The Washington Post has up a puff piece on how Melania Trump is, in contrast to her husband, being the mature one about the end of their time in the White House.
Several people who have been in touch with Melania Trump said she is aware of the intense criticism both she and her husband have gotten since the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but that unlike her spouse she appears completely unfazed. They said she would have been happy to attend President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony, as every outgoing president and first lady have for the past 152 years. But rather than dwell on what could have been, she focuses on what she has control over: choreographing her own exit, trying to cement her legacy as a first lady who devoted much time to renovations of the White House, and making plans to continue her “Be Best” initiative. Quietly, she has also been working with Chief Usher Timothy Harleth to facilitate the move-in of the Bidens.
“She has hours left as first lady, but she is not the type to wander around the rooms of the White House in deep reflection of what happened, of what could have been,” said one person in touch with her. “She is Melania — she keeps the focus on what’s next.”
I have avoided writing about her for the entire time she has been First Lady, figuring that being married to Trump was enough of a burden without some smart-ass blogger piling on. In fact, I’ve pretty much been unaware of her, which is probably what she wants and deserves. But the fact that the press has to write up how she’s doing what normally happens when one presidency ends and another begins at the White House without much notice is a commentary on its own about this horrid time in our nation’s history.
As for the rest of that family, I am left with a quote from the noted author William Price Fox: “Just pack yer damn rags and git.”
November 22, 1963 — My recollection of a very bad day.
I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened: an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.
There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.
I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.
At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-six years to that time. According to NPR, more than sixty percent of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.
But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is Challenger in 1986, and of course September 11, 2001. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.
In a way, we are ending the week where we began it: Donald Trump still did not win the 2020 Presidential election, and he is still, on Friday as he was on Monday, holed up in the White House, challenging Joe Biden’s victory. The coronavirus pandemic is still spreading at an alarming rate across all fifty states, and Congress and the White House are still doing nothing new about it. This is, in a horrible, stressful way, what passes for our current normal.
Except, of course, there’s nothing routine about any of this. We’ve been getting used to painful truths for so long that the awful enormity of the situation doesn’t hit us in the way it should when the predicted bad things happen, which is the story of the entire Trump Presidency. But history will not remember this as a slow news week, not at all. In fact, it has been a week of crisis—grave if slow-motion crisis—in which Trump’s effort to subvert the election results has been made explicit and unmistakably clear. He is no longer merely pursuing spurious lawsuits in state courts; in recent days, he and his lawyers have confirmed publicly that Trump now is trying to directly overturn the election results and the will of the American people by pressuring Republican state legislators to appoint electors who will vote for Trump in the Electoral College instead of Biden. The fact that Trump is almost certain not to succeed in actually remaining in office past January 20th does not in any way make this less alarming. There is simply no precedent for a President doing anything like what Trump is doing right now.
Meanwhile in America, this is the week that the U.S. passed the grim milestone of two hundred and fifty thousand deaths in the pandemic, many of them due to the Trump Administration’s botched response to the disease. This spring, such an outcome was all but unthinkable: when Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted that the U.S. could see a hundred thousand to two hundred and forty thousand COVID-19 deaths by this fall, few believed that this would come to pass. And yet here we are, living another Trump scandal of unfathomable magnitude.
Perhaps the one genuinely surprising thing about this culminating controversy of the Trump era is how publicly quiet the voluble President has become. Sure, he has still been tweeting out inflammatory and untrue statements. “We won!” he said, more than once. And: “Mortality rate is 85% down!” And: “Republicans must get tough!” But his public schedule has been almost entirely empty since the election, and he has appeared before the press just once, at a brief news conference, last week, to announce progress toward a vaccine; he took no questions. He has cancelled his Thanksgiving trip to Mar-a-Lago.
This is a stark contrast to the two weeks before the election, which were among the loudest of his short career in politics. With three, four, even five rallies a day, Trump held forth on everything from the perfidy of the Democrats to the awfulness of the weather. One theme was consistent wherever he appeared: the forthcoming “rigged” election, in which only one result—his own victory—could possibly be legitimate.
Since the end of this campaign, which did not result in that victory, Trump has engaged in what I’m increasingly certain history will record as one of the worst offenses of his Presidency: a systemic attack on the integrity of the election itself. This escalated dramatically this week, as his first wave of lawsuits began collapsing under the scrutiny of skeptical judges and nonexistent evidence. Rather than retreat, however, Trump has redoubled his efforts in key states, such as Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, publicly pressuring local Republican officials not to certify the election results.
