Uncategorized

Ginsburg, the Senate and the Court

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

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 

——

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

Associated Press story from 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—-

Uncategorized

Trumpism or Democracy…

Historians on American political history will spill a lot of ink over the next couple of decades as they try to make sense of how the Republican Party in a virtual wink of the eye became the party of Donald Trump.

That the transformation of the party happened so quickly – a political movement that as recently as 2012 championed free trade, sought to widen its appeal to Americans of color, venerated the free market, embraced quaint concepts like congressional oversight, rejected government by executive order and stood convinced of the evils of a conniving Russian dictator – is an historical curiosity. 

Political parties evolve, after all. Republicans once embraced the sunny, “shining city on a hill” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the “compassionate conservativism” of George W. Bush. Now the party of deficit hawks controls the White House and the Senate and, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, also presides over a government debt that “is on track to exceed the size of the economy for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, a milestone not hit since World War II that has been brought into reach by a giant fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Donald Trump debates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in 2016, back when most GOP officeholders held nothing by disdain for the man who now owns their party

And to be fair to historic transformations, Democrats were once defined, before they shook off the stain by embracing civil rights, as a party of segregationist southerners. Democrats, profoundly shaken by the failure of their elites to prevent the American tragedy in southeast Asia, for a time swore off military intervention until most in the party supported George W. Bush going into Iraq

Still, the bobs and weaves of Democrats have been subtle compared to the GOP. Despite the preferred Trump rhetoric that nominee Joe Biden is captive to the radical left wing of the party, the reality is that Biden defeated handily the candidate of the “radical” left in the primaries and he’s rejected the most left leaning policy positions, including a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Biden has succeeded where Republicans who once loathed Trump have failed. He has pushed back against his own extremes. 

That the Republican party’s elected officials – almost to a person – countenanced the transformation of their party, indeed embraced it – is the more interesting question and the more difficult to answer.

One explanation holds that the party’s base came to disdain, after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the so called political “elites,” the people who led the country into a disastrous war in Iraq and couldn’t keep Democrats from passing the Affordable Care Act, which almost every Republican officeholder, and of course Trump, said should be repealed and replaced by a vastly better approach. 

You might remember that Trump said during a July 19 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he would be signing of a “full and complete” health-care plan within two weeks. Of course, it was just talk in the same category as Mexico building a wall, being tough on Putin, presiding over the greatest economy ever, releasing his tax returns and draining the swamp

So, the party’s base rejecting traditional Republican positions for fanciful predictions, conspiracy theories and overt appeals to white nationalism goes some way to explaining the Trump takeover. But how to explain the vast wake of condemnation by Republicans of Trump before he finalized the leveraged takeover of the GOP in 2016? 

Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of Trump then: he is a ‘pathological liar,” ‘utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” and “a serial philanderer.” 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” who should be expelled from the party. For emphasis, Graham added a prophetic prediction. “Any time you ignore what could become an evil force, you wind up regretting it.”

The list goes on and on. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo said Trump was ‘unfit” and rejected his “disrespectful, profane and demeaning” behavior. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner called Trump’s “flaws … beyond mere moral shortcomings.” Utah’s Senator Mike Lee dismissed Trump as “a distraction,” the same word used by Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. Former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said Trump was “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit.” 

That Trump withstood this intraparty shellacking is simply astounding, but nowhere near as astounding as the willingness of elected Republicans to now embrace what they once so forcefully abhorred. The fullness of the capitulation was in technicolor display at the recent Republican National Convention where for the first time in the party’s long history no party platform was adopted beyond a statement that the party stands for whatever Trump wants to do. 

As near as I can tell Republican officeholders essentially ignored Trump’s coronation for a second term, a spectacle conducted on the White House grounds in clear violation of a law on the books since 1939, while giving a quiet pass to his nonsense about having defeated the pandemic and that he will bring the economy back – a second time. The COVID-19 death toll by election day, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, will likely be close to 250,000 Americans with an unemployment rate in double digits and vast economic transformation underway whose scope and duration are impossible to predict. 

Of Idaho’s federal officeholders, only Simpson had a comment about the GOP convention. He praised not Trump’s Castro-length acceptance speech, but the address of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, one of the least offensive appearances during the entire gruesome spectacle. Otherwise the speeches, the lack of a platform, the future direction of the party of Trump and the policy void brought only silence. 

“Like every person, Trump has his flaws,” a top aide to an Idaho Republican told me recently, before adding “however actions speak louder than words.” A true statement that, and the “Trump has his flaws” comment came before the president explicitly refused to condemnunlike Biden – his supporters including the 17-year-old gun totting urban guerrilla who is charged with two murders in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

If the country survives this election, if the nation survives Trumpism, the Republican Party will be a relic for historians to pick over. As the conservative columnist Mona Charon wrote this week the “true dereliction by Republican elites has come after Trump’s triumph, with their cringing accommodation of his escalating offenses. Only Republicans were in a position to affect Trump’s conduct. Any criticism by Democrats would be dismissed as partisan sniping. Only members of his own party could have upheld crucial standards of democratic governance, and they failed.” 

It is increasingly clear: America can have Trumpism or democracy, the two co-existing together is as unbelievable as what has happened to the Republican Party.

—–0—–

Additional Reading…

Some items I’ve come across recently and found valuable. You may, as well.

Reform, Don’t Destroy, the Filibuster

I’ve been a big fan of Norm Ornstein for a long time. I’m also an historian of the U.S. Senate. The two passions come together in Norm’s current piece in The Atlantic – “The Smart Way to Fix the Filibuster.”

Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

The political left in America wants to eliminate the filibuster and I have to admit I see the point, but I also think the Senate is the great, unique (and flawed) institution in our federal system. And, yes, (unpopular opinion) the filibuster has its place, even though its unfortunately has been badly and tragically misused. Norm has a fix in mind.

“The destruction caused by Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, to our health, environment, economy, and political system, is unprecedented. Undoing it will not be easy no matter the rules or the political composition of Congress. But changing the rules in the Senate is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement to making progress. Fortunately, there are options besides complete elimination of the filibuster rule.”

Read the very thoughtful insights from a great observer of American politics.


Portland and the Pro-Trump Protesters

Protests in Portland, Oregon are as frequent as cloudy days and as ubiquitous as coffee shops. And, yes, there has been some senseless violence, ugly destruction and recently a tragic death. Also many, many peaceful protests demanding racial justice.

What is less well understood about Portland is that various right wing groups are now often showing up – armed – looking for a confrontation. From The Guardian:

“[Recent] events in Portland once again drew the attention of the far-right Proud Boys, who are promoting a rally in the city on 26 September. Further truck rallies are now advertised for 7 and 19 September.

“Saturday’s event was organized by a man presenting himself as ‘Alex Kyzyk’ on Facebook, but whom social media materials, a business website and public records reveal to be Alex Kuzmenko, who has owned real estate and development companies near Boise, Idaho, where he organized a previous, similar rally.”

It is a frightening development. Read the full story.


How Violence Effects the Vote

One more piece here on the politics of violence. This from Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, who writes regularly for the Washington Post. Gerson makes the case that there is no equivalence between the presidential candidates when it comes to how they address violent protest.

