Al Franken, the Anti-Trump — Joan Walsh profiles the Minnesota senator in The Nation.
Torrential rain came down on the late May afternoon I interviewed Senator Al Franken about his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (yes, he’s still funny). Thunder and lightning jolted our conversation, along with laughter, much of it his. (Staffers say they can always find him at events by following the laugh.) Having won reelection in 2014 and endured the nightmare of 2016, he has decided to Let Franken Be Franken Again: Hilarious. Sometimes, I told him, the book reads as though he saved up all the jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell over the last decade. “There were a few of them,” he admits. “That [Antonin] Scalia’s dissent [on marriage equality] was ‘very gay…’ I really fought for that one! I’d already been reelected. I will argue my case, but if my people say absolutely not, I pay attention almost all the time.”
As a demoralized Democratic Party looks for new leadership, Franken has written the kind of thoughtful, bracing book that will make people say: “Al Franken is running for president in 2020.” He resolutely says he’s not—but Giant of the Senate is enough to make you wish he’d change his mind, in part because of the way Franken is an ideal foil to Donald Trump. Superficially, they both entered politics as TV stars. But, as he chronicles in Giant, Franken worked hard to become a senator who happens to be a comedian, rather than a comedian who unexpectedly became a senator, earning the respect of his colleagues in the process. Trump has resolutely and dangerously refused to do the same.
Now, with this book, Franken is both resistance leader and family counselor. Giant sometimes reads like a pep talk for Democrats devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Yet it was mostly written before November 8, when Franken, like virtually everyone in public life, believed Clinton would be the next president. “I was essentially finished with the book,” he admits. “So then I had to figure out what to do with Trump. I decided I’d tie it into what was already there. My pep talk to the troops is actually about what happened between the 2004 presidential loss and 2008. I mean, [Karl] Rove was talking about a permanent GOP majority.”
But Democrats pushed back, and Franken was part of that resistance, eviscerating the right with best-sellers like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, then hosting a popular three-hour daily Air America radio show where he deconstructed the lies in real time.
Trump seems the culmination of everything Franken wrote about in Lying Liars, I note. “Don’t you find that depressing?” I ask him.
He sighs. “You can’t allow yourself that,” he warns me. Remember, he says, that the work of the left in 2005, in organizations from the late, great Air America to the Center for American Progress, beat back a Bush plan to privatize Social Security and led “to [Democrats taking back the House in] 2006. Then 2008 and then boom, there’s the reversal.”
Boom. He makes it sound easy. He knows it’s not.
Franken’s mission for Giant is serious: to use his personal story to illuminate and entertain, and ultimately reorient the nation around progressive priorities that direct government to help families and businesses rebuild the middle class. In many ways, the book’s moral center is the story of his family and the family of his wife, Franni. He was born in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century in the middle of the greatest middle class ever created; Franni grew up poor.
“I felt like the luckiest kid in the world—and that’s because I was,” he told me. “Then I met Franni, and she didn’t grow up that way. She grew up poor, because her dad died when she was 18 months old. Her mom was 29 years old with five kids and a high-school education. They were hungry; they had the heat turned off and the phone turned off. But they made it. And they made it because of Social Security survivors’ benefits. They made it because of Pell Grants and scholarships. They made it because of the GI Bill. My mother-in-law took out a GI Bill loan [as the widow of a veteran] and went to college and had all of her loans forgiven because she taught Title I kids. That’s the story: Every one of her kids made it into the middle class. They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? But first you have to have the boots. And the government gave them the boots.”
The book is not all tributes to the hard-working middle class or detailed economic prescriptions, though there’s some of that. Franken also tells his own personal story with candor. He puts all his drug use on the record, for example, going beyond the Barack Obama political-memoir standard (weed and cocaine) to LSD. There’s a chapter titled: “Saturday Night Live (The Drug Part),” which is funny and bawdy and ultimately heartbreaking, as you watch the cast lose not just John Belushi but Chris Farley to addiction.
Franken also talks about the late Tom Davis, his beloved comic partner from high school into the 1990s, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. Franni, the soul of the book, also developed a reliance on alcohol as she raised their two kids. Franni got sober, and her husband went to Al Anon, where he learned he could be sort of a judgmental jerk. His Stuart Smalley SNL character—“You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you!”—was a comic tribute to the simple wisdom of the recovery movement on what it takes to face down life’s hard knocks without relying on alcohol or on being an asshole.
