Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

Thank you, Fiona Hill — Rachel Sklar in the Washington Post:

I will say this for President Trump: He certainly makes you appreciate smart, accomplished women.

It is not because he appreciates them; we all know by now that the only thing about a woman he appreciates is whatever he can grab. But his bad behavior really does bring amazing women out into the spotlight from where they were formerly working competently but with little fanfare. Reluctantly, because they are far too busy to bother with vainglorious showboating, more and more of them have been compelled to step forward on behalf of a grateful nation to testify — with authority, expertise and conviction — about the corrupt and ill-advised actions of a self-dealing president.

The latest in a long line of amazing, impressive wholly stannable women to make us swoon with their briskly efficient competence is Fiona Hill, an expert in Vladimir Putin’s ways and former National Security Council official. Hill was the star witness in Thursday’s House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, not because of any glittery celebrity or grabby cable sound bites but because of the substance of her testimony. She did not have talking points; she just had her deep knowledge and years of experience (and, of course, the bare minimum common sense to know that, yes, two plus two equals four).

Hill had no time for Republican conspiracy-mongering about anyone other than Russia meddling in the 2016 election, and she scolded the GOP accordingly: “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” (Translation: Stop being useful idiots.) She also had no time for U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s ill-informed office politics, GOP histrionics or workplace sexism. (She did, however, have time for an I-told-you-so: “I said to him this is all going to blow up, and here we are.”)

It was a humdinger of a day — the word to describe its defining quality might be “pizazz” — and all because of yet another learned, righteous woman with an impressive command of those pesky things called “facts.” Which means Hill joined the ranks of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. attorney (and, briefly, acting attorney general) Sally Yates, and, yes, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who could fairly be called the OG of smart, accomplished women getting under Trump’s skin. There’s also Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Christine Blasey Ford (you know why), respected writer E. Jean Carroll (Trump knows why), Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), NBC’s Katy Tur and Mika Brzezinski, former Fox and NBC anchor Megyn Kelly, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederickson, “The Squad,” a.k.a. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, journalist April Ryan, and Taylor Swift. This is not an exhaustive list.

Comparing Trump to these women is like juxtaposing a dense, properly footnoted scholarly paper to his big-print Sharpie, and just to be clear, it is the Sharpie that is mentally exhausting. Yet it is instructive to realize these women are notable precisely for what he diminishes and dismisses: experience, hard work, credibility. Hill’s cool, crisp testimony was the opposite of Trump’s unhinged Twitter ranting; her calm authority gave us comfort that, yes, there are still people who actually know what they are doing in the executive branch (or at least, there were until she resigned). After an unsettling almost three years of knee-jerk, whiplash governance by a White House led by an impetuous, impulsive wannabe autocrat, it was almost … soothing. It was not just the cavalcade of people on Twitter declaring themselves fans (George Conway) and stans (or in progressive podcast host Zerlina Maxwell’s case: “stannnnnnnnnnnnnnn”), it was Hill’s book suddenly zooming into the Amazon top 100. That is a dense 520-page book on Putin, shipping weight 2 pounds, and yes, of course, I bought it. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Even more, the sense of relief and comfort was obvious everywhere. Listen to author Morra Aarons-Mele: “The grown-ups are back: smart and calm, informed and unbiased.” Or journalist Lizzie O’Leary: “Today’s episode of Impeachment really hitting the sweet spot of my personal Netflix algorithm: procedural drama and British female leads.” Or comedian Heather Gold: “Listening to Fiona Hill testify is the most relaxed I’ve felt since election night 2016.”

The point is, it is not just that Hill is impressive. (And don’t call her overprepared!) She is, but it is also the realization of how rare it is to see a person — let alone a woman — like her in this bumbling, ruinous, norm-shattering administration. Trump is all grifty bravado; he plays the strongman even as he withholds his tax returns, pays $2 million in settlement for shorting a charity, callously separates young children from their families, and oh yeah, uses the power and privilege of the Oval Office to push his reelection advantage (a.k.a. for a “domestic political errand,” as Hill put it, much to the chagrin of Stephen R. Castor, the Republican lawyer who unwittingly led her right into that line). Hill is due process and righteous anger, brains and brilliance and fire and loyalty ready to be deployed for her country, now and forever.

