile, half-doubting – she could sniff out bullshit. She’d tell him, too – especially when it was his bullshit – she’d tell him straight. Very soft of manner was Jill, but smart: she knew who she liked.” 

Cramer goes on: “She could do it…he could see it…and when that started, well, he could see things falling into place. If he could put that back together, if he knew they’d have their home, their family…then he could reach outward again. It wasn’t just the schedule – he could travel, he could speak. It was more like the center was in place…so he could lift his eyes. That’s how Joe talked about it – his words. 

“What Jill did…she was the one who let me dream again.”

——

A lot of ink will be spilled over the next weeks and months analyzing why Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost the presidential election of 2020. Clearly, the president of the United States tried to employ the same fundamental strategy he used against his Republican opponents in 2016 and then against Hillary Clinton. 

It wasn’t subtle. He sought to demonize Joe Biden. But it didn’t work. And the election, as it should have been, became largely a referendum on Donald Trump’s chaotic, shambolic, demagogic four years in office. 

I think the demonizing strategy didn’t work because Joe Biden, even with his penchant for verbal gaffes, his occasional odd turn of phrase, his 47 years in public life, is fundamentally what you see: a very decent guy who loves his wife, adores his family and really cares about the country. Is he perfect? Of course not. We don’t get perfect in politics or anything for that matter, but we can choose character and experience. And we did. 

It’s odd to me, as the political scientist Larry Sabato says, that politics in the only place in our society where we disparage experience. If we ever have needed someone who displays fundamental competence, we need it now. If we ever need someone who can summon our better angels and who can comfortably quote scripture because he actually believes it, we need it now. 

Are there big challenges ahead? Of course. Biden will assume the most impossible job in the world saddled with the most difficult problems encountered by any American president since at least 1932. But, you know, America is a lucky place. We usually get what we deserve. 

The United States took a wild and dangerous four-year swing in an anti-democratic direction, embracing a man almost wholly lacking in character, self-reflection, decency and competence. We self-corrected. In the process we may well have gotten the one person who has a chance to lead us to better days. 

Jill Biden made the right call all those years ago. Millions of Americans affirmed her decision on November 3rd

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2020 Election, Civil War, Lincoln

What Now…

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to be alive in 1860 and experience the American election that created Abraham Lincoln, insured the secession of 11 southern states and spawned the deadliest war in the nation’s history. 

Lincoln won only 40% of the popular vote in that election – and almost no votes in southern states – and to many of his fellow countrymen the mere thought of his election was cause for panic and eventually dissolution. One side was trying, in the face of enormous odds, to preserve the Union. Another side was willing to risk civil war. 

Lincoln in the year of his election.

This week we all have a better sense of what it must have been like to be alive in 1860. The United States – I hope I’m wrong here – seems to be tottering at a dangerous place we’ve not seen in our lifetimes, or perhaps even in our great grandparents’ lifetimes. Maybe, in fact, not since Lincoln and 1860.

The election of 2020, the election we have been preparing to endure for four long years, may only prove one thing: America is even more divided than we imagined. 

I have to admit I am nostalgic for, if not an entirely better more gentle political time, at least a time with better political expectations, a time when there was still a middle in American politics, a time when we were not just divided tribes. One such time, ironically, was the tumultuous 1960’s, a decade dominated by fights over civil rights, including the murder of the leader of the civil rights movement. The 1960’s where in many ways an ugly time: presidential assassination, campus unrest, urban riots and a senseless war.

Yet, against all the odds, many of the nation’s best political leaders, Republicans and Democrats, were equal to the decade’s enormous challenges. The success of American politics in the 1960’s owes much to two partisan politicians who in style and substance could not have been more different. The story of Mike Mansfield of Montana and Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate majority and minority leaders, may seem quaint, even unrecognizable in our divided America of 2020. But it is instructive. 

Mansfield was a New York-born orphan, packed off to Butte, Montana as a youngster to live with relatives. He hated it. Ran away from what passed for home and ended up doing the nastiest work in the copper mines of the richest hill on earth. Dirksen grew up on a farm outside of Pekin, a town in central Illinois. His Protestant parents were German immigrants. Mansfield’s immigrant roots were Irish-Catholic. Both men served in the Great War and both struggled to gain a higher education. Mansfield’s wife insisted he get a degree and he eventually earned a master’s and taught history. Dirksen sold books and magazines door-to-door to finance his law degree. 

Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen, the greatest bipartisan leadership team in United States Senate history

Dirksen was voluble. One reporter called him “the Wizard of Ooze.” The label stuck because it was true. Mansfield was laconic, given to one-word answers – “yup” and “nope.” It’s often said the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a politician and a television camera, but Mansfield, even at the height of his power as majority leader, a tenure that lasted for 16 years, shunned the spotlight. Imagine such a thing. 

The political and personal paths of these two remarkable Americans crossed in the United States Senate where they helped civilize our politics and make the place work. 

Among many enduring bipartisan accomplishments Mansfield and Dirksen led the Senate and their respective parties to pass of the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, they passed Medicare and created the public broadcasting system. They worked with presidents of both parties. It’s how politics once worked. 

One story exemplifies how the copper miner from Montana cooperated with the magazine salesman from Illinois. In 1963, Democratic President John Kennedy had negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy saw the treaty, particularly after the Cuban missile crisis a year earlier, as a step back from an unthinkable nuclear Armageddon. Dirksen, a conservative Republican on foreign policy issues and a man deeply suspicious of the Communist regime in Moscow, was not entirely convinced a treaty was in the nation’s interest. Mansfield insisted he speak directly with Kennedy and the two leaders went to the White House to, well, make a deal. 

President John F. Kennedy pushes away his coffee cup as he meets at the White House with the Senate’s leaders, Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), left, and Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), Sept. 9, 1963. The two were there to discuss ratification of the limited nuclear test ban treaty. Dirksen said after the meeting the president plans to issue a statement that “might dispel and resolve some of the apprehensions and misgivings” concerning the pact. At far left is Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

During the ensuing conversation – we know it lasted 33 minutes because it was captured on a White House recording – Kennedy suggested that Dirksen put his reservations in writing, which he had already done. “I hope you don’t mind that this is a little presumptuous on my part,” Dirksen said, as he proceeded to read aloud a copy that he produced from his suit pocket. Dirksen’s draft became the letter Kennedy sent to the Senate. 