I came of age with early SNL, so all of this was like candy to me. The chapters on Franken’s post-SNL career, and the way he transitioned first to truth-telling, best-selling author, then Air America host and finally Senate candidate, were just as absorbing for someone who survived the Bush presidency. His recounting of those years really does help remind us that we can organize our way through dark times. For Franken, maybe the darkest day was when Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash right before his election, with his wife, daughter, three staffers, and two pilots. The lying liars on the right depicted the public Wellstone tribute as a crude, menacing partisan rage-fest, infuriating Franken.
But it’s when Wellstone’s successor, Republican Norm Coleman, boasted that he’s “a 99 percent improvement” over Wellstone that Franken started to feel the stirrings of political ambition.
From that point on, the book is a hilarious guide to what happens when a comedian runs for Congress. Franken can change his shtick, tell fewer jokes, show a serious side, give 45-minute orations on the skyrocketing costs of college or health care. The one thing he can’t do is erase the jokes that are already out there. Some GOP hit pieces took his gags out of context; those didn’t land a blow.
But Franken suffered over three: first, an apparent Holocaust joke about the worst gift to give Anne Frank (the answer: drums). It turns out that Franken didn’t even write or tell that joke, but he was in close proximity, and it made some Minnesota establishment politicians a little anxious. (It made Harry Reid, however, cry with laughter, when Franken called to tell him about the controversy over the phone.)
He gets in more trouble with a spoof he wrote for Playboy headlined “Porn-O-Rama,” about visiting a virtual-sex institute. But the worst was a joke attributed to Franken from a 1994 2 am SNL writers’ room rewrite session, working on a sketch in which cornball 60 Minutes staple Andy Rooney goes from banal to berserk. Franken suggested that Rooney find an empty bottle of sedatives and give the pills to show correspondent Lesley Stahl, and then he’d “take her to the closet and rape her.” In the book, Franken has the space to give the context for the joke: that he knows it’s terrible, that it was never meant to be aired, that it was the kind of free-associative crazy idea intended to jolt everyone’s psyches and inspire better (and less offensive) jokes. His SNL pal Conan O’Brian commiserates, telling Franken: “If I was on the stand at a trial, and the prosecutor asked me, ‘Mr. O’Brien, have you ever joked at a rewrite table about defiling Lincoln’s body immediately after he was shot? I’d have to throw myself on the mercy of the court.”
But rewrite-room excuses didn’t fly in the 24/7 reality of the campaign, and the “joke” almost killed Franken’s campaign. It landed on the eve of the Minnesota convention where he hoped to be chosen as the Democratic nominee to face Coleman. He made the dangerous move of addressing the controversy in a raw convention speech. “It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate,” he told the crowd. I’m sorry for that.” He went on to acknowledge he’d written and told some “offensive” jokes over the years, that he’d made some folks “uncomfortable,” and ended: “But I’m in this race because there are some people in Washington who could afford to feel a little less comfortable.” And he promised the first person he’d make uncomfortable was Norm Coleman.
He won the nomination, but the GOP continued to depict him as a “rape-joking pornographer,” though he had the strong support of women’s groups and his campaign was run by Stephanie Schriock, who now run’s Emily’s List. Candidate Obama refused to campaign with him when he came to Minnesota for his own race, though Hillary Clinton did, twice. Even after his formal state nomination, the head then of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to shop around for a new candidate. Franken had to promise that if he couldn’t cut his deficit with Coleman to 5 percent by Labor Day, he’d drop out and let a Schumer-picked Minnesota Democrat take his place.
Franken did what he had to do, but trailed Coleman in tracking polls into October. “That’s when Franni saved the campaign,” he writes. His wife, who’d been private about her struggles with alcoholism, did an ad about it. “When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me.” The ad diluted the GOP’s toxic claims that Franken disrespected women. He won, after a recount, by 312 votes. But Coleman fought the results by every means possible, and Franken didn’t take his Senate seat until July.
The trauma of being accused of disrespecting women made it even more incredible, to Franken, that Trump could be elected. “My experience in ’08 was really having to agonize about this stuff,” he recalls, “stuff that was only a joke.” “And then Trump got elected in ’16, with all this awful stuff about him that was real!”
