Uncategorized

In Praise of Good Politicians…

In a political age too often dominated by performance outrage and petty grifting where conspiracy theories shoulder out known facts it can be difficult to remember that we once had more people than not – in both political parties – committed to the messy, but essential work of politics. Let us praise one of them. 

On only one occasion did I have the pleasure of spending time in the company of Walter F. Mondale, the former Minnesota senator, vice president and U.S. ambassador to Japan. The occasion was a big public policy conference in Boise in 2003 jointly sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy and the Frank Church Institute. The world was still reeling from the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and U.S. troops were in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a dangerous and unprecedented time, but the timing of the gathering focused on “freedom and secrecy” was close to perfect and we drew a big crowd and an impressive line-up of experts. 

Former Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus with his friend and Carter Administration colleague Walter F. Mondale

Slade Gorton, the former Washington senator, came to the gathering fresh from his role on the special commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks. Gorton made his first public comment about the investigation at the conference. The distinguished Washington State University historian and Frank Church biographer LeRoy Ashby explained the legacy and importance of the Idaho senator’s investigation of the nation’s intelligence agencies more than 20 years earlier. A former CIA director, federal judges, the lawyer who represented John Walker Lindh, the so called “American Taliban” and Dave Broder, the Washington Post reporter all participated. 

Mondale, his flat Minnesota voice strong and authoritative, was the eloquent star of the show, both for what he said, which is still memorable and important all these years later, and also because of his warmth, decency and commitment to democracy. Mondale came to Idaho not as duty, but as a favor to both the memory of Church and to acknowledge his long-time friendship with former Governor Cecil Andrus. 

Mondale, before his death this week at 93, was one of the last remaining direct ties to Church’s historic investigation of the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies. That investigation disclosed, among other things, evidence of assassination plots against foreign leaders, illegal spying on American citizens, including FBI spying on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as Mondale noted, “that every president from Roosevelt to Nixon had pressed these secret agencies to go beyond the law. This was a bipartisan problem.” 

While acknowledging that even in a democracy there are some secrets that must be kept, Mondale reminded the audience, and heads nodded all around, that Americans should never “underestimate the lengths administrations of either political party will go to protect themselves from public disclosure of erroneous, unethical, or illegal behavior — or just plain embarrassment. The instinct for self-protection is often disguised in the name of national security.”

Mondale, as Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein wrote this week “belonged to a generation of outstanding liberal Democratic senators, serving from 1965 until he assumed the vice presidency in 1977. Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Fred Harris, Ted Kennedy, Ed Muskie and others took the job seriously, legislating and performing oversight. (They were joined by a very talented group of moderate and conservative Democrats, and a similarly excellent group of conservative, moderate and even liberal Republicans. It was a very good era for the Senate.)” 

It was indeed a good era for the Senate, not perfect by any means, but a vast improvement over the many grubby political strivers – Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Rand Paul come easily to mind – that dominate the Senate today. Beyond performing for two-minute cameos on Fox News, the typical Republican senator today inhabits a policy-free zone where faux anger and manufactured grievance substitute for any agenda that might actually address a national priority. 

Mondale inhabited a wholly different political world. In addition to his work with Church to bring oversight to the intelligence community, Mondale was the key driver in defeating a filibuster and passing a landmark fair housing bill in 1968, a political and legislative accomplishment that still provides the basis for prohibiting discrimination in the rental or sale of housing nationwide. Mondale’s political skill helped secure bipartisan support for the legislation. Idaho’s bipartisan Senate delegation, the liberal Church and conservative Republican Len Jordan, supported the fair housing legislation that was passed in the wake of the murder of Dr. King. 

Jonathan V. Last, a conservative who knows his political history, remarked that Mondale was long considered a political “punchline” due to the landslide blowout he suffered at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, a humbling defeat that Mondale accepted with good humor and genuine grace. 

Fritz Mondale was very much in the tradition of his “happy warrior” Minnesota mentor, Hubert Humphrey

“It’s funny to think, “ Last wrote this week, “but Mondale came from a day where most national politicians had served in the military and not all of them—not even many of them—were products of the Ivy League.

“His father was a minister. His mother a music teacher. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and then enlisted in the Army. He wasn’t a war hero or a super soldier: Just a normal middle-class American who served his country honorably for a couple years.

“He went to law school and had politics in his blood.” 

You don’t have to agree with Walter Mondale’s policy ideas to acknowledge, as his biographer Finlay Lewis wrote, that he “never emulated the crude, politico macho of Lyndon Johnson and despised Nixon’s brand of partisan hardball.” Mondale’s toughness was of a different, better type. “It is a toughness,” Lewis observed, “born of an understanding that progress, even in minute, incremental steps, is still progress.” 

In our fraught and fractured political times, it bears remembering – and the passing of Fritz Mondale is an appropriate reminder – that there have been times when we had better people in politics and better outcomes, too. He was no punchline, but the first major party candidate to have a woman as a running mate and a model of vice presidential influence that every successor has followed.

“It is impossible to view his life as anything other than a beautiful, quintessentially American story,” Jonathan Last wrote of the Methodist preacher’s kid from Ceylon, Minnesota. We need some role models right now and the Senate needs some members like Walter Mondale. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other items you may find of interest…

Would the Governor’s Signature Match?

Some great old fashioned journalism here from the Tampa Bay Times.

Perhaps you’ve read about the efforts of the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis to force what he says would be better enforcement of ballot integrity laws by more efforts to verify voter’s signatures.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“Some election officials say limiting signature samples could make it harder to authenticate the identities of thosewho voteby mail, perhaps leading to more rejected ballots. Signatures change over time, they say, and are often affected by the choice of pen, the writing surface, fatigue or a person’s health.

