Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Reading

Better Press Conferences, Please — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker on the vapidity of the presidential press conference.

Sometimes the big moments in our politics meet the very low expectations we have for them. Joe Biden’s first Presidential press conference, on Thursday, was one of them. By the end of it, after an hour and two minutes that felt much longer, Biden had answered some two dozen questions. The majority of them were repetitive variants on one of two subjects: immigration and the Senate filibuster.

Biden had no actual news to offer on either subject. In case you missed it, he is really, totally, absolutely committed to fixing the terrible situation at the border, and also not yet ready—because he does not have the votes—to commit to blowing up the filibuster. There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.

For weeks, Washington clamored for a Biden press conference. This was, after all, the longest a new President had gone without holding one since the Coolidge Administration. Republicans—and the state-run media in Russia—seized on Biden’s reticence as proof that he was somehow too old or incoherent to face the rigors of extended, unscripted questioning. With his critics having set such a low bar, it should surprise no one that Biden, who did, after all, win a national election by surviving almost a dozen debates with his Democratic-primary rivals and two with Donald Trump, cleared it. Republicans, it could be said, succeeded in one respect with their preshow spin: they wanted Biden to be on the defensive talking about immigration and the border, not the passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package and the success of his vaccine campaign. Reporters, based on the questions, agreed.

Sixty-five days into Biden’s tenure, there was plenty to ask him about, even in the absence of the Trump-manufactured dramas that fuelled the news in the past few years: horrific mass shootings, escalating tensions with China and Russia, missile tests by North Korea, and, oh, yes, the pandemic. The killings in Georgia and Colorado over the past week forced Biden to cancel part of his carefully planned “help is here” tour to tout the COVID-relief package—a reminder that, no matter how disciplined and organized his Administration is, no matter the contrast to Trumpian chaos, all leaders fall prey to the press of urgent and unanticipated crises. Biden opened the press conference by announcing a new plan to administer two hundred million vaccines by his hundredth day in office and a vow to get a majority of elementary and middle schools open by then. But that is where the big story of his Administration began and ended—as far as the journalists were concerned.

Biden’s policies on the pandemic have been popular with the public, including with Republican voters, but there are plenty of tough questions to be asked about them, given the huge uncertainties of when and how we are going to get out of the COVID mess. Instead, the press conference quickly reminded me why I never liked them much. What did we learn? That Biden agrees with Barack Obama that the Senate filibuster is a “relic of the Jim Crow era” but is not yet committing to a full-out attack against it. That he has not yet decided whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set by his predecessor. That he will “consult with allies” about the North Korean missile tests. That he plans to run for reëlection in 2024 but might not because, hey, it’s a long time from now and who knows if there will even be a Republican Party by then. His strongest words were reserved for the current Republican campaign in numerous states to restrict voting rights—which the President called “un-American” and “sick.” The funniest moment by far was when he was asked whether he would run in 2024, given that Trump had already announced he was doing so by this early point in his tenure. “My predecessor?” Biden said, and then he laughed. It was a short, derisive laugh. “Oh, God, I miss him,” he said.

Although Biden refused to endorse the effort by progressives to get rid of the Senate filibuster, he eventually seemed to lose enough patience with the press conference that he engaged in a little filibustering of his own. Late into the hour, I found myself tuning out a bit when Biden gave a long lecture on the twenty-first-century battle between autocracies and democracies. During his answer, I noticed that Zeke Miller, the Associated Press correspondent who had been given the first question at the press conference, was tweeting from inside the press room—about a different subject entirely, the Israeli elections. (In another rarity, Israel and the Mideast also did not come up at the press conference, I should note; perhaps American foreign policy is finally pivoting, after all?) Meanwhile, Biden had begun another stem-winder, on infrastructure. “There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff,” the President said. This, by the way, was in response to a question about gun control that he did not really answer. It’s not for nothing that Biden served for all those decades in the Senate.