Arriving late to the Senate, Franken won a seat on the Judiciary Committee, where he’s made news with his dogged questioning of Supreme Court nominees and now Trump cabinet appointees. He had one of his finest moments dragging Justice Neil Gorsuch over his ruling against a trucker who abandoned his nonfunctioning vehicle in subzero weather, basically to save his life. “What would you have done?” Franken asked fiercely, and Gorsuch bleated, shamelessly: “Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would’ve done—I wasn’t in his shoes.”
Franken’s tough questioning also led, ultimately, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s having to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, after he essentially perjured himself by telling Franken he’d never had contact with Russian officials, though he’d met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.
Some progressives, I note, worry that the Russia investigation is distracting Democrats from other pressing issues. Some see it as a way for Clinton supporters to cover over the troubles in her campaign that led her to lose to a misogynist joke like Trump. Franken disagrees. “The Russia investigation is incredibly important—it’s about a foreign power interfering with the very basis of our democracy. So we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time—health care being a prime example.”
There’s only one topic on which Franken is tight-lipped: the Democratic Party divisions that linger since the bruising 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Franken endorsed Clinton early, and I asked if he regretted that, given what came later (the Minnesota Democratic caucus went for Sanders). I got a quick and resounding “No.”
We talked about single-payer health insurance–there’s a bill in California to establish a statewide single payer system, and some on the left want to make supporting it a litmus test for California Democrats. Is he worried about that?
“Vermont tried it and they couldn’t quite get to it,” he observed. Franken writes positively about single payer in his book, noting that it would have been a “much simpler” solution than the ACA. “But I also wrote that we needed 60 votes to pass something, and single payer was about 50 votes short. There are many ways to get to universal health care coverage; the problem is we don’t have a health care system, we have systems.”
Franken is as pro-choice as senators come, so I ask him about the tensions over the place in the party of so-called pro-life Democrats, which flared in the unsuccessful Omaha mayoral campaign of Heath Mello. Does he worry the party is in danger of putting the pursuit of white working-class guys over the women and people of color that make up its base?
“We do have to pay attention to them, clearly—but not at the exclusion of anybody else.” He repeats himself. “Not at the exclusion of anybody else. We have to talk about economic issues. It’s clear from the budget that Trump was talking out of one side of his mouth and he doesn’t care about those people, because if he did, this wouldn’t be his budget. So we need to take that message to them.”
But Clinton talked about economic issues, I remind him. Still, she fell short—in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even his own state of Minnesota was a tighter contest than many expected.
“I think part of it was the Bernie problem,” he replied. “These people are angry. And they’re angry because they feel the system is rigged—and it is rigged, but not in the way they think.
“And we have the problem of people segmenting themselves in terms of where they get their news, and they just don’t wanna hear the other side of it. But you have to go there. I represent rural Minnesota, and I go there all the time. I co-chair the rural health caucus. I toured around there after the first [version of AHCA], and people up there hated it. The rural hospitals? They know how bad this bill was. But you gotta go everywhere, and reach them with the same message. Wellstone had the message: We all do better when we all do better.”
Franken is fairly optimistic the Senate can beat back the so-called American Health Care Act. “Even Mitch McConnell says he doesn’t know if he can get 50 votes.” I ask if he saw the news that House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows cried when talking about how the amendment his caucus sponsored might threaten people with preexisting conditions. “He cried? I gotta tell you, I’m sometimes aghast at some of my Republican colleagues who really don’t understand how this stuff works.” He shares the story of a Republican Senate colleague, who he won’t name, who didn’t understand the way the House bill hurt people with preexisting conditions until Franken explained it.
The most clueless may be Donald Trump. “The quote of the year has to be ‘nobody knew how complicated healthcare was.’ Everybody knew. That is such an enormously dumb thing to say.”
Soon a staffer warns us we’ve only got five more minutes, so I throw out a last few bonus questions: Who in the Senate could have been a Saturday Night Live cast member?
“No one,” he answers immediately. “No one. Remember, I wasn’t a cast member, I wanted to be a cast member. I was just a featured player!” (Obviously, this still rankles.)
Could any of his SNL colleagues be senators?
“Oh yeah. A lot of them. Conan [O’Brien], definitely.”
And then, while we’re talking about role switching, I ask the question he’s already answered dozens of times, while talking about the book and elsewhere: Does he ever think about running for president against Trump? “No,” he says, again decisively. Why not?
He laughs. “It’s a really, really hard job!”
So there are no circumstances?