Dirksen then counseled the Democratic president on how to handle Senate opposition from his own party, while explaining that he could convince enough of his fellow Republicans to get the necessary two-thirds vote to ratify the treaty. 

It wasn’t known until years later when the recording of the meeting became public that the two partisan Senate leaders worked together to help the American president accomplish something that he likely could never have done without their unselfish, non-partisan assistance. The test ban treaty approved by the Senate in 1963 became the foundation of every subsequent nuclear weapons treaty. Kennedy considered it among his greatest, if not the greatest, domestic accomplishments. 

The basic decency and fair play of Dirksen, Mansfield and Kennedy that is on display in this little story, particularly given our current toxic partisanship, is nothing short of stunning. We struggle ahead as Americans. Yes, we really do have a shared stake in the future of a country that is not just about seeing that our side wins. If there are Dirksens and Mansfields among us, this is their moment. 

As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address in March, 1865, while the Civil War still raged: “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Come on America, we used to believe we were all in this together. Every one of us needs to figure out how we can be one country again. Either we revive the spirit of politicians like Dirksen and Mansfield or we are doomed. 

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Additional Reading:

A couple of stories you may find of interest…

Counties with worst virus surges overwhelmingly voted Trump

This is a remarkable example of taking an obvious story – the expanding coronavirus in the United States – and examining the why.

“An Associated Press analysis reveals that in 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority — 93% of those counties — went for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas.

“Most were rural counties in Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin — the kinds of areas that often have lower rates of adherence to social distancing, mask-wearing and other public health measures, and have been a focal point for much of the latest surge in cases.”

Read the entire story.


Helena Bonham Carter

I’ve been receiving – and reading – a daily email from the Irish Times since I fell in love the newspaper during a trip to Ireland some years ago. It never fails to give me something really interesting, including this feature on the actress who plays Princess Margaret in The Crown, starting again soon on Netflix.

Helena Bonham Carter in The Crown

“[Helena Bonham Carter] spent months on her research. She wasn’t interested in anything that made the princess sound like a cartoonish snob, but looked instead for nuances. ‘I’m not disputing that Margaret was rude, but often the reason people attack others is because they feel vulnerable,’ she says. To locate that vulnerability, she interviewed Margaret’s surviving friends, including her former lady-in-waiting, Anne Glenconner. ‘I’ve always been a swot. Honestly, you should see my Margaret file. Tim used to look at all my files and say, ‘You’re not an academic, you’re a flipping actor.’ But I have to suspend my own disbelief before I ask anyone else to suspend theirs. And it’s such an outrageous ask: I have to pretend to be Princess f**king Margaret?’ she says, her voice rising.”

A great feature about a wonderful actress.


Thanks for reading. Stay safe…and please do what you can to strengthen our democracy.

2020 Election, Trump

Women Will Save America…

If Donald Trump wins a second term next week – and for the record I don’t believe he will – it will mark as great a turning point in the American experiment as anything since the Civil War. 

The sense that the country can be governed by anything approaching a middle ground consensus will be gone. An economy that has barely hung together over the last few months will unravel, likely at stunning speed, as millions of Americans will face more than unemployment. They will lose homes and automobiles and food. It is indeed going to be a bleak winter. 

But there is at least huge one reason for optimism and it’s only fitting. One hundred years after women finally won the battle to vote they are going to save America. Really. 

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1920. One hundred years later women voters will save the country.

A “gender gap” has existed between the two political parties for years. Donald Trump has made the gap the Grand Canyon of American politics. Women, make no mistake, are going to determine the next president. Moms and grandmothers don’t have a huge propensity to fail us and they won’t this time. 

Trump knows he’s in big trouble with women voters and goodness knows he should be. His weak plea in Wisconsin this week – “Suburban women, you’re going to love me. You better love me.” – is not the closing argument of a winner. Nor is his whiny begging recently in Pennsylvania. “Can I ask you to do me a favor, suburban women?” Trump said during a rally in Johnstown, earlier this month. “Will you please like me? Please.”

As Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei reported this week new “Gallup polling finds Trump remains above 50% with rural residents, white men and white adults without college degrees, but Trump has “dropped nine points just this year with suburbanites — falling with both men and women — to 35%”

Trump won that demographic in 2016. Trump’s rickety standing with this critical group has been driven by women. They just aren’t into him anymore. 

“In 2016, Donald Trump didn’t have a record. In 2020, now, he does,” said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist and adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “That record is one that is really quite offensive, I think, to many Americans male and female, but especially women. And he leans into it.”

Donald Trump’s political difficulty with women voters has only increased since 2016

Pundits – including this one – too often over think politics. For many, maybe even most Americans, the presidential choice comes down to a pretty simple calculation: who do I want in my living room every night for the next four years? We’ve had four years of bluster, bombast, boasting and bungling. We’re ready – perhaps women most particularly – for something different. 

The Politico journalist Tim Alberta put a fine point on it recently when he wrote “if Trump loses, the biggest factor won’t be Covid-19 or the economic meltdown or the social unrest. It will be his unlikability.” 

All across America, Alberta wrote, “in conversations with voters about their choices this November, I’ve been hearing the same thing over and over again: ‘I don’t like Trump.’ (Sometimes there’s a slight variation: ‘I’m so tired of this guy,’ ‘I can’t handle another four years of this,’ etc. The remarkable thing? Many of these conversations never even turn to [Joe] Biden; in Phoenix, several people who had just voted for the Democratic nominee did not so much as mention his name in explaining their preference for president.” 

The conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson – he writes often for William F. Buckley’s old magazine The National Review – had a similar observation. Trump’s disreputable personal character, a glaring fixture of his very public being, but a feature largely ignored by his male supporters, is, Williamson says, finally catching up with him. The Twitter fights, the petty, mean name calling, the failure to assume any responsibility for his shortcomings or obvious mistakes has become disqualifying for many, many voters who once saw the guy as an agent of change. Instead he has become the spreader of division and disorder, not to mention a virus. 