It is not just that we are hungry for norms and qualifications. We are desperate for someone competent and principled to be in charge. We want someone smart to tell us it will be okay and that they care.

It was nice, however briefly, to find her.

Don’t Let It Be Forgot — Charles P. Pierce

It was a cold and rainy afternoon, so I ducked into the great old Coolidge Corner Cinema, one of the last moviehouses left with an actual personality, and I watched The Report, Scott Z. Burns’s exceptional film about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s attempt to put together a report about how the CIA tortured people in the years after the 9/11 attacks. As a political thriller, it’s not Z, but, then again, almost nothing is. But considering it’s a thriller about people gathering data, it’s a remarkable achievement.

The thriller aspect, of course, comes in the fight that Senate investigator Daniel Jones—played by Adam Driver, who, I believe, is in 297 movies this fall—has not merely with the spooks at Langley, but also against government inertia and, sadly, against an Obama administration frozen in its own post-partisan timidity. The depictions of what happened in our name in the black sites overseas are stark and brutal, but not so much that they overwhelm the action back in Washington, where CIA operatives do a black-bag job on Jones’s team, and where Senator Dianne Feinstein, played by Annette Bening, afflicted by ambivalence but not overcome by it, finally decides to release a 500-page summary of the 7,000-page report.

It is a victory for the rule of law but not an unalloyed one, in that none of the criminals who tortured in our name ever will see the inside of a jail cell. For example, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two quack psychologists who sold the Bush Administration on “enhanced interrogation” techniques that did not work, are last seen flying off in the private jet they bought with some of the $80 million they scarfed from the U.S. Treasury. John Yoo gets a cameo in which he explains his now infamous constitutional theory of crushing a child’s testicles. Yoo is now in a comfy billet teaching law at the University of California. In one scene, Driver is in a bar watching television and Marc Thiessen, then a White House aide, comes on and starts spouting all sorts of nonsense about the mass attacks that were thwarted because we tortured Abu Zubaydah into insanity. Thiessen now gets paid some nice bank writing columns in the Washington Post.

And that, perhaps, is the cautionary tale for our times in this film. We cannot let the crimes of this Republican president* go down the memory hole the way we allowed the crimes of the last Republican president to do so. This is not merely a caution against entirely rehabilitating George W. Bush. (In fact, this film is vague about Bush’s actual involvement in the torture program.) It also is a caution against looking forward, and not back. And, to be honest, there’s a bit of a warning in it to be wary of the support you might be getting from people against whom you previously campaigned.

I have been a bit of a wet blanket on the subject of Never Trumpers. Any voice against this administration* is welcome, but, as The Report reminds us, an awful lot of our newfound allies were involved in the administration that made us a nation that tortures. When you see David Frum, or Nicolle Wallace, pronouncing themselves amazed that the Republicans are going along with the obvious grift from this White House, do not fully credit their surprise. If the House Republicans are complicit in this administration*’s crimes because they’ve done nothing to stop them, then former Bush aides are complicit in torture because they didn’t do anything to stop that. When you see John Brennan expressing his concern about the damage this president* is doing to the rule of law, ask yourself why Brennan wasn’t so tender about the rule of law when he was trying to bury the torture report as director of the CIA.

All through the film, I found echoing in my head the quote from Milan Kundera that David Remnick used as an epigram in Lenin’s Tomb, his stellar account of the days when the Soviet Union was coming apart.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Whenever this nightmare is over, we should try to win that struggle this time around.

Doonesbury — The further tweeting meanderings…

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Thanks for posting those instead of links to sites with paywalls. . The Doonesbury link however is also to the WaPo which has a paywall. Clicking on it will use up your free 1/10 of an article a month or whatever it is.

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