American Presidents, Books, Trump

Democracy Dies In Broad Daylight . . .

I love Jeff Bezos for what he’s done for the Washington Post, but their headline on top of the paper, the motto, ‘democracy dies in darkness’ — no, democracy dies in broad daylight. Again and again, it’s the lesson in history. You retain the appearance of democracy without having it. I think that’s where this country is right now.”

Journalist/historian Tom Ricks

—————

The journalist and biographer Jon Meacham has a new book – The Soul of America – that makes the case that as bad as things now seem for American democracy that things have actually been much worse at points in our checkered past.

 “Let’s learn the lessons of the past,” Meacham says. “Resist tribalism, deploy reason and remember that fair play for others is the best way to ensure fair play for you. If we can do that, then we’ll rise above the corrosive tweets, the presidential bullying and the narcissism of our reality-TV president,” he says. “It feels dark and insuperable, but it’s felt that way before.”

Agreed. We did have a Civil War. That was pretty awful. Before that war human bondage as a political issue ripped the country apart and even when slavery ended after the slaughter of more than 700,000 Americans it took another hundred years to legislatively guarantee voting rights for citizens of color. (Of course, the Supreme Court threw out the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act a while back, but keep the faith we’re still working the problem, sort of.)

The McCarthy Era was bad news. A demagogue paralyzed the United State Senate, gained a legion of followers and destroyed countless lives. Joe McCarthy eventually drank himself to death eliminating the need for his ultimate repudiation at the ballot box and the Senate did censure him, but not before he poisoned American politics for generations.

Vietnam. Bloody battles over Civil Rights. The Klan. Assassinations. An ever-expanding interpretation of the Second Amendment. (Where do you sign up to be part of that “well-regulated militia,” by the way?) Endless war in places we don’t understand and couldn’t impact if we did.

American strife and division, particularly the poisonous variety, as Jon Meacham says, “are in some ways the rule in American life rather than the exception.”

Fair enough, but, but … we have never before had a Donald J. Trump.

Richard Nixon . . .

Richard Nixon was mean, vindictive and despite his statement to the contrary a crook, it least in the political sense. Harding surrounded himself with a loathsome collection of grifters and political hacks. Bill Clinton did have sex with that woman and history has not been kind to a clueless James Buchanan or a bumbling Franklin Pierce. Yet, none have done what Trump, the ignorant, arrogant, self-obsessed, serial lying, three-times married, hush money porno star paying faux billionaire has done.

The Trump coup d’etat . . . 

As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently – read her stuff in Harper’s and elsewhere – Trump has effectively staged a coup: “It happened on November 8, 2016, when an unqualified candidate won a minority victory in a corrupted election thanks in part to foreign intervention … The evidence that the candidate and his goons were aided by and enthusiastically collaborating with a foreign power was pretty clear before that election, and at this point, they are so entangled there isn’t really a reason to regard the born-again alt-right Republican Party and the Putin Regime as separate entities.”

Consider just a few bits of news from the past few days.

The president of the United States has done publicly what Nixon only did in the privacy of the Oval Office, namely attempt to discredit a legitimate investigation into his own conduct. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may have temporarily defused the crisis  by referring the matter to the department’s Inspector General. Still make no mistake this is a very, very, very big departure from previous presidential behavior. Trump’s coup has now made such unprecedented action – certainly unprecedented post-Nixon – standard operating procedure in the White House.

As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Bloomberg: “Once upon a time, President Richard Nixon turned the Department of Justice into his personal flunkies in various different conspiracies to break the law. Before it was over, his first two attorneys general wound up in legal trouble. A third attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the further demands of the president.” We may still be in the early days of Trump’s attempts to manipulate and rig his own Justice Department and rip to shreds the notion of “the rule of law,” but it is increasingly clear we are in very deep and unchartered waters.

And then there is Trump’s attempt to pressure the Post Office to retaliate against Amazon and its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos. Bezos, of course, also owns the Washington Post, one of the news organizations attempting to keep alive the flame of presidential accountability.

“[Postmaster General Megan] Brennan [a career official who worked her way up from letter carrier to boss] has so far resisted Trump’s demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission,” the Post reported recently. “She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.”

Other presidents have certainly attempted to intimidate various businesses for various reasons, but Trump’s action is in a new category. His behavior is the conduct of a man who relentlessly seeks to punish his perceived political enemies and he’s proving he will pull whatever handy levers he stumbles on to inflict the punishment. This is not politics or ideology, but rather rank authoritarianism on an American scale.

It’s the corruption – stupid . . . 

Or consider this lede on a recent New York Times (non-fake) story: “HONG KONG — The Trump Organization’s partner in a lavish Indonesian development project boasting a six-star hotel and golf course with President Trump’s name has brought on a new ally: a Chinese state-owned company.

“The Indonesian partner, the MNC Group, said Tuesday that it had struck a deal with an arm of Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned construction company, to build a theme park next door to the planned Trump properties.”

The Times concluded, “The timing is awkward.” We should hope to shout it is awkward.