“With the support of his party’s establishment, Biden is willing to criticize the hard left even as he is willing to call out police misconduct. Trump, in contrast, has adopted a policy of no enemies to the right. It doesn’t matter if you are a white nationalist, a neo-Confederate, an anti-immigrant zealot or a QAnon true believer; support for Trump is redemption in Trump’s own eyes. In the process, Trump is normalizing beliefs and behaviors that are favorable to the growth of violence.”

Read the full piece.


Philadelphia, 1948

And finally, a really great piece of writing by A.J. Liebling from The New Yorker in August 1948. Liebling, as only he could, covered the Republican and Democratic conventions that year, both held in Philadelphia.

One of the great images in American political history

This, you’ll recall, was the “Dewey beats Truman” election.

It was hot in Philly, a fact, Liebling notes, that every story about the conventions seemed to report in detail.

“The weather situation could have been entirely covered by the addition to the weather box on the first page of some such simple note as ‘Temperature in Philadelphia yesterday: Max. —; Min. —.’ This would have saved many tons of newsprint and God knows how much ink. The interviews with button salesmen and shoeshine boys, the pictures of three young ladies from Wisconsin or four from Kentucky, the column-and-a-half stories about the free compacts distributed at Dewey headquarters, and the like, all derived from what has become a newspaper tradition—devoting labored attention to insignificant details of important events.”

Enjoy.


New book coming…

I’ve been reviewing the page proofs this week of my next book coming early next year from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Tuesday Night Massacre tells the story of four U.S. Senate races in 1980 – the year Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter – that featured for the first time the widespread use of so called independent expenditure campaigns. These independent campaigns, freed to raise and spend unlimited money thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, served to nationalize every subsequent Senate contest and, I believe, helped “radicalize the Republican Party,” while contributing to the dysfunctional Senate we are hampered with today.

More on that soon.

Thanks for following along here and make sure you have a plan to vote. It really never has been more important.

Uncategorized

Why is the senator lying…

Senator Jim Risch is lying to you and it’s not one of those slippery, half-true deceptions that almost all politicians engage in from time to time. 

The junior senator from Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has long been slippery about issues like tax cuts for the wealthy paying for themselves. They don’t.

When Risch brought the Senate to a standstill in 2018 over a proposal to name an Idaho wilderness area after Cecil Andrus, his one-time, but deceased political rival, he said the fuss was over procedure, and not about furthering a long-time grudge. It was a grudge.

Idaho Republican Jim Risch, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee

When Risch said the massive property tax shift he engineered in 2006 wouldn’t hurt the state’s schools – a shift vastly benefiting wealthy landowners like Risch – he was fibbing

But what Risch is lying about now is in an entirely different category from his previous mendacity and deals directly with national security and foreign policy, the very areas Risch has decided to focus on in the Senate. 

When the Senate Intelligence Committee – Risch is the third ranking Republican on the committee – released its fifth and final report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election last week – the bipartisan report is truly exhausting, totaling 966 pages – Risch was the only member of the 15-member committee to vote “no.”

His vote, he said, was based on the assertion that the report “found no evidence” that candidate Donald Trump “colluded or attempted to collude with Russia.” 

But that is not what the report says. Not at all. (Other committee Republicans also adopted the “no collusion claim, but still endorsed the report.) Democrats on the committee said evidence in the report amounted to “the very definition of collusion.”

Here is just some of what the report says in the actual language of the Intelligence Committee

About Paul Manafort, the one-time lobbyist for pro-Putin oligarchs in Ukraine, who ended up chairing Trump’s 2016 campaign and was later was convicted of tax and bank fraud. 

Paul Manafort when he was helping engineer Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016 and while he was sharing the campaign’s secrets with a Russian intelligence agent

“Manafort had direct access to Trump and his Campaign’s senior officials, strategies, and information,” the committee notes, as did [Rick] Gates, the deputy campaign chair, and “Manafort, often with the assistance of Gates, engaged with individuals inside Russia and Ukraine on matters pertaining both to his personal business prospects and the 2016 U.S. election.” 

Manafort had a long-time business relationship with a guy named Konstantin Kilimnik, who was flagged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as a likely Russian intelligence officer. The Senate report flat out states that “Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer” and that Manafort certainly knew that he was a Russian agent. 

The Senate report continues: “On numerous occasions over the course of his time on the Trump campaign, Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information with Kilimnik.” Specifically, Manafort shared with the Russian intelligence agent the most sensitive information any campaign possesses – its internal public opinion polling. This information almost certainly included how the Trump campaign thought Democrat Hillary Clinton could be most successfully attacked and which states, even which precincts, had the most persuadable voters. 

Risch’s committee then writes that “Kilimnik was capable of comprehending the complex polling data,” because of his “significant knowledge of, and experience with” such information. 

In other words, as writers at the Lawfare blog of the Brookings Institution say, “throughout his work on the Trump campaign, Manafort maintained an ongoing business relationship with a Russian intelligence officer, to whom he passed nonpublic campaign material and analysis.” 

Konstantin Kilimnek, Manafort business associate indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller and identified as a Russian spy by the Senate Intelligence Committee

So, what did the Russian agent do with the sensitive polling information? The committee wasn’t able to determine that, primarily because Manafort refused to cooperate and much of his communication with Kilimnik and other Russian actors was done on encrypted devices. But there is a tantalizing hint with the report saying, “the Committee did … obtain a single piece of information that could plausibly be a reflection of Kilimnik’s actions” but the next paragraph of the report is entirely redacted. 

“Manafort’s obfuscation of the truth surrounding Kilimnik was particularly damaging to the Committee’s investigation,” according to the report, “because it effectively foreclosed direct insight into a series of interactions and communications which represent the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”

The Senate report also documents the role of Roger Stone, the guy whose sentence for lying to Congress was commuted by Trump, in the release of stolen Democratic emails. Stone helped coordinate the release of the emails – stolen by Russian intelligence and funneled through Wikileaks – and informed Trump of the fact and the timing. 

[Reminder: Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney called the Stone commutation “unprecedented, historic corruption.”]

“The Committee’s bipartisan Report found that Russia’s goal in its unprecedented hack-and-leak operation against the United States in 2016, among other motives, was to assist the Trump Campaign,” the Senate report states. “Candidate Trump and his Campaign responded to that threat by embracing, encouraging, and exploiting the Russian effort.”

Stop and read that sentence again – “embracing, encouraging and exploiting.”

The report also confirms what many have long suspected, that the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Trump campaign officials, including the president’s oldest son, was known to the campaign as being a Russian government sponsored activity. The meeting involved, the report says, “a Russian lawyer known to have ties to the Russian government, with the understanding that the information [she provided]” was part of the Russian government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The Senate Committee went even further. It’s referred the issue of whether Trump Jr., Steve Bannon and others had lied to Congress about the Trump Tower meeting to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. That matter, it appears, is still pending.

No collusion, or better yet coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia? No nice way to say it: that is a lie.  

You can read the report yourself

The fifth and most important report on the 2016 election released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee

All this begs a large and truly ominous question: why would the senator go to such lengths to deceive his constituents about the content of a report that bipartisan members of his own committee endorsed?

Risch’s only statement on the report makes no mention of Manafort, Stone, Kilimnik, Don Jr. and their clear connections to Russian agents. It is a curious and damning omission given that the Senate report says in black and white: “Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services … represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

Risch, as he loves to remind his constituents, is a former prosecutor. He must know the evidence produced by his own committee is, if not an absolute crime, a collection of the most unethical and democracy threatening actions in American history.

