2020 Election, Lincoln, Politics

Is America Obsolete?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is really in the American DNA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

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

130 degrees

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

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

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

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

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


The Truth is Paywalled, the Lies are Free

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

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

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


Joey Biden, He Could Really Talk

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

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

Trust me, it’s worth your time.

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

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

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


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

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

An iconic photo of the writer Maeve Brennan by Carl Bissinger

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

Good stuff.

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

Stay safe. Be well.

2020 Election, Politics

The Death of Shame…

Shame, that old political equalizer, had a good long run. But shame is dead, killed off by a political culture of anything goes, particularly if my side is doing it.

Shame died, as well, because we have embraced a culture of lying in public matters. There is no shame without truth.

The notion that certain acts, certain universally condemned behaviors, would so shame, so embarrass a public official, rocking and even ruining a career, is now such an old-fashioned concept as to be irrelevant. 

Just in the last couple of weeks, shame was knifed in a dozen different ways. One of my favorites was pointed out by the conservative writer Tim Miller who offered a succinct assessment of the “debate team” preparing Donald Trump for his one-on-one match ups with Joe Biden. 

Trump’s team consists of former governor Chris Christie; Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law; Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and political advisor Jason Miller. “A motley crew,” as Miller correctly noted. “The first put the second guys dad in jail and made the 3rd guy the fall man for their joint corruption. The 4th guy was kept out of the White House over a hooker scandal.” 

Make America Shame Again. 

Or how about the president’s much ballyhooed “executive orders” that came in the wake of a breakdown in congressional efforts to extend unemployment benefits, forestall evictions and allocate more money to fighting COVID-19. The executive orders, which really were just memos to the file, Trump said, “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation,” notwithstanding the president has no authority to do much of what he was claiming to do.  

The sheer audacity of the claim, false on its face and laughably shameful was endorsed by nearly every Republican, including Idaho congressman Mike Simpson. Simpson is a particularly troubling case in the annals of the demise of shame. 

He’s an appropriator in the House, one of the top members on the committee that actually determines how your tax dollars are spent, a guy who once jealously guarded his role in a co-equal branch of government. 

Simpson, rather than push back against what Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse immediately called “unconstitutional slop,” praised Trump on Twitter “for taking action to help those who need it most. People are struggling to make ends meet.” Simpson threw in a gratuitous swipe at Nancy Pelosi for good measure, accusing the speaker of the House of not coming “to the table seriously.” 

All politicians are given to the partisan excesses of mischaracterizing the opposition, but Simpson’s claim would warrant serious shaming if shaming of any kind were still in vogue. Simpson effectively praised Trump’s unworkable collection of memos, while slamming a Democrat who passed legislation weeks ago to address the very issues Simpson praised the president for failing to address. The Republican Senate, of course, has refused to take up the House passed legislation. 

Shame died a thousand ways. 

One-time Idaho senator Larry Craig was so shamed by his 2007 arrest in a men’s room in the Minneapolis airport for playing footsy with a guy who turned out to be a cop that Craig said he would resign his position, and then he didn’t. 

Bill Clinton shamed the presidency, but Clinton weaseled and waffled and refused to acknowledge the definition of shame. Richard Nixon disgraced the presidency, too, but had the good grace to actually resign amid his shame. Funny, Nixon is looking better and better. 

In Montana, the state Republican Party recently, blatantly and shamelessly, connived to circulate petitions to get Green Party candidates on the ballot for one crass reason: they hope Green Party candidates will siphon off votes from Democrats. A Montana judge ruled the caper illegal saying, “The actions of the Montana GOP and its agents demonstrate that its misrepresentations and failures to disclose in violation of Montana campaign finance law were intentionally designed to create an advantage for the Montana GOP at the expense of unwitting signers.”

The idea of being so completely and publicly shamed was once reason enough for such sleazy political hijinks to be avoided. But shame, sadly, is dead. Meanwhile, the Montana Republican Party is appealing. 

Trump supporting Republican operatives in Wisconsin have been helping Kanye West’s attempt to get on the ballot there as a presidential candidate. They apparently think the addled rapper will draw Black voters from Joe Biden. The cynicism of such a move is trumped only by its blatant disregard of any level of honor or decency. When winning is all you care about the shame of being disreputable is merely an inconvenience. 

An Idaho state senator made national headlines this week when he advocated a measure to prohibit the state’s public health districts from closing schools. “Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach and I’m very fearful of an elitist approach,” Republican Steven Thayn said. “I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say, ‘Well. We’re doing it for the public good.’”

Once such spectacular stupidity – Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott Mcintosh called it “one of the dumbest yet most telling statements ever made by an Idaho politician” – would have led to calls for Thayn’s resignation, or he might have been shamed by the laughter associated with any mention of his name. But without shame such mental giants just roll on. 