After promising a trade war with China and after the Indonesian hotel deal, Trump suddenly abandoned sanctions against Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, an organization American intelligence officials says is in the middle of Chinese efforts to evade Iranian and North Korean sanctions. Additionally the director of the FBI told the Senate Intelligence Agency as recently as February that he was “deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.” Top intelligence officials have bluntly told Americans not to use ZTE phones and devices because they constitute an espionage threat.

Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all this, but it would seem the best that could be said for a president making money off a foreign business deal financed by a Chinese company while engaged in trade negotiations with China is, well, “awkward.”

There are new and credible allegations of additional pro-Trump election meddling. The latest involves deep-pocketed Persian Gulf operatives in a second campaign season Trump Tower meeting involving the president’s son Don, Jr. and various foreign agents, one of whom apparently has lied to Congress about his involvement in the campaign. It is worth remembering that it is against the law for foreign citizens, agents, and companies to in any way involve themselves in a U.S. election or to spend money to support or defeat a candidate. Democracy dies in plain sight.

And there is always more with this crowd.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family real estate business has apparently entertained offers for a troubled New York building – 666 Fifth Avenue – from an investment group backed by money from Qatar. The Kushner deal, and of course he’s a top White House advisor, somehow is also caught up in an ongoing diplomatic Middle Eastern brouhaha that Vanity Fair described this way:

Jared Kushner – son-in-law, White House aide, real estate investor, problem

“Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Kushner’s backing, led a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner, according to reports at the time, subsequently undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.”

I know it’s complicated keeping the conflicts of interest and the world-class grifting all straight, but this is way beyond “awkward” and into the territory of bribery and shakedown. I’ll put it the way special counsel Robert Mueller likely would: Did Kushner pressure Qatar for money for his New York building in exchange for backing off on the blockade?

Or as Slate succinctly put it: “Bribery, corruption, and real estate have always gone hand in hand. If I give you a suitcase containing $500,000 in cash, that’s extremely suspicious. But if I buy a property from you for $1.6 million, it’s almost impossible to determine that the ‘real’ value was only $1.1 million and that therefore $500,000 of the payment was somehow nefarious.”

That we are even considering this kind of thing in relation to the president and his “staff” is an astounding moment in American history.

Whenever there is a choice . . . 

Back in 2008 the writer Thomas Frank produced a splendid little book entitled The Wrecking Crew. His basic assertion was that the modern conservative-liberal political debate can now best be explained by the fact that liberals actually continue to believe in government as a force for good and a route to improvement in the human condition, while conservatives are essentially cynics about government. Conservatives not only don’t want much government they want to privatize what little they tolerate. In the process they elevate “bullies and gangsters and CEOs over other humans” – sound familiar – while telling us to get smart and stop expecting anything good from Washington.

“Whenever there is a choice to be made,” Frank wrote back in those pre-Donald Trump days, “between markets and free people – between money and the common good – the conservatives chose money.”

The modern Republican Party, now completely the party of Trump, is daily proving the essential truth of Thomas Frank’s little book.

“I worry that we no longer live in a democracy,” the journalist and historian Tom Ricks said recently. “We live in what the ancient Greeks called an oligarchy — government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich. Money now is much more important in America than people’s votes.”

Scandals 100th the size those that swirl daily around the White House would have in years past set off a mad race to investigate and hold accountable the wrong-doers. What we have instead is an incredibly tepid response from Republican politicians afraid that raising legitimate questions about the president’s conduct will induce blowback from residents of the Fox News fueled fever swamp that is the Republican “base.”

Republican candidates for an open Congressional seat in Idaho all dodged a debate question about whether there was anything Trump has done that caused them heartburn. The joker who won the primary and likely will go to Congress said he hadn’t been following the special counsel investigation deeming it a “distraction.” Democracy dies in broad daylight.

Conservative never-Trumper Max Boot ended a recent column by saying, “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves. But we must never – ever! – accept the unacceptable.”

Yet, so much damage has been done amid so little pushback from the conservatives who certainly know Trump is a disaster, but cannot bring themselves to speak of the destruction he has created. And the damage is huge and will be long lasting.

The whole world is watching . . .

“The West as we once knew it no longer exists,” the German magazine Der Spiegel said recently in an remarkable editorial. “Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No. It is impossible to overstate what Trump has dismantled in the last 16 months.”

With due respect to Jon Meacham and the “we’ve had it worse” argument, the Republican Party embrace of Trump is not like anything we have ever seen. The embrace of his incompetence and corruption when coupled with a near complete political unwillingness to restrain his attacks on institutions, the law, old alliances and fundamental decency is absolutely frightening.

We retain the appearance of democracy without having it. You have to wonder if we can ever get it back.

Books, Trump

The End of the Beginning …

      We don’t know the precise path the next few months will take. There will be resistance and denial and counterattacks. But it seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency.

Adam Davidson writing in The New Yorker.

—————-

There are now four types of people in the United States.