You have to ask yourself why Risch has continued to cover it up, going so far as to lie repeatedly about it, for the last four years? 

If, as the report says, Paul Manafort “represented a grave counterintelligence threat,” what does it say about the Idaho senator who ignores, and in fact lies, about that threat? 

[A footnote: Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, has complained that the report released by the committee contains too many redactions. Wyden further said the “report includes redacted information that is directly relevant to Russia’s interference in the 2020 election.”]

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some additional stories this week that I found interesting and you might as well.

More on Putin and Russia

A new book – Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West – argues that Vladimir Putin has been on a 20-year quest, driven by his essential understanding of the cultural of western democracies, to undermine those democracies in service to creating a new Russian Empire. Author Catherine Belton writes that Putin has a “long-standing cynical view that anyone in the West could be bought, and that commercial imperatives would always outweigh any moral or other concerns.”

A man Donald Trump says he admires – Russia’s Vladimir Putin

The one-time Soviet apparatchik has found willing – or compromised – co-conspirators in British prime minister Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. 

“Trump and Johnson often appear to be puppets in a Russian game. Our election systems on both sides of the Atlantic are endangered, and U.S. and UK government leaders seem to have no urgency about this problem. The Russians are increasingly open about financing political opposition parties they like in the West and supporting authoritarian regimes closer to their borders.”

Two pieces on Belton’s book: One in The Atlantic and another in The American Interest.


Why Trump is Likely to Win Again

I’m not sure I agree with everything in this piece by tech writer Thomas Greene, but he has one thing correct – the Democratic Party has lost and is struggling to win back white, middle class voters in places like Michigan and Wisconsin. 

“Trump will not be defeated by educating voters, by exposing his many foibles and inadequacies. Highlighting what’s wrong with him is futile; his supporters didn’t elect him because they mistook him for a competent administrator or a decent man. They’re angry, not stupid. Trump is an agent of disruption — indeed, of revenge. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has positioned him as a tragic force-multiplier on a scale that few could have predicted, and the result is verging on catastrophic.”

A week in our politics can be a lifetime, which means things charge very rapidly. Still, this is a provocative take on the question of our time. I encourage you to read it all


Biden and the Senate

I’ve written two books now on the United States Senate. (The second will be coming early in 2021 from the University of Oklahoma Press). And I’ve been working on a third book on Senate history that deals with the turbulent 1960s and the two remarkable senators – Democrat Mike Mansfield of Montana and Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois – who led their parties in that era. Despite the turmoil of the decade – civil rights, Vietnam, political assassinations – the Senate still often worked pretty well.

I mention all that as a set up to a very good piece by Janet Hook in the Los Angeles Times. She writes about how the Senate shaped Joe Biden’s view of politics and bipartisanship.

From left: United States Senator and future Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Frank Church (D-ID) and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979

“’I think it’s the greatest institution man has ever created,’ Biden said in a 2011 speech at an institute named for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. ‘I’m still a Senate man. I may be vice president, but it’s still in my blood.’

“He learned the key to getting along with both parties from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), in an admonition Biden frequently quotes today: ‘It’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives.’”

The piece touches on issues that have made me want to write Senate history.


Fly Fishing and Writing

As a struggling fly fisherman and struggling writer, I really enjoyed this audio piece from the New Yorker Radio Hour.

Thomas McGuane, the acclaimed author of “The Sporting Club,” thinks fiction set in the American West could stand to lose some of its ranching clichés. The novelist, a consummate outdoorsman and devoted fisherman, met up with the writer Callan Wink, who recently published his first book of stories and works as a fishing guide on the Yellowstone River.  McGuane and Wink discussed the state of the short story and the late author Jim Harrison, a mutual friend, all while sitting in a fifteen-foot drift boat. And, yes, they caught a few fish, too. 

Listen here.

That’s all I have for the moment. Thanks for reading. Stay in touch and be well.

Uncategorized

Fear and Loathing…

The symmetry is as awful as it was expected. 

In the same week that saw the death of the man with the last, most obvious connection to the non-violent protests that eventually ushered in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s, Donald Trump’s personal federal police force tear gassed protesting moms in Portland, Oregon.

In this Feb. 15, 2011 photo, President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The two events are connected in a tableau that perfectly illustrates the perilous state of American democracy. 

The praise for Georgia Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon and moral consciousness of the often-amoral American political process, was near universal, with earnest commemoration even from many conservative Republicans. For the most part these Republicans never voted with Lewis, but they knew – at least for public consumption – that his righteousness grounded in his personal commitment to decency and in his religious faith transcended partisanship. 

The fleeting praise rings deeply hollow, however, when you consider that Lewis’s great cause – voting rights – has been under persistent attack from Republicans, most distressingly by the conservative majority in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby County case, which gutted key provisions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. That’s the law John Lewis was peacefully marching to support when he was nearly beaten to death in Selma, Alabama.

A young John Lewis, beaten nearly to death, while marching for the vote in Selma, Alabama in 1965

“The decision in Shelby County opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which tracks voting rights issues nationally. “The effects were immediate,” Brennan says. “Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.” 

When the court’s decision was announced, Lewis immediately understood the import. The court, he said, “put a dagger in the very heart of the Voting Rights Act.” And the political murder continues. 

From Republican-led gerrymandering in Wisconsin and North Carolina to blatantly partisan efforts in Georgia and elsewhere to suppress the vote to Donald Trump’s attacks on voting by mail – the type of voting Trump has regularly done himself – the GOP assault on voting has been broad and deep. Moreover, repeated efforts to restore the safeguards removed in the Shelby case have been stonewalled by congressional Republicans, even though most of them, including a unanimous Senate in 2006, supported extending the law for 25 years.

Republicans, now cozy in Trump’s party that celebrates white nationalism and increasing authoritarianism, can’t abide more Americans voting, or voting more easily. The country’s changing demographics spell doom for a party built on aging white voters, so for Republicans clinging to power means making sure Americans outside the GOP demographic are marginalized. And what better way to weaken their commitment to democracy than by making voting harder, or even impossible. 

All this will come home to roost in November amid an out of control pandemic when GOP efforts to delegitimize voting by mail and limit polling places collides with a deeply polarized electorate fearful for its health, wealth and security. That Trump explicitly refuses to say he’ll accept the election outcome should chill every American spine. The Civil War, after all, began over one section of the nation refusing to accept the outcome of a presidential election in a country where millions were denied not only the vote, but citizenship. 

Meanwhile, desperate to redirect the gnat-like attention span of too many Americans away from his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump has sent his own special paramilitary force on to the streets of Portland, Oregon, allegedly to protect federal buildings. Yet, in the incompetent and improvisational way that characterizes the president’s every action, the overwhelmingly peaceful anti-racism protests in Portland, now headed nightly by hundreds of women in yellow t-shirts, have only grown amid the federal presence; a presence strongly condemned by local officials.

Portland’s nightly protests have only grown larger with the insertion of federal paramilitary personnel

And well it should be condemned. America has no national police force, even if Trump hopes to turn the Department of Homeland Security into one. It is the very definition of un-American to dispatch unidentified federal agents to an American city to spirit protesters off the streets and hustle them away in unmarked vans. This is the nightmare of Pinochet’s Chile or Putin’s Russia.

And presidents don’t unilaterally insert federal agents into communities without the consent and advice of authorities on the ground. As The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote recently, “Trump appears to be trying to do something novel in this country: establishing a force like interior ministries in other countries.”