Shame made a brief, but undoubtedly fleeting comeback, in the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the once and almost certain future president of Liberty University. Falwell, a huge Trump supporter among the white evangelicals who embrace the president, bounded into the news recently with his pants unzipped, holding a drink, with his arm around a woman not his wife. Falwell first tried to explain away conduct that had he been a student could have gotten him expelled from his own school. Falwell took an extended leave of absence. 

It wasn’t Falwell’s first flirtation with unseemliness. As the conservative writer David French pointed out: “It’s easy to get inoculated against outrageous public conduct in the age of Trump, but even by the new standards, Falwell’s public conduct was simply extraordinary for a Christian leader.” 

But don’t count Falwell out just yet. Shame is dead. It had a good run. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other stories that you may find of interest…

The Unraveling of America

Anthropologist Wade Davis – he teaches at the Univeristy of British Columbia – assesses the end of the American era. From Rolling Stone:

“The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.” 

Insightful…and depressing. Read the whole piece.


The Long Hollowing Out of the American Middle Class

Almost a companion piece here from Jim Tankersley, a tax and economics reporter for the New York Times, who has a new book on what has happened to the middle class in America. Here’s an excerpt

“The brutality of the financial crisis and its aftermath has obscured, in retrospect, just how lousy the preceding decade was for American workers. Even before the crisis hit, the 2000s had produced the slowest job growth, in percentage terms, of any decade since the 1930s. From January 2000 through the eve of the crisis, in late 2007, the country shed a fifth of its manufacturing jobs—more than 3.5 million of them.

“North Carolina lost nearly a third of its factory jobs in that time. The recession made it worse: by the summer of 2013, there were almost 400,000 fewer North Carolinians working in factories than there had been two decades before. The share of the state’s workers who held manufacturing jobs had been cut in half.”

Read the full piece


The Biggest Trump Financial Mystery? Where He Came Up With the Cash for His Scottish Resorts.

Russ Choma writes in Mother Jones about one more Trump mystery:

“His large expenditures in Scotland were notable because they came during a rocky financial stretch for Trump. The year before purchasing the Aberdeenshire estate, he was ousted as CEO of his thrice-bankrupted casino business; in 2008, he defaulted on a large Deutsche Bank loan tied to a development in Chicago.

“Like other Trump wagers, his Scottish gamble has so far not worked out. Both resorts are bleeding millions annually.”

Outstanding reporting. Spoiler alert: Some in Scotland suspect money laundering.

Read the full piece.


The Night Manager

A break from pandemics and American politics for a little illegal Middle Eastern arms sales.

Just finished watching the TV adaptation of John le Carre’s novel The Night Manager. It’s really good.

Now streaming on Amazon.

Thanks for following along. Stay well.

Iraq, Politics, Trump

Thank You For Your Service

For decades the national Republican Party literally owned the political debate over national security issues. Polls repeatedly indicated that American voters trusted Republicans more to properly handle military and foreign policy.Republicans ruthlessly — and occasionally shamelessly — exploited this advantage.

In his 1976 vice presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Republican Bob Dole infamously referred to “Democrat wars” and then he denied he had said it. “I figured up the other day,” Dole really did say. “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”

Walter Mondale and Bob Dole debate in 1976.

The implication was clear, if altogether sleazy: Democrats caused wars and Republicans prevented them. That logic mostly held until George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 on what turned out to be false pretenses. We still have troops there, but they long ago gave up searching for weapons of mass destruction.

Polls now show that Americans are tired of what the president calls “endless wars,” which predicated his slipshod decisions of the last month to abandoned longtime Kurdish allies and create a foreign policy in the Middle East that changes hour-by-hour, based on the latest Twitter messages from the White House.

Republicans once owned the “we support the troops” trope as well, even if they occasionally slimed an opponent with a service record. You could at this point Google “swiftboating” or just remember a U.S. senator from Georgia by the name of Max Cleland.

Cleland was a wheelchair-confined Vietnam veteran who was elected to the Senate in 1996. He lost an arm and both legs at age 25 when another soldier’s hand grenade exploded near him. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Silver Star and spent much of his Senate career working on veterans and security issues. When Cleland ran for reelection in 2002 his Republican opponent, a nonentity named Saxby Chambliss, broadcast one of the sleaziest attack ads in recent political history.

Georgia Democrat Max Cleland lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Republicans attacked him for being soft on national defense.

Cleland, the veteran without legs and missing one arm thanks to his service to the nation, was depicted in the ad along with photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The message: The Democrat was “soft” on national security. John McCain was one of the few Republicans to condemn the slander, calling it “worse than disgraceful. It’s reprehensible.”

Cleland lost.