I warn him that a lot of people may finish the book and either think he’s running—or wish he was. He shrugs.
“What I think is funny about the book—remember I started writing it in 2015, I’d basically finished it when Trump was elected—is some people are gonna read it now and go: ‘Oh, Franken really cracked the code of what kind of a memoir to write in a post-Trump world! He’s clearly playing three-dimensional chess and he’s four moves ahead of anyone else!’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’”
Our time is (long past) up, but Franken waits with me for my ride to arrive. He is still talking when I turn off my tape recorder; I warn him I have to pay attention; once I hit delete instead of save because I was distracted; I confess I’m too embarrassed to say who I was interviewing.
“Nelson Mandela!” he deadpans, and we crack up.
My car arrives, he walks me to the door, and I make peace with the fact that Franken may never be president, but he’ll continue to be an excellent senator from Minnesota. We just need another dozen folks like him to begin to roll back what the GOP has wrought.
Attack on the First — David Snyder in Mother Jones looks at Trump’s war on free speech.
On May 17, while delivering a graduation speech to cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, a scandal-plagued President Donald Trump took the opportunity to complain, yet again, about the news media. No leader in history, he said, has been treated as unfairly as he has been. Shortly thereafter, when the graduates presented Trump with a ceremonial sword, a live mic picked up Homeland Security chief John F. Kelly telling the president, “Use that on the press, sir!”
Kelly was presumably joking, but the press isn’t laughing. Presidents have complained bitterly about reporters since George Washington (“infamous scribblers“), but Trump has gone after the media with a venom unmatched by any modern president—including Richard Nixon. At campaign rallies, Trump herded reporters into pens, where they served as rhetorical cannon fodder, and things only got worse after the election. Prior to November 8, the media were “scum” and “disgusting.” Afterward, they became the “enemy of the American people.” (Even Nixon never went that far, noted reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Nixon did refer to the press as “the enemy,” but only in private and without “the American people” part—an important distinction for students of authoritarianism.)
On April 29, the same day as this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which Trump boycotted), the president held a rally in Pennsylvania to commemorate his first 100 days. He spent his first 10 minutes or so attacking the media: CNN and MSNBC were “fake news.” The “totally failing New York Times” was getting “smaller and smaller,” now operating out of “a very ugly office building in a very crummy location.” Trump went on: “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very big, fat failing grade. [Cheers.] Very dishonest people!”
Trump’s animosity toward the press isn’t limited to rhetoric. His administration has excluded from press briefings reporters who wrote critical stories, and it famously barred American media from his Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States while inviting in Russia’s state-controlled news service.
Before firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump reportedly urged Comey to jail journalists who published classified information. As a litigious businessman, the president has expressed his desire to “open up” libel laws. In April, White House chief of staff Reince Preibus acknowledged that the administration had indeed examined its options on that front.
This behavior seems to be having a ripple effect: On May 9, a journalist was arrested in West Virginia for repeatedly asking a question that Tom Price, Trump’s health secretary, refused to answer. Nine days later, a veteran reporter was manhandled and roughly escorted out of a federal building after he tried (politely) to question an FCC commissioner. Montana Republican Greg Gianforte won a seat in the House of Representatives last week, one day after he was charged with assaulting a reporter who had pressed Gianforte for his take on the House health care bill. And over the long weekend, although it could be a coincidence, someone fired a gun of some sort at the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader, a paper singled out days earlier by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who likened journalists to “cicadas” who “don’t actually seem to care about Kentucky.”
Where is all of this headed? It’s hard to know for sure, but as a lawyer (and former newspaper reporter) who has spent years defending press freedoms in America, I can say with some confidence that the First Amendment will soon be tested in ways we haven’t seen before. Let’s look at three key areas that First Amendment watchdogs are monitoring with trepidation.
The First Amendment offers limited protections when a prosecutor or a civil litigant subpoenas a journalist in the hope of obtaining confidential notes and sources. In the 1972 case of Branzburg v. Hayes, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not shield reporters from the obligation of complying with a grand jury subpoena. But the decision left room for the protection of journalists who refuse to burn a source in other contexts—in civil cases, for instance, or in criminal cases that don’t involve a grand jury. Some lower courts have ruled that the First Amendment indeed provides such protections.Unlike most states, Congress has refused to pass a law protecting journalists who won’t burn their confidential sources.