“Trump’s low character is not only an abstract ethical concern,” Kevin Williamson writes, “but a public menace that has introduced elements of chaos and unpredictability in U.S. government activity ranging from national defense to managing the coronavirus epidemic. Trump’s character problems are practical concerns, not metaphysical ones.”

Trump went into the last two weeks of the presidential campaign with a crazy agenda. He’s been trying to convince Americans that what we are all living with daily, a pandemic that he has downplayed and mismanaged at every step, was going away. And he manufactured, and with the help of rightwing news organizations and social media, then transmitted a vast array of conspiracy theories about his opponent and the previous president of the United States. Trump has run not on a second term agenda – he has none – but on the same old litany of grievance, resentment, racism and fear that fueled his rise in the first place. 

Nothing so clearly illustrates this reality than the president of the United States going this week to his must win state of Wisconsin, a “state is in the midst of a full-on coronavirus crisis, setting new records for hospitalizations and sitting near the top of the list for per capita cases.” Against all logic he declared the virus contained. 

The White House actually issued a press release this week claiming that defeating the pandemic was one of Trump’s signature accomplishments, a transparently ridiculous claim, as the writer Robert Schlesinger says, on par with “the Vichy government listing defeat of Germany among its accomplishments.”

Donald Trump will win Idaho’s four electoral votes, but by a smaller margin than four years ago and the reason will be the votes of women, the same voters who have disserted him in the Philadelphia and Atlanta suburbs, in places like Maricopa County, Arizona and even in Omaha. Top of the ticket races in Idaho all favor the GOP, but the margins for Republicans are likely to be smaller than normal. Trump has no coattails and the stench of his presidency will infect the entire ticket. 

Trump drew an inside straight four years ago against arguably the most unlikable presidential candidate in modern history, a woman who still won the popular vote by three million. Women are going to save American democracy in a few days. They’re just not into this guy. They’ve had enough. And they’re right. 

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Additional Reading:

Some recent favorites you might enjoy…

Norman Ornstein on President Biden

Norm Ornstein, the long-time student of Congress, has long had a perch ats resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein’s scholarly works on the legislative process have long been required reading for historians and policy makers who hope to understand Washington. 

Ornstein was an inspiration to me to undertake my study – forthcoming in February 2021 – of Senate races in 1980. And his book with Thomas E. Mann, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, helped put the lie to the false equivalency arguments that both political parties are equally responsible for the dysfunction and division of American politics.

He recently authored a thoughtful essay on the practical steps a President Joe Biden might take next year to, as Ornstein says, “show progress, to show that we can move ahead” is worth your time. 

“Here is the roadmap I would employ if I were advising the new president and his legislative leaders. It begins with a promise on Jan. 21 to have four major initiatives passed by the House and brought to the Senate floor within days or weeks—all key measures that are urgently needed, and are supported by a strong majority of Americans, in some cases as many as 90%.” 

Read the full piece.


The International Brigades 

I’ve long been fascinated by the causes and effects of the Spanish Civil War, a bloody, complicated and deeply tragic conflict, that raged from 1936 to 1939 and was, in many ways, a preview of the wider war to come in Europe.

Giles Tremlett, who writes about Spain for The Guardian, recently reported a fascinating piece about the contested legacy of the international brigades, the thousands of often-celebrated foreign fighters who fought on the Republican side during the war. Let’s just day that the legacy is complicated.

“History is neither neat nor clean, especially when it comes to past wars. The first casualty of war is said to be truth, but really it is nuance. War presents stark, binary choices. Kill or be killed. One side or the other. The truth is more complex than that, as the story of the International Brigades and their afterlife shows.”

Link to the full essay.


New Faces of 1946 

A terrific piece from the archives of Smithsonian Magazine by the great historian William E. Leuchtenburg. He writes about the post-World War II election of 1946 and the political and other dilemmas facing President Harry Truman. 

Harry Truman’s no good, awful year of 1946

“But the end of the war confronted Truman with a predicament bound to erode political capital. After more than 15 years of deprivation—the Great Depression was followed by wartime rationing—Americans, at last able to enjoy peacetime prosperity, chafed at finding so many things in short supply. At one point in 1946, during a flour shortage, Illinois saw block-long bread lines, reminiscent of the darkest days of the Depression. That same year, in Denver, women hijacked a bread delivery truck. And demand kept driving prices up. Too much money chased too few goods: too few Chevys, too few nylons, too few beefsteaks.”

Great history.


A Pioneering Appetite

Writing in The American Scholar Anne Matthews provides an insightful review of a new biography of James Beard, the Oregon native who truly became America’s first culinary celebrity. The author of The Man Who Ate Too Much is John Birdsall.

“Birdsall also restores Beard’s identity as a man of the Pacific Rim, raised by a gay mother and a Chinese cook in a town where the Yukon was still a real frontier. Like other restless, sexually complex modernist talents (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cather), Beard craved urbanity and needed decades in exile to see that his natal terroir—Chinook salmon, Olympia oysters, razor clams, marionberries, green fields in fog—held the key to his life and career. A 1954 auto tour of the West Coast, during which he bought so many samples that the car became “a mad ark of food,” finally focused Beard’s instinct for a true American cooking. Thirty-one years later, his ashes were scattered at the Oregon beach he loved in childhood.” 

Read the whole piece.


Thanks for reading. See you soon. Stay well.

2020 Election, Idaho, Pandemic, South Dakota, Trump

It’s Not Just Going Away…

Donald Trump and his Republican enablers are ending October the way they began late last winter when the pandemic came to the United States: with gaslighting, misdirection, blatant lying and the largest diversionary propaganda campaign in American political history. 

There are really only two words to describe what the president and his lapdogs have done: incompetence and evil. 

“People are tired of Covid,” Trump complained on a recent call with his campaign staff, while several reporters were listening. “I have the biggest rallies I’ve ever had. And we have Covid. People are saying: ‘Whatever. Just leave us alone.’ They’re tired of it.”