“DeSantis’ own John Hancock has undergone a transformation during his time in government, as demonstrated by 16 of his signatures compiled by the Tampa Bay Times from publicly available sources between 2008 and now.”

Holding the politician to account for his own idea by showing how it would apply to him.

Bravo. Read the story here.


New Russia Sanctions Resolve a Mystery That Mueller Left Unanswered

It seems like ancient history, but…we now know that Donald Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort really did give the campaign’s sensitive and secret 2016 polling information to a man known to be a Russian intelligence agent. From the excellent Lawfare blog at the Brookings Institute.

“Both the Mueller report and the Senate investigation established that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had passed that sensitive information to Kilimnik—but only now, years later, has the Treasury Department unveiled what Kilimnik did with it. With President Trump no longer in office, the development has attracted less excitement than it might have during the era of constant outrages about Trump’s friendliness with the Russian government and the former president’s attempts to hamstring investigations into his willingness to accept foreign help. But the Kilimnik news is worth paying attention to. As the New York Times put it, the Treasury Department’s press release provides ‘the strongest evidence to date that Russian spies had penetrated the inner workings of the Trump campaign’ in 2016.”

Read the detail:


Thanks for reading. All the best.

Uncategorized

Village Idiots…

Naturally, since I write for an Idaho newspaper, a good deal of my commentary focuses on the state where I lived for more than 40 years and whose politics I’m been observing closely for just as long.

But today’s subject: the reactionary, ideological forces of the modern conservative right fighting new “culture wars” is a national phenomenon, playing out in Republican dominated legislatures from Florida to Iowa, Montana to Kansas.

The Florida Legislature, for example, has passed a bill calling for a survey of the political beliefs of public college and university professors in that state. You can’t call that even thinly disguised McCarthyism. One critic asks, “Could this information potentially be used to punish or reward colleges or universities? Might faculty be promoted or fired because of their political beliefs?” Of course it’s an effort to intimidate.

In Montana Republican lawmakers are headed for the showdown with the state’s judiciary after all members of the Montana Supreme Court were subpoenaed by a legislative committee and told to appear and bring records related to a separation of powers and policy dispute.

Iowa’s Republican legislature wants to outlaw talk of “diversity” and proscribe what subjects can’t be taught in public schools.

And in Idaho the worst, most anti-education legislature in memory is slashing and burning its way through a COVID interrupted session. Frankly, much of what the GOP-controlled legislature has been doing is appalling.


The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins was both an astute and acerbic observer of political stupidity and a world class wit. She was fond of saying as Lone Star state legislators annually gathered in Austin to abuse their constituents that suddenly “many a village is without its idiot.” 

Once wonders what Molly would have made of the village people who gathered in Idaho’s Statehouse since early January. 

In 45-plus years of observing the annual convocation of the 105 most self-confident bumblers in Idaho, I’m left to conclude that the present legislative fiasco tops – or bottoms out – every other reckless, disgusting, ill-informed and damaging legislative session in modern memory. Just when you think they can’t possibly go lower, they go lower. 

Idaho voters are clearly not sending the best people to Boise. To paraphrase a famous American: they’re sending their cranks, the science deniers, the destroyers of public schools and higher education, the self-proclaimed experts on absolutely everything. And a few of them are nice people. 

The crappiest legislature in modern times is clearly a product of Idaho’s down the rabbit hole one party politics where the most outspoken cranky local conspiracy theorist is able to appeal to the narrowest band of likeminded Republicans, and low and behold they are suddenly lawgivers. As the old joke goes, yesterday many of them couldn’t spell legislator, today they are one. 

The narrowness, ignorance and grievance of the Idaho Legislature has been appalling

Consider just a partial list of what the anointed few of Idaho legislative politics have done recently in the name of 1.8 million of their fellow citizens: 

  • After being forced to shut down the legislative session for two weeks because of a COVID outbreak that many lawmakers deny or ignore – during the hiatus they kept paying themselves, of course, with your money – they approved legislation to prohibit mask mandates by local officials. “This is a matter of our personal rights and our liberty,” said Republican Representative Karey Hanks, the bill’s sponsor. The Associated Press’s Keith Ridler noted the obvious, that Hanks, whose public health expertise consists of having been a school bus driver, was contradicting “virtually all public health experts… cited information she has that masks aren’t effective in preventing disease.” It seems worth noting that Hanks has twice been elected to the legislature by simply putting her name on the ballot. She’s never had an opponent. 
  • Not liking Governor Brad Little’s wimpy and often ineffective leadership in battling the deadly virus that has now claimed the lives of 2,000 Idahoans, Little’s fellow Republicans voted to further limit his and future governor’s powers to deal with emergencies
  • Unhappy with Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a truly exemplary public official who has repeatedly attempted to protect the legislature from its own hubris and save your money from being wasted on senseless litigation, the legislature tried to gut the AG’s authority to represent certain state agencies and then settled for merely slashing his budget. Wasden had the audacity to refuse to join a spectacularly undemocratic lawsuit – Texas idiots, again – seeking to overturn the presidential election. That angered certain of the knuckle dragging caucus and because grievance is their guiding principle, they lashed out. 
  • This legislature’s attacks on public schools and higher education have truly been unprecedented. A bill to fund Idaho teacher salaries died this week after a nonsensical debate about “critical race theory,” a Fox News staple that no one in the legislature can define. As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press wrote, the teacher pay legislation went down “after debate that focused alternately on whether Idaho values and wants to pay its teachers, and whether ‘critical race theory’ is somehow being promoted in Idaho’s public schools because the state funds teacher professional development.” What an absolutely horrible message to send to thousands of teachers who have had the most trying year imaginable. 
  • The legislature’s blindly ideological assault on higher education prompted University of Idaho president C. Scott Green to go public in an effort to address “misinformation and half-truths” that he said profoundly threaten the state’s colleges and universities. Green put a fine point on the problem when he wrote to Vandal alums and business leaders: “There is a troubling void of voices in the legislature standing up for the principles of critical thinking, the pursuit of knowledge, and the ability of students and faculty to explore ideas, examine the facts, and come to their own conclusions.”
  • Having disposed of education and pandemic concerns, legislators devoted hours of time and untold amounts of your money this week to discussing a clownish idea to create an expanded state of “Greater Idaho” by sweeping in vast acres of eastern and southern Oregon. This idea has precisely nothing to do with public policy, but is grievance driven political performance. “Greater Idaho” will happen when pigs fly, but hey it’s entertaining to blather about stuff that fires up the rubes back home. 
  • And last buy not least, lawmakers are working to make it virtually impossible for citizens to mount an initiative campaign to create a law at the ballot box. This despite Idaho’s history of having created some of the state’s most important public policy through initiatives, including expanding Medicaid, mandating campaign finance disclosure and limiting residential property taxes.