The Constitution, of course, is merely a baseline for civil liberties. Recognizing the gap left by the Branzburg ruling, a majority of the states have enacted shield laws that give journalists protections that Branzburg held were not granted by the Constitution. Yet Congress, despite repeated efforts, has refused to pass such a law. This gives litigants in federal court, including prosecutors, significant leverage to force journalists into compliance. (In 2005, Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her secret source to a federal grand jury investigating the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. The source, Miller eventually admitted, was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.)
Trump will almost certainly take advantage of his leverage. He and his innermost circle have already demonstrated that they either fail to understand or fail to respect (or both) America’s long-standing tradition of restraint when it comes to a free press. During the campaign, Trump tweeted that Americans who burn the flag—a free-speech act explicitly protected by the Supreme Court—should be locked up or stripped of citizenship “perhaps.” In December, after the New York Times published a portion of Trump’s tax returns, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski declared that executive editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail.”
Trump took over the reins from an executive branch that was arguably harder on the press than any administration in recent history. President Barack Obama oversaw more prosecutions of leakers under the vaguely worded Espionage Act of 1917 than all other presidents combined, and he was more aggressive than most in wrenching confidential information from journalists.
Over the course of two months in 2012, Obama’s Justice Department secretly subpoenaed and seized phone records from more than 100 Associated Press reporters, potentially in violation of the department’s own policies. Thanks to the rampant overclassification of government documents, Obama’s pursuit of whistleblowers meant that even relatively mundane disclosures could have serious, even criminal, consequences for the leaker. Under Obama, McClatchy noted in 2013, “leaks to media are equated with espionage.”The Obama administration went after leakers with zeal. One can only assume Trump will up the ante.
One can only assume Trump will up the ante. His administration’s calls to find and prosecute leakers grow more strident by the day. He and his surrogates in Congress have repeatedly tried to divert public discussion away from White House-Russia connections and in the direction of the leaks that brought those connections to light. It stands to reason that Trump’s Justice Department will try to obtain the sources, notes, and communication records of journalists on the receiving end of the leaks.
This could already be happening without our knowledge, and that would be a dangerous thing. Under current guidelines, the Justice Department is generally barred from deploying secret subpoenas for journalists’ records—subpoenas whose existence is not revealed to those whose records are sought. But there are exceptions: The attorney general or another “senior official” may approve no-notice subpoenas when alerting the subject would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”
The guidelines are not legally binding, in any case, so there may be little to prevent Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department from ignoring them or scrapping them entirely. Team Trump has already jettisoned the policies of its predecessors in other departments, and it’s pretty clear how Trump feels about the press.
The use of secret subpoenas against journalists is deeply problematic in a democracy. Their targets lack the knowledge to consult with a lawyer or to contest the subpoena in court. The public, also in the dark, is unable to pressure government officials to prevent them from subjecting reporters to what could be abusive fishing expeditions.
As president, Trump sets the tone for executives, lawmakers, and prosecutors at all levels. We have already seen a “Trump effect” in the abusive treatment of a reporter in the halls of the Federal Communications Commission, the arrest of the reporter in West Virginia, and the attack by Congressman-elect Gianforte.
We are also seeing the Trump effect in state legislatures, where the president’s rants may have contributed to a spate of legislative proposals deeply hostile to free speech, including bills that would essentially authorize police brutality or “unintentional” civilian violence against protesters and make some forms of lawful protest a felony. A leader who normalizes the use of overly broad or abusive subpoenas against journalists could cause damage all across the land.
A second area of concern is the Espionage Act of 1917, a law that has been used for nearly a century to prosecute leakers of classified information—from Daniel Ellsburg and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The government hasn’t ever tried to use it to prosecute the journalists or media organizations that publish the offending leaks—possibly because it was seen as a bad move in a nation that enshrines press protections in its founding document. But free-speech advocates have long been wary of the possibility.
The successful prosecution of a journalist under the Espionage Act seems unlikely—a long string of Supreme Court decisions supports the notion that reporters and news outlets are immune from civil or criminal liability when they publish information of legitimate public interest that was obtained unlawfully by an outside source. “A stranger’s illegal conduct,” the court’s majority opined in the 2001 Bartnicki v. Vopper case, “does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield about a matter of public concern.” But like any appellate decision, the Bartnicki ruling is based on a specific set of facts. So there are no guarantees here.