One of the few Republicans willing to condemn what Oregon Senator Ron Wyden calls Trump’s “jackboot goons” is the first secretary of Homeland Security, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. “The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism,” Ridge told a radio interviewer. “It was not established to be the president’s personal militia.”

I’m old enough to remember when every Republicans would have been appalled by Trump’s Portland stunt, which is so far out of the mainstream of what was once considered the conservative understanding of the role of the federal government as to boggle the mind. 

One can almost hear one-time Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth rage against “armed agency officials and helicopters,” who she was convinced were violating the Constitution to enforce the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s. Helen was wrong about her “black helicopters,” but she did articulate the once widely shared conservative view that turning federal agencies into paramilitary forces was a really bad idea. 

Trump’s motives, of course, both for trying to suppress the vote and for staging a photo op in Portland, is to stimulate fear, to stoke division and hope that he can eek out a second term from the outrage smoldering in his shrinking political base. It’s a strategy as transparent as his spray on tan and as cynical as his instant pivot to a message that wearing a mask is now OK by him. 

“My question,” Oregon’s Wyden said this week, “[is] where are the Senate Republicans who preach state rights and freedoms as Trump sends paramilitary forces into cities uninvited and tramples on the Constitution? Are they so cowardly that they too will try to convince the country that ‘walls of moms’ are threats?” 

Turns out they are cowards, senator. They really are. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Twilight of Democracy

The historian Anne Applebaum has done important work on Putin’s Russia and the rise of authoritarian governments around the world. In her new book – Twilight of Democracy – Applebaum assesses the state of American democracy. She’s not all that sunny about it. 

“By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left—their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change—met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy. Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump. Two years earlier, Trump had railed against American failure, and called for a solution Trotsky would have appreciated: ‘You know what solves [this]? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have . . . riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.’”

Read the excerpt here.


Trump May Not Accept the Election Outcome

Lots of commentary this week about Donald Trump’s testy interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, particularly about the president’s refusal to say whether he will accept the results of the November election and the crisis that would surely follow.

Donald Trump’s sweaty, often incoherent interview with Chris Wallace

The always excellent Jonathan V. Last hits the nail with his piece in The Bulwark.

“The most likely path to a crisis isn’t a president who says, ‘I understand that I lost by 6 million votes, but I do not like this outcome and will not be leaving.’

“No, the path to crisis is a president who says, ‘These results claiming I lost by 6 million votes are illegitimate. The vote was rigged and it was not a fair election. We are going to contest the results with every option available to us and prove that I, in fact, won.’”

Read the whole thing.

Why are Restaurants so Loud 

Most of us aren’t going out to dinner much these days, but one can hope that will change before too long. Meantime The Atlantic asks and answers a question I keep asking – Why is it so loud in so many restaurants?

“Restaurant critics and journalists have long complained about noisy restaurants (San Francisco Chronicle food reporters have carried around sound-level meters since the late 1990s), but in recent years the clamor against clamor has reached new heights. Like the open office, the loud restaurant seems to have overstayed its welcome.

“That’s because loud restaurants are more profitable.”

But of course. Read the whole thing.


Quarantine Kat 

Life under the COVID-19 lockdown inspired Portland animator Jerold Howard to create “Quarantine Kat”—an animated character that channels Howard’s daily struggles at home: from balancing the mundane with the profound, to the temptations of excessive snacking.

We can all identify with this cat, er, kat. 

Watch the short video

Thanks, as always, for reading. Please share and/or send comments any time. Be well.

2020 Election, Trump, Uncategorized

Fantasy Land…

The essential objective of the Republican Party for the next five months is to rewrite the history of the last three and a half years. The strategy is to throw up so much flak that distorts or revises reality that by election day enough voters are so thoroughly confused or so supremely disgusted that they won’t vote, concluding American democracy is just not worth the bother. 

The GOP strategy is driven from top by a cult figure who, as conservative columnist Max Boot wrote recently, doubles as the “unhinged conspiracy-monger in the White House.”

Americans have for a long time, and very strangely, been susceptible to conspiracy theories. But now the old, standard wacky notions – the moon landing was faked, extraterrestrials landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, Elvis is still alive – have given way to conspiracy theory as politics.  

If it’s in the local paper it must be true – right?

“Classically, conspiracy theories are propagated by people on the margins – they’re almost a weapon of the powerless, for holding the powerful to account,” says Russell Muirhead, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who has studied this American fixation with the nutty. “But right now the new stuff is coming directly from the powerful, which is really quite extraordinary.”

Donald Trump’s obsession with conspiracies provides both insight into his lack of character, as well his re-election strategy. Given his criminally botched response to a deadly pandemic that left 100,000 American dead in barely two months, while tanking the economy, perhaps for years, the Conspirator-in-Chief can hardly run on his record. He must shift attention to keep his most committed supporters both entertained and distracted from reality. 

Trump’s one-time chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who also once headed Breitbart News, a website cesspool of half-baked nonsense and rightwing propaganda, perfectly described the GOP strategy in 2018. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon told the writer Michael Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

And that is precisely what Trump has been doing while his willing enablers, including the timid souls Idaho voters dispatch to represent them in Washington, D.C., stand by mute amid the fetid garbage. 

Trump, of course, rode to real political prominence peddling the fake news that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Many of his supporters bought the “birther” nonsense, and some still do. They also bought that Mexico would pay for his wall and that China would pay for his tariffs. Initially they bought his claim that the COVID-19 virus was “a hoax,” but clearly some conspiracy theories get overtaken by events. 

Barack Obama’s birth certificate – from Hawaii

Now Trump is asking them to buy the hoax that voting by mail will lead to vast corruption of the electoral process, a convenient claim for a guy who lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes in 2016 and will need a spectacularly outrageous conspiracy theory to justify his loss in November. 

The man the Internet whit Dave Pell calls “the Cloroxymoron” has, of course, had to manufacture new conspiracies as the old ones run out of steam. There is “Obamagate,” a conspiracy so deep and impenetrable that the White House press secretary declined to respond to a question about just what it was. Then came the spectacularly obscene charge emitting from the presidential Twitter feed that former Republican congressman and cable TV host Joe Scarborough may have murdered a young female staff member in 2001.

That odious one drew a poignant response from the woman’s husband who correctly accused the Republican president of having taken “something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.” 

In debunking the Scarborough nonsense, the Washington Post’s Craig Pittman might have been talking about the gutless lack of decency on the part of Idahoans like Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo, Republicans who know Scarborough because they served in Congress with him when he represented Florida. 

 “Trump’s tweets offer a reminder of the remarkable nature of the Trump era — that a sitting president can traffic in incendiary and false allegations while the political world around him remains largely silent, accustomed to Trump’s modern-day definition of presidential behavior,” Pittman wrote. “As with many such eruptions from the White House, there will probably be little if any consequence beyond, in this case, the collateral suffering of a private family in Florida.”

At this point let’s note that a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll reported that “44 percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements.” Yahoo News felt compelled to note that is “a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.” 

That kind of statistic does, however, help explain why once sensible, fair minded guys like Crapo and Simpson now behave as they do in our Age of Trump. They have become paralyzed with the fear that the most fever swampish in the GOP base will turn on them. 