Donald Trump back in the day when he shared a podium with Dr. Anthony Fauci

“People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots,” Trump said, “all these idiots who got it wrong.”

Tell that to 223,000 Americans who are not here to listen to a deranged, heartless campaign’s closing argument delivered by the most disastrous president in American history. Or how about the more than 1,700 health care workers in the United States who have died during the pandemic because they cared for the sick. Are they “all these idiots who got it wrong?”

David Eggman, a registered nurse at a hospital in Wausau, Wisconsin, a region overrun with Covid-19 hospitalizations, has seen more than his share of death since March. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he has listened as COVID-19 patients breathed their last, alone without family at the bedside. Frequently they told him, “that they didn’t realize it was as bad as it was.” 

But the president did know. He told the journalist Bob Woodward in February that the virus was “deadly” and much more serious than the flu. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said a month later during another exchange recorded on tape. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

After first refusing the reality, and then ultimately failing to deal with a deadly disease, Trump rushed to ignore accepted science and politicized the public health response. He has repeatedly mocked advice about masks, and despite his own near-death experience, has persisted in holding virus spreading – and truth killing – rallies in states where the disease is running wild. 

Trump said a week ago that we have “turned the corner” with the virus, a true statement if you understand that the “turn” is upward in daily cases, upward in hospitalizations and upward in the number of rural counties that by his own government’s assessment are trending overwhelmingly in the wrong direction

A website that reports on rural America said this week that “Covid-19 spread in rural America at a record-breaking pace again last week, adding 160 counties to the red-zone list and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus to more than 1 million.” And researchers at the University of Idaho, just to cite one data point, now estimate one in every 30 people in eastern Idaho are infected with the virus. 

Staff at St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital send a COVID-19 patient home earlier this year. Now the hospital is overrun with cases

That Trump would seek to downplay all this, lie about it and fail to heed the advice of scientists is no longer even news. He’s a textbook example of a pathological liar, likely unable to ascertain truth from fiction. He’s also clearly suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, leaving him unable to accept let alone empathize with millions of his fellow Americans who have died, been made sick or economically devastated by his unprecedented failure to lead an effective national response. 

What remains surprising, even after all these months, is that fellow Republicans have accepted his failures and made them their own. Two governors – South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Idaho’s Brad Little – exemplify how thoroughly degraded Republican politics have become. With virus cases running out of control in both states, the governors act like this is all business as usual. 

South Dakota’s infection rate is four times the national average, but Noem, a rightwing darling, has been hawking t-shirts inscribed: “Less Covid, More Hunting.” Meanwhile, the governor has been all over the country campaigning for Trump, so often missing from the state in recent weeks that columnist Mike McFeely roasted her this week saying, “She’s followed the Trump playbook, and therefore the Republican playbook, line for line. With her T-shirt sales, Noem is even cashing in on the denial.” 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem is hawking t-shirts rather than battling the virus

Meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives, Steve Haugaard, has been in hospital emergency rooms twice this month battling the virus. “It’s been the most devastating stuff I’ve ever had in my life,” the 64-year-old Haugaard told the Associated Press. 

Little isn’t as brazen – or as stupid – but ultimately just as ineffective as his South Dakota counterpart. While hospital officials across Idaho were calling this week for more aggressive steps to slow the growth of cases, Little was preaching the gospel of personal responsibility, refusing even the most basic step of a statewide mandate to wear a damn mask. “This is about personal responsibility,” Little said, “something Idaho is all about.” 

Right. All that personal responsibility has seen a 46% increase in cases over the last two weeks, including so many cases at the major hospital in south central Idaho that the top doctor there said this week, “It gets back around to, how long can you sustain this? How long can you provide the high-quality health care we provide?”

If you’ve been waiting for the promised Trump October Surprise, it’s already here: the infection and death toll is rising rapidly, and winter will be awful. Donald Trump and his GOP sycophants with their widespread demonization of people of expertise like Dr. Anthony Fauci and with the ignorant rejection of basic public health measures have effectively adopted Stalin’s maxim: a single death is a tragedy; 221,000 deaths are a statistic. 

The election in ten days comes down to a stark choice for America: do we embrace science and common sense to lead us to solutions for the worst public health crisis in more than one hundred years or do we empower, as the writer Caroline Fraser put it recently, “a zealotry so extreme that is has become a death cult.” 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other stories worth your time…

USC’s Linebackers: In 1989, USC Had a Depth Chart of a Dozen Linebackers. Five Have Died, Each Before Age 50

A stunning and profoundly disturbing story by Michael Rosenberg in Sports Illustrated about the 1989 Southern Cal football team and what has happened to several of the team’s linebackers. 

“The Trojans go 9-2-1 and then win the Rose Bowl that season, but football fools them. The linebackers think they are paying the game’s price in real time. Michael Williams takes a shot to the head tackling a running back in one game and he is slow to get up, but he stays on the field, even as his brain fogs up for the next few plays. Chesley collides with a teammate and feels the L.A. Coliseum spinning around him; he tries to stay in but falls to a knee and gets pulled. Ross, who says he would run through a brick wall for Rogge, breaks a hand and keeps playing. After several games he meets his parents outside the home locker room and can’t remember whether his team won or lost.”

Read the whole thing.


2 More Funny Feelings About 2020

Tim Alberta is Politico’s chief political correspondent – and author of a great book American Carnage about the Tea Party takeover of the GOP. He thinks we may be overthinking what the election is all about.

“Generations of pollsters and journalists have fixated on the question of which candidate voters would rather have a beer with—a window into how personality translates into political success. Here’s the thing: Americans have been having a beer with Trump for the past four years—every morning, every afternoon, every evening. He has made himself more accessible than any president in history, using the White House as a performance stage and Twitter as a real-time diary for all to read. Like the drunk at the bar, he won’t shut up.”

I like this piece because – of course – it corresponds with my own theory.

A good read.