In Georgia, this ploy appears to have failed, with the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, openly feuding with the President and denouncing Trump’s efforts to undermine the vote count. On Thursday night, after a hand recount, Georgia officials said that Biden had once again emerged as the winner in the state—the first Democrat to do so since 1992—and that Raffensperger will certify the results on Friday. In Michigan, however, Trump appears to have had more success. Two Republicans on the Wayne County board of canvassers initially refused to certify the Presidential election results for the county, which includes the heavily Democratic city of Detroit, before an outcry caused them to reverse their votes a few hours later. Trump himself then intervened, calling the two officials, who late on Wednesday said that they wanted to change their minds again.
It may have been too late to reverse the Wayne County action, but, on Monday, the Michigan board of canvassers is set to meet to certify the election results in the state, which Biden has won by more than a hundred and fifty thousand votes. However, the board is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, and one of the Republicans said, on Thursday night, that he is inclined to audit and delay his vote to certify, citing the baseless fraud claims raised by Trump’s lawyers. If the board deadlocks and the results are not certified, Trump seems to hope that the Republican-controlled state legislature will just go ahead and appoint pro-Trump electors, voters be damned. In another unprecedented step, Trump summoned the Republican leaders of the Michigan legislature to a private meeting with him in the White House, on Friday.
This dubious, and remarkably brazen, strategy was on display in a not-to-be-believed-except-it-actually-happened press conference on Thursday, by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Trump would have won Michigan, Giuliani insisted, if you just don’t count Wayne County and, in effect, Detroit. And that was only one of the bonkers things he said. With an unidentified brown liquid streaking down his face as he spoke, Giuliani quoted the legal wisdom of the movie “My Cousin Vinny”; insisted that he had “direct evidence” of vote fraud in cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, while producing none; and claimed that there was a vast conspiracy with roots in Venezuela to somehow rig the entire U.S. election.
How bizarre was the performance? Christopher Krebs, the Trump-appointed director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—whom Trump fired, on Tuesday, after the agency issued a statement saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised”—offered a succinct verdict. Giuliani’s press conference, Krebs tweeted, was “the most dangerous 1 hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest.”
The fact that Trump and Giuliani’s campaign is utterly crazy, however, does not mean that it’s not working. In fact, a Monmouth poll this week found that seventy-seven per cent of Republicans now believe the election was tainted by fraud and are not certain that Biden won. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have refused to denounce Trump’s increasingly unhinged and undemocratic actions, and, while privately conveying acknowledgements of Biden’s victory, have publicly remained silent. The G.O.P. leadership, which has tolerated so many abuses by Trump, is now openly complicit in his worst one yet.
A few individual Republicans have spoken up. “It is outrageous,” Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, said on CNN. “It is an assault on democracy,” he added. “It’s bad for the Republican Party.” Late on Thursday evening, Mitt Romney, the Utah senator who was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, earlier this year, issued a statement that might well have been the toughest I have ever seen about a President from a member of his own Party. “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” Romney said. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.” By speaking out, Hogan and Romney underscored just how shocking it is that their fellow-Republicans had thus far failed to join them.
Last week, I wondered in this column about just what Trump was up to in challenging the results: Was it an attempted coup, or just another Trump con? The past few days have seemed to offer an answer, and not a reassuring one. The truth is that even if Trump’s would-be coup looks like a con, even if it seems to be a clown show that’s surely doomed to fail, it must still be taken seriously as long as it is happening. Look at how far Republicans have gone along with Trump’s folly after an election that was decisively won by Biden, a contest in which he beat Trump by more than five million votes and garnered three hundred and six electoral votes—exactly the electoral-college “landslide” that Trump secured in 2016. Republican excuses have grown increasingly pathetic: We’re just giving him time. We’re just letting the process play out. He’s entitled to pursue his claims in the courts. In explicitly demanding that Republican state officials disregard the will of the voters, Trump has, once again, made his Party’s leaders out as stooges and patsies.
The G.O.P. knows all too well that this is not the process by which American elections are decided, not now and not ever. What Trump is doing is not like the 2000 Florida recount. It is not like anything before in American history. Republican leaders can end this today by finally saying publicly what so far they have only had the courage to admit in private. But will they, at long last, tell Trump what the voters said loudly and clearly: It’s over, you lost, and Joe Biden won?
Trump pressed his case Thursday that U.S. schools are indoctrinating children with a left-wing agenda hostile to the nation’s Founding Fathers, describing efforts to educate students about racism and slavery as an insult to the country’s lofty founding principles.
Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that “are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long.”
The federal government has no power over the curriculum taught in local schools. Nonetheless, Trump said he would create a national commission to promote a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” which he said would encourage educators to teach students about the “miracle of American history.”
Trump is calling the panel the “1776 Commission,” in what appeared to be a barb at the New York Times’s 1619 Project. The project, whose creator won a Pulitzer Prize for its lead essay, is a collection of articles and essays that argue that the nation’s true founding year is 1619, the year enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of what would become the United States. Trump said Thursday the 1619 Project wrongly teaches that the United States was founded on principles of “oppression, not freedom.”
As the article notes, the federal government by law has no role in dictating curriculum to local school districts. The most they can do is cut funding to federal grants, which would take an act of Congress. But that’s not really the point.
Trump and the white supremacists want to keep teaching the fan fiction that Columbus “discovered” America — it was here the whole time, and populated by advanced civilizations in North and South America while Europeans were still living in trees — and that the Pilgrims and other English settlers brought democracy and white bread to the savages when in fact they brought witch trials and the clap. They want to bring back a “Gone With the Wind” geniality to the genocide of slavery, whose legacy still stands as the original sin of this nation. They want to make immigrants the scapegoat for all of our nation’s ills, which is ironic in the supreme since the folks raising the fear of undocumented immigrants are more than likely the descendants of immigrants who were subjected to racism and bigotry when they arrived.
Trump wants to put the best face on four hundred years of human intervention and colonialism and make it part of the public education that White people saved the world by invading every place they could find, stealing the land and its resources and then getting all pissed off because the indigenous people and the people they subjected to slavery aren’t getting down on their knees and thanking them.
Trump calls teaching the reality of this nation’s history “anti-American.” But it’s the most American thing we can teach.
We have Juneteenth off this year here at Esky HQ. There is a move to make Juneteenth a national holiday, which it should be, as long as they don’t sling it to a Monday like they have with so many others. Juneteenth is Juneteenth and should stay that way. It marks the end of chattel slavery in this country and it should be recognized as such.
The moment has come upon us so quickly. Robert E. Lee gone from Lee Circle in New Orleans. John C. Freaking Calhoun off his high pedestal in South Carolina. They had a nice run, didn’t they? The forces of sedition managed to win the peace after they lost the war, and every generation of white Americans went along with it and, every time a civil-rights movement began stirring, the nightriders rode again, the strange fruit appeared on Southern trees, and another memorial to the dishonorable Honored Dead went up in some town square or another. This went on for over 100 years, a criminal erasure of actual American history in favor of a bloody deception.
And then, suddenly, here in 2020, the free ride has ended. Let the army bases named after Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood be renamed after William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. They’re going to run the Confederates out of the Capitol building of the country they tried to destroy on behalf of white supremacy. On that day, I will cheer.
But I will cheer modestly and with no little humility. Because, while Juneteenth should indeed become a national holiday, some of my fellow citizens always will have more of a purchase on it than I have. At the end of his great speech to Congress about the Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson broke the brains of the Dixiecrats in front of him by saying:
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
The hold of sedition and white supremacy over the outward displays of the American character is being broken the way the pedestals have been. That is a liberating moment that I never saw coming. Juneteenth marks the end of slavery. Let it also mark the end of slavery’s legacy over the minds of the people of this country. In September of 1861, Frederick Douglass wrote of his frustration with the fact that the Union would not let African Americans fight for their own freedom.
The national edifice is on fire. Every man who can carry a bucket of water, or remove a brick, is wanted; but those who have the care of the building, having a profound respect for the feeling of the national burglars who set the building on fire, are determined that the flames shall only be extinguished by Indo-Caucasian hands, and to have the building burnt rather than save it by means of any other. Such is the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly that rules the hour.
Even more than the Fourth of July, Juneteenth is about freeing people, and freeing the country of the ideas that held it back for decades. It is about the freedom to enjoy freedom. It is about setting freedom free. It is something for which so many of our fellow citizens of color have died. Let it be their day, and celebrate it for their sake. And, by doing so, maybe we’ll all deserve it one day, too.
It has come to our attention that a recent post, which falsely warned of a fire in a crowded theatre, led to the trampling of many patrons, in addition to the end of democracy as we know it. After a great deal of thought, and after many meetings with fire-safety groups, along with arsonists and the manufacturers of matches, we here at Facebook have made the difficult decision to continue our policy of free speech. As a result, we will not be altering in any way the post declaring that the crowded theatre is indeed burning when it has never been so much as warm.