It’s a reasonable fear. After all Oregon Republicans just nominated a U.S. Senate candidate who is a believer in the wacky QAnon conspiracy theories that promote Trump as a world savior, while Idaho Republicans like Janice McGeachin and Heather Scott have become the party’s modern day “Know Nothings.” 

A conspiracy so immense…

Some of the president’s most loyal followers – and most fervent conspiratorialists – have taken to calling Trump the “God Emperor,” but this emperor’s clothes are missing even if the two Mikes and so many others ignore the reality. Their essential cowardice exposes the profound ethical and moral rot in the modern GOP under Trump. It will follow them all their days. 

“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” David Frum wrote in his 2018 book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, has basically given up on the silent majority of GOP officeholders who have aided and abetted the intellectual destruction of their party. 

“What happens next is up to you,” Frum writes, knowing that once principled conservatives like Simpson and Crapo, unable or unwilling to exercise leadership at a time of peril, will do nothing, while cowering in a corner literally and figuratively clutching their seats.

—–0—–

Additional reading:

Trump: The Manly Man 

Conservative commentator Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic that the president is the least manly man to ever occupy the Oval Office, and the mostly white men who support him make up a cult-like following that has an image of Donald Trump divorced from reality. Nichols writes: “Perhaps Howard Stern, of all people, said it best: ‘The oddity in all of this is the people Trump despises most, love him the most. The people who are voting for Trump for the most part … He’d be disgusted by them.’ The tragedy is that they are not disgusted by him in return.”

The Manly Man?

Masha Gessen on Rising Authoritarianism

I try to read everything the historian and essayist Masha Gessen writes, both for her insights into the rise of authoritarianism in the world, but also because she brings an immigrant’s perspective to our current moment. Gessen was born in Russia and wrote an excellent book explaining Vladimir Putin. She spoke recently with Interview magazine.

INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future? 

GESSEN: A renewal and reinforcement of all kinds of borders—national, state, regional, whatever. We try to go back to exactly the way things were, and this means that the poor get poorer and the wealth gap grows. Two areas that are perhaps most in need of awakening and reinvention—healthcare and education—become worse versions of their already terrible selves. We learn nothing except that no one will help you.

Read the entire interview

New York Without Newspapers in 1945

For 17 days in the summer of 1945 newspaper deliverymen went on strike. “All told, 14 major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.”

This is a cool story about a time when most Americans got all their news in a paper.

The Man in the Red Coat

And finally…I’ve been reading a slightly strange, yet deeply interesting book by Julian Barnes about some truly fascinating characters of what we now call “the Belle Epoque.”

The Princess of Monaco said Dr. Pozzi was “disgustingly handsome”

“Barnes’s title comes from a magnificent full-length 1881 portrait of [Dr. Samuel] Pozzi by John Singer Sargent, which didn’t re-emerge into public view until 1990; Barnes tells us that viewing it was the original inspiration for this book. Sargent himself mentioned it in a letter to Henry James in London to introduce a visit from ‘Dr. S. Pozzi, the man in the red gown (not always), a very brilliant creature.'”

Highly recommended for the profiles of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and a cast of other “beautiful” people.

———

Thanks for reading. If you are inclined share or recommend this post to a friend. Stay safe.

2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump, Uncategorized

Unrelenting Logic…

There is an unrelenting mathematical logic to the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus. Denial of the logic is like playing Russian Roulette, the odds are unpredictable and choosing incorrectly is deadly. 

January 22, 2020Donald Trump: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

As brutal as the math will become – a couple hundred thousand cases become a million cases, a few thousand deaths become 100,000 deaths – the logic cannot be denied, unless you reside in a partisan political fantasy land. 

February 25, 2020Rush Limbaugh: “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” 

And it’s not like we haven’t been through something like this before – it happened in 1918 – it’s just that we don’t remember the history, or we chose to ignore evidence in plain sight. The logic remains. 

The Idaho Statesman, October 15, 1918

October 10, 1918 – The Wallace Miner: “We are confronted by an epidemic of influenza which will affect more than half of our population in probability. There is a shortage of physicians, nurses and hospital accommodations.” 

March 20, 2020 – The New York Times: “Even in the best case situation, with a shortage of skilled doctors and nurses, caring for Covid-19 patients with life-threatening respiratory distress will be like using a Band-Aid to stop a carotid artery bleed,” Pauline M. Chen, MD

News briefs from the Kendrick, Idaho Gazette, October 1918

October 11, 1918 – The Kendrick Gazette: “The quarantine has been placed in Idaho. All public gatherings, excepting schools, both public and private, are forbidden by an order issued Wednesday by the state board of health.”

October 15, 1918 – The Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “In its fight to stop the spread of Spanish influenza, the public health service is investigating the causes of the disease, the conditions which promote its spread and the part played by carriers in epidemics of the malady.”

March 20, 2020 – The Hill: “The intelligence community was warning of the danger posed by the novel coronavirus throughout January and February as the White House downplayed the threat and was slow to roll out nationwide measures, reports show.”

October 17, 1918 – Twin Falls Weekly News: “To her credit be it said, Twin Falls has not hesitated to comply fully with the terms of the latest closing order to emanate from Boise…if it is necessary to close up every industry and every institution in the city in order to prevent an outbreak of Spanish influenza, Twin Falls will cheerfully do just that.” 

October 21, 1918 – The Spokesman-Review: “Three more deaths have occurred (in Nez Perce, Idaho) from influenza…(including) Carl Price, proprietor of the local garage…he leaves his widow and four small children.” 

October 22, 1918 – The American Falls Press: “Dr. Noth, who has been confined to his home for the past several days with influenza, suffered a relapse yesterday. Miss Virginia Nunnelly, who had been visiting in Salt Lake City for several weeks, has been summoned to help care for him.” 

October 23, 1918 – Spokane Chronicle: “Four deaths yesterday and three last night from pneumonia, following Spanish influenza, have resulted in closing the state college in all departments.” 

March 29, 2020 – Politico: “Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. [Jerry] Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.”

October 25, 1918 – Rathdrum Tribune: “The alarming spread of influenza throughout Idaho, caused the state board of health to order all public and private schools in the state to close indefinitely.” 

November 5, 1918 – Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “The Bradford family is still seriously ill with influenza…Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Tanner are the proud parents of a baby son, born Monday morning. Both the parents are ill with influenza…Miss Hazel Quigley has been dangerously ill with the influenza, but is slightly improved at the present.” 

November 15, 1918 – Burley, Idaho Herald-Bulletin: “[With] the death of Ralph Jamison Gochnour from influenza Sunday night the University of Idaho lost one of its most prominent students…Mr. Gochnour was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity. He was a young man of pleasing personality, a student of keen and inquiring mind.” 

Item from the Blackfoot, Idaho Republican, October 1918

November 22, 1918 – Kendrick Gazette: “There will be no church services in Kendrick Sunday. Both churches agreed to postpone church meetings for at least another week.” 

March 30, 2020 – Associated Press: “A northern Idaho lawmaker led a church service on Sunday despite a statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Brad Little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Republican Rep. Tim Remington, the pastor of The Altar Church in Coeur d’Alene, held the service, but it’s not clear how many attended…On Sunday, he told worshipers that the stay-at-home order violated their rights.” 

December 19, 1918 – Grangeville Globe: “Undertaker A.J. Maugg returned last Friday evening from Riggins where he was called the day before to direct the funeral of Mrs. Cleveland Hollenbeak of that placed who had passed away Thursday from influenza. Mrs. Hollenbeak was 28 years old and is survived by her husband and two small children.” 