One guesses it’s mighty difficult to tell anything to people who are happily confident in their own ignorance. What these legislators think they know they’re confident of. What they don’t know they can’t be bothered with. 

For the rest of the good people of Idaho – and particularly for those in the business community – who care about a competent government, who don’t believe public school teachers and college professors are engaged in a vast Marxist conspiracy to indoctrinate children with dangerous ideas about diversity and actually want a better education system that fuels a better economy there is only one question: How far down this rabbit hole are you willing to go? 

If you think the collection of dunces and nitwits who have taken over state government have gone as low as they can possibly go think again. They haven’t. If you like this legislature your task is easy: keep sending your local nincompoop to Boise. If you’ve got some concerns about what’s happening there is an alternative course. 

—–0—–

Uncategorized

Go Partners With the President…

On the morning of August 4, 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt had breakfast in his private Great Northern Special railroad car on a siding in Ephrata in east central Washington. After breakfast Roosevelt left in a motorcade to drive to the Grand Coulee damsite. 

The president’s irascible Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, a huge backer of big, costly and transformative infrastructure projects like Grand Coulee was part of the group and he recorded the details in his diary.

“The dam to be built here will take six times as much concrete as will be required at Boulder Dam,” Ickes wrote, referring to the massive dam – now called Hoover Dam – spanning the Colorado River south of Las Vegas. “There are at least a million acres of extremely fertile land which will be able to produce abundant crops if and when they get water from this project.” 

Ickes expressed amazement that 20,000 people, many traveling hundreds of miles, gathered at the Grand Coulee construction site – literally the middle of nowhere – to cheer on the prospect of irrigation and energy. These folks knew the desert would bloom. New jobs would be created.  Economic opportunity would come to Grant County and the larger region. 

Spending money to put people to work building big things was the essence of Roosevelt’s Great Depression fighting New Deal in the Pacific Northwest. The huge dams spanning the lower Columbia and the upper Missouri, among the greatest human built structures in the world, are the most visible monuments to a Democratic president’s infrastructure plans, but the concrete is only a part of the story.  

It is not hyperbole to say that FDR’s New Deal built the world we inhabit: Schools in Boise, Parma and a half dozen other places; a golf course in Idaho Falls; post offices in Grangeville, Orofino, Bonners Ferry and Buhl, even the Red Ives Ranger Station up the St. Joe. 

The June 1937 issue of Western Construction News took notice of the electric infrastructure under construction in north central Idaho. The Roosevelt Rural Electrification Administration (REA) allotted $75,000 to the Clearwater Valley Light and Power Association in Lewiston “for construction of a generating plant of 800 KW capacity.” Another $400,000 was handed over to “for construction of 300 miles of transmission lines in Idaho and Washington.” 

Farm to market roads were improved in Asotin County. Husky Stadium in Seattle was expanded. A high school built in Kennewick, a library in Dayton and $141,000 was spent on municipal sewer improvements in Spokane

A marker in Idaho designating a Roosevelt-era infrastructure project

The “Living New Deal” history project has catalogued no less than 114 separate infrastructure projects in Idaho and 259 in Washington that have the roots in Roosevelt’s massive – the critics said socialistic – infrastructure program of the 1930’s. 

It’s no accident that Joe Biden, a rare politician with connections to the New Deal generation of builders, has placed a portrait of Roosevelt in the Oval Office and is proposing a New Deal-like $2 trillion infrastructure program. Somewhere Harold Ickes is smiling down on Biden’s determination and no doubt chuckling at the conservative handwringing over an initiative that could prove to be as transformative as when FDR came to Ephrata and celebrated his ambitions. 

The conservative push back to Biden’s initiative – too expensive, not really infrastructure, pure old socialism – would be more credible if Republicans had anything to propose or hadn’t squandered four years of the incompetent last administration promising to address infrastructure and failing to do so. 

The truth is there is no conservative alternative, no proposal, no suggestion of what might be done to rebuild what has crumbled and build new what is needed. As with so much of the politics of the moment, the conservative alternate is to complain. Mitch McConnell bemoans a “massive tax increase,” which is what Biden is proposing – a long-term tax increase on corporate America, including some of the biggest corporate names in America who pay, well, nothing in taxes. 