Bruce – The Boss

Springsteen at 71

A great piece from The Irish Times

Bruce Springsteen is looking fit and well as the screen pops into life. Sitting in the same home studio in New Jersey where just about a year ago he recorded his 20th studio album, Letter to You, with his longtime musical comrades, the E-Street Band, he laughs a little sheepishly when our Zoom host, Scottish journalist Edith Bowman, wishes him a belated 71st birthday.

“I suppose celebrating birthdays is not high on his agenda, especially when Springsteen is here to tell us about an album and an arthouse documentary prompted by the death of an old friend.” 

Worth your time.


The Monopoly on Ice Cream Truck Music 

Whenever I hear the tinkling tones of an ice cream truck, I flash back to when the kids were young and that sound was exciting to them and annoying to me. Turns out I had no idea about the story behind the music. 

“In earlier decades, Nichols Electronics had several full-time employees, but the company has since shrunk down to just Mark and Beth.

“If a resource-rich corporation — say, General Electric — decided to jump into the ice cream truck music game, that corporation very well might succeed. But there’s a reason a larger entity hasn’t tried to dislodge Nichols Electronics as the reigning ice cream music kingpin.

“It’s a very difficult market, says Mark.” 

Michael Waters writes that a small family-owned company has a corner on 97% of the ice cream music market. 


Have a good week…the campaign is almost over. Be well.

2020 Election, Politics, Terrorism

The GOP’s White Supremacy/Militia Problem…

You can be forgiven if you missed a story a few weeks back that in more normal times would have received a great deal more attention. The details seem particularly important in Idaho and in the Pacific Northwest, but certainly no political figure in Idaho – or the region for that matter – has been drawing attention to the testimony of FBI director Christopher Wray. 

“Racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, constitutes a majority of domestic terrorism threats, Wray testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17. The FBI director also said, “We certainly have seen very active — very active — efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020,” specifically “to both sow divisiveness and discord, and I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, to primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden in what the Russians see as a kind of an anti-Russian establishment.”

The Wolverine Watchmen arrest in Michigan in an alleged plot to kidnap and try for treason Governor Gretchen Whitmer

So, the Russians are doing it again, according to the Donald Trump appointed FBI director, and violence from white supremacist groups is the most serious domestic terrorism threat. 

A few days after Wray’s testimony, and after a whistle blower complaint alleged an effort to cover up another assessment of the danger of white supremacist violence, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its own threat assessment. “I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” said acting DHS director Chad Wolf. 

Because Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest more generally, has a particularly long and ugly history dealing with white supremacy let’s focus on what the FBI and DHS say is the single biggest threat when it comes to domestic terrorism – radicalized white guys with guns.

As Seattle journalist Knute Berger wrote more than two years ago in Seattle Magazine: “The Pacific Northwest has long been a sought-after enclave for people with extreme views and utopian, or dystopian, fantasies. On the far right this has included wannabe Nazis, dating back at least to the 1930s, when fascist William Dudley Pelley of the so-called Silver Shirts declared himself America’s Hitler and ran a campaign for president from Seattle in 1936. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Nazi presence emerged with various groups in Washington and what some dubbed ‘the Fourth Reich of Idaho.’”

Most in Idaho celebrated twenty years ago when the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation’s lost a multi-million-dollar jury trial and ended up in bankruptcy. The Coeur d’Alene Press celebrated the outcome as a “victory for justice” that “corrected the misconceptions about Idaho and its people,” but that assessment now seems outdated, if not flat wrong. 

Far right agitator Ammon Bundy who led an armed takeover of a federal facility in eastern Oregon now roams Idaho at will, enjoying support from elected Republican officeholders. Bundy and some of his followers went armed recently to the Idaho Statehouse to intimidate and disrupt lawmakers. They caused physical damage but received only mild rebukes.

In August the Idaho Statesman published a long piece based on “interviews, acquired emails and letters, and a review of social media profiles” documenting the ties of various Idaho GOP elected officials “to groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the American Redoubt movement.” The newspaper noted that “Tom Luna, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did many elected officials whose ties to militia groups or extremist ideologies” who were mentioned in the story. 

Washington state representative Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley Republican and a leader in the so called Patriot Movement who has his own ties to Idaho Republicans, eventually decided not to seek re-election this year after it was disclosed that he “planned, engaged in and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States Government in three states outside the state of Washington over a three-year period.” 

Former Washington state Representative Matt Shea and some of his followers

Now comes news that a militant group – the Wolverine Watchmen – plotted to kidnap and try for treason the governors of Michigan and Virginia. The FBI broke up the plot and indicted six men. “The Wolverine Watchmen are not a Second Amendment militia or constitutional patriots in any sense of the word,” says John E. Finn, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University who has studied these groups. “If they are guilty of the charges brought against them, then they are terrorists.” 

It requires minimal dot connecting to trace the arc of presidential pronouncements – “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Donald Trump said after the white supremacy march and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – to the vast increase in right wing and often white supremacist violence. The president has also repeatedly vilified Muslims and people of color, including many elected officials.

You have to wonder why it’s become so difficult for Republican elected officials to connect these dots and avoid the “both sides” whataboutism argument about these threats to democracy and order. Idaho congressman Mike Simpson fell down this rabbit hole this week in an interview with Idaho Public Television’s Marcia Franklin. 

Do you condemn white supremacy, Franklin asked Simpson? “Absolutely, absolutely,” he said, before instantly pivoting to a full-on attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and “these people” who “are out burning down our cities and stuff, that’s a problem.” 

It’s possible, indeed intellectually honest, as Simpson must know to condemn the senseless property damage of protests in Portland and elsewhere and still acknowledge that there is a profound and long overdue racial reckoning taking place in the United States. You can condemn violence, including white supremacist and “militia” violence, and still believe that racism must be addressed. No once, even in passing, did Simpson make the connection. 

Franklin twice asked the 22-year House member if it was possible Donald Trump had contributed to “this type of rhetoric and behavior.” Simpson, with more than a minor pained expression on his face, said, “I don’t think he is.” 

Then he again immediately shifted to Trumpian talking points, amplified a Fox News conspiracy theory and mispronounced the name of the woman of color running for vice president. 