Still, Republicans continued to claim the mantle of support for veterans, at least until Donald Trump shredded all pretense of trying to uphold that fiction.It was a remarkable moment this week when a combat veteran of five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a career military officer with a master’s degree from Harvard who has also served abroad in three different U.S. embassies and on the staff of the Joint Chiefs, came to Capitol Hill.

By now everyone knows that Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who at age 3 emigrated from Ukraine with his parents, actually listened to the now infamous telephone call Trump held in July with the president of Ukraine.

Vindman confirmed, according to his written testimony, that Trump sought help from a foreign government to collect dirt on a U.S. citizen and political opponent. Vindman also confirmed what many suspected, the public version of the White House “transcript” of the call was incomplete.

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives on Capitol Hill to offer testimony about “the call” with the president of Ukraine.

Trump signaled in his very stable genius Twitter account that the military officer assigned to his National Security Council staff, who is the council’s Ukraine expert, was a nonentity who the president had never met, but was nonetheless branded “Never Trump.”

The Trumpian universe of apologists, enablers and sycophants took the cue and within minutes Vindman, who was wounded in Iraq, was trashed as an unworthy immigrant, a man with, as former GOP Congressman Sean Duffy said on CNN, “an affinity for the Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country, and he wants to make sure they’re safe and free.”

Or put another way, a guy who has chosen to make his career one of service to the United States, who has a twin brother who is also an Army colonel, who is an expert on that volatile piece of the globe, is somehow because he’s an immigrant a suspect patriot. And because Vindman believes the president acted improperly, he’s suitable to attack.

The reprehensible Laura Ingraham, a Fox News Trump toady of the first order, went even farther and without a scintilla of evidence. “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the Ukraine, apparently against the president’s interest. … Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle to this story?”

Ingraham’s guest, a lawyer named John Yoo, who will be remembered, if at all, for authoring the memos providing legal justification for George W. Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” methods, suggested Vindman might somehow be involved in “espionage.”

In fairness to Yoo, which is more than he offered a decorated military officer, he later tried to walk back his comments, saying they had been deliberately misconstrued. (Yoo also misspelled the colonel’s name three times in his statement, but then little mistakes are inevitable when you slander on the fly.)

For Trump, the American military is just another prop, convenient for a photo op or to soak up the deference the military affords any president. It’s the individual accomplishment and sacrifice he disparages and the list of people who have served that have received his insults is as long as his own military record is short.

No one in the Idaho congressional delegation — to a man deeply concerned about due process for the president — rose this week to defend a military man slimed in the rightwing echo chamber. And we’ll almost certainly see most Republican officeholders quietly go along with these outrages because that’s what they do in the Age of Trump.

Trump is like many Americans who enjoy the little rituals that indicate we support the troops. We gladly let them board a flight first and maybe even mutter “thank you for your service.” But most of us are as removed from Americans in uniform as Trump is from the bone spurs that kept him from Vietnam.

Trump — and most of his followers — value “the troops” in the abstract; it’s the reality of the principled, ethical Gen. Jim Mattis, or Gen. H.R. McMaster, Sen. John McCain, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Ambassador William Taylor or Lt. Col. Vindman that they hate.

Idaho Politics, Oregon, Politics

Show Up, Ask a Question…

Republican Congressman Greg Walden represents a vast swath of Oregon in the House of Representatives. His huge district stretches from the Snake River canyon along the Idaho-Oregon border to the Nevada state line and then west to Medford, at the crest of the Cascades. 

Walden, who has been in Congress for 20 years and has never won re-election with less than 56% of the vote, represents an area more than eight times larger than the state of New Jersey. Walden spent August, euphemistically called “the district work period” for members of Congress, actually working, and driving. 

Republican Congressman Greg Walden at a town hall meeting 2017 in Hood River, Oregon

Walden held town hall meetings in such exotic places as Heppner and Burns; he met with constituents at the fire hall in Arlington and talked politics at Bob’s Texas T-Bone restaurant in Rufus. Maybe 250 Oregonians live in Rufus and I’m guessing most of them show up at Bob’s – the food was great and the waitress was “awesome” according to a recent Facebook review – with some regularity. 

Walden, and for that matter the rest of the Oregon congressional delegation, are unlike most members of Congress. They regularly subject themselves to unscripted interaction with their constituents. Walden has held more than 15 town hall meetings since June, more than any other member of the House, and they are not always mild-mannered affairs. 

As Oregon Public Radio reported on Walden’s town hall in Burns: “Harney County resident Lynn McClintock told Walden ‘our economy is becoming weaker because of these [tariffs], farms are struggling and the immigration is being impacted, too, with visas to get them to come and work in these fields.’”