Twenty-six different companies by one recent study, including Nike, FedEx and Duke Energy, paid zero while reporting a combined income of $77 billion. You might think a guy like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, struggling by as the world’s richest man on his $177 billion fortune, would be up in arms about Biden’s proposal. He isn’t. Bezos said this week he supports long-term corporate tax increases to fund the infrastructure effort. 

A key piece of Biden’s proposal would finally see serious action on broadband in rural America, an absolutely essential component of economic revitalization in much of the West. Expanding high speed internet access in rural America was not that long ago a Republican talking point, but now that Biden has actually teed up a real proposal, congressional conservatives have lost their enthusiasm. 

Governor Brad Little apparently didn’t get the GOP memo since he said recently, as National Public Radio reported, that infrastructure, particularly rural infrastructure, is a genuine priority. “As we work on our quest for more broadband and better roads,” Little said, “that means that that growth can be dispersed out into areas, particularly areas that have had a dislocation, that have lost a major employer.” 

That sounds a lot like FDR in eastern Washington in 1934, and also like the making of an economic strategy that both parties should get behind. 

The political debate over whether and to what extent to involve the government in rebuilding a battered economy certainly didn’t begin with a deadly pandemic that has crushed job growth and decimated many small businesses. But the current posture on the right – ignoring the scope of the economic problem, while belittling every solution and hoping the neglect reaps political rewards – is an old tune, the kind of cynicism Roosevelt’s critics wallowed in the 1930’s. 

There are signs that American business isn’t falling in lock step with McConnell’s economic nihilism, but rather embracing the 21st Century infrastructure proposal for what it is: a launching pad for a new American economy. Republicans, meanwhile, promise a fight to end, and to hell with the economy and the folks who would benefit.

Yet public opinion is on his side, so Biden would be well advised to parrot Roosevelt’s famous statement about his do-nothing opponents in 1936. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred,” Roosevelt said, and then won a landslide re-election. 

For their part, Republicans would be smart – not likely – to heed the advice of Jesse Jones, a hardheaded Texas businessman who was a top aide to FDR. “Be smart for once,” Jones begged the conservative critics of those earlier days. “Go partners with the President in the recovery program without stint.” 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other suggestions for items worthy of your time

Ozzie and Harriett Went Off the Air in the 1960’s

I was pleased to have a column earlier this week in the new, non-profit news site Idaho Capital Sun. I wrote about Idaho’s long struggle to deal with a no-brainer, early childhood education:

“An enduring debate for the last half century in Idaho has been the question of establishing, sustaining and attempting to expand educational opportunities for very young children. Idaho’s systematic failure to develop a policy for early childhood education is a key factor – perhaps the key factor – in why the state habitually ranks so low in educational achievement.”

Read the full story:


In Sickness and Health

A lot of buzz about a new book with an inside view of a hospital struggling to survive in rural America.

A journalist’s fly-on-the-wall coverage of one small Ohio hospital reveals the deeper story of America’s broken medical system—and the heartland’s decline

“The first remarkable thing about Brian Alexander’s new book, The Hospital, is that he managed to pull off an exception to this seeming iron law of U.S. health care. He never explains exactly how, but in early 2018 he persuaded the CEO and board of a small, community hospital in rural Bryan, Ohio, to give him fly-on-the-wall access to their struggling institution—and complete freedom to write up what he witnessed. “

The Washington Monthly has a review:


The filibuster can be conquered: I know — I helped do it

And I really enjoyed this piece by John G. Stewart, a former top aide to Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, on how the filibuster was beaten to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“The recounting of what happened in 1964 points the way in 2021.

“Force the opposition to hold the floor and talk. No more premature “test votes.” No weakening amendments prior to cloture. Get organized by assigning senators to monitor the floor and be ready to defeat likely quorum calls. Coordinate closely with outside support groups and the media. Stay on the offensive.”

Required reading to understand the current battle over Senate rules.


Thanks for following along. Be safe out there.

Uncategorized

A Statement for Our Times…

Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois was a towering figure on the American political stage in the 1950’s and 60’s, a man who said his overarching principle as Senate minority leader, a position he held for ten years prior to his death in 1969, was “flexibility.” 

Dirksen, dubbed among other things “the wizard of Ooze” owing to his florid speaking style – he had hoped to be an actor as a young man, and had a voice that one admirer said reminded him of “honey dripping on metal tiles” – was a marvel at changing a position, something he did repeatedly.

Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen at the time he served as Senate minority leader

Dirksen embraced the historic Civil Rights Act in 1964 after initially voicing doubts. He flat our rejected a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union when John Kennedy first proposed an agreement only to later lead the Senate effort to ratify what became the foundation of all subsequent efforts to limit nuclear weapons.

“Life is not a static thing,” the conservative Dirksen said in 1965. “I try to be a realist and appreciative of what you have to do in the world in light of changing conditions.” 

One might think that the last year would have provided a level of realism and appreciation for “changing conditions,” and might have prompted some serious rethinking of old assumptions, particularly on the conservative right. But for a significant segment of the American population continuing to defy public health advice is now just one more political hill to die on, literally.  

Ignoring the shocking pandemic numbers in her state, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a favorite in Trump world and a would-be presidential contender, boasts that her’s “is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter in place order. We never mandated that people wear masks.”

All true, but oh the cost. 

South Dakota’s spread-out population numbers 885,000 souls, a total, as of earlier this week, diminished by 1,935 victims of COVID in the last year. As a point of comparison, consider Oregon’s population of 4.2 million and the state’s 2,390 virus deaths. Oregon has imposed strict lockdown procedures and mandated masks. And, surprise, the number of Oregon deaths, while tragic, is remarkably lower as a percent of total population than wide open South Dakota. 

And there is vaccine hesitancy, or denial.

