Send in the Clown…

Don’t you love farce? My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want, sorry, my dear
But where are the clowns, send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here.  

               – Stephen Sondheim – Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

Has there ever been a bigger clown running for president than Donald Trump? Good question. I’ve been thinking about that and conclude…well maybe, but probably not.

Oh, there have always been vanity candidates running for president, silly candidates who join the contest because of ego, hunger for attention, self-promotion or just because they had little better to do. Herman Cain, the pizza king, was such a candidate in the 2012 Republican primary. Like all clown candidates, Cain’s ego and silliness, not to mention sexual harassment allegations eventually did him in even after he (briefly) leaped to the head of the GOP pack.

Harold Stassen

Harold Stassen

Harold Stassen, once a serious national political figure – he was elected governor of Minnesota at age 31 – became a punch line by becoming a perennial Republican candidate for president. Stassen ran, best as I can tell, nine different times. He never came close – his less than perfect toupee (another hair fixated candidate?) may have hindered his chances – and he is now mostly forgotten or remembered only as a laugh line. When Stassen died in 2001 one of his obituaries referred to him as “the Grand Old Party’s grand old loser.”

Ron Paul ran for president three times, but unlike a Trump or a Cain – Trumpacain? – Paul had actually been elected to something if you call a House seat from Texas something.

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, out of office for 25 years, ran in the Democratic primaries in 2008 and generated a surge of interest before voters discovered the true size of his ego and the true shape of his frequently nutty positions. In one YouTube video during that campaign Gravel, looking like a genuinely perplexed 78-year old, was standing next to a small river or canal. He looked directly into the camera for more than a minute without saying a word then turned, picked up a large rock and tossed it into the water and then walked away from the camera for nearly two minutes more. The ripples from the rock meanwhile moved across the water. Deep. A serious statement or just nuts. You decide. Gravel then, sort of, left politics to get involved in the marijuana business, a move that many who know him did not found surprising.

Neither party has a lock on clown candidates, but lately it seems the Republicans – Michele Bachmann and Alan Keyes come to mind – have had more than their share. But, wait, for every Michele and Alan there is a Dennis (The Menace) Kucinich, the former Democratic Congressman and mayor of Cleveland. Kucinich’s most recent Facebook posting says he spoke at a “global burning man conference” in April. Sounds about right.

Ross Perot with one of his famous charts

Ross Perot with one of his famous charts

Ralph Nader, a bane to the Democrats as Trump will prove to be to the Republicans, ran several times most famously (infamously) in 2000 when he may have cost Al Gore the electoral votes of Florida and therefore the presidency. Nader ran as a candidate of the Green Party, a legitimate if marginal influence on American politics. Other more-or-less serious people have mounted recent third party efforts – John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in in 1992 and 1996 developed significant followings. Norman Thomas perennially ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket never coming close, but often helping enhance the political dialogue.

Enhancing the political dialogue is a good deal different than what Trump is doing as he campaigns in Republican primaries. I still think he drops out before he really has to revel more details about the web of financial deals and debt that undoubtedly define his business empire, but in the meantime Trump stirs things up and not in a helpful way for the more sane and sober Republican candidates.

Trump, to believe the polls, is the flavor of the week for Republicans. The Washington Post says he’s surging on the strength of his name ID and “message.” Meanwhile, NBC, Univision and Macy’s have dumped their associations with the blow-dried blow hard given his incendiary and racist rants against Mexicans. Some message. The Trump brand has suddenly become “you’re fired.”

Trump brand mattress. Get 'em while they last

Trump brand mattress. Get ’em while they last

Oh, yes, if you’re in the market for a deluxe Trump-branded Serta Perfect Sleeper better rush out right now to the mattress store. Serta is also changing the sheets, or turning the mattress, on The Donald. The Gawker website has a list of all the people and institutions cutting the clown lose. The list seems sure to grow.

One thing about a vanity candidate that amazes is that so few serious candidates point out the absurdity of people like Trump. Few of the “serious” GOP candidates have repudiated Trump’s bombast – do Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki really count –  or pointed out the obvious – he’s a joke. Only Barack Obama has really nailed Trump.

During the very inside-the-Beltway White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2011 and, while Trump was keeping himself in the news by repeatedly raising spurious and silly questions about Obama’s birth certificate, the president took him on, pointing out that the state of Hawaii had recently released his official birth certificate.

According to the official transcript of his remarks Obama said: “Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald.  (Laughter.)  And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter –- like, did we fake the moon landing?  (Laughter.)  What really happened in Roswell?  (Laughter.)  And where are Biggie and Tupac?  (Laughter and applause.)”

The best medicine for a clown, after all, is laughter.

Trump is part of the long tradition of silly people with big egos and bigger heads running for president. Trump would be a disaster in public office and I suspect the vast, vast majority of Americans know it. Trump is merely famous for being outrageous, which has allowed him to extend his 15 minutes of fame way beyond his “expire by” date. The good news, at least for cable TV, is that Trump gives the 24-hour news cycle something to fulminate over as we ease into the dog days of summer. Fox or CNN can easily fill up an empty hour with clips of Trump being a chump followed by allegedly serious people reacting seriously.

If silly, pseudo-news featuring a clown is good for ratings and even (somewhat) amusing in its absurdity there is also a downside. The bad news is that Trump’s silliness further drags down the already abysmally low level of political discourse in the country. This clown will never be president, but unfortunately like a Bachmann and Kucinich before him the Donald cheapens the process for someone who will become president.

 

Defining Moments…

Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.

A defining moment...

A defining moment…

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.

More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Defining Changes in American Politics…

After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.

ReaganReagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.

The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.

Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.

The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”

Sharpening the serrated edges…

But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.

Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.

The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.

You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.

Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.

All that is left is bigotry…

Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”

What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.

The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other  lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

The difficult things to do…

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.

All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.

Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”

I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.

Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…

David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.

‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”

That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.

 

History…

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

NBC photo

NBC photo

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

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

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

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

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy

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

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

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

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

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

Whew.

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

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

Ask the nearest hippie.

 

America’s Great War…

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

Photo - The Telegraph

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

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

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

America’s Great War…

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

Confederate troops under their flag

Confederate troops under their flag

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

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

South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol

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

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

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

Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

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

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

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

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

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

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

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

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

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

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

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

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign

Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

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

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

States Rights…

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

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

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

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

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

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860

South Carolina in 1860

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What We Permit We Promote…

What we permit we promote.

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

It is so predictable...

It is so predictable…

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

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

What we permit we promote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we permit we promote.

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

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

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

What we permit we promote.

 

Neither a Ford Nor a Trump…

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

Not the C-Suite

Not the C-Suite

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

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

Still the myth of the business leader turned president persists.

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

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

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

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

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

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

Truman and his business partner in Kansas City clothing store

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

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

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

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

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

Just about says it all...

Just about says it all…

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

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

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

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

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