One type, slightly over 50 percent of white adults according to an ABC News poll, support the president of the United States. Older white folks are the Trump base. But it is still an astounding number and speaks at some level to the fundamental racial divide in the country since it is more and more clear that Donald Trump’s core appeal has always been racial, the oldest, most toxic play in American politics. Yet, it is also clear as Trump has said that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and well, you know do anything and not endanger support from “his base.” The true believers are one type.

A second type of American, perhaps best exemplified by current House Speaker Paul Ryan, enables the president while ignoring him in order to accomplish a handful of highly partisan or personal goals – a giant tax cut for corporate America and the wealthiest among us, a much more conservative judiciary for a generation or victory in a Republican primary where fidelity to Trump is the only issue. The morality of this group is on display if not their patriotism. They see. They might even cringe. But they persist. He is an idiot after all, but a useful one.

A third type of American, a handful of elected Republicans among them, seem to believe that Trump’s ethical and legal misdeeds, his trashing of long-established norms of political behavior, his insult filled rants, and his delusional foreign and economic policy will eventually fade away. We must just let all this run its course. It will all work out they say. Common sense and the American Republic will soon enough return, these optimists hold. One hopes they are right, while suspecting they are not.

And the fourth type is, well, folks like me. People who believe Trump represents an existential threat to our politics and our culture. Indeed his daily shredding of truth and decency, his attacks on a free press, the courts and the rule of law are destroying, as Financial Times columnist Edward Luce has written, the very idea of classic western liberalism.

“Western liberal democracy is not yet dead,” Luce writes in his brilliant and frightening book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

Luce’s 2017 book chillingly describes the retreat of western liberalism in places like Poland and Hungary and he correctly places Trump and America in this context. Trump has shown us at least one thing, which in my lifetime has not been as crystal clear as it now is: our system of checks and balances, the conventions of acceptable political and ethical behavior are really very, very fragile. It has actually been quite easy for a would-be autocrat to drive us to the edge of chaos and political breakdown. All it has taken is a reality show personality, a capacity to lie with abandon, an appeal to racial divide and a Twitter account.

And now after months of constant disruption and the kind of behavior that would have doomed any previous president we have arrived at the point of reckoning of sorts. The president of the United States is increasingly cornered, frightened, more erratic and unfocused than normal. He is at war with his own Justice Department and the FBI. Michael Cohen, his long-time personal lawyer – a wise guy character right out of Goodfellas or A Bronx Tale– is almost certainly going to be indicted, likely for a host of misdeeds directly and indirectly bearing on Trump.

Trump lawyer Michael Cohen

Trump’s legal team has shrunk to Cohen and an in-house White House lawyer whose signature accomplishment has been to restore the handlebar mustache to prominence. On the other hand Special Counsel Robert Mueller, working quietly with the passion of a straight arrow Boy Scout and backed by an A-Team of criminal prosecutors, accumulates documents, interviews, tapes and who knows what related to elections, Russians, assorted shady con men, bank loans and porn star payoffs.

When it all becomes public the Trump story – at its core the story of a profoundly flawed, deeply troubled man who has no business visiting the Oval Office let alone working there – will make Nixon’s Watergate or Harding’s Teapot Dome look like a small time embezzlement job at a church bake sale.

We are about to see with the Trump fiasco, as Churchill said after the long twilight of the first three years of World War II and after a victory at El Alamein, “not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The end of the beginning. And Trump knows it is coming. His Twitter account screams acknowledgement. He may be able to compartmentalize his dishonesty and selectively forget what is inconvenient to remember, but he knows his decade’s long haphazardly constructed house of cards – what an appropriate analogy – is going to crumble.

Soon-to-be former Speaker Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, at age 49, heading for Janesville, Wisconsin to spend more time with his family, knows it is coming. Mitch McConnell will try to create a few more federal judges in the interval remaining, but he knows it is coming. The scores of Republicans declining to seek re-election to Congress know it is coming. The Fox News nitwits, even they (we hope) know its coming.

Vladimir Putin, yes even he knows it is coming, Yet, unlike the rest of us Putin is a winner no matter what becomes of Trump because his whole game has been to show how abjectly corrupt American democracy can become. The mess Trump has made – his own corruption and dishonesty, the lying, the Scott Pruitt’s, The Mooches, the Newt Gingrich’s and Rudy Giuliani’s, the degrading of decency, the wholesale cashiering of a once-proud political party – none of that will be automatically fixed when Trump is gone. It will take years to correct this mess, if it is even possible.

Putin’s aim was to destroy American leadership around the world, fray the NATO alliance and pit the U.S. against China. He wanted to walk back what until just a few years ago seemed to be the relentless history of democratic expansion around the world. Now, as Ed Luce points out, there are 25 fewer democracies in the world today than there were just 18 years ago.

Putin’s dream has worked better than any KGB plotter could possibly have envisioned. Meanwhile, the thug from St. Petersburg emerges as a new Middle East power broker, the new most interesting man in the world, the man who will keep pointing out that America is broken and corrupt and leaderless.

Checking signals

The only question left is whether Trump burns down what is left of the structure of American law and norms or whether enough righteousness remains in the hollow souls of the president’s GOP enablers to stop him short of political Armageddon.