New polling from the NPR/PBS/Marist survey indicated that 49% of Republican men are, so far at least, refusing COVID-19 vaccines, a vastly higher percentage than any other demographic. Only 6% of men who identify as Democrats said they would forgo the shots. 

“We’ve never seen an epidemic that was polarized politically before,” Robert J. Blendon, a health policy scholar at Harvard, told Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus. Politics and partisanship explains a lot about tragedy. 

There has been an unrelenting logic to pandemic since it came fully into our lives in March of last year. While there is much we still do not know about the disease there is no mystery to its exponential march. When public and personal efforts to control the spread are ignored in places like South Dakota – and it a large degree in Idaho and many other conservative states – the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths roll from one wave to the next. The fourth wave is upon us.

COVID-19 vaccines are a huge success story. Now we need to get people vaccinated

More than 95 million Americans have had one dose of the vaccine and more than 50 million have been fully vaccinated but getting the last ten percent treated in order to make the country safe for everyone may prove a daunting, even impossible, challenge. 

The former guy, tucked up in south Florida, kind of urged his followers to take the vaccine recently, but he didn’t have the moral courage – big surprise – to actually make a production out of getting his own shot. He makes a production of everything, but takes a pass when lives, even the lives of his supporters, are at stake. 

In Iowa, another conservative state where politicians have declined to lead, while caving under a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing, a local GOP official who recovered from COVID said recently, “I’m not a rebel by any means. I know this stuff is real. I’ve lived it, but I also believe strongly in personal choice.” Still she said she would make no effort to communicate with fellow Republicans that the vaccine is a very good thing. 

The conservative mantra of “personal choice” has become for many conservatives just another way to be irresponsible. 

Now, brace yourselves for the coming fight on the right over “vaccine passports,” some method to allow those who have been vaccinated to show proof of that fact. Journalist Kevin Drum sensibly said the passport issue, which could make it easier to screen airline or cruise line passengers or deem a warehouse crew disease free, should be left to the private sector to figure out. That would, after all, be a conservative value, but oh no. 

The U.S. House of Representative’s wackadoodle caucus immediately moved to add proof of vaccine to “cancel culture,” insurrection denial and the vast threat to the Republic from transgender girls playing basketball to the list of its defining issues of our time.

Georgia Congresswoman Margorie Taylor Greene (Republican – Lalaland), a politician as historically ignorant as she is conspiracy crazed, equated a private business requiring proof of vaccination to “corporate communism,” thereby proving she doesn’t comprehend either word.

It is clear we are headed into another very rough patch where the unrelenting logic of this horrible disease that has claimed 550,000 American lives will again prove to all that you can deny it, but you can’t avoid it. Cases are increasing again everywhere. The inevitable rise in hospitalizations will follow in a couple of weeks and then the death rates will increase. Again. 

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results, we’ve moved to an advanced stage. One suspects that the old pragmatic midwestern conservative Ev Dirksen would have been astounded. 

“The only people who do not change their minds,” Dirksen said, “are incompetents in asylums, who can’t, and those in cemeteries.” Now, there’s a statement for our times. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

A couple of additional reads worthy of your time…

Did racism kill Jackie Robinson?

The start of a new baseball season means we will, as we should, remember the remarkable life and career of the man who broke baseball’s color line, Jackie Robinson.

An all-time great – Jackie Robinson

A thoughtful piece here about how racism contributed to Robinson’s too short life.

“Though Robinson’s illnesses were diagnosed in early adulthood, they could have had their roots in childhood. Adverse social and physical conditions as well as limited access to and poor quality of health care serve as barriers to illness prevention and treatment, limiting the ability to protect one’s healthExperiences of racial trauma and discrimination like those Robinson experienced are linked to smoking, unhealthy eating habits and alcohol usedecreased trust in health care providers, increased cardiovascular risks and negative cardiovascular outcomes.”

Read the entire piece from The Conversation:


Too many people who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq face a deadly problem

I’ve known Jim Jones, a former Idaho attorney general and justice of the state supreme court, for a long time. He occasionally went toe-to-toe with my old boss, Governor Cecil Andrus, but more often despite their differing political faiths they ended up in the same place politically.

Jones has had an impactful career and in this piece that appeared this week in The Washington Post he speaks forcefully and urgently about his Vietnam service and how it relates to the moral responsibility of the United States to its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The threat to Iraqis who helped the United States from Islamic State terrorists and others has not ebbed, while the danger for Afghans grows worse by the day. If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, the flow of refugees, including thousands who helped U.S. forces, will increase to a torrent. We must be prepared to provide them sanctuary. The United States should do everything in its power to avoid repeating the disgrace of its exit from Vietnam.”

Read the full op-ed:


A Minor Regional Novelist

I read – and valued – many of the tributes to Larry McMurtry, the Texas writer who died recently. During the reading I stumbled on this Texas Monthly piece from 2016. It’s really good.

Larry McMurtry – as he called himself “a minor regional novelist”

“In American letters, he is something of an icon—winner of both a Pulitzer Prize (for the novel Lonesome Dove, about a cattle drive in the 1870s) and an Oscar (for the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, which he co-wrote with Ossana, about two sexually conflicted modern-day cowboys). His storytelling has been compared to that of Charles Dickens and William Faulkner, and even the famously self-absorbed novelist Norman Mailer—himself a winner of two Pulitzers—once confessed his admiration. “He’s too good,” he said, explaining his resistance to McMurtry’s novels. ‘If I start reading him, I start writing like him.'”

The writer is Skip Hollandsworth…here’s the link:


Thanks for reading…be safe out there.

Uncategorized

How Conservatism Became Radical…

Note: This column is based, in part, on research conducted for my new book.