I have spent years, as an editor and a reporter, hating on Presidential press conferences—the faux-gotcha questions, the pointless preening, the carefully calculated one-liners from the President made to seem like spontaneous witticisms. Print reporters like me are biased toward scoops and original reporting; we tend to dislike events that are staged for the cameras, featuring journalists as props.

Then came Donald Trump, and an entire Presidential term of watching press conferences with a renewed sense of urgency. No matter how hard they were to sit through, they were undoubtedly relevant: Trump regularly used them not only as a platform for his lies and cartoonish demagoguery but also for unexpected policy pronouncements that had significant real-world consequences. Trump’s performances required watching because his Presidency defied the norms of governance; he was the only one who could speak for his Administration of one, and thus we had no choice but to pay attention.

That was then. Today, no one watches a Biden press conference worrying that he is about to suggest that Americans drink bleach to cure their COVID or that he will declare war on Michigan because its governor wasn’t appreciative enough. Wondering whether Biden, a famously long-winded seventy-eight-year-old former senator, will stumble over an answer does not have the same consequences as watching a Presidential press conference to find out whether Trump is still threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea. This is an improvement, to be sure. But politics moves on, and, in this case, Trump’s exit from the White House means that we journalists have the space and time to consider once again the problem of how to insist on transparency and accountability in our government without relying so heavily on the empty spectacle of the televised Presidential press conference, a platform that arguably had its heyday in the early nineteen-sixties.

I am, of course, all for asking Biden hard, tough, and pointed questions—the more the better. But Thursday’s press conference reminded me of why I hated these staged events in the first place. It taught me nothing about Joe Biden, his Presidency, or his priorities. The problem was not that it was boring. It was that it was bad.

Rough Waters in Key West — Richard Morin in the Washington Post on the battle between the capital of the Conch Republic and the cruise ships.

It was another balmy day in paradise when Key West, Fla., voters decided they’d had enough of the thousands of here-today, gone-tonight tourists who regularly pour from giant cruise ships onto the streets of their iconic city.

By decisive, even overwhelming margins, the voters approved ballot measures to immediately slash the number of passengers who can disembark daily as well as ban the biggest ships. But several months later, in an end-around that has incensed locals, the cruise industry is fighting back. Two state lawmakers with broad industry backing are pushing bills to nullify the vote and prohibit Key West from regulating such activity in its own port.

“I am so furious that I can hardly see straight,” said Kate Miano, owner of the luxe Gardens Hotel, where century-old brick walkways wind past orchid-festooned trees. “We battled the big cruise ship companies, and now they’re taking away my vote? I can’t understand how they can possibly do that.”

Yes, they can, say legislators now meeting in Tallahassee. And there’s a good chance they will soon succeed.

“We can’t simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage,” Rep. Spencer Roach (R) said at a hearing this month, his number referring to the total votes cast in support of the three city charter changes.

The maneuvering in the state Capitol has at times been both blatant and blundering, marked by dueling statistics, charges of betrayal, threats of retribution and alternating predictions of economic or environmental doom. It has fueled editorial outrage in newspapers statewide — with Roach, one of the bills’ sponsors, accused with other Republicans of trampling on democracy.

Before the coronavirus pandemic idled fleets globally, cruise tourism in Key West had grown from a single ship that docked monthly in 1969 to a $73 million-a-year business. By 2018, more than a million passengers were arriving annually in ever-larger vessels that resembled floating communities; the biggest measured more than three football fields in length and carried more than 4,000 passengers and crew.

Collectively, it all had quite an impact on this island community of 25,000, a place made famous by the literary likes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Wallace Stevens.

On streets where art galleries, fine restaurants and specialty shops once flourished, vendors hawk bawdy T-shirts and stores advertise “Everything inside $5.” Part of downtown’s historic Duval Street, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is now a shopping pit that caters to the swarms of day-trippers, in Miano’s view.

“The lower end of Duval is crap,” she said.