Very, very rich people with grievances against the press are as old as the press itself. But the number of megawealthy Americans has exploded in recent years, as has the number of small, nonprofit, or independent media outlets—many of which lack ready access to legal counsel. In short, billionaires who wish to exact vengeance for unflattering coverage enjoy a target-rich environment.Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet.
Trump did not create this environment. But from his presidential bully pulpit, he has pushed a narrative that can only fuel the fire. The Trumpian worldview holds that the media deserves to be put in its place; the press is venal, dishonest, and “fake” most of the time. It should be more subject to legal liability so that, in his words, “we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet, particularly one with limited means (which, these days, is most media outlets). Some lawsuits by deep-pocketed plaintiffs, like the one filed against Mother Jones by Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot (a case I helped defend), are ultimately dismissed by the courts. Others, such as Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media—funded by Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump adviser Peter Thiel—succeed and put the media outlet out of business. Another recent suit, filed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson against a Wall Street Journal reporter, ultimately settled.
Regardless of the outcome of such cases, the message to the media is clear: Don’t offend people who have vast resources. Even a frivolous lawsuit can stifle free speech by hitting publishers where it hurts (the wallet) and subjecting them to legal harassment. This is especially so in the 22 states that lack anti-SLAPP statutes—laws that facilitate the rapid dismissal of libel claims without merit.
The VanderSloot lawsuit is instructive. Although a court in Idaho ultimately threw out all the billionaire’s claims against Mother Jones, the process took almost two years. During that time, VanderSloot and Mother Jones engaged in a grueling regimen of coast-to-coast depositions and extensive and costly discovery and legal motions. Along the way, VanderSloot sued a former small-town newspaper reporter and subjected him to 10 hours of depositions, which resulted in the reporter breaking down in tears while VanderSloot, who had flown to Portland for the occasion, looked on. VanderSloot also deposed the journalist’s ex-boyfriend and threatened to sue him until he agreed to recant statements he had made online.Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has.
Victory did not come cheap for Mother Jones: The final tab was about $2.5 million, only part of which was covered by insurance. And because Idaho lacks an anti-SLAPP statute, none of the magazine’s legal costs could be recovered from VanderSloot.
Despite his threats, Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has. First lady Melania Trump sued the Daily Mail in February over a story she said portrayed her falsely “as a prostitute.” The Daily Mail retracted the offending article with a statement explaining (a) that the paper did not “intend to state or suggest that Mrs. Trump ever worked as an ‘escort’ or in the sex business,” (b) that the article “stated that there was no support for the allegations,” and (c) that “the point of the article was that these allegations could impact the U.S. presidential election even if they are untrue.”
So which billionaire will be next to sue, and who will the target be? The question looms over America’s media organizations like a dark cloud. That is an unacceptable situation in a nation whose Constitution guarantees “robust, uninhibited and wide-open” discussion of public issues, as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in the landmark First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan.
Trump has yet to act on his most outrageous rhetorical attacks on the media and free speech, but it’s likely only a matter of time. When he does act, it will be important to remember that constitutional protections are quite broad, and that there’s only so much any White House can do to the press without the backing of Congress or the courts. Such cooperation is hardly out of the question, though. Stranger things have already happened in this strangest of political times.
Farewell, My Lovely! — From The New Yorker in May 1936, E.B. White pays tribute to the Model T.
I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger than men’s clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene—which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene.
It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it. My own generation identifies it with Youth, with its gaudy, irretrievable excitements; before it fades into the mist, I would like to pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob, and set down random entries in a shape somewhat less cumbersome than a Sears Roebuck catalogue.
The Model T was distinguished from all other makes of cars by the fact that its transmission was of a type known as planetary—which was half metaphysics, half sheer friction. Engineers accepted the word “planetary” in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also meant “wandering,” “erratic.” Because of the peculiar nature of this planetary element, there was always, in Model T, a certain dull rapport between engine and wheels, and even when the car was in a state known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to inch forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling the bit on its tongue, and country people brought to it the same technique they used with draft animals.
Its most remarkable quality was its rate of acceleration. In its palmy days the Model T could take off faster than anything on the road. The reason was simple. To get under way, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever on the steering column, pulled down hard, and shoved your left foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions; the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your toe off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car, possessed of only two forward speeds, catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equalled in other cars of the period. The human leg was (and still is) incapable of letting in a clutch with anything like the forthright abandon that used to send Model T on its way. Letting in a clutch is a negative, hesitant motion, depending on delicate nervous control; pushing down the Ford pedal was a simple, country motion—an expansive act, which came as natural as kicking an old door to make it budge.