“I think what emboldens these people is when they get arrested and then you have the potential vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, and her, some of her campaign staff putting, and encouraging other people to put funds into a fund to bail these people out that are out burning down out cities, and stuff, that what encourages these people. You have to stand up to these people.” 

For the record that is a gross misrepresentation of Harris’s action, but the real point is you have to stand up to these people – unfortunately these days that means a Republican like Congressman Simpson.  

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

A few stories I’ve found of interest this week…

How Dr. Birx Screwed up the CDC

Science magazine had a detailed story this week about how Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House task force charged with leading the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, undercut the work of the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

President Donald Trump watches Dr. Deborah Birx address a news conference at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

I know it’s a lot to ask, but it would be nice if someone in at the highest levels of the federal government really had a plan to get us through this crisis.

“When Birx, a physician with a background in HIV/AIDS research, was named coordinator of the task force in February, she was widely praised as a tough, indefatigable manager and a voice of data-driven reason. But some of her actions have undermined the effectiveness of the world’s preeminent public health agency, according to a Science investigation. Interviews with nine current CDC employees, several of them senior agency leaders, and 20 former agency leaders and public health experts—as well as a review of more than 100 official emails, memos, and other documents—suggest Birx’s hospital data takeover fits a pattern in which she opposed CDC guidance, sometimes promoting President Donald Trump’s policies or views against scientific consensus.”

Here’s a link to the piece.


Can We Do Nuclear?

Do you believe the climate is changing? That fossil fuels contribute? What do we do to power a modern industrial economy and still respond effectively to the climate crisis?

Many people are saying, even some environmentalists, that we must double down on nuclear power. But, what about the waste? What about the dangers?

“If we cannot make headway on nuclear power — and do so democratically — there would seem to be little hope for similarly complex challenges: climate change, artificial intelligence, collapsing biodiversity, sending humans to Mars. We must end the nuclear stalemate. Whether we can is a crucial test for democracy, and for humanity.”

A provocative read here.


Black Swans, Slim Chances, and the 2020 Presidential Election

An always worthwhile read from Rebecca Solnit.

“The tricky thing about hope is to not confuse it with optimism. Optimism is confidence that you know the future and it requires nothing of you. It’s a mirror image of pessimism, which likewise assumes it knows the future, only pessimism’s future is dismal and not up to us either. Hope is a sense of possibility within the uncertainty of a future that does not yet exist, but that we are making by our actions (and yeah, those we loathe and oppose are making by theirs: case study, the ramming through of Amy Coney Barrett’s supreme court nomination and all that voter suppression).”

Read the entire piece.


Thanks for following along here. Be well.

2020 Election, Film, Russia, Trump

Cult of Personality…

In one of the many scenes of dark comedy in the 2017 film The Death of Stalin, the Soviet Union’s dictator is lying on the floor of his Kremlin dining room, obviously near death from a massive stroke. But the cringing sycophantic figures who discover their bosses’ lifeless body – Stalin’s henchmen and would be successors – are paralyzed with fear. 

Do they call doctors and if so which doctors? Do they try to save Stalin or let nature take its course? One of them will surely emerge as the new leader, but how best to position for that opportunity? 

From the 2017 film The Death of Stalin

“He’s feeling unwell, clearly,” says the actor playing Lavrenti Beria, the ruthless Soviet-era security chief who carried out Stalin’s purges until he, like so many others, faced his own show trial and death. Beria graced the cover of Time magazine in July 1953, by Christmas he had been executed.

“The problem, for all concerned, is the idea of a Stalin-free land,” film critic Anthony Lane wrote in a review of the film. “If they must jockey for his throne, which of them will be bold enough to start the fight, with their lord and master still breathing? What will happen if, by some miracle, he rallies and learns that certain underlings presumed to step into his unfillable shoes? Meanwhile, he needs the finest professional care, but regrettably most of the doctors in Moscow have been purged at Stalin’s command.”

The film, which was banned in Russia and several of the old Soviet states, is not a documentary, and some critics have pointed to its mistakes of history, but it is an effort to use a bleak comedy to showcase the perverse and ironic nature of the cult of personality that came to surround Josef Stalin. The fact that the most obvious truth – Stalin was very ill and might well die, which he eventually did – became unspeakable even for the powerful men who worked beside him inside the Kremlin. 

As the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his acclaimed biography of Stalin, at the time of his stroke and eventual death in 1953 the men closest to Stalin were obsessed with their own power and “the decision to do nothing suited everyone.” They waited for hours to summon doctors because, as Montefiore notes, “Stalin’s own doctor was being tortured merely for saying he should rest.” The slimy, vile characters around the dictator were “so accustomed to [Stalin’s] minute control that they could barely function on their own.” 

While Stalin lay gravely ill the Associated Press reported that the official medical communique from the Kremlin – Stalin was ill but getting the best possible care – was broadcast over and over, amid rumors that he was on the verge of “a remarkable recovery.” 

As Stalin lay dying in 1953

Another widely reported story noted how thoroughly the Russian people had been flooded with the image of the 5-foot 5-inch Stalin as a man of destiny, the “Great Genius Stalin.” During a radio broadcast, a Soviet commentator – presumably with a straight face – said, “There is not and never has been any other man in the world of so varied, so rich, so ubiquitous a genius…his forecasts make no mistakes. His instructions lead to the desired goal. His plans always come true.” 

The buildup of Stalin “has been so great the average Soviet worker and peasant might well ask who could possibly take his place.” That was the point. 

Truth was dead in the old Soviet Union long before Stalin was. The people around him couldn’t trust each other with the truth. The cult of personality, and the fear that perpetuated it, demanded adherence to the most fanciful lies and made a virtue of the most outrageous claims. It all eventually tumbled down amid vast death and destruction. 

One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, Nikita Khrushchev, ultimately outed Stalin only three years after his death. The great man was a fraud, a murderous thug who purged his enemies and drove the country’s economy to ruin, Khrushchev said. Given his later role in the crisis over Berlin and Soviet missiles in Cuba, the reckoning with Stalin may well have been Khrushchev’s greatest gift to Russian history. The hardliners, after all, eventually drove him too from power, albeit to comfortable exile and not an early grave. 