The Lawfare blog’s Benjamin Wittes wrote recently that we have known for months the ultimate blow up was looming, but it “has ripened slowly and, while in plain view, in a fashion that has permitted people to avert their gaze. Those who wanted to deny that the confrontation was coming at all could convince themselves that perhaps Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would peter out; perhaps it would reveal only misconduct by expendable hangers-on in the president’s entourage; perhaps it would reveal only politically embarrassing conduct rather than conduct that required elements within the executive branch to lock horns over whether the special counsel would be meaningfully permitted to accuse the president.”

The raid on Michael Cohen’s law office, home and hotel room ended all ability to avert our gaze. This is what a Constitutional crisis looks like. If we survive it historians will be studying this moment for years, books will be written and everyone will claim to have seen it coming even though it is often difficult to see things happening in plain sight.

The end of the beginning of the Trump unraveling comes – as Putin and his Kremlin pals must be celebrating – while eight of the top ten jobs at the U.S. State Department sit vacant and while the CIA’s top leader is leaving for State and both he and his announced replacement, an architect of torture policy, face bruising confirmation fights. The unraveling comes while American troops flail away without strategy or leadership in Syria and Afghanistan and while the White House chief of staff has lost all ability to manage the daily drama in the West Wing.

None of this is sustainable. Oh, the 50 percent of white Americans who would cheer Trump if he did something criminal on Fifth Avenue will stay with him to the bitter, bitter end. They are a political lost cause. The GOP base. These white folks will rage on against the dying of the darkness, while their hero fumes on social media. They have made up their minds. They embrace the chaos. Porn stars, Russian meddling, the deepest ethical swamp in modern memory – piffle. He isn’t Hillary. He isn’t Obama. Good enough.

But the rest of us, the Paul Ryan’s, the hopeful Republicans and the worried Democrats, the midnight worriers, must hope the end comes quickly and with minimal collateral damage. But does anyone really think Donald J. Trump will suddenly find reason and common sense and go quietly or reasonably as the circle closes around him? Of course not.

The Boston Globe’s Michael A. Cohen, not to be confused with the Trump Tower wise guy, wrote last week: “we have a president who will do anything to save his own skin. He cares not one whit about the law, ethics, norms, or the good of the country. As has always been the case, Trump’s only concern is Trump.”

Trump will go down. The events of the last week make that all the more certain. How much farther down Trump takes our country is what keeps some of us awake at night. Trump is an existential threat to the long American experiment. And that is no hyperbole and it is certainly no joke.

Books, Politics, Trump

Amusing Ourselves to Death…

     “Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

————

I have rarely – as in never before – thought of the televised Emmy award show and at the very same moment also reflected on Aldous Huxley’s 85-year old novel Brave New World.

Sean Spicer, yes that Sean Spicer, provided the connecting tissue between the glitz, phony seriousness and absurdity of the Emmy’s and the stunning relevance of a book written when Herbert Hoover was in the White House.

Spicer, the truth challenged former White House press secretary who shamed himself with six month’s worth of daily prevarications from behind the White House podium before finally resigning when The Donald brought The Mooch into the White House, was the talk of this year’s Emmy show.

How far, how very far, we have fallen.

Spicer, as everyone on the planet no doubt has seen by now, made a surprise appearance at the top of the award show pushing his podium on stage. It was all part of an elaborate inside joke, the kind that both Washington, D.C. insiders and celebrity A-listers find so irresistible. (Politics is show business for ugly people, as they say.)

Spicy at the Emmy Awards

Spicy was, it was pointed out, poking fun at himself from behind the same kind of moveable podium that Melissa McCarthy and Saturday Night Live used to make him, a political hack in service to a political disaster, into a national celebrity. By delivering a slight variation on his lie about the size of Trump’s inaugural day crowd and applying it to the Emmy broadcast, Spicer was apparently hoping that poking fun at his lying would remove the stink of his White House tenure. It was as if he were hoping that joking about being a lying joker would be as good as a confession before Saturday Mass.

Melissa McCarthy does Spicer

As Mark Leibovich wrote in the Times, Spicer “for all his professional sins, achieved something far more pertinent to the current environment: In the space of barely half a year, he became the most famous White House press secretary in history, hands down. After a while, the celebrity itself becomes the thing. Spicer’s embattled narrative became its own subplot in the greater Trump reality show. How long could he last? How much could he take? How low would he go? People tuned in to watch his briefings in record numbers.”

Yet, now a small time political operator who made White House “alternative facts” the new normal has a visiting fellow gig at Harvard and a seat next to Jimmy Kimmel on late night television. And he’s a “star” posing for photos with complete strangers and lining up speaking engagements like someone who might have something important to say. He doesn’t.

Spicer is alive and well on national TV and on the lecture circuit even if he is not yet quite settled into a well padded sinecure on cable TV. None of this is because he has done anything significant or great and not because he’s a thoughtful fellow (who just happened to lie and bluff his way to the top of the Trump heap), but simply because he’s now considered amusing.

Spicy is our living proof that Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – has become the handbook for our times.