The driver of the old Model T was a man enthroned. The car, with top up, stood seven feet high. The driver sat on top of the gas tank, brooding it with his own body. When he wanted gasoline, he alighted, along with everything else in the front seat; the seat was pulled off, the metal cap unscrewed, and a wooden stick thrust down to sound the liquid in the well. There were always a couple of these sounding sticks kicking around in the ratty sub-cushion regions of a flivver. Refuelling was more of a social function then, because the driver had to unbend, whether he wanted to or not. Directly in front of the driver was the windshield—high, uncompromisingly erect. Nobody talked about air resistance, and the four cylinders pushed the car through the atmosphere with a simple disregard of physical law.
There was this about a Model T: the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start—a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware. Driving away from the agency, hugging the new wheel between your knees, you were already full of creative worry. A Ford was born naked as a baby, and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combatting its fascinating diseases. Those were the great days of lily-painting. I have been looking at some old Sears Roebuck catalogues, and they bring everything back so clear.
First you bought a Ruby Safety Reflector for the rear, so that your posterior would glow in another car’s brilliance. Then you invested thirty-nine cents in some radiator Moto Wings, a popular ornament which gave the Pegasus touch to the machine and did something godlike to the owner. For nine cents you bought a fan-belt guide to keep the belt from slipping off the pulley.
You bought a radiator compound to stop leaks. This was as much a part of everybody’s equipment as aspirin tablets are of a medicine cabinet. You bought special oil to prevent chattering, a clamp-on dash light, a patching outfit, a tool box which you bolted to the running board, a sun visor, a steering-column brace to keep the column rigid, and a set of emergency containers for gas, oil, and water—three thin, disc-like cans which reposed in a case on the running board during long, important journeys—red for gas, gray for water, green for oil. It was only a beginning. After the car was about a year old, steps were taken to check the alarming disintegration. (Model T was full of tumors, but they were benign.) A set of anti-rattlers (98c) was a popular panacea. You hooked them on to the gas and spark rods, to the brake pull rod, and to the steering-rod connections. Hood silencers, of black rubber, were applied to the fluttering hood. Shock-absorbers and snubbers gave “complete relaxation.” Some people bought rubber pedal pads, to fit over the standard metal pedals. (I didn’t like these, I remember.) Persons of a suspicious or pugnacious turn of mind bought a rear-view mirror; but most Model T owners weren’t worried by what was coming from behind because they would soon enough see it out in front. They rode in a state of cheerful catalepsy. Quite a large mutinous clique among Ford owners went over to a foot accelerator (you could buy one and screw it to the floor board), but there was a certain madness in these people, because the Model T, just as she stood, had a choice of three foot pedals to push, and there were plenty of moments when both feet were occupied in the routine performance of duty and when the only way to speed up the engine was with the hand throttle.
Gadget bred gadget. Owners not only bought ready-made gadgets, they invented gadgets to meet special needs. I myself drove my car directly from the agency to the blacksmith’s, and had the smith affix two enormous iron brackets to the port running board to support an army trunk.
People who owned closed models builded along different lines: they bought ball grip handles for opening doors, window anti-rattlers, and de-luxe flower vases of the cut-glass anti-splash type. People with delicate sensibilities garnished their car with a device called the Donna Lee Automobile Disseminator—a porous vase guaranteed, according to Sears, to fill the car with a “faint clean odor of lavender.” The gap between open cars and closed cars was not as great then as it is now: for $11.95, Sears Roebuck converted your touring car into a sedan and you went forth renewed. One agreeable quality of the old Fords was that they had no bumpers, and their fenders softened and wilted with the years and permitted driver to squeeze in and out of tight places.
Tires were 30 x 3 1/2, cost about twelve dollars, and punctured readily. Everybody carried a Jiffy patching set, with a nutmeg grater to roughen the tube before the goo was spread on. Everybody was capable of putting on a patch, expected to have to, and did have to.
During my association with Model T’s, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator), and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded—first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
In zero weather, ordinary cranking became an impossibility, except for giants. The oil thickened, and it became necessary to jack up the rear wheels, which, for some planetary reason, eased the throw.