—–

In the late 1970’s a trio of young and very conservative political activists created a new organization that aimed to takeover and then remake the Republican Party. The state of our current politics is proof that they succeeded. 

John T. “Terry” Dolan is mostly forgotten now, but he was a true architect of the modern GOP. Dolan had been a paid organizer for Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign and became the executive director of what he and his colleagues – Charles Black and Roger Stone (yes that guy) – called the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC).

President Reagan shakes hands with Richard Viguerie at a White House meeting with conservative leaders of the New Right in 1981. Terry Dolan is next to Reagan…certainly not to his left

NCPAC helped upend American politics, arguably as much as Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential election victory did in 1980. The group used the dark political arts of direct mail fundraising, negative attack ads and third-party “independent expenditure” campaigns to take over conservative political messaging and then take over conservatism. The shrill attack ads, the politics of anger and grievance, the deep partisanship of our time didn’t just happen. There is an origin story, and the 1980 election is as good a place as any to see how the next 40 years of American politics unfolded. 

Ideology – think of it as what voters believe versus what is real – has increasingly shaped both parties, but it entirely overtook only one of them. We live largely in the world young, brash, ambitious Terry Dolan envisioned when he said he wanted to create a conservative ideological movement. 

Dolan was a fascinating character – charismatic, charming, cunning and frequently cruel. The photo above captures some aspects of his personality, I think. He could turn a pithy phrase, as when he said of NCPAC’s attacks on its Idaho target in 1980. “We’re out to destroy the popularity ratings of several liberal senators,” Dolan said, “and it’s working. Frank Church [a 24-year Senate incumbent and Idaho’s senior senator] is screaming like a stuck pig, and I don’t blame him.” 

It’s difficult to remember these days that the Republican Party once was home to moderates, even liberals, politicians like Oregon’s Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall, Washington’s Dan Evans, Charles Percy of Illinois, Jacob Javits of New York and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky who once held the seat now occupied by Mitch McConnell. Terry Dolan detested Republican moderates and aimed to purge the party of all of them. It’s taken a while, but Dolan’s vision of 40 years ago has been realized and in the process the Republican Party has become the radical outlier of our politics.  

When a political party’s basic ideology embraces the radical it soon follows that many party supporters are radicalized, too. Both major political parties have clearly moved toward their extremes, but the evolutionary evidence of an extreme conservative transformation is easy to see, and radicalization on the right is vastly more pronounced than anything on the political left. A couple of examples of how this has worked.

Conservative legislators from Boise to Birmingham have broadly rejected the scientific evidence related to coronavirus, shunning mask wearing and rejecting vaccines. These ideological radicals have largely chosen to believe not what their eyes – or science and experts – tell them, but what their ideology espouses. 

The ideology of science denial

It would be simply ironic if it were not so obviously tragic that while the Idaho legislature was debating a measure last week that would prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing a mask mandate, the one step backed by vast scientific consensus that is effective in controlling the spread of a deadly virus, it was forced to shut down for two weeks when several members fell ill to the disease. Yet, because of the pull of ideology the legislature almost certainly will return and pick up right where it left off. 

Most conservative legislators have, of course, refused the simplest, most effective public health action in favor of minimizing the disease, embracing the fiction that it is overblown or that it will, as their clueless leader infamously proclaimed, just go away. Remember when he said the country would be back to normal by Easter – last Easter? 

This attitude is roughly the equivalent of hitting your thumb repeatedly with a hammer and proclaiming there is no correlation between the cold metal and a sore thumb. It is the triumph of belief over reality. 

There are a thousand other examples of this magical radical thinking. The crackpot lawyer who helped spread the big lie about the presidential election being stolen now admits in a court filing that “no reasonable person” could believe her assertions, but millions still do believe. 

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a born-again reincarnation of his state’s 1950’s senator Joe McCarthy, is another prime exhibit. Johnson is a conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, a wide-open conduit for Russian disinformation, a guy whose basically been rewriting or denying the reality of a pro-Trump mob’s attack on the U.S. Congress in January. 

Johnson initially and absurdly claimed that assault was the work of leftwing provocateurs and then more recently allowed that the deadly attack was the work of  “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” Johnson is articulating an ideology belied by hours of television footage of the attack. His opinions, no matter how obviously wrong, trump objective reality. Yet, as conservative columnist Michael Gerson noted, Johnson suffers no pushback from his fellow conservative ideologues because he’s channeling the belief system of most of the Republican Party. 

“One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties,” Gerson wrote this week, “has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.” That brings us back to the aforementioned Terry Dolan. 

Dolan and the people who helped him, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and direct mail impresario Richard Viguerie among them, realized more than 40 years ago that they could traffic in fear and big lies about their opponents and be successful, because, as Viguerie candidly admitted, fear, breeding resentment and grievance, is the powerful motivator of political behavior. 

Dolan’s enemies were “elites,” clueless liberals, “baby killers” and politicians he defined as dangerous to families and national security. The right’s bogeymen now include new evil forces –  “cancel culture,” socialist indoctrination of young people and nefarious plots such as early childhood education. It’s not a political agenda designed to address any real problem, but it has been the centerfold of the Republican playbook for a long generation. And it truly is the substance of the angry ideology of the modern conservative movement.