Postman, who died in 2003, was a professor at New York University and perhaps our most authoritative analyst of the intersection where modern communication collides with culture and politics. Our great national reality show has prompted a wide revisiting of Postman’s prescient work, to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump is to come face-to-face with the perilous nature of our times.

Neil Postman

Postman’s great subject thirty years ago was television and its role in shaping and diminishing American life. His 1985 dissection and critique of the vast wasteland of the blinking tube amazingly applies perhaps even more to our present Facebook/Internet-centric age. Television remains a huge force in modern lives, but the new sinister force that daily wads up truth and sends it to the trash lurks not in the corner of our living rooms, but on our laptops, smart phones and tablets. Spicer and his former boss remind us daily – hell, minute by minute – that distraction, diversion and decidedly fake news are always just a click away.

”When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote in the 1980s, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” This is where we are, my friends, starring down the national vaudeville act that threatens everything from the rule of law to the law of common sense.

Neil Postman didn’t really predict that America in the second decade of the 21st Century would place a faux billionaire whose real claim to fame was hosting a reality television show in the most important job in the world, but he would not have been surprised. He predicted the enthusiastic embrace of ignorance that inserted Donald Trump into a role that he is demonstrably unfit to manage let alone master.

Postman, predicting our appetite for stupid over substance, would not have been surprised that Trump actually declined to fire Sean Spicer earlier this year because the guy “gets great ratings.” Postman would not have been shocked that the president of the United States began his Tuesday by delivering a juvenile and disjointed rant before the United Nations – praised by his “base,” of course – then ended Tuesday with a tweet bemoaning the poor ratings for the aforementioned Emmy awards show.

My pal Roger Plothow, a newspaper publisher who is actually trying to do something about our appalling lack of media literacy – he visits schools and talks about real news to anyone who will listen – is as worried as I am about the sewer we are swimming in.

“The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem,” Plothow wrote recently. “The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ and altered or invented ‘photographs,’ and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining. It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.”

Trump’s great triumph was not his improbable and unprecedented winning of the White House (while losing the popular vote) it is rather the success he has had in destroying objective truth among a significant number of Americans. And, of course, the president has succeeded in replacing facts and most all political norms with chants of “lock her up” and “Make America Great Again.” He can call for terminating the internationally supported Iranian nuclear agreement without ever really grappling with the substance of the deal or what might replace it. He lobs Twitter barbs at North Korea’s “rocket man” with no apparent attention to the real world dangers that bombastic miscalculation might have on literally millions of people.

Sean Spicer, a small man with a small brain always so obviously on display is just one of a thousand exhibits in Trump Museum of Mendacity. The president of the United States lies about everything and trivializes all things. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has been keeping track and records 588 lies (and counting) of varying seriousness since January. Meanwhile the Trump “base” and Republicans in Congress, most of whom really do know better, just keep smiling, amusing themselves en-route to the mid-terms.

Trump Tweets a short, fake video where he appears to drive a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back. He brags that the economy has never been stronger. He boasts that he has had the most productive start of any president, ever – period. The Russian election interference is “fake news” and, oh yes, his opponent last year is the “crooked” one.

It is all a show, a roiling, distracting, disgusting show of trivia and piffle, a show that Neil Postman, God rest his soul, forecast a generation ago. These smiling idiots, Postman warned, will destroy the very nature of democratic culture, which brings me back to Huxley.

Postman’s book is in some ways an analysis of the two great 20th Century dystopian novels that dealt with our communication culture – George Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. Postman correctly concluded that while Orwell’s book was supremely interesting Huxley’s was spot on correct.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,” Postman wrote. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Andrew Postman, the professor’s son, wrote recently in The Guardian about the  renewed interest in his father’s thinking about our willingness to replace relevant reality with phony amusement. “While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning,” Andrew Postman wrote.

Postman continues: “’An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,’” my father wrote. ‘Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?

“I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by ‘technopoly.’ It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.”

There is no easy solution to a political culture rotting in real time. Obviously, as my publisher friend Roger Plothow has shown, we must begin to foster a more media literate citizenry. This starts early with education and must include a genuine recommitment to education in the humanities, particularly courses in basic civics and American history. We all need to burst out of our bubbles and be willing to confront information – and facts – that we find uncomfortable and at odds with our own well-baked views. And we must engage, all of us, in citizenship. Put the country first. Think and behave with inclusion in mind rather than tribalism. In other words, act like a citizen who deserves a place in a society that was created around the ideal that all are created equal.

And here is another idea. Read. Read Huxley and Orwell and Postman and read Timothy Snyder’s marvelous and chilling little book On Tyranny, a call to arms for our age where the unimportant has trumped the vital.

Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in European history, reminds us in his tiny and profound book that 20th Century history holds great lessons for our time. “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then it is all spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Failure of the world’s most important and enduring experiment in democracy is not a laughing matter, yet we confront the very real possibility that we are permitting the essential fact-based, serious work of citizenship to be perverted simply because we don’t care enough to keep from being amused to death.

Sean Spicer doesn’t matter. He really doesn’t. What he represents matters a very great deal.

Books

Read…It’s Good for You…

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

Report of the Pew Research Center

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go pick up a book and happy reading in 2017.