Walden tap danced on the immigration part of the question, but admitted the Trump tariffs were hurting wheat farmers and damaging trade with Japan, but he defended the administration’s tough stand against China. In other words he explained himself one-on-one without a filter, where people could read his body language and gauge for themselves whether he was waffling or leveling. 

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden – he has served in the Senate since 1996 and before that was a member of the House – is the king of town halls. After constituent meetings in August in Beaverton, Corvallis, Newport, Bend and east Portland, Wyden now counts 926 town hall meetings since he became a senator. He has long pledged – and actually does – visit every one of Oregon’s 36 counties for a town hall every year. 

Senator Ron Wyden has done more than 900 town hall meetings, including this one in a community college gymnasium in Albany, Oregon in 2017

I’ve attend a couple of Wyden’s meetings in Tillamook and Astoria, where the senator packed the local high school auditorium, made no speech, but instead took every question – many were pointed and specific – for more than an hour. 

At Wyden’s town hall in Tillamook County in January – it was a Saturday afternoon and 80 or so people were on hand – the very first question was about Wyden’s support for something called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a confusing piece of legislation dealing with third-party boycotts of Israel. The questioner was measured but firm: if Wyden continued to support the legislation he would never, ever get the guy’s vote again. 

Wyden explained his position, in no way satisfied his questioner and then took the next question, and so it went for an hour. There were questions about climate change, local fishing, the Mueller investigation and water quality in Rockaway. A couple of times Wyden reminded the crowd that anyone was welcome to ask a question and he appreciated all the questions, even when someone took issue with him. It was an afternoon of small-d “democracy.” 

“There is no better way to empower citizens than to throw open the doors,” Wyden told Politico last year. “The founding fathers never had in mind that this would just be a spectator sport.”

In many ways Oregon is the political flip side of Idaho. Greg Walden is the only Republican in the Congressional delegation and Democrats dominate state offices and the legislature. But, Oregon is different from Idaho in at least one other way. Federal elected officials in Oregon routinely engage with their constituents in wide-open, no-holds-bared encounters. 

That almost never happens in Idaho. You can search the official websites of Senator Jim Risch and Congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson and find no record of the kind of town hall that is routine in Oregon. 

Give Senator Mike Crapo credit for being all over Idaho in August with events from Cataldo to Corral, but it’s been a cold day in August since Crapo did an event like Walden and Wyden do almost every month. 

Of course Idahoans who live in smaller, rural communities deserve the attention of a United States senator, and Crapo deserves credit for going places where other politicians can’t be bothered, but a visit to the fire department in Cavendish isn’t quite like taking question from anyone who shows up in downtown Lewiston, the north end of Boise or the high school in Pocatello. 

Turns out the Idaho delegation are a lot more like the rest of Congress than is the Oregon delegation. There are politicians like Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican in the Senate, who makes a point of visiting every Iowa county – there are 99 of them – every year for a town hall. Grassley gets asked about his support for repealing Obamacare or rubber-stamping judicial nominees, yet he keeps showing up and has for 40 years. 

But Grassley, Wyden and Walden are exceptions. Risch, Fulcher and Simpson are the norm. 

I reached out to Walden recently to get a comment about all his town halls, but when his communications director realized I might compare Walden’s approach to that of his GOP colleagues in Idaho she demurred. “I do not think we are going to be able to provide a quote at this time for the article since the Idaho delegation are close friends of Greg’s,” she wrote in an email. 

In other words, Walden didn’t want to show up his pals, but it seems like he already has. 

It makes you wonder if respect for Congress and regard for our political system would improve if elected members of Congress just showed up once in a while and answered questions from people they theoretically work for. 

2020 Election, Politics, Trump

Have We No Decency…

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968. 

An inflection point. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same. 

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy. 

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man. 

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it. 

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized. 

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won? 

A litany of high crimes and misdemeanors

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few. 

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road. 

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along. 

A history of the GOP over the last decade: internal strife, power politics and willingness to accept Donald Trump

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.) 

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made. 

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions. 

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.” 

Federal Budget, Politics

Our Grandkids are Going to Hate Us…

House and Senate leaders and the president apparently reached a two-year budget agreement this week that increases federal spending by $320 billion, and conveniently for everyone running for re-election next year extends the debt limit until after the 2020 election. The deal also does away with budget caps placed in law in 2010, but regularly ignored since. 

The sound you hear is the nation’s fiscal can tumbling down the road, while in the background you can detect the not-so-faint odor of political hypocrisy. A review of the numbers provides some stunning figures that our grandkids are going to hate us for. 

McConnell: the gravedigger of American democracy

Discretionary federal spending is growing at a substantially faster rate than it did under Barack Obama and by the Trump Administration’s own estimates the deficit for the current year will top $1 trillion. It was $799 billion last year and $587 billion in Obama’s last full year in office. The total national debt was about $19 trillion when Obama left office and it went past $22 trillion this month. Our grandkids are going to hate us. 