The cultural transformation has been accompanied by environmental changes offshore. Fragile coral reefs have been threatened by the mile-long silt trails churned up as the megaships approach and depart. The vessels also roil the bottom of the six-mile channel to the port, damaging habitat and disrupting migration patterns of game fish. Local fishing guides say they were the first to sound the alarm.

“We saw it beginning maybe 15 years ago,” said Will Benson, a Key West native whose clients pay him $700 a day to chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in the shallow inshore waters. He’s seeing fewer fish, and those he finds have become more skittish, less likely to bite. Some have left their usual haunts.

The November vote limited the total number of cruise-ship tourists allowed to come ashore every day to 1,500 — fewer than half the daily average in February 2020. It also closed the port to ships with more than 1,300 passengers and crew — about half the size of most ships that docked before the pandemic. The final charter change gave docking priority to ships with the best environmental and health records.

Industry officials contend the result ultimately will cripple cruise tourism in Key West and endanger hundreds of local jobs that depend on the big ships. The city’s coffers will take a big hit, they predict. Cruise-related taxes brought in $21 million in 2018.

The new rules will be “the destruction of the port as we know it,” said John E. Wells, another native and chief executive of Caribe Nautical Services. His firm is the agent for every cruise ship that docks in Key West. “We have 287 port calls scheduled for 2022,” ships often making a stop as they loop through the Caribbean. “Only 18 will meet the size criteria.”

The Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, the local group fighting the state legislation, scoffs at those claims. Key West will do just fine without the megaships, said treasurer Arlo Haskell, a writer and poet. Citing the industry’s own figures, he pegs cruise revenue at about 7 percent of all tourist spending in Key West in a normal year. Ships will continue to dock, he notes, although only the smaller ones.

“The goal is to make Key West the premier small-ship destination,” Haskell said, while holding onto the overnight and extended-stay tourists who are the backbone of the city’s tourist trade, the ones filling hotels, B&Bs and restaurants.

To Wells, opponents’ arguments carry a whiff of elitism. The smaller ships cater to a moneyed crowd; the big ships bring the cost of a cruise within reach of middle-income and working-class people.

“I call it economic discrimination,” he said. “That’s not what Key West is about.”

He and others say seaport traffic benefits areas far from port communities and should be governed by the state or federal government. They would prefer one set of port regulations “instead of a patchwork of conflicting restrictions in each municipality,” according to a statement by the powerful Cruise Lines International Association.

The initial bills in Tallahassee indeed covered all 15 Florida seaports. They were greeted with vehement protest from legislators loath to see cities in their districts lose control of their ports.

So amendments were tacked on that only prohibited cities from restricting cruise ships in their ports, excluding those ports controlled by a county or port authority. That left only Key West, Panama City, Pensacola and St. Petersburg subject to the proposed prohibitions. Of those four, only Key West is a cruise-ship destination. (The state constitution prohibits bills that target a single municipality, hence the need to create a “class” of city-controlled ports.)

Lawmakers may not be finished trying to punish Key West for its November vote. In a recent tweet, Roach urged his colleagues to oppose giving federal stimulus money to ports that ban cruise ships. “Yep, looking at you city of Key West,” he wrote.

The amended bills sailed through subcommittees. One anticipated hurdle fell several weeks ago when a Republican senator whose district includes Key West unexpectedly withdrew an amendment to exempt the city for environmental reasons. She provided no explanation.

The final legislation is expected to be delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the next few weeks.

DeSantis, mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2024, is the wild card in this game. While a prominent ally of Donald Trump and a pro-business conservative, he has embraced several issues dear to Florida environmentalists, including restoration of the Everglades. So far, the governor has not tipped his hand.

It’s been more than a year since cruise ships have docked in Key West. Locals say the offshore waters are cleaner and downtown streets less mobbed. Tourist-tax collections haven’t cratered, and Miano says business at her hotel is better than ever.

Even the fish seem friendlier, Benson says. “They are more relaxed, and the bite lasts longer.”

Doonesbury — Party preference.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. I was traveling in my car last Thursday and was able to listen to Biden’s press conference live. I agree wholeheartedly with Glasser.

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