Books

Life is Sentimental…

     

      “Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.”

Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

——–

I can’t say I really knew him, the great novelist/poet/gourmand/fisherman/hunter who died last Saturday in the high desert south of Tucson, but I did have my fifteen minutes with Jim Harrison and hearing of his death this weekend burned a hole in my heart.

Jim Harrison in a typical pose
Jim Harrison in a typical pose

What a talent. What a huge talent. And what a life, what a quotable life.

Harrison, the Michigan-born writer of all manner of stories; violent, sweet, sexy, make you cry in the dark stories came to Idaho some years ago and it was both my pleasant and completely intimidating duty to interview him in front of an audience. Interviewing Jim Harrison was a little like reading Faulkner – a lot was going on there.

He didn’t know me from a bale and had no reason to care. No doubt he’d been through the “famous author answers questions from some rube in the sticks” routine ten thousand times. But he was kind, generous and did a reasonable approximation of Jim Harrison being interviewed; interviewed by someone – me – who wanted to sound “literary,” but mostly had to fake it. He might have embarrassed me. He didn’t.

      “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.”

We still laugh about that interview in the auditorium of the high school in Hailey, Idaho. After the author of “Legends of the Fall” and “Dalva” and a dozen other shining, wonderful books answered the last question he need a cigarette break. Returning from the smoking interlude outside he positioned himself at a small table in the auditorium in order to sign his name in the books fans clutched as they waited in line for a moment of his time. My very much better half, hoping to be helpful, inquired if he might need anything, thinking glass of water, cup of coffee, etc.

“A glass of red wine would be nice,” was the reply. You got the impression that might have been an appropriate response to almost any conceivable question asked of Jim Harrison.

Of all the books and all the poems, I like “Dalva” the best, perhaps because the story is set in the rough and starkly beautiful country of northwestern Nebraska where I have my own roots. The book centers on a rough, starkly beautiful 40-something half-Sioux woman who is on the quest we all are on – to find ourselves.

The Guardian noted in a 2012 story about Harrison that the book is an “overlooked classic,” but not in France where Harrison has long enjoyed a major following. He has said that it was not uncommon for him to encounter French women named “Dalva.” If you haven’t read it – read it.

      “What’s the meaning of it all? “Seems to me nobody’s got a clue. Quote Jim Harrison on that: Nobody’s got a clue.”

Jim Fergus, interviewing Harrison for The Paris Review in 1986, said: “Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate.”

His close friend Tom McGuane, another very fine writer, said much the same when he wrote a short “postscript” about Harrison in The New Yorker: “Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”

He touched his readers, too.

Air Travel, Basketball, Books, Civil Rights, Native Americans, Television

Strong Inside

I love college basketball and of course the love affair is in full blossom this time of year. My romance began in 1966 when a bunch of unknown upstarts from a Podunk school in El Paso – who ever heard of Texas Western College? – won the NCAA championship over the vaunted Coach Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

TWCThere have been a thousand (or more) great college basketball games since 1966, but for my money none was better or more important than Texas Western’s 72-65 win over the big dogs from Kentucky and the segregated Southeastern Conference (SEC). The Texas Western Miners started five black players in that 1966 game. Kentucky didn’t have a black player until 1969. Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, a Hall of Fame coach who won 82 percent of his games, went to his grave remembered for that championship loss by his all-white team to a talented and determined all-black team. It is stunning to remember that Rupp refused to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game. And it should be just a little embarrassing to Kentucky fans today that the still vaunted Wildcats play their home games in Rupp Arena.

As Kentucky steams toward another national title, let’s just say that I’m for anyone but Kentucky. Call it a grudge and label it unreasonable, since the Wildcats now depend on spectacularly talented African-American players to maintain an unbeaten season, but I have a long memory.

Maybe its just Kentucky. I’ve long remembered a great line uttered by the supremely talented Civil War historian Gary Gallagher who once joked that Kentucky stayed loyal to the Union during the rebellion and “only joined the Confederacy after the war.” Adolph Rupp and his basketball team were still fighting that war more than a hundred years later.

Strong Inside…

All this old basketball and racial history came rushing back to me recently with the publication of a fine and important new book on basketball and race in the SEC, the pioneering courage of an African-American player at Vanderbilt who was the first to play in that storied league and how far we have come – and still need to go.

The book is Strong Inside, the gutsy story of Perry Wallace and his trials and triumphs in the SEC in the late 1960’s. The author Strong Insideis Andrew Maraniss (son of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of acclaimed books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, among others).

In many ways the centerpiece of Wallace’s story is the account of a game he played in 1968 in Oxford, Mississippi. Remember the context. The Ole Miss campus was finally integrated in 1962, but not before a full-scale riot, a death and many injuries marked the school with scars that are still visible. The racist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, played to local politics and his own ambition when he defied federal courts and President John Kennedy when James Meredith wanted to register for classes at Ole Miss.

In 1963, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, an Army veteran of World War II, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Bloody Sunday took place in Selma in neighboring Alabama in 1965. It was into that environment of hate, fear and racism and that a courageous Perry Wallace stepped when he set foot on the basketball court in Oxford for the first game in Mississippi featuring a black player.