December 27, 1918 – Salmon, Idaho Recorder: “The epidemic appeared last week in the stoutly quarantined community of Challis, where it is said more than a score of cases in pronounced form were reported. It was said the disease was conveyed to the town by an enterprising traveler who forded the river in order to get by the quarantine guards.” 

John Barry, author of the definitive study of the 1918 influenza pandemic: “Of all the lessons from 1918, the clearest is that truth matters…You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth. . . Those in authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.” 

March 27, 2020Charlie Sykes, conservative columnist: “[This crisis has] its own peculiar awfulness: the overlay of bad faith, cynical spin, and serial deception. Who do we believe? What do we believe? Who is telling us the truth and who is shoveling fabulist bullshit? 

“But what did we expect? We had taken a long vacation from truth because we could afford to, right?” 

“You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is,” Donald Trump

March 30, 2020 – The New Yorker: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. Trump said repeatedly that he wanted the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. (On Sunday, he backed down and extended federal social-distancing guidelines for at least another month.)”

March 31, 2020Donald Trump: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks. When you look and see at night the kind of death that’s been caused by this invisible enemy, it’s incredible.”

March 6, 1919 – Salmon Recorder: “With but 18 new cases of influenza reported yesterday to the city health office the crest of the third revival of the epidemic is believed to have passed.” 

The logic is unrelenting. 

—–0—–


Additional reading:

  • In lieu of Opening Day, a wonderful essay on baseball by Adam Garfinkle.
  • NeverTrump conservative William Kristol – I’ll remind you he was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle – on how Trump has broken the Republican Party and conservatism for good. Kristol says: “We have now reached the terminus of craven loyalty and pathetic apologetics. I don’t see how either the political institution of the Republican party or the intellectual movement of conservatism recovers from what we have seen over the last three years—but especially the last three months.”
  • I won’t be reading Woody Allen’s new book, but you should read this review by Dwight Garner in the Times. Here’s a preview: “Volunteering to review [the book], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.”
  • And finally, video conference is bigger than ever in the age of physical separation. Here’s a thoughtful piece on how to make the most of it and also understand the limitations. And remember: failure to mute is the new “reply all.”
  • Stay safe.
Uncategorized

How We Live Now…

NOTE: A reached out this week (thanks social media) to a great reporter I’ve known and respected for a long time who now lives in northern Italy.

I was hoping Andrea Vogt, an Idaho native, would give me some fodder for my regular column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune where she used to work. Andrea writes regularly for European newspapers and has produced documentaries for the BBC.

Andrea’s sobering, enlightened essay was more than I expected. I want to share it in full.

———–

Idaho has always been a bit of a paradise oasis, even when all hell breaks loose in the rest of the world: a safe place to live, a reassuring place to come home to, a remote place where it is easy to say with a blithe shrug “well, it won’t happen here.”

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through northern Italy, where I now live, I watched it encroach – despite a strict lockdown — toward my region, then toward the nearest city and then eventually into my small town.  

A billboard in northern Italy. The entire county has been under a lock down order since March 9, 2020

I live in one of the most affluent regions of Italy, with quality socialized health care, free and accessible for all – and yes, we pay for it with high taxes, but I have rarely had to wait long for an appointment and never had to worry about how to pay a medical bill. And yet, the severity of pneumonia associated with the coronavirus epidemic severely strained and at times overwhelmed the system here, mostly because so many patients needed serious help all at once and because Italy has such a large population of high-risk elderly and because, in the beginning, they underestimated the swift and deadly contagion. 

It is easy to make the mistake of debating the risks of coronavirus, when the more pressing concern is that the pandemic creates a shortage of ICU beds available for other emergencies –  things like ATV wrecks, logging mishaps, highway collisions, accidents at home or in the shop, or patients needing surgeries for other reasons, like cancer or hip replacements. Are the region’s hospitals and clinics equipped to meet all the needs of its residents as the pandemic bears down?

Idaho has the advantage of being naturally socially distanced by its wide-open spaces and sparse population. But this can also provide a false sense of security –  I hope I’m wrong, but I imagine that even though an invisible menace is threatening “everyone else,” in Idaho, life is probably chugging along fairly normally: farmers meet for coffee at the diner, loggers line the barstools at the tavern, prayer meetings and family gatherings still seem safe enough and the daily shifts at the factories – Simplot, Micron, Clearwater Paper — hum on, oblivious to the danger facing production lines.

That was the case where I live, too, an initial hesitance to close everything down, for fear of hurting the economy. It was gradual, starting in late February, but now everything (except commercial activities strictly linked to the basic supply chain and essential services) has lurched to a dramatic halt, as the economy (and personal freedoms) began playing second fiddle to desperately saving lives.

In a little town not far from me called Medicina, population 16,000, the virus raced silently through the local senior center, killing its cook, its handyman, the vice president and a whole table of retired card players – this virus tends to kill more men than women.  They felt safe. They were healthy and lived in a small town. They didn’t see it coming. Now Medicina is mourning their grandpas.

The day that happened I wrote an urgent email home to my mother, sister, aunts and uncles in northern Idaho. Ten days before there was any discussion of social distancing in the U.S., I urged them all to begin canceling appointments and preparing. I wonder about others who may not have such a personal connection to the pandemic, who did not receive a dire warning from someone they know and trust. I worry about the lack of unified, coherent federal response in the United States, which will leave poorer, less resourceful states more vulnerable. 

The center of the virus outbreak in northern Italy

Washington State, California and New York perhaps can manage on their own. But can Idaho? Will Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene have enough respirators (and what about overflow from Spokane?) How about St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston-Clarkston, with its large number of retirees? What about Gritman in Moscow and St. Luke’s in Boise?  

These are the questions to put to Idaho’s elected officials, who were apparently busy passing bills to regulate transgenders as the pandemic approached. They were elected to protect and represent you. Hold their feet to the fire and ask each one of them how prepared the hospital nearest you is, and what is plan B? How many ICU beds, how many respirators, how many masks in the storage closets for the frontline doctors, nurses and staff? 

This is going to matter to you much more in 10 days time than whether or not John or Betty changes their gender on their birth certificate. I pray Idahoans don’t end up facing the dilemmas unfolding in the rest of the world – but as a remote, self-sufficient, independent place that has always prided itself on preparedness, I hope Idaho’s elected officials, at state and local levels, are all pragmatically preparing a vigorous, level-headed plan to address to the real problems they could encounter. When there is a record snowstorm in the forecast, they get the plows ready. Now, they need to make sure Idaho’s hospitals are equipped to respond to this very different kind of storm, which they cannot say they didn’t see approaching.

In the meantime, fellow Idahoans, my advice is to stay home and stock up, not just on flour and butter for your pantry, but on the goods you might not expect to have needed to cope in the coming weeks: compassion, creativity, patience and strength. 

—–0—–

Additional reading:

  • Absolutely unbelievable story: Reuters reports that beginning in 2017 the Trump Administration slashed by two-third the staff of a CDC facility in China designed to work on epidemics. “The CDC office in Beijing is a shell of its former self,” said one of the people, a U.S. official who worked in China at the time of the drawdown.
  • John Barry wrote the definitive account of the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza. His interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick is worth your time. And it’s not like this hasn’t happened before.
  • An outstanding young scholar and teacher at the University of Montana, Rob Saldin, has a book coming soon on the NeverTrump Republicans. Rob, who I am happy to call a friend, had a great piece recently in the New York Times. It, too, is on point for this moment in history.