“It was not by accident,” the historian Anne Applebaum wrote this week, that another dictator, Benito Mussolini, “juxtaposed himself against his country’s most famous city squares and most beautiful buildings—the Duomo in Milan, the Colosseum in Rome. He sought to identify himself, physically, with these beloved national symbols, and thus with the nation, and many people loved him for this. Nor were the heavily staged, entirely artificial elements of his performances a mistake. Sophisticated observers such as [the journalist William L.] Shirer sneered, but plenty of people understood that Mussolini was offering theater, putting on a show, acting out a part…That was what they had come to see him do.” 

From tragedy to farce

Historians will devote countless paragraphs to assessing the spectacle – the tragedy becoming farce – that befell American life over the last couple of weeks: the Marine One helicopter rides back and forth to the south lawn, the army of white coated doctors outside Walter Reed, the cryptic Stalin-like medical statements lacking all detail and advancing all myth, the slow drive in the closed SUV to allow the great genius to wave to his adoring fans, the Mussolini-like scene on the Truman balcony, the salute, the false assurance that all is well since a great man is in charge. 

Truth about powerful men – and the worst of the powerful have all been men – is an important thing, their medical records, their tax returns, their conflicts of interest actually do matter. Great men – and woman – can withstand scrutiny, the con men not so much. 

As Tim Miller, who once worked for Jeb Bush and the Republican National Committee, put it: “The show must go on. Where, exactly, the rest of us go from here, I cannot say. What feats Republican senators will be asked to perform alongside Trump to prove their commitment we cannot guess.”

Oh, I’m afraid we can guess. The past is prologue and American democracy is feeling unwell, clearly. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other reading worth your time…

He was a Crook – The Death of Nixon 

I’m not sure how I stumbled on this piece from 1994 by the wildman of new journalism Hunter S. Thompson. It was written for The Atlantic after Richard Nixon’s death. Thompson, let’s say, was not a fan. 

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.” 

It’s a classic of some sort. Read the whole thing.


Jill Lepore 

The historian Jill Lepore has a new book If Then – How One Data Company Invented the Future

Lepore did a Q and A with The Guardian

Q. Reading about the extraordinary history of the Simulmatics Corporation and its “People Machine”, it was instructive to see how the anxieties we have today about the more sinister aspects of computer technology were very present 60 years ago. Did that surprise you?


A. “If anything, I think in the 50s and 60s – because so few people had direct experience of computers – there was even more concern than there is now. Computers were associated with vast power. It was only with the arrival in the 1980s and 1990s of the personal computer we were sold the idea that the technology was participatory and liberal. I think we have returned, in a way, to the original fears, now we sense that these personal devices very much represent the power of vast corporations.” 

The full piece is here.


F. Scott Fitzgerald for Our Times

I really loved this piece by Ian Prasad Philbrick in The Times about the particular resonance of The Great Gatsby to our present moment.

“They were careless people,” Nick Carraway, the narrator, concludes about Tom and Daisy Buchanan, characters whose excesses ultimately destroy the lives of those around them. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

It really is the Great American Novel. Here is a link to the piece.


The Lincoln Project

A remarkable development of the Trump Era and the current campaign has been the emergence and potentially the influence of a group of Never Trump conservatives who have created various platforms to take the fight to the president. The New Yorker profiled the most prominent group – The Lincoln Project. It’s a great piece for you political junkies. Paige Williams wrote it:

“In 1984, Ronald Reagan framed his reëlection campaign with the ad ‘Morning in America.’ The economy had recovered from a severe recession, and the spot offered dreamy imagery of prospering families. In early May, the Lincoln Project released a dystopian homage: ‘Mourning in America.’ A sonorous male voice-over recalled the narrator of the Reagan video, but the ad showed a grayscape of dilapidated houses, coronavirus patients, and unemployment lines. An American flag flew upside down. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the author of ‘Packaging the Presidency‘ and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that, if the point of the ad was to ‘remind older voters of the difference between what a Republican used to be and what this Republican is, you couldn’t do it more effectively than that.'”

Read the whole thing.

As always, thanks for reading. Stay in touch.

 

2020 Election, Idaho Politics, Trump

They Knew…

They all knew. 

Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher. They all knew. 

They knew the Republican candidate for president in 2016 was a fraud, a con man, a grifter, a bully, unfit, a liar, incompetent, even dangerous. They knew it and said it at the time. Crapo said he couldn’t support the guy after the Access Hollywood tape became public. Now, he quietly and meekly stands by while the attacks continue on John McCain and Muslims, women and minorities. The politician who once celebrated the character of a Reagan or a Bush grovels before a gold-plated fabulist who refuses to condemn white supremacists

Idaho Republican Mike Crapo repudiated Trump as unfit, then he went all in

Risch supported Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz and then finally the guy who paid $750 in federal income taxes in both of his first two years in the White House. Actually, to be precise, Risch really didn’t support him, but because the senator is a profoundly partisan hack first and an American second, he’s embraced the con man

A year ago, Simpson said the whole Trump universe was a “distraction” that he refused to pay attention to, at least he did until he needed an endorsement for this re-election and then he went all in with the Grifter-in-Chief. The once principled congressman from Idaho’s second district is now all quiet. He’s all in on tax avoidance and almost surely tax fraud. Rampant foreign interference in American democracy, trying to cripple the post office and lying about mail ballots, but, well, character and honesty are vastly overrated.

Fulcher, a guy who’s never had an original thought in his political life, is a special case. He’s not just a partisan hack, but worse. The rookie congressman, with precisely zero to show for two years in Congress, is a museum exhibit for why Idaho’s first district has elected so many overstuffed sofas to Congress in the last 60 years. You need to steal from the late Molly Ivins to describe Fulcher-level vacuousness: “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

Ted Cruz knew. And Lindsey Graham. And Rand Paul. And, yes, Mitt Romney knew. They all knew. They called him a “bigot,” “utterly immoral,” the “Kim Kardashian of politics,” a “narcissist at a level that I don’t think this country has ever seen.” 