Shortly before halftime a white elbow was thrown at Wallace, a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Perry Wallace Senior YearMaraniss says. The blood flowed from Wallace’s wound, the crowd cheered and no referee blew a whistle. “When halftime ended,” the Washington Post noted in a recent review, “Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was ‘shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: ‘Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?’”

Wallace didn’t quit. He helped Vanderbilt win that game, but had to make the long walk back to the basketball court all by himself. None of his white teammates made the simple gesture of walking with him. In other SEC basketball venues Wallace “was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s story is the grace and dignity with which he dealt with such unspeakable abuse and overcame it all. Today Wallace is a widely respected law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and a man humble in talking about his pioneering role in SEC basketball. Perry Wallace 1Vanderbilt officials, originally peeved when Wallace talked candidly at the end of his playing days about his experiences, finally made peace with him and retired his jersey in 2004. Perry Wallace deserves to be more widely remembered and Andrew Maraniss’s book is a wonderful start.

Banning the Dunk Shot…

Wallace stood just 6’5”, which, even considering the standards of his day, made him a rather small frontline player, but the guy could jump and Maraniss writes, “the ‘stuff shot’ was Wallace’s most reliable offensive move.”

The long-prevailing basketball wisdom holds that the “dunk shot” was banned to neutralize the inside play of the great UCLA post man Lew Alcindor – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But, Maraniss makes a compelling case that Wallace and his role as the first black player in the SEC also had much to do with banning the dunk. In that 1966 NCAA championship game Texas Western’s unforgettable big man, David Lattin, “embarrassed Rupp’s Wildcats with a powerful dunk over Pat Riley,” later a great NBA player and coach. “The next season,” Maraniss writes, “Lattin’s protégé, Wallace, embarrassed Rupp’s freshman team with his slam over Dan Issel,” also later an NBA star.

Shortly thereafter the NCAA rules committee, long dominated by Adolph Rupp, changed the rules to ban the dunk, a decision Ruppthat it is hard not to conclude was racially motivated. Rupp’s Wildcats never scheduled Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, but they played Perry Wallace’s Vanderbilt team twice every season. “While the [dunk] ban wasn’t directed at Wallace,” Maraniss says, “it was more than just a coincidence that the rules of the game changed just as the first black player – a prolific dunker – was about to enter the league that Adolph Rupp had dominated for decades.”

Sports at the college and professional level along with the United States military have been more successful than virtually any other segment of our culture in advancing the cause of racial equality. Both have their problems to be sure, but both have also shown what America might be if we finally come to grips with our haunted racial past and commit to a better future. Perry Wallace’s largely forgotten story is a testament to what one man can do to make ours a more perfect union and proof that heroes are found in many places, including above the rim.

Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss were recently featured on the NPR program Only a Game when they were interviewed by Bill Littlefield. NPR’s All Things Considered also recently featured a story on the book.

The Maraniss book was published by Vanderbilt University Press. Order it up. If you’re a basketball fan you’ll enjoy it. If you enjoy an uplifting and great American story you’ll love it.

 

Air Travel, Al Gore, American Presidents, Biden, Books, Eisenhower, Hats, Idaho Statehouse, Immigration, Lincoln, Obama, Theodore Roosevelt

Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

Books, Climate Change, Football, Human Rights

Remarkable, But Shouldn’t Be…

140209211519-michael-sam-top11-single-image-cutIt is a given that our culture is obsessed with football. A Super Bowl game that quickly became non-competitive recently drew 111 million fans. Top level college football programs averaged more than 45,000 fans per game last season. In football crazed communities from Boise to Tuscaloosa the college game is an occasion for tailgate parties that often begin the night before the kickoff. National “letter of intent” day when high school stars commit to college programs gets way more media coverage than the Syrian civil war.

You might say football is in a way a metaphor for American culture. We love the ritual and root for our favorites, while quietly wondering about the lasting impact of sanctioned violence on young brains. We exalt the elite coaches and their seven figure salaries all the while secretly knowing that college should be more about the classroom than the locker room. Perhaps the football-as-life metaphor never fit more snugly than yesterday when a University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, a likely high National Football League draft pick, let the world know what his teammates had known all season long.

Michael Sam, a strapping 6 foot 2 inch, 260 pounder, the best defensive player in the best football conference in the country, is gay. His knowing Missouri Tiger teammates selected him as their most valuable player after a season in which they had come to know the real Michael Sam. I can’t help but juxtapose that kind of courage and sensitivity against the head-in-the-sand bias and insensitivity of too many politicians from Boise to Sochi.

Michael Sam’s announcement almost seemed timed for maximum impact on our culture, and to his credit his timing also served to put his standing in a future NFL draft in some peril.

As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.” The guy who was credited with 11.5 sacks during Missouri’s 12-2 season instantly became a symbol of how quickly public attitudes are changing regarding matters of sexual orientation and, at the same time, Michael Sam set himself up – potentially – for the kind of abuse pathfinders often encounter.