This tough choice was made after a thorough reëvaluation of Facebook’s policies, and has nothing to do with our personal opinion, which is that most crowded theatres—including the one mentioned in this post—are not burning. We know that we are going to take a lot of heat (so to speak) from traditional media, which is burdened by having to fact-check the theatre fires they report. And yet, who’s to say that one of those burning theatres in our posts about burning theatres isn’t actually on fire? It’s up to the people in those theatres to decide, usually by looking down from their phones to see if they’re being consumed by hot flames.
You see, we believe in our users and their ability to sense their own aflameness. We also believe in giving them the right to post messages like “YOU ARE BURNING UP! JUMP OUT OF YOUR WINDOW NOW!” as many times as they want (or as their budget allows—please check out our boost-post feature to get more views of your burning-theatre posts). That’s the kind of freedom of speech we like—literally!
The Little Boy may be physically diminutive, but his many posts about voracious wolves have made him big in terms of the number of views and shares. Depriving him of this platform would not only damage Facebook’s fragile information ecosystem but, also, would remove a very important source of wolf news from our site. Though some critics claim that the reported wolves aren’t real, we look to our users to decide for themselves. Our studies have shown that, if our users read enough about wolves being real, they do in fact become real—at least on Facebook—and we need to service the need for information about those real Facebook wolves!
We realize that this decision will upset people inside the company, especially those who’ve been hiding in their offices from wolves.
After another thoughtful evaluation of our policies, Facebook has decided to allow Henny Penny’s numerous posts about the sky falling to remain on the site. Please note that this has absolutely nothing to do with Henny Penny and her barnyard friends being among our biggest ad buyers. This is a policy built on principle, and that principle is that our users are best equipped to tell whether or not the sky is falling, even if the only things they ever read are posts telling them that they are about to be crushed by that thing over our heads, which is, without a doubt, somewhat menacing to begin with.
We can all agree that Henny Penny, though a little chicken, is a very famous one. As a result, what she has to say about the falling sky is newsworthy, whether we happen to agree with it or not. We feel strongly that we would be remiss in not allowing her to express herself, especially when notable followers like Cocky Locky, Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Turkey Lurkey are commenting on this admittedly controversial content and sharing it.
This has nothing to do with our personal opinion. To make this bold decision, we’ve had to separate ourselves from that, as well as from any chunks of sky that may or may not have fallen on top of us. In fact, the head of Facebook recently told Henny Penny in a phone call that, while what she wrote did not violate Facebook’s guidelines, he found it to be “harmful and inflammatory.” He then invited her, along with her friends Cocky Locky, Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Turkey Lurkey, to a dinner in his den to discuss the matter, because if there’s one thing that the Facebook C.E.O., Foxy Loxy, believes, it’s that only through the free exchange of ideas can our huge appetites for unrestricted access to information be sated.
After reviewing the last few posts by Pinocchio, Facebook has made the difficult but brave decision to leave them up. Users concerned about their veracity are encouraged to click through to Pinocchio’s nose cam.
A lot of people are learning about Juneteenth, thanks to the ignorance and willful racism by a certain occupant of government-owned housing in Washington, D.C.
Here’s some background on the importance of this date.
The National Archives on Thursday located what appears to be the original handwritten “Juneteenth” military order informing thousands of people held in bondage in Texas they were free.
The decree, in the ornate handwriting of a general’s aide, was found in a formal order book stored in the Archives headquarters building in Washington. It is dated June 19, 1865, and signed by Maj. F.W. Emery, on behalf of Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free,’ ” the order reads.
“This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
It is a modest, two-paragraph entry in the book labeled “Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston … General Orders No. 3.” But it affected the lives of about 250,000 enslaved people.
Granger was an accomplished but abrasive officer who fought heroically at the Battle of Chickamauga and in the Chattanooga Campaign. He arrived in Galveston with 2,000 Union soldiers 10 weeks after the main Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9.
But the war didn’t end with Lee’s surrender. Areas of rebellion remained, especially in distant parts of the dying Confederacy like Texas. Galveston was 1,200 miles from Appomattox.
The decree “was something that he felt compelled to do,” Plante said. “As the Union army was getting into these areas, I think he realized that this was needed.
“A lot of people think Appomattox was the end of the war. There were still pockets of resistance. … They still needed to send more troops down and take over these areas and show more of a force than was there before.”
And there are still pockets of resistance to this day. Which is why Juneteenth needs to be remembered.