Yet, cynicism in defense of partisan advantage is no vice apparently. White House officials confirmed to the Washington Post recently that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told the president of the United States in the run-up to the budget and debt deal: “no politician had ever lost office for spending more money.” 

It’s not for lack of good reason that McConnell has been called “the gravedigger of American democracy.” According to polls in his home state he seen as the most despised member of the Senate, which if you think about it is quite a distinction. In a statement touting the new budget deal McConnell made no mention of the deficit or debt, but he did applaud spending increases for military establishments in his state. 

The U.S. defense budget, meanwhile, seems to be the only place where no increase is too large to warrant bipartisan support. Long gone are the days when members of Congress actually debated whether the Air Force needed a new plane or the Navy a new aircraft carrier. The U.S. now spends more on defense than the next six countries combined. When did you last hear a deficit hawk squawk about that?  

Both parties, of course, share blame for the national fiscal mess, but for sheer hypocrisy it’s tough to beat the GOP and guys like McConnell and Idaho’s Mike Crapo. Eight months ago McConnell called the ballooning deficit “very disturbing” and said too much spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were to blame. Not to blame, according to McConnell, the massive GOP tax cuts that every honest person knows has made the mess worse. 

Erick Erickson, the flame throwing conservative pundit, actually said something important about all this. “No leaders in Washington want to restore any fiscal sanity,” Erickson wrote, “Why is it always only a [Democrat] in the White House and [Republicans] in Congress that get us fiscal sanity, i.e. [Bill] Clinton balanced budget & sequestration under Obama?” Or, put another way, for Republicans deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House. . 

“Deficit hawk,” but what has he really done?

Crapo has literally built his political brand on being a deficit hawk. He still has a national debt counter on his official website. That counter has clicked often enough to add several hundred thousand dollars in new debt in the time it takes you to read this column. The clever visual is meant to display Crapo’s deep concern about the nation’s fiscal trajectory, but you have to ask yourself what has Mike Crapo really done to address his signature issue? 

He still touts his involvement with the Simpson-Bowles Commission back in the Obama era, but that once promising effort collapsed when Obama realized congressional Republicans would automatically reject anything, even spending cuts married to tax increases, that he endorsed. Crapo did endorse the Simpson-Bowles framework, but when it all fell apart he meekly acquiesced to McConnell’s determination to never give Obama a victory – on anything. The Idaho senator might have used his seniority – he’s 15th in Senate years of service having been there for 20 years – and worked to fashion his own bipartisan solution. That’s what legislators used to do. He didn’t.  

Meanwhile, Crapo has never met a deficit increasing tax cut that he didn’t like. When Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff – the co-chairs of the fiscal commission – predicted that the 2017 tax cut legislation was “reckless” and would worsen the fiscal picture, adding $1.4 trillion in new debt, Crapo dismissed their concern

The tax cuts we now know went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans and to corporations that have largely used the windfall to buy back stock thereby enriching shareholders and CEO’s. Nevertheless, Crapo predicted the tax cuts “will ignite our economy with levels of growth not seen in generations.” Nope, but they did help grow the deficit. 

Crapo recently said the solution to the deficit and debt problems required us “to address the drivers of spending, and frankly those drivers are the mandatory spending programs in the federal government. That’s where we need reform.” OK, where’s the plan? No Republican, including Crapo, has offered a serious plan. 

Fast forward to this week where Crapo hasn’t commented on the latest deal, but for those who have been paying attention for any length of time it’s pretty easy to see where he is going. 

When the deal comes to the Senate floor Crapo will take the one vote on which he’s willing to buck Donald Trump. He’ll vote against the deal, as will Idaho’s other Senator James Risch. In doing so they will literally have their spending cake and eat it, too. 

If Crapo and Risch stay true to form they’ll issue sober statements lamenting the growing debt and deficit and then come back to Idaho and tout some new spending at the Idaho National Laboratory or Mountain Home Air Force Base. As long as you can say you voted against the spending, while also being confident the spending will occur you’re ready for the next election. 

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Politics

The Fault Is Ours…

This piece first appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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Historians, philosophers and ethicists have been debating for nearly 60 years – perhaps longer really – the notion that a person can do evil without being evil. That question is at the heart of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who implemented Hitler’s slaughter of six million Jews during World War II. 

Eichmann was abducted from his Argentine hiding place in 1960, taken to Jerusalem, tried for war crimes and executed in 1962. Arendt covered Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker and found the defendant to be a rather ordinary, unassuming little man. Thomas White wrote about what Arendt called “the banality of evil,” and says she found Eichmann “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal” acting “without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy.” 