The University of Missouri has something to teach the larger society about all this. “We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents #Mizzou,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. The coach’s classy responses came in reaction to Sam’s interviews with ESPN and the New York Times announcing he’s news.

Professional sports, perhaps particularly the NFL, have long been the athletic equivalent of the Idaho Legislature when it comes to recognize the fundamental human rights of our fellow citizens. Yet, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in another civil rights context more than half a century ago, sports can also help the larger culture confront fundamental issues. Sportswriter Juliet Macur correctly says the slow, stone-by-stone dismantling of a professional sports wall of discrimination toward gays can now, thanks to Michael Sam’s courage, fall as though pushed by a bulldozer wearing Number 52.

“Same-sex marriage laws have been passed in many states,” Macur writes, “with more to come. Gay rights have been a major issue at the Olympics in Russia, where the government last summer passed a law that prohibits the transmission of ‘gay propaganda’ to children, prompting many groups and some athletes to speak out.

“Even Pope Francis has, in his own way, recently expressed support for gays, shocking conservatives when he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ He said people ‘should not be marginalized’ because of their sexual orientation and ‘must be integrated into society.'”

Billie Jean King, who President Obama wisely asked to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics (and in the process stuck a thumb in the homophobic Valdimir Putin’s eye), tells CBS that it “really it gets down to humankind. … We just happen to be gay. … We need to really shift where it’s a non issue. When it’s a non issue, it will mean we’ve arrived. It won’t happen in my lifetime but it’s definitely a civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Here’s hoping Missouri’s Michael Sam has a great NFL career, but even if that doesn’t happen this articulate, intelligent young man will have displayed the kind of personal courage that some folks in public life would do well to try and emulate. Or, put another way: if Sam had enough courage to sit for an interview with the New York Times and ESPN and discuss the most personal aspects of who he is, perhaps its not asking too much that state legislators in Boise and other state capitols finally summon enough personal and political courage to really deal seriously with the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.

We should long for the day when it isn’t.

 

Air Travel, Books

The Year in Books

stack460It is that time of year when it seems everyone produces a Top 10 List of something – the best new restaurants, the hottest celebrities, or the best books.

I did something this year that I have never done before. I kept track of everything I read. The list is eclectic, heavy on non-fiction, and while it is a long list I hope next year to make it even longer. If you love books, as I do, you may consider your own list for 2014. It’s a great way to recall that book and author you read in January and can’t quite recall in November. So here goes – my own Top Ten best reads of 2013.

The best new book I read this year was 1913 – The Search for the World Before the Great War by a British writer Charles Emmerson who takes us on a 23 city tour of the world on the brink of the war that shaped the 20th Century. As the Washington Post said in a review, “The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.”

I read or re-read four novels this year that now have a place on my all-time great list. The Great Gatsby may not be the Great American Novel, but it has to be one of the two or three contenders for that title. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece came to the big screen again this year, but it’s much better as a book. Read it again.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle at Gettysburg and I marked the anniversary by re-reading Michael Scharra’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. This is the best kind of historical fiction. The story of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Joshua Chamberlain and the battle they fought near Gettysburg in 1863 is a true gem.

I also enjoyed for the first time Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel Red Harvest, which is set in a town that sounds a lot like Butte, Montana in 1929. Capote’s novel is set in a town that sounds a lot like New York in 1958. Both are fine reads.

Two biographies rate special mention this year: David Nasaw’s fine and engrossing life of Joseph P. Kennedy appropriately entitled The Patriarch and A. Scott Berg’s equally fine Wilson, the gripping life story of the 28th President of the United States complete with all his brilliance and with all his contradictions.

Of the raft of books released in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination the best may be Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court. Dallek focuses on Kennedy’s foreign policy and the brilliant – and often brilliantly wrong – advisers who served the young president. I came away with more respect for Kennedy’s own judgment and his courage in standing up to the bombastic advice he received, for example, from his generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I also give very high marks to Ira Katznelson’s original and compelling history of the New Deal entitled Fear Itself. Katznelson goes deep behind the usual and well-known narrative of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to explain the political realities of the 1930’s with particular attention to the power southern racists Democrats had in the United States Senate and how FDR tailored his policies to fit that reality. I predict it will become a modern classic of the period that still defines American politics.

And finally another history to end the year, a book end really to Emmerson’s 1913 called The War That Ended Peace by a great historian Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan charts the policies and personalities that ruled in Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Austria-Hungry in the years leading up to The Great War. One comes away marveling at the pathetic emperors, the petty statesmen and the egotistical generals who played so recklessly with the peace of Europe until the fateful summer of 1914 when they touched off the war that ended empires, re-drew the map of Europe and the Middle East and foisted on the world the deadly 20th Century.

So many books. So little time. There are ten good reads I enjoyed in 2013. Happy New Year.

 

Air Travel, Andrus, Books, Energy, FDR, North Dakota

Power to the People

politifact_photos_rooseIn the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.

Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”

Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”

One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.

Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.

As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.

“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”

During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”

The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920’s and early 1930’s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.

It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”

In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”

Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.