Someone asked me what I would write about the death of George Floyd and the protests around the world, the response by the Trump, and what it means for our nation. I appreciate the question, but I really don’t think that anything I, an old white guy retired in Florida, can say that will better inform or enlighten the situation. Sometimes, as we Quakers note, you should only speak when you can improve the silence.
I’m remembering a morning 52 years ago when I woke up to the news that Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles after winning the California primary and likely on his way to winning the Democratic nomination in the 1968 election. That moment was another in the long series of events that led up to the tumultuous summer of marches, protests, street battles, and a divided nation that ended with the election of Richard Nixon. A lot of us wondered if it could ever get worse (to which 2020 has replied, “Hold my beer”), but more importantly, we wonder if it could ever get better.
It did, even if it wasn’t the same. We have had moments of greatness that did bring us together, be it something as monumental as walking on the moon, or as diverting as winning the gold at the Olympics in 1980, or unifying after a terrorist attack, or redeeming a part of the dream by electing an African-American as president. The divisions have continued; they will always be with us, but as Abraham Lincoln said,
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s a small town, a suburb of Toledo, and when I was a kid in the 1950’s and ’60’s, it fit all of the images that small towns in the Midwest have: tree-shaded streets, neat homes, lots of churches, and a main street — Louisiana Avenue — with little shops like the drug store with the fountain, the dime store, the barber shop, the hardware store, the bakery with the smell of bread baking and the sweet scent of icing, and the bank with the solid stone exterior. They’re all still there, just under different names now, and my parents, who still live there, still call the drug store by its old name, even though it’s changed owners and become a jewelry shop. In the winter the Christmas decorations line the street, and each Memorial Day there is a parade that starts at the Schaller Memorial, the veterans hall, and proceeds up Louisiana Avenue, taking a turn when it reaches the Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial (“We have met the enemy and they are ours…”) and marches down West Front Street past the old Victorian homes that overlook the Maumee River.
When I was a kid the parade was made up of the veterans groups like the American Legion and the VFW, and platoons of soldiers and veterans, including, through the 1970’s, the last remaining veterans of World War I. They wore their uniforms and their medals, and those that couldn’t march sat in the back seat of convertibles, waving slowly to the crowds that lined the sidewalks. They were followed by the marching band from the high school, the color guard, the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the drum and bugle corps, floats from church groups, all of the city fire equipment, antique cars, and the service groups like the Shriners, the Elks, and the Kiwanis Club. After the last float came all the kids on their bicycles decorated with streamers, bunting, flags, and all the patriotic paperwork we could muster. My friends and I would try to outdo each other, and it had less to do with patriotism than it did with seeing how many rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper we could thread in between the spokes of our wheels.
I was about ten or so on one Memorial Day when I spent a lot of time getting my Schwinn Racer ready for the big parade. It was a perfect day; the sky was a sparkling spring blue and all the floats, cars, and fire trucks were gleaming in the sun as the parade organized on Indiana Avenue in front of the Memorial Hall. The high school band in their yellow and black uniforms marched in precision as the major led off with a Sousa tune, and as the parade slowly made its way down the avenue we could see the crowds along the sidewalks waiting and waving. As we waited our turn we wheeled our bikes in circles, just like the Shriners in their little go-karts, and finally we got the signal that it was time for the kids to roll. There was an organized rush to lead off, and then we were slowly pedaling down the street, waving to everybody outside the library, the Chevy dealership, even the people lined up on the roof of the pizza parlor. I looked for my dad shooting movies with the 8mm camera, but didn’t see him. Oh, well, it didn’t matter; we were supposed to meet at the home of friends who were hosting a post-parade picnic in their backyard. Their house was at the end of the parade route, so that was the perfect place to pull out of the parade and have the first of many Faygo Redpops that summer.
But for some reason I stayed with the parade, on down West Front, and then up West Boundary and past the gates of Fort Meigs Cemetery. The floats and the fire trucks were gone, but what was left of the parade — the color guard and the veterans — went through the gates and along the path. There was no music now, just a solemn drumbeat keeping a steady muffled tapping. The color guard turned at a small stone memorial, and then past it to a gravesite where a family was gathered; a mother in a black dress, a father in a grey suit, and a teenage son and daughter, looking somber and out of place. The grave was still fresh, the dirt mounded over, the headstone a simple marker with a flag. A minister spoke some words, and then the color guard snapped to attention. A volley of rifle fire, then Taps, and then a tall young soldier in dress blues handed a folded flag to the mother, who murmured her thanks and tried to smile.