It is an interesting – and still controversial – notion: that “normal people” are capable of abnormal, even horrible things in service to their own ambition, or perhaps due to their inability to assess the moral dimensions of their actions.

Watching the recent viral video of a U.S. Justice Department attorney appearing before a panel of three federal judges and being unwilling to say that migrant children in government custody being denied basic sanitation, soap and a toothbrush, or a decent place to sleep was unacceptable left me thinking again about Hannah Arendt’s theory. 

And before you think that I’m equating a government lawyer with a bureaucrat of the Holocaust, I’m not. The question is rather about the human capacity, even the need, to look the other way, to disengage, to accept the unacceptable, to reduce what we all know to be wicked, wrong or malicious to, well, the banal, the commonplace. 

A bumper sticker was in wide circulation some years ago: “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” It should make a comeback. 

The fault is in all of us. We too easily become numb to an outrage, a scandal, a violation of norms and traditions, particularly if it all fits comfortably with an otherwise settled and pleasant personal opinion. 

Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate and senator from California, for example, recently said if she happens to become president she wants to see that the Justice Department goes “forward with those obstruction of justice charges” against Donald Trump. Harris was roundly criticized, as she should have been, for saying, as the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes wrote, “that as president you would supervise that person’s prosecution, as Harris did, is poisonous stuff in a democracy that cares about apolitical law enforcement.”

Trump, of course, has done the same thing by encouraging “lock her up” chants at his rallies and suggesting that his political opponents should be investigated or in jail. That Trump would engage in such poisonous stuff is wrong and that a Democrat would mimic the poison is just as wrong. You cannot accept one and condemn the other unless you have become numb to outrage. 

When the president of the United States was once again credibly accused – actually for the 22nd time – of sexual assault, a crime he actually admitted to in the infamous Access Hollywood tape, there was a collective yawn. Many major news organizations barely covered the story, even when Trump dismissed the allegation bizarrely saying: “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”

One of the great normalizers of the abnormal in our times, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, simply said: “He’s denied it and that’s all I needed to hear.” Graham, of course, had a much different reaction to Trump’s comments in that infamous videotape in 2016: “Name one sports team, university, publicly-held company, etc. that would accept a person like this as their standard bearer,” he said. That was then. This is now. 

“When you know you can lie constantly and effectively not be held accountable,” the commentator John Ziegler wrote recently, “it is like an offensive line in football free to break any rule they want, secure that even if they get called for holding, the penalty will not be enforced.” 

We believe what we want to believe and we discount the lies we find at odds with what we want to believe. We casually dismiss a troubling outrage if confronting it requires a reckoning with our own values. In such a situational world the inconvenient is just a temporary nuisance. How else to explain a government official justifying keeping kids in abhorrent conditions as if the government had no power to change those conditions?  

Saudi journalist Jamil Khashoggi, murdered by the regime to which the U.S. is selling weapons

Or a Saudi journalist working for an American newspaper is brutally murdered with credible evidence the Saudi crown prince was involved, but those inconvenient facts aren’t allowed to stand in the way of selling billions in military equipment to a profoundly corrupt Saudi government. An Idaho politician is in a key position to make a stink. His silence is deafening. 

The chief executive repeatedly demeans the head of the Federal Reserve, undermining more than 100 years of tradition that the country’s central bank is insolated from political interference. An Idahoan chairs the key Senate committee that plays a critical role in ensuring that independence. He has never said a word, let alone used his influence to affect such behavior. 

A top Democratic appointee in Idaho state government, a state tax commissioner, mysteriously is placed on “administrative leave” and just as mysteriously returns. No explanation is offered. No accountability is demanded. Democrats are silent. Republicans are mute. 

Offer a hundred other examples of the normalization of outrage from the perspective of your own worldview, but also ask why is any of this acceptable? Why has such behavior on so many levels in so many ways become banal? 

The fault, as the bard so eloquently wrote, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. If you’re not outraged, you really are not paying attention. 

Boise, GOP, Human Rights, Politics

Focus…

It is often said – and correctly so – that we live in tumultuous times. Our devices spew forth a never-ending avalanche of information, much of it of dubious veracity. The “news cycle” is non-stop, populated by presidential tweets and cable news talking heads that aim not to inform, but mostly seek to agitate and “win” the narrative story line of the day. 

The wheat is easily lost in the chaff. Disinformation and misinformation flourish. It can seem impossible to keep up or make sense and it is increasingly likely that we miss the important, while overwhelmed by the irrelevant. 

Here are three stories that hit my screen in the last week, stories that seem to me to demand urgent attention and comprehensive political action.

The Brookings Institution rolled out a study of four U.S. cities last week, Boise included, that is both fascinating and sobering. In a nutshell the study finds that Boise’s economic engine, the principle power behind Idaho’s sustained economic growth, is fragile and subject to collapse. 