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

If you are up for some additional reading, I have some recommendations…

The Covid Queen of South Dakota

I haven’t lived in South Dakota since I graduated from college – Go Jacks! – but I still follow the news from the prairie, including news about South Dakota governor Kristi Noem. You may remember her – a big Trump fan – welcoming the former president to a big event at Mt. Rushmore last summer and then encouraging tens of thousands of motorcycle aficionados to descend on Sturgis, all during a raging pandemic. 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

Stephen Rodrick assesses how it all turned out in Rolling Stone

“South Dakota has 880,000 citizens scattered over the country’s 17th largest state, providing built-in social distancing. In theory, it should have a Covid death rate in the bottom 10, near fellow sparse states like Maine and Wyoming. Instead, there are now more than 1,900 dead — one in 470 South Dakotans — and one in eight have tested positive for Covid, the second-highest rate in the country. Noem appeared on Face the Nation in February, and host Margaret Brennan asked how she could square her pro-life stance with her state having the highest Covid death rate since July. ‘Those are questions you should be asking every other governor in this country,’ said Noem. ‘I’m asking you today,’ said Brennan.”

Access the full story here:


The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool

An engaging portrait of the UK prime minister in The Guardian

UK prime minister Boris Johnson

“Observe classic Johnson closely as he arrives at an event. See how his entire being and bearing is bent towards satire, subversion, mockery. The hair is his clown’s disguise. Just as the makeup and the red nose bestow upon the circus clown a form of anonymity and thus freedom to overturn conventions, so Johnson’s candy-floss mop announces his licence. His clothes are often baggy – ill-fitting; a reminder of the clothes of the clown. He walks towards us quizzically, as if to mock the affected ‘power walking’ of other leaders. Absurdity seems to be wrestling with solemnity in every expression and limb. Notice how he sometimes feigns to lose his way as if to suggest the ridiculousness of the event, the ridiculousness of his presence there, the ridiculousness of any human being going in any direction at all.”

The link:


Off-road, off-grid: the modern nomads wandering America’s back country

If you’ve seen the Academy Award nominated film – Nomadland – you’ll want to read another piece from The Guardian

“’If the Great Recession was a crack in the system, Covid and climate change will be the chasm,’” says Bob Wells, 65, the nomad who plays himself in the film Nomadland, an early Oscar contender starring Frances McDormand. Bob helped April to adopt the nomad way of life and change her life in the process.

“Today, he lives exclusively on public lands in his GMC Savana fitted with 400 watts of solar power and a 12-volt refrigerator. His life mission is to promote nomadic tribalism in a car, van or RV as a way to prevent homelessness and live more sustainably.”

Read the whole thing:


The names change every decade, but iconic NBA stars are always reincarnations of Elgin Baylor

Finally, remembering one of basketball’s all-time greats: Elgin Baylor.

Surely the most underrated truly great player in NBA history

I grew up listening to Laker games on KNX from Los Angeles. And, yes, I wanted to be a radio play-by-play guy like the great Chick Hearn. I loved, among other things, Chick’s pre-game introductions of Baylor: “And…at forward, 6’5″ from Seattle, the captain of the Lakers, Number 22…Elgin BAYLOR…”

A great piece about the great Elgin from perhaps our best current sportswriter, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post.


Thanks for reading…stay safe, and if you haven’t yet get the dang shot…

Uncategorized

OK, I Blew It…

Dave Broder, the late, great Washington Post reporter and columnist, was quite possibly the last nearly uniformly respected political journalist in America. Born in Illinois, Broder brought a middle western non-ideological sensibility to his reporting and commentary. Before his death in 2011, Broder was regularly named as the “most trusted,” the “fairest,” the hardest working scribbler in Washington. 

Late is his long career, Broder was insightful – he was insightful about many things – as to the problems facing our politics and those who cover our politics. Trust was the problem he concluded. 

Dave Broder, the Washington Post journalist and icon

“But this is now just sort of endemic,” Broder said in an interview in 1996. “I mean, if you are in politics, you are, by virtue of that fact, a subject of distrust. And if you are part of the press, they also figure that you’re playing some angle of your own. Or that you’re in bed with that sort of closed group–the insiders. And this is a country that is very suspicious of insiders.” 

In his own low-key way, Dave Broder tried every December to address the trust gap. He published a column on the things he got wrong during the previous year. I’m no Dave Broder, but his example is a good one for anyone who pops off about politics and tries to make sense of politicians. 

So here goes: some of what I got wrong in 2020. 

Most mistakes I make, and I certainly make my share, are in the category of hope triumphing over experience. A lifetime of participating in politics and therefore thinking that experience makes you infallible is the ultimate hubris. My hubris was on full display when I suggested – more than once in 2020 – that American voters would broadly reject the politics of division and discord exemplified over the last four years by the man about to leave the White House. 

Donald Trump was broadly rejected – a decisive loss in the Electoral College and crushing margin of the popular vote – but Republicans generally did very well in the November election. Far from repudiation the GOP came darn close to winning control of the House of Representatives, an outcome I could not bring myself to envision before November 3. 

The GOP may still hang on to Senate control pending two runoff elections in Georgia. The “blue wave” that might have swept Democrats into a Senate majority seemed plausible to me until it wasn’t. I didn’t see Montana voters rejecting a popular governor running for the Senate against a Republican non-entity. I genuinely thought strong Democratic women in places like Iowa and Maine had a good chance. They didn’t. I was simply wrong about the breadth and depth of any rejection of Trump’s GOP.

I badly miscalculated the impact of the Republican campaign against “socialism” and “defunding the police.” Americans, I should have known, always reject socialism even as they embrace Medicare, Social Security, government built and operated hydroelectric dams and every sort of agricultural and tax subsidy. Socialism, as the arm waving Bernie Sanders has helped prove all over again, is the third rail of American politics. Most Americans couldn’t define the term, but they know socialism is bad.