I suddenly realized that I felt out of place there with my gaudily-patriotic bike and my red-white-and-blue striped shirt. No one noticed me, though, and when the people started to slowly move away from the gravesite and back to the entrance, I followed along until I was able to ride slowly back to our friends’ house, park my bike with all the others, and find my parents, who probably hadn’t even noticed that I was not there with all the other kids running around and playing on the lawn.
Some moments are galvanizing in a moment. The news flash from Dallas on November 22, 1963. The Challenger in flight for 72 seconds. The plane flying into the World Trade Center. We knew in that moment that the impact would be felt far longer then that day. After each one of them, we as a nation felt the shock and realized how the course would change.
Then there are moments that take a personal toll. The nation may react, but the implication and the aftershocks are cushioned or even ignored. Sadly, it’s become the new normal to respond to mass shootings with the momentary horror and then back to business as usual. But it may touch us as individuals and that may change the course of our life.
That was the case with the death of four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 at the hands of the Ohio National Guard.
I was nearing the end of my junior year in high school in Toledo, about a hundred miles west of the university. I knew people who were students there. I knew people who were at the demonstration. And suddenly the war in Vietnam and the divisiveness that it brought to the nation was not just in the headlines of the newspaper but in my own state and impacting how I would respond.
I was four months away from registering for the draft. I already knew that I was opposed to the war and already aware of the fact that registering as a conscientious objector would be a difficult path should I choose to present myself to the very conservative draft board of Wood County, Ohio, as one. But the shock of the massacre made me aware that I needed to make my voice heard. And I did. I joined anti-war demonstrations, worked with local peace groups to petition to our state and federal representatives to end the war. I did file as a conscientious objector and stared down the draft board in September. And since that day, fifty years ago, I have done my best to work for peace and remember that even if the course of the nation didn’t change, my own did, and the four who died — Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder — will be remembered.
Fifty Years Later — Charles P. Pierce on the anniversary of the killings at Kent State.
Seeing those gomers and their firearms walking around the Michigan state house unimpeded reminded me that we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of the day when four unarmed college students were shot to death by soldiers of the Ohio National Guard—two of them for protesting the escalation of a grotesque war, and the other two for the crime of crossing the campus of Kent State University at the wrong time. It is said by many people—including the late H.R. Haldeman, the White House chief-of-staff at the time—that the massacre at Kent State and its aftermath was the first push Richard Nixon got toward the paranoia that led to the crimes of the Plumbers Unit and, eventually, Watergate. It was one of the tragedies that made up the criminal tragedy that was the United States involvement in Southeast Asia.
It wasn’t even the only one of those that May; eleven days later, police shot down two students during protests at Jackson State University in Mississippi. It also was the event that shook my politics out of the comfortable suburban torpor in which they had theretofore resided. I didn’t feel radicalized. I just felt that a deep and profound wrong had been done to people who were only a couple of years older than I was. (Interesting Factoid I Just Learned: Alabama football coach Nick Saban was a student at Kent State at the time and was an acquaintance of Allison Krause, one of the students who were killed.) Nothing was the same in my head after that. Terrible arguments at home resulted. None of it made any sense and, for the first time, I was angry about that.
Their names should be said every year—Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Scheuer—in their memory, and that should remind us all of the wildness that still stalks our politics. Now, of course, we have a president* that owes his election—and, it should be said, his re-election—to his predator’s gift for unleashing that wildness. A pandemic has made the country claustrophobic, and the wildness is awfully close to the surface these days. Our institutions are tottering. There’s something coiling behind events, and it’s not far from striking again.
Will It Change Us? — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on what a pandemic has done and will do to our view about life.
The coronavirus pandemic, everyone tells us, is changing and will change everything that we think, believe, expect, and do. It’s what used to be called a “world historical moment.” Yet the curious thing about this certainty is that it seems to sit comfortably with the reality that, to a first approximation, no one has actually changed any view about anything because of the pandemic. The sins that you think the plague is punishing are the sins you were preaching against before it began. If, like Bernie Sanders and his followers, you believed in the absolute importance of national health insurance, of “socialized medicine,” then looking at the mess of the American health system under extreme duress—even at the simple reality that many of our doctors are primarily small businessmen and our hospitals profit-seeking firms—you are more than ever convinced of the necessity of Medicare for All. But this truth, undeniable on its own terms, does run silently aground against the parallel truth that, despite excellent, public-spirited health-care systems, France and Italy have per-capita mortality rates worse than our own. Paris, where the system is quick and flexible and universal, is shut down even more tightly than New York.