Boise: Prosperity may be fleeting

The goose that laid the golden egg for the Idaho economic has been high tech, but Brookings starkly notes, in language you rarely hear from Idaho policy makers, that the goose is ailing. Hewlett Packard, which once employed 7,000 in the Boise Valley, now has 1,500. Micron, the homegrown success story, has half the 12,000 workers it paid at its peak. And, “despite Idaho’s generous state subsidies and a long local history as a darling firm in Boise, Micron chose Manassas, Virginia for its newest expansion, a $3 billion dollar investment expected to create about 1,000 jobs.”

“Recent economic growth has primarily come from non-tradable service sectors rather than from growth-sustaining, export-driven sectors,” the Brookings researchers said. “Population growth resulted in part from retirees who drive housing prices, but who have less incentive to fund public goods such as education and workforce development.” 

And, not surprisingly, at all levels Idaho’s woefully inadequate educational system is in no way ready to support the kind of jobs that can continue to fuel the state’s economic growth. The Brookings study said “the Idaho Department of Labor projects 49,000 unfilled jobs by 2024, 36,000 of them in science, technology, engineering, and math,” but that the state produced only 2,000 graduates in those fields in 2016. Little wonder decent jobs flow to places with better educational stories to tell. 

Idaho’s much ballyhooed efforts to improve college graduation rates have been a demonstrable failure. As Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Reichert noted recently, “With a completion rate mired at 42 percent, Idaho has made little progress toward the 60 percent threshold.” Even if Idaho some how sees a dramatic improvement in college completion rates it likely can’t meet high-tech needs that Reichert said “might take a completion rate approaching 80 percent.”

The second story, with a Spokane dateline, might not seem all that connected to the Brookings study about the state’s fragile future economy, but it is. Associated Press reporter Nicholas K. Geranios’s story was about how far-right extremist groups have never really left northern Idaho and eastern Washington despite the fact that two decades ago, the high profile Aryan Nation’s compound near Hayden Lake was wiped off the map. 

A street sweeper follows a parade led by white supremacist Richard Butler, riding in car with megaphone, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2000, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Aryan Nations leader Butler filed for bankruptcy on Monday, Oct. 30, days before he was to relinquish control of his 20-acre compound to satisfy part of a civil rights lawsuit. (AP Photo/Tom Davenport, File)

Idaho’s national image, with direct impact on the state’s economic vitality, has too often in the past been linked to white supremacist and hate groups. It still is and, at some level, support for those on the dangerous fringe has gone mainstream, or at least what passes for mainstream, in the region’s Republican Party leadership. 

“In the county that is home to Hayden Lake,” Geranios wrote, “Republicans last month passed a measure expressing support for U.S. entry of a prominent Austrian far-right activist who was investigated for ties to the suspected New Zealand mosque gunman.” 

The woman who made the request of Kootenai County Republicans “was a big promoter of the hoax known as ‘Pizzagate,’ telling her online followers Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats were involved in satanic rituals and child sex trafficking tied to a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.” That conspiracy theory, completely debunked of course, is still being widely promoted by various right wing media outlets. 

That Republican Party officials would traffic in such nonsense is cause for profound concern and should immediately be repudiated from the highest levels, including from Gov. Brad Little. That GOP leaders haven’t disowned such behavior will only encourage more extremists to be more extreme.

The third story is related to the second. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) made a deep dive into various efforts to influence the recent European Union elections by what it called “tactical adoption of the ‘Putin playbook’ by non-state actors, from far right online militias to populist parties in their use of automated influence operations.” In other words, far right actors are continuing with renewed determination to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and, as special counsel Robert Mueller made crystal clear this week concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election, also in the United States. 

ISD is a collection of business, academic and political leaders dedicated to pushing back against those who are “promulgating hate, division and conflict.” The group succinctly described the methods, including campaigns aimed at “distorting the political debate through the promotion of outrage, amplified by social media (often inorganically) and exploiting the traditional media’s desire to appear impartial to seize the agenda.” 

In Europe the groups “build up their own highly partisan media channels” and they “take aim at the courts, forcing judges to retire early as in Poland and Hungary and pack the courts with compliant officers.” 

“Public officials that don’t toe the new regime’s line are sidelined or replaced” often with a campaign of “smearing and intimidation, as happened to the Hungarian central bank governor.” 

If you don’t believe the very foundations of representative democracy are under assault you’re not paying attention. Which closes the circle back to persistent inadequate attention to education. Without better education at every level, combined with knowledge of how to discern facts from disinformation, we risk being overwhelmed by our tumultuous times. 

We must focus on what’s important. 