Governor Brad Little knew. Yet, he stood by while the president’s conspiracy theories and rank incompetence undermined his own faltering response to a deadly pandemic. While Idaho children contracted the virus and the White House pressured the Centers for Disease Control to soft pedal the risks of reopening schools, the governor was tweeting his praise for a Supreme Court nominee. Little is a smart guy, a decent guy, a Vandal. He knew it was all a disaster. 

They knew, especially Risch who had the access to the intelligence briefings and the best White House pass, that his response to the pandemic was going to unnecessarily kill thousands of Americans. They knew that not invoking the Defense Production Act to speed protective gear and testing kits to hospitals and schools was a disaster. They knew and they said nothing. It’s worse than merely being stupid, when you know, its malicious and deadly. 

They knew 200,000 dead Americans and 460 dead Idahoans was an historic fail, a tragedy. They knew. 

Idaho Republican Jim Risch hams it up with Ivanka Trump at the winter Olympics

They all knew when his first secretary of state called him a “moron,” when his second National Security Advisor called him “an idiot” and when his first defense secretary said he had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” that he was taking the country to a dark and dangerous place. They saw it. They knew.

Now comes the cold reality that we all knew. He’s never been a successful businessman. He inherited $400 million and is now $400 million in debt. His casinos failed, his university failed, his airline and steaks and vodka failed. The failure of his presidency, we all knew, would follow. And it has. 

Much has been made of the report that he paid only $750 dollars in taxes during each of his first two years in the White House, while the average American household pays that much every month. While that does explain his panicked efforts to prevent his voters from knowing the extent of the scam, that isn’t the real story. The real story is that he’s a fraud, a fraud who almost certainly has committed fraud

They know, even as they act like it’s no big deal, that his huge personal debt and his desperation are a true national security threat. There are no coincidences in politics, so it is little wonder that he praises Putin, flatters Erdogan and cozies up to every flim-flam despot in the world. They know he needs these thugs – their money, their encouragement, their playbook.  

They knew that surrounding the presidency with enabling sycophants and grifting family members was a huge mistake, but they liked the judges and the tax cuts that flowed to their own bottom lines. And besides they knew that they had lost “the base” to the basest, most self-centered, incapable and destructive charlatan since Mussolini strutted in Rome. They knew. 

They know they once believed in character and integrity and “the rule of law.” They were the party of the Gipper and Ike; they still invoke Lincoln as if the icon of their party would recognize the current bumbling brutality. They know it was all a lie. And they know they enabled and then embraced the chaos and the crazy

They also know that in politics there is always, always a reckoning. You can fool some of the people always, but the rest eventually catch on. The reckoning is coming. They know. 

They hope, as they stare into the dysfunction, decay and disease of the country under their watch, that it was all an aberration, a spasm of crassness and craziness when America went temporarily off the rails before self-correcting. They hope, because they don’t really know. 

They hope the memories are short and the forgiveness is plentiful because they knew it was all going to be a disaster from the first day. They hope they can hang on to their seats, and this being Idaho, they probably will, but they must know they own all the mistakes, the carelessness, the lying, the death and damage to democracy. They know and they know it will haunt them all their days. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some articles from the last few days that I found of interest. You may, too.

I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There.

Indi Samarajiva is a writer who lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka and experienced first-hand the collapse of his country’s civil society. 

This is the most chilling thing I’ve read in a while. 

“Perhaps you’re waiting for some moment when the adrenaline kicks in and you’re fighting the virus or fascism all the time, but it’s not like that. Life is not a movie, and if it were, you’re certainly not the star. You’re just an extra. If something good or bad happens to you it’ll be random and no one will care. If you’re unlucky you’re a statistic. If you’re lucky, no one notices you at all.

“Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.”

The full piece:


The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Changing Our Dreams

But you knew that, right? I don’t always remember the dreams, but the ones that do follow me into the day have been doozies. 

Tore Nielsen is a professor of psychiatry at the Université de Montréal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory there. She writes in Scientific American:

“Although widespread changes in dreaming had been reported in the U.S. following extraordinary events such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, a surge of this magnitude had never been documented. This upwelling of dreams is the first to occur globally and the first to happen in the era of social media, which makes dreams readily accessible for immediate study. As a dream ‘event,’ the pandemic is unprecedented.”

You’re not dreaming unless you’re dreaming weird stuff. The full article.


The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever

Before Bush v. Gore there was Hayes v. Tilden in 1876. 

Tilden won the popular vote, Hayes became president. It was 1876

“Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were deemed too close to call, and with those states still in question, Tilden remained one electoral vote short of the 185 required by the Constitution to win election. With 165 electoral votes tallied for Hayes, all he needed to do was capture the combined 20 electoral votes from those three contested states, and he’d win the presidency. The ensuing crisis took months to unfold, beginning with threats of another civil war and ending with an informal, behind-the-scenes deal—the Compromise of 1877—that gave Hayes the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Gilbert King in Smithsonian magazine has the history of the most contentious presidential election – until now, perhaps. 

2020 Election, Andrus, GOP, Supreme Court

Old School Politics…

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

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

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

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

South Idaho Press, February 5, 1974

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

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

Idaho Associated Press story from February 21, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Additional Reading:

Some additional reading you may find of interest…

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

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

It’s a very good read.


The Ginsburg Tag Team

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

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg

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

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

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

Read the entire thing.


History According to Trump

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

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

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

The full piece from The Bulwark.


Burning Down the House

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

Jeff Shesol reviewed the book in the Washington Post.

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

The full review is here.

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

Uncategorized

Ginsburg, the Senate and the Court

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

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Associated Press story from 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disbelieving Ourselves to Death…

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

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

The stadium was filled with smoke, not fans

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

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

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

Pope Urban VIII, an earlier science denier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

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

A Nation Derailed

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

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

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

Read the whole piece


Joan Didion on Bob Woodward 

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

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

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

Fear – the new Bob Woodward book

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

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

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

Here’s the link.


After the Gold Rush 

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

Donald Trump and then-wife Ivana in 1990

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

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

Read the whole thing if you have a strong stomach. 


The Nazi Menace

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

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

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

Read the review here.


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