Uncategorized

The NRA is a Fraud…

We learned with certainty this week what the more discriminating among us have known for a long, long time – the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a fraud. The Wall Street Journal, not anyone’s definition of the liberal press, produced the documents that prove how the NRA’s chief mouthpiece, Wayne LaPierre, and a handful of other top executives have scammed the nation’s gullible gun owners out of millions and millions of dollars.

LaPierre has perfected the gift of the grift. The Journal reported that he submitted bills for $39,000 worth of clothing during one – just one – visit to a Beverly Hills “boutique.” As writer Jonathan V. Last noted, it is possible, I guess, to pay $500 or $600 for a pair of pants, but at LaPierre’s rate of spending “that leaves you with close to 80 pairs of pants.” The documents obtained by the newspaper seem to indicate LaPierre, who usually seems more focused on bullet proof vests than Italian suits, somehow racked up clothing bills approaching $275,000, all billed to the Second Amendment loving deer hunters who send checks to the NRA. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is introduced with Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.

And then there’s the gun lobby’s lobbyist’s taste in travel, also amazingly spendy, $40,000 for a one-way flight from Washington to the Bahamas and $1,096 for “Airport Assistance” in Frankfurt, Germany. 

The NRA booked legal expenses over the last year of $18.5 million with just one law firm. That is a lot of billable hours, in fact more than $100,000 per day over the course of a full year. LaPierre also billed nearly $14,000 for three months rent for “a summer intern” who reportedly worked at the NRA. That is some rental. Some intern. 

Oliver North, the sleazy former Iran-Contra operative, served briefly as president of the NRA before being deposed a couple of weeks ago. He reportedly had a cushy contract worth millions annually. It’s difficult to tell from the organization’s 990 form what if any perks NRA board members receive, but former senator Larry Craig, a dependable shill for the NRA in Congress, is a long-time board member and at a minimum he owns a piece of the current scandal. 

LaPierre, living the pampered life style of the “elite” beltway hypocrite, is, of course, the guy who regularly keeps his cash register humming with bombast like this: “It’s up to us to speak out against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.” 

There is more, pricy travel, expensive perks, insider sweetheart deals, but you get the point. Expenses incurred by the NRA brass that aren’t “just extravagant and wasteful,” as Jonathan Last wrote, “but … so insane that you can’t even really figure out how they were actually incurred.” An entirely different set of questionable activities has prompted an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.

The NRA’s fraud – conservative columnist Max Boot describes it as a big part of the larger “racket” that American conservatism has become – dates back a long way. My personal NRA inflection point came in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986, three days before the gubernatorial election that year. The NRA was all over the Idaho airwaves that weekend smearing Cecil D. Andrus. 


“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Eric Hoffer


Andrus had, audaciously it turns out, honestly responded to one of the NRA’s “candidate surveys.” A big issue then was whether to outlaw so called “cop killer” bullets, Teflon coated rounds specifically designed to penetrate a bulletproof vest. Andrus said he had no problem banning the bullet since he’d never seen an elk wearing a bulletproof vest. The once and future governor also said he had no issue with bans on military-like assault weapons, the kind that have become the weapon of choice for our regularly occurring school massacres. 

The NRA gave Andrus a D-rating in 1986 and put up commercials calling him a threat to Idaho sportsman. The hunter-governor who never met a shotgun or elk camp he didn’t love just wasn’t pure enough for Wayne LaPierre. The gun lobby endorsed Republican David Leroy in 1986, a fellow who knew his way around a Boise courtroom, but a guy no one expected to occupy a hunting camp.

To understand how amazing – or outrageous – those NRA smears of Andrus were you need to know about Andrus the hunter and gun owner. In early October of that election year, Andrus quietly left the campaign trail for three days so as not to miss his annual elk hunt. As his press secretary I was deathly afraid some enterprising reporter would ask me where the candidate was and why he wasn’t shaking hands and seeking votes? In retrospect I should have put out a news release – “Andrus Pursues Mighty Wapiti Rather Than Votes.” He got his elk, by the way.  

Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, a gun owner and hunter, who understood the NRA’s fraudulent game

Andrus once stashed a new 12-gauge shotgun in my office while waiting for the opportunity to secret the firearm into his home. He said if he could get the gun home without Carol noticing she would never know he had purchased another firearm. He had so many guns that one more would fade unnoticed into the gun cabinet. 

The four-term governor was the kind of politician the NRA can’t abide, a passionate hunter and gun owner who thought the organization was off its rocker when it came to legitimate restrictions on the kinds of weapons that now regularly kill innocent people in churches, synagogues, schools and on street corners. Thirty years ago he correctly saw that the NRA, faking concern for sportsmen, while serving as stalking horse for firearms manufacturers, had just become one more radical ancillary of the Republican Party. Unlike most politicians he had the courage to say that the leaders of the gun lobby really built their political influence in order to facilitate their own financial enrichment.

For decades the NRA has been the biggest fundraising cash register on the hard right of American politics, whipping up outrage, constantly stoking fear and always depositing the checks. The fraud is finally coming home to roost. 

—–0—–

(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on May 17, 2019)

Uncategorized

Dereliction of Duty…

Nearly 100 years ago — April 15, 1922 to be exact — a Democratic senator from Wyoming introduced a resolution in Congress that touched off one of the most significant investigations in American political history. The Wall Street Journal had reported the day before that the secretary of the Interior, a former Republican senator from New Mexico by the name of Albert Fall, an appointee of President Warren Harding, had engaged in unprecedented conduct. Fall had leased to a private company, without competitive bids, U.S. naval oil reserves at a remote field in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome.

Republicans, who controlled the Senate, actually voted to investigate the Republican administration. But expecting the investigation would come to nothing, they detailed the most junior member of the Public Lands Committee, Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, to chair the investigation.

Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal

By the time Walsh was finished cataloguing Fall’s corruption and the bribes he received for facilitating the oil leases, the secretary was on his way to jail. Walsh became a political celebrity and Teapot Dome entered history as one of the great scandals in American politics.

An offshoot of the oil scandal was a parallel effort to investigate corruption at the Justice Department, an investigation also conducted by a Montanan, Democrat Burton K. Wheeler.

When the subjects of that investigation stonewalled the Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Congress had the power to issue subpoenas, compel testimony and demand production of documents. As the court noted in a landmark 1927 decision, the memory of James Madison was invoked, “the power of inquiry — with process to enforce it — is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function. It was so regarded and employed in American legislatures before the Constitution was framed and ratified.”

Said another way: Congress’ oversight and investigative functions were legitimately earned amid a huge scandal uncovered by a newspaper and investigated by determined lawmakers. Now, decades later, congressional oversight and accountability is being frittered away amid a host of real and potential scandals by an administration that seems destined to replace Harding’s as the most corrupt in history.

The Trump administration has apparently determined that it will comprehensively stonewall oversight by a co-equal branch of government. The president says the executive branch will resist every subpoena for information, while the attorney general of the United States flips his middle finger to the House Judiciary Committee.

And the United States Senate — where Teapot Dome was exposed, where a corrupt attorney general (Harding pal Harry Daugherty) was forced to resign, where Harry Truman investigated the defense industry and where the crimes of Watergate were disclosed — continues to squander its constitutional obligations to investigate and check the executive branch.