The lore and legend that governed the Ford were boundless. Owners had their own theories about everything; they discussed mutual problems in that wise, infinitely resourceful way old women discuss rheumatism. Exact knowledge was pretty scarce, and often proved less effective than superstition. Dropping a camphor ball into the gas tank was a popular expedient; it seemed to have a tonic effect on both man and machine. There wasn’t much to base exact knowledge on. The Ford driver flew blind. He didn’t know the temperature of his engine, the speed of his car, the amount of his fuel or the pressure of his oil (the old Ford lubricated itself by what was amiably described as the “splash system”). A speedometer cost money and was an extra, like a windshield-wiper. The dashboard of the early models was bare save for an ignition key; later models, grown effete, boasted an ammeter which pulsated alarmingly with the throbbing of the car. Under the dash was a box of coils, with vibrators which you adjusted, or thought you adjusted. Whatever the driver learned of his motor, he learned not through instruments but through sudden developments. I remember that the timer was one of the vital organs about which there was ample doctrine. When everything else had been checked, you “had a look” at the timer. It was an extravagantly odd little device, simple in construction, mysterious in function. It contained a roller, held by a spring, and there were four contact points on the inside of the case against which, many people believed, the roller rolled. I have had a timer apart on a sick Ford many times, but I never really knew what I was up to—I was just showing off before God. There were almost as many schools of thought as there were timers. Some people, when things went wrong, just clenched their teeth and gave the timer a smart crack with a wrench. Other people opened it up and blew on it. There was a school that held that the timer needed large amounts of oil; they fixed it by frequent baptism. And there was a school that was positive it was meant to run dry as a bone; these people were continually taking it off and wiping it. I remember once spitting into a timer; not in anger, but in a spirit of research. You see, the Model T driver moved in the realm of metaphysics. He believed his car could be hexed.
One reason the Ford anatomy was never reduced to an exact science was that, having “fixed” it, the owner couldn’t honestly claim that the treatment had brought about the cure. There were too many authenticated cases of Fords fixing themselves—restored naturally to health after a short rest. Farmers soon discovered this, and it fitted nicely with their draft-horse philosophy: “Let ‘er cool off and she’ll snap into it again.”
A Ford owner had Number One Bearing constantly in mind. This bearing, being at the front end of the motor, was the one that always burned out, because the oil didn’t reach it when the car was climbing hills. (That’s what I was always told, anyway.) The oil used to recede and leave Number One dry as a clam flat; you had to watch that bearing like a hawk. It was like a weak heart—you could hear it start knocking, and that was when you stopped and let her cool off. Try as you would to keep the oil supply right, in the end Number One always went out. “Number One Bearing burned out on me and I had to have her replaced,” you would say, wisely; and your companions always had a lot to tell about how to protect and pamper Number One to keep her alive.
Sprinkled not too liberally among the millions of amateur witch doctors who drove Fords and applied their own abominable cures were the heaven-sent mechanics who could really make the car talk. These professionals turned up in undreamed-of spots. One time, on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington, I heard the rear end go out of my Model T when I was trying to whip it up a steep incline onto the deck of a ferry. Something snapped; the car slid backward into the mud. It seemed to me like the end of the trail. But the captain of the ferry, observing the withered remnant, spoke up.
“What’s got her?” he asked.
“I guess it’s the rear end,” I replied, listlessly. The captain leaned over the rail and stared. Then I saw that there was a hunger in his eyes that set him off from other men.
“Tell you what,” he said, carelessly, trying to cover up his eagerness, “let’s pull the son of a bitch up onto the boat, and I’ll help you fix her while we’re going back and forth on the river.”
We did just this. All that day I plied between the towns of Pasco and Kennewick, while the skipper (who had once worked in a Ford garage) directed the amazing work of resetting the bones of my car.
Springtime in the heyday of the Model T was a delirious season. Owning a car was still a major excitement, roads were still wonderful and bad. The Fords were obviously conceived in madness: any car which was capable of going from forward into reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mighty challenging thing to the human imagination. Boys used to veer them off the highway into a level pasture and run wild with them, as though they were cutting up with a girl. Most everybody used the reverse pedal quite as much as the regular foot brake—it distributed the wear over the bands and wore them all down evenly. That was the big trick, to wear all the bands down evenly, so that the final chattering would be total and the whole unit scream for renewal.
The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it’s time to say goodbye. Farewell, my lovely!
Doonesbury — Short-Term Memory aid.