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on May 31, 2019)

American Presidents, Politics, Trump

One Speaks Up…

One of the great ironies of modern American conservatism is that the party that claims to champion “limited government” is really in a constant push to expand the scope and power of the executive branch. 

It amounts to the political equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


F. Scott Fitzgerald, holding two opposing ideas in mind…
(From the “Sight Unseen” exhibit at the George Latimer Library in downtown St. Paul)

The concept – expanding the power of the presidency, while seeking to limit power everywhere else in government – may not equate to “first-rate intelligence,” but it certainly has become the mantra of a host of Republicans dating back to at least the presidency of Richard Nixon. 

Nixon, of course, made the laughable claim that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” The same logic was applied when then-Vice President Dick Cheney adamantly refused to disclose whom he was consulting with in crafting an energy policy during the George W. Bush administration. Even more importantly Cheney invoked the concept of an ever-expanding power of the executive when he aggressively defended a president’s power to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant. 

Remembering what he saw as a diminishment of presidential power during the post-Watergate period and during his time as chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney questioned whether Congress had erred in creating the War Powers Act, a 1973 response to presidential overreach in Southeast Asia. The law was “an infringement upon the authority of the president.” Cheney said, and may be “unconstitutional.” Never mind that the Constitution grants the exclusive power to declare war to Congress. 

The effort to expand and then defend executive power has found a new conservative champion in Attorney General Bill Barr. “I don’t know anyone that has a more robust view of inherent presidential authority than Bill Barr,” says Walter Dellinger, who, like Barr, once ran the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. “There is nobody who is to his right on this issue.”

The president’s chief defender Attorney General Bill Barr

After 40 years of diligent work in and out of government by conservatives like Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and one-time Solicitor General Robert Bork, among others, Barr’s views of presidential power are widely shared by most on the political right.

Yet, these are many of the same people who decried Barack Obama’s widespread and often questionable use of “executive authority” on all manner of policy where he could not convince Congress to act. Conservatives still bemoan, and correctly so, the expansion of presidential power when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the “imperial presidency” in order to respond to the Great Depression. Yet, most conservatives acquiesced – the entire Idaho delegation included – with hardly a whimper when Donald Trump declared a “national emergency” and unconstitutionally appropriated money to build his border wall. 

Which brings us to the news of the week. A Republican congressman from Michigan, once a Tea Party darling, defied his party and came to the conclusion that anyone who has dispassionately read the Mueller report would reach. In fact, more than 800 former U.S. Justice Department officials have come to the same conclusion. The president did attempt to obstruct justice to derail the investigation into Russian election meddling and was clearly open to “collusion” even as the special counsel determined the threshold of proving a conspiracy was difficult to meet. Crossing the threshold, of course, was made more difficult, even impossible, by Trump’s own refusal to be interviewed and his active efforts to prevent others from talking or telling the truth. 

“They say there were no underlying crimes,” Republican Congressman Justin Amash said in a Tweet that will surely find its way into the history books. “In fact, there were many crimes revealed by the investigation, some of which were charged, and some of which were not but are nonetheless described in Mueller’s report.”

Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Amash, it must be remembered, was described in March of this year, as “probably one of the most, if not the most consistent and honorable members of Congress that I met in the eight years I was there. He always outlined what he believes in, why he believes in the things that he does and why he makes the decisions that he makes.”

The former Republican congressman who said that was Raul Labrador.

The president of course immediately denounced Amash, the House Freedom Caucus rumbled about how misguided he is and the minority leader made noises about his party loyalty. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this week that the chief magistrate is not above the law   even as he continues to “fight all the subpoenas,” refused to allow even former White House staffers to testify before Congress and, predictably, fights a legitimate request by a congressional committee to review his tax returns, which he promised repeatedly before the election to release. A man not hiding something doesn’t work so hard to hide something. 

The attorney general, now largely serving as the president’s personal lawyer rather than the nation’s top law enforcement official, seeks to limit the legitimate investigation of a president plausibly implicated in real crimes. But the argument is a chimera, a constitutional illusion that actually amounts to yet more obstruction of justice. 

If you’re a Trump partisan try to put those sentiments aside for a moment and pull out your copy of the Constitution. Ask yourself just two questions. If the name attached to the facts so obvious to Rep. Amash were Obama or Clinton would you see all of this differently? Would the assertions of presidential authority, the idea that the president isn’t answerable to Congress or really to anyone, would this wholesale resistance to transparency be as palatable then? 

James Madison, that fussy old Founder, wrote about this in Federalist 51: “If [people] were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern [people], neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The Constitution wasn’t written for angels. It was written to constrain the ugly impulses of men and presidents.

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(This piece originally appeared in the May 24, 2019 edition of the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)

History, Politics, Trump

Too Smart to be President…

I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”

“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.

The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.