The Defund the Police narrative was a big, big loser for Democrats

And the left-wing sloganeering about defunding police was simply political malpractice by too many so called progressives who handed conservatives a huge and winning issue. The issue of redirecting law enforcement funding to substance abuse interventions and better community policing got hijacked by stupid, arrogant use of inflammatory language. I thought Democrats would be smart enough to reject the stupidity of a national message that dissed cops. I flat out underestimated the impact. I’m now convinced the issue nearly cost Democrats the House of Representatives. 

I genuinely thought more Republicans beyond Mitt Romney, particularly after the election, would come to speak truth about what has happened to their party under Trump, how he has debased the very idea of truth and now continues a charade about a stolen election. I thought Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, for example, who in his pre-Trump life was often a model of civility and bipartisanship, would do what he did in 2016 and pledge to carry out his Constitutional responsibilities and work cooperatively with a new president elect. I was wrong. 

Simpson not only hasn’t done that, but he joined a ridiculous lawsuit seeking to overturn the presidential election. I was wrong in thinking politicians like Simpson would actually welcome a breaking of the Trump fever. 

History will judge the administration of the last four years harshly for its incompetence, corruption and efforts to undermine democracy, but I genuinely thought even the most bungling administration in modern American history would figure out a plan to roll out a coronavirus vaccine. I mean, it’s complicated, but you have at your disposal the world’s best military. Many of the best scientists. The logistics and shipping capabilities of Amazon and FedEx. The administration promised that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by now. They were wrong and I was wrong in thinking even this crowd couldn’t screw this up

Back in October I wrote: “A fundamental principle of democracy is that people in power act in ways that preserve and protect the integrity of the institutions entrusted to their care. Having the power to act sometimes demand not acting. In our lifetimes there has never been a better moment to pause, consider and practice restrain.” 

The moment was a Supreme Court vacancy being filled days before a presidential election. I thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the precedent Republicans established in 2016 when they refused for months to consider Barack Obama’s nominee would hold. I thought that GOP senators who had vowed to never fill a court seat in an election year would honor that commitment, or at least be shamed into doing so. I was wrong. 

In order to understand the level of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s cynicism you have to recalibrate your own cynicism. I thought it possible, before proven wrong, that he might have a moment of pause. I was wrong. 

I’ll leave 2020 with another thought about Dave Broder and the long sweep of American politics. In 1971 – wow, nearly 50 years ago – Broder wrote a little book entitled The Party’s Over in which he worried about the state of the country. “It is going to cost us time and energy and thought, diverted from our private concerns,” Broder wrote, “to make government workable and politics responsible again in America.” 

He was appealing for precisely the cure our diseased system needed then – and needs now. I hope I don’t have to admit next year that he – and we – were wrong. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some stories from around the Internet that you may have missed…

A New Southern Manifesto

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower, has an interesting piece in The Dispatch.

He links GOP allegations of voter fraud to efforts in the 1950’s – mostly from Democrats – to keep African Americans from voting.

“The targets of the Southern Manifesto were the nation’s black public school children, isolated in segregated schools. The unnamed targets of the Texas lawsuit and most other election suits filed by Trump supporters are mostly black voters in urban areas.  

“What is more, just as the signers of the Southern Manifesto couched their language in neutral terms, saying separate but equal allowed for ‘amicable relations between the white and Negro races,’ the Trump supporters have followed a similar pattern. Rather than directly speak of race, they talk of “voter fraud.'”

The full piece is here.


Where Did America Go Wrong?

Celebrations in New York after Joe Biden’s victory

The German magazine Der Spiegel asks that question.

“America knows it is sick. It is showing all the symptoms. There are doubts about the legitimacy of elections, and confidence in political institutions has crumbled. The media have abandoned or lost their role as impartial observers. The country’s predominantly white police force continues to deploy misguided violence against a disillusioned and outraged Black population. There are armed militias on the streets and it’s become almost impossible to voice an opinion without getting overwhelmed by hateful comments on social media. To top it all off is a president who refuses to concede defeat, a society that has been battered by a pandemic that can only be contained by way of solidarity.”

Harsh, but fair. Read it here.


The State of America

Three more year end political pieces worth your time.

Bruce Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany. He has a great piece in The Bulwark with a deep dive into the data about how Joe Biden won.

One of my favorite political journalist McKay Coppins in The Atlantic on the media and Biden. The White House spent four years vilifying journalists. What comes next? Read it here:

And a well-deserved piece in The Times about Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, a breakout star with her daily newsletter putting by-the-facts daily reporting in the context of American history. If you don’t get her newsletter, you should sign up. Here a link.

The World That Made Lincoln

Ol’ Abe

“No one,” writes historian Allen C. Guelzo, “has been a better chronicler of 19th-century American culture than David Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Guelzo reviews Reynold’s sprawling new Lincoln bio in The Washington Monthly.

“His 1008-page re-imagining begins with the bluntness of the title – Abe – since no one, once Lincoln had achieved adulthood, ever dared to address him as ‘Abe.’ To his closest friends, he was always Lincoln; even to his wife, he was Mr. Lincoln. His correspondence was invariably signed A. Lincoln, as though he found even Abraham overly familiar. Only on his most important state papers did he write out his name in full. But to the country at large, he was indeed Abe – Uncle Abe, Old Abe, Honest Abe, Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Good god you goin to shake with me Uncle Abe, was the cry of an astonished soldier to whom Lincoln stuck out his hand at a review. ‘Hey! Uncle Abe are you joking yet,’ was the satirical title of a political song in 1864.”

Well, I know what I should have asked Santa to deliver for Christmas. Read the review.


Thanks friends. It’s been quite a year. I really appreciate you following along. To a better 2021. Stay safe.

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.