As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “By abandoning the role the Constitution assigns them, to jealously defend the power of their branch of government against encroachments by other branches, Republicans in Congress surrender their duty, their power and their part in defending American democracy.”

Idaho’s two U.S. senators are poster boys for this shameful dereliction of duty.

Jim Risch has had the gavel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now for nearly five months, months when the NATO alliance has been under siege from the White House, when Venezuela has been in crisis, when North Korea has saber-rattled with new missile tests, when tensions have mounted with China and Iran, and when Saudi Arabia has escaped responsibility for the brutal murder of a journalist employed by a U.S. newspaper. Yet Risch has required no testimony on any of this from the secretary of state or other senior administration officials.

Each of Risch’s public statements toes the administration line even as that line shifts and wobbles with incoherence.

Risch is also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee but has no interest in questioning the attorney general or special counsel Robert Mueller on the extensively documented Russian effort to interfere with American democracy.

Mike Crapo is a member of the Judiciary Committee, the committee that recently endured a word salad of obfuscation from Attorney General William Barr on the Mueller report. Crapo, rather than focusing on the substance of the special counsel’s work, used his precious time to question the nation’s top law enforcement official about how the Washington Post obtained a copy of Mueller’s letter taking issue with how his work has been characterized by Barr.

Idaho’s senators fail to follow up and that is not what their oath demands

Crapo might have asked, just as one example, about this sentence from Mueller’s report: “Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations.” Crapo didn’t display even a hint of inquisitiveness about the Russian investigation or the president’s behavior, but spent the hearing serving up softballs. His and Risch’s performance is rank political incompetence or, perhaps, it’s something else even more troubling.

Senate Republicans could well be ignoring their constitutional obligations, as the Salt Lake Tribune suggested, “To get themselves on the good side of a chief executive who is so clearly corrupt, engaging in obstruction, campaign and ethics violations, using the presidency as a cash cow for his personal business interests, who disrespects the separation of powers, freedom of the press, the rights of minorities and immigrants and our long-standing international alliances.”

In other words: Crapo, Risch and fellow Senate Republicans have willfully surrendered their own and congressional power for wholly partisan political reasons.

By consistently placing loyalty to a president of their own party above the institution of the Senate and the good of the nation, they mock a sworn oath to “support and defend the Constitution” against all enemies.

Political courage is an increasingly rare commodity these days and playing to the prejudices of your partisan tribe trumps all other considerations. But that is not what the job — or the oath — requires.

While it may seem quaint to invoke the Constitution as a guide to appropriate congressional behavior, it has never been more important to do so. Democracy may well die in darkness, but it also dies when people sworn to protect it ignore their responsibilities and that is what Risch and Crapo are doing.

—–0—–

Uncategorized

The Trump Swamp…

My weekly column from the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

—————–

When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke slinks away next week from the big building on C Street in Washington, D.C., he will have, in the space of less than two years, placed himself in the history books along side Albert Bacon Fall.

For a guy who once claimed to be a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” committed to conservation and protection of public lands, to leave office under an ominous ethical cloud and compared to Warren Harding’s Interior secretary who went to jail over the Teapot Dome scandal is a stunning come down. Once a rising Republican star, the former Montana congressman, now seems certain to be dogged by a host of investigations and forever tainted by association with the administration of Donald J. Trump.

So-to-be former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke .

When Zinke was named to the Interior post – Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rogers and Idaho’s Raul Labrador were contenders, but passed over – he was widely praised even by conservation groups. Zinke had crafted a bipartisan image in Congress, “the only Republican to support a Democratic amendment to permanently authorize the so-called Land and Water Conservation Fund,” as Politico noted. But proving the truism that absolutely everyone who works for Trump is tainted by the proximity, Zinke will be remembered, perhaps even beyond his grifting ethics, for rolling back national monument designations and generally trashing the conservation legacy of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

The two Idahoans who have served as Secretary of the Interior – Democrat Cecil Andrus in the 1970s and Republican Dirk Kempthorne for the last three years of the George W. Bush administration – were polar opposites in political ideology, but each understood that serving as the chief steward of all the people’s land carries a solemn obligation. While Kempthorne will likely be best remembered for the six-figure remodel of the secretary’s office bathroom, he did bring a genuine spirit of collaboration to the job. Andrus’ legacy as one of the nation’s great Interior secretaries is secure, in part, because he engineered the largest conservation initiative in history by protecting vast swaths of the last frontier – Alaska.

Zinke, despite the conservation rhetoric that temporarily assuaged some skeptics, attempted to transform the Interior Department into an extension of the oil, gas, mining and grazing industries. Zinke did his best to make true the old joke that the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, is actually the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. This, of course, was Trump’s aim in the first place.

The president, who one assumes has never spent a night under the stars, never fished a Western trout stream or devoted a second to thinking about conserving America’s most special places for future generations, turned stewardship of the environment over to fraudsters. Ethical shenanigans forced Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency – remember the $50 a night condo he rented from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist and his $3 million a year security detail? And Zinke now leaves subject to a potential criminal investigation involving the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton and some land Zinke owns and wants to develop in western Montana.

Trump appears poised to name as Zinke’s replacement an oil and gas lobbyist, the current No. 2 at the department, who literally has to carry a card with him delineating all his potential conflicts of interest. Into this swamp Labrador and soon-to-be-ex-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter have stuck a toe. Each has been mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior. Labrador needs a job and seems to be campaigning for the position. He tweeted fulsome praise toward Trump last week for – wait for it – signing an executive order, something Trump does over and over again in lieu of having a real agenda. Otter doesn’t need a job and should trust his gut and hang out at his ranch.

Vast acreage of the federal government during the Trump administration has become an ethics-free zone. A former Trump national security adviser may yet go to jail, three cabinet secretaries have resigned amid swirling scandals and the president himself is buffeted by a persistent special counsel, involvement in a campaign finance scandal that paid off a porn star, a corrupt family foundation and lord knows what else.

Remember draining the swamp? Zinke’s imminent departure reminds us that promise was as phony as Mexico paying for a wall.

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran, who leaves after issuing a withering indictment of the president’s abandonment of allies and leadership on the international stage, should also give any Interior aspirant ample reason for pause.

If Trump comes calling on Labrador or Otter, they should remember the words of the conservative scholar Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor to Condoleezza Rice during the second Bush administration.

Writing last week after Mattis’ resignation over a matter of principle, Cohen said in The Atlantic: “Henceforth, the senior ranks of government can be filled only by invertebrates and opportunists, schemers and careerists. If they had policy convictions, they will meekly accept their evisceration. If they know a choice is a disaster, they will swallow hard and go along. They may try to manipulate the president, or make some feeble efforts to subvert him, but in the end they will follow him. And although patriotism may motivate some of them, the truth is that it will be the title, the office, the car and the chance to be in the policy game that will keep them there.”

But, it’s not worth it. Anyone who gets close to this chaotic mess will get stained, or even destroyed. The evidence is in plain sight. The swamp devours the swamp’s own creatures.

—–0—–

Editor’s Note: My biography of Montana New Deal-Era Senator Burton K. Wheeler has an official release date – March 21, 2019. The book, a look at a genuine political maverick, as well as a much different U.S. Senate, is available for pre-order at Amazon or the University of Oklahoma Press.

—0—