On the other hand, if, like the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson, you accept the importance of escaping, Brexit style, from big transnational bureaucracies, such as the European Union, you find proof in the superiority of the small, flexible, responsive city-state model you have long preferred—although the skill with which, say, Singapore has actually evaded the plague seems to alter from week to week.
If you see that issues of identity and inequality are central to our time, then the harsh proof that prejudice and poverty have created disproportionate casualties in the African-American community during the pandemic is the central fact. (And yet, it would be strange to look past the parallel evidence that men of all kinds and classes are dying from the virus more often than women—a correlation that seems to be largely biological, because even female mice have stronger defenses against coronaviruses than male mice do.)
And if you were indignant about the “culture wars” before, you have no time for them now; if you hated people cancelling “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” before the plague started, you are even colder about it now. (Though coming out against the culture wars now would be more impressive if you had ever been enthusiastic about them in the first place.)
In fact, it makes no more sense to moralize this virus than it did to moralize earlier plagues. This pandemic has acted with equal cruelty in theocratic societies, social-democratic ones, and in free-market citadels. To the degree that states seem to be more or less successful against the pandemic—predictably, in Iceland, or unpredictably, in Greece—the true and full cause of their escape is as yet unclear. California may have done so much better than New York simply by closing sooner, but its advantage was at most three days, with New York seeming to pay an unduly large price for a reasonably small delay. Certainly, plagues X-ray each government’s inequities and flaws, but they do so indifferently, universally. This one exposes the failures of the authoritarian opaqueness of China’s Communist Party as much as it does the indecencies of the Trump Administration. To seek one set of social sins as somehow central to the crisis is to miss the reason they put the “pan” in pandemic.
Nor is it necessarily our weaknesses and dysfunctions that account for our fatalities; it is often our greatest strengths and virtues as people and communities that are responsible for the worst consequences. New York City is the U.S. epicenter of this pandemic—the picture would look much less serious in America if it were not for us. But the best guesses as to why point to what are largely consequences of many of the most admirable things about the city and its people; things that are as good and as green as mass transit, high-rise living, and the glorious density of kinds that make New York New York. (The habit of driving alone in cars rather than crowding together on subways may be one reason that California has suffered less than New York, but that does not mean that driving alone in cars is now morally virtuous.) And the intergenerational mingling of Italy—until months ago, one of the boasts and joys of Italian life—seems partly responsible for that beautiful country’s woeful record. At a time when people longed for community, they had it, and have suffered for it.
There is no surprise in this. Far from making us revise our fundamentals and reform our thoughts, major historical crises almost invariably reinforce our previous beliefs, and make us entrench deeper into our dogma. By Christmas of 1914, it was apparent that no European power’s war aims could be achieved, and that to continue the course would entail only meaningless mass slaughter. But that didn’t make the European leaders revise their views; it just made them redouble the effort. They just dug in—literally, into the mud on the Western front, and ideologically, into the dogmas of heroic militarism and the necessity of war.
What makes it hard to maintain our intellectual integrity in such times is that crises can expose some political truths, though we have to struggle to see straight and recognize the limits of what they expose. It is not false to see a vast difference between the Five O’Clock Follies of Donald Trump and the noontime sanities of Andrew Cuomo. (One New Yorker is so dependent for reassurance on Cuomo’s appearances that she claims to feel calmer as soon as she hears the odd New Age-y music that precedes them.) But while Cuomo’s candor and clarity may have helped flatten the curve, the plague has not nearly ended, and in the face of the uncertainties he has had to rely on essentially the same therapies that until Trump’s latest swerves, the White House had, however reluctantly, enjoined as well: shutdowns and social distancing. The performances have moral content in themselves, but everyone’s efficacy is severely limited in the face of an as yet incurable virus.
If there is a point to be drawn from the plague it is, perhaps, that we are caught in a conundrum of numbers not easily parsed by human minds. The scale of modern populations—about nine million people in New York City—are so vast that even small statistical minorities represent huge numbers of human beings. The COVID-19 “truthers”—the self-proclaimed and mostly self-instructed skeptics about the gravity of the coronavirus crisis—are not entirely wrong when they point to what are, by historical standards, the limited fatalities of this plague and to the accompanying truth that the fatalities largely fall in predictable groups, chiefly of the elderly and the already ill. But in this country alone that “limited” number means more than sixty thousand people dead already, many of whom were healthy and some of whom were young. Even a small percent of an enormous population is an enormous number.
In times past, societies accepted mortality from infectious disease as part of existence—death as part of life—without stopping work or study or love or dinner. (When Beth March dies after contracting scarlet fever, in “Little Women,” it is heartbreaking, but not surprising.) It is a part of the moral acquisition of our time that we don’t feel this way, and part of our material improvement that we don’t have to feel this way. We could, until recently, rely on science to relieve us of a good deal of our suffering. That we have so little to rely on for the moment may be the real lesson that the plague is teaching—a lesson, really, in the fragility of progress and the suddenness of its possible reversion. Such ambivalence, at least, contains more truth, if of a tragic kind, than the simplicities of ideological self-soothing.
In May of 2019, I was accepted to the Eli Whitney student program at Yale University. At 52, I am the oldest freshman in the class of 2023. Before I was accepted, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen the infamous YouTube video of students screaming at a faculty member. I had seen the news stories regarding the admissions scandal and that Yale was included in that unfortunate business. I had also heard the students at Yale referred to as “snowflakes” in various social media dumpsters and occasionally I’d seen references to Ivy League students as snowflakes in a few news sources.
I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.
Every single day I went to work with much better humans than myself. I was brought to a higher level of existence because the standards were high and one needed to earn their slot, their membership in the unit. This wasn’t a one-time deal. Every time you showed up for work, you needed to prove your worth.
The vetting process is difficult and the percentage of those who try out for special operations units and make it through the screening is very low.
In an odd parallel, I feel, in spite of my short time here, the same about Yale.
After receiving my acceptance email and returning to consciousness, I decided to move to Connecticut and do my best in this new environment. Many people have asked me why I want to attend college at 52, and why at an Ivy League institution like Yale? I could have easily stayed in Virginia and attended a community college close to my home. Well, based on my upbringing in the military, I associated a difficult vetting process with quality and opportunity. I was correct in that guess. More importantly, I simply want to be a better human being. I feel like getting a world-class education at an amazing institution like Yale will help me reach that goal. Are there other places to get a great education? Of course, but I chose Yale.
My first class of the semester was absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if it was for the kids in my class, but it damn sure was for me. It was a literature seminar with the amazing Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor David Quint. He is an amazing human in that he has dedicated his life to literature, and he knows what he is talking about. The discussion was centered around the Iliad. I had read a bit of the Iliad in the middle part of my military career and decidedly didn’t get it. Listening to Professor Quint demonstrated exactly how much I didn’t “get it.” The other students looked like children to me. Hell, they are children, but when they speak, and some of them speak English as their second language, they sound like very well-spoken adults. My Navy issued graduate degree in cussing wasn’t going to help me out here. These young students had a good grasp of the literature and although they lacked much experience to bounce it off of, they were certainly “all in” on trying to figure out its underlying meaning.
At one point I said, “Hey, I’m just an old guy sitting here with a bunch of smart people, but I think….” And they all smiled, some of them nervously because I was essentially an alien. I was an old dude with tattoos all over his arms and a Dutch Shepherd service dog, brandishing a subdued American flag patch on her harness, sitting next to me. Professor Quint later approached me and said, “Hey, don’t downplay your intelligence. You are smart as well.”
I thought, I’ve got him fooled! Turns out I didn’t fool him at all when I turned in my first paper, but that is another story for another time.
After a few classes, I started to get to know some of my classmates. Each of them is a compelling human who, in spite of their youth, are quite serious about getting things done.
One young woman made a very big impact on me. She approached me after class one day and said, “I am really glad I can be here at Yale and be in class with you. My grandfather came to Yale and when WWII started, he left for the Navy and flew planes in the Pacific theater. After he came home, he came back to Yale, but he couldn’t finish. He locked himself in his room and drank and eventually had to leave, so I feel like I am helping him finish here at Yale and I’m doing it with a veteran, you.”
I was surprised and quite emotional. Exceptionally emotional. She went on: “I can send you a photo of him!” and I told her I would love one. That evening she sent me this photo of her grandfather.
I used to read stories about men like him and they are heroes to me. Clearly her grandfather is a hero to her as well, and she is going to make him quite proud. This connection with a WWII vet through his amazing granddaughter is a gift. One of many I receive on an almost daily basis in this amazing institution. I think it’s worth taking a moment here and acknowledging that this thing we now call “PTSD” has always been around. Some of us veterans escape it while others, like me and likely this gent in the airplane, felt the sting of it.
One day in another lit class, I brought up a book I’d read a long time ago called “Taxi Driver Wisdom” by Risa Mickenberg, Joanne Dugan and Brian Lee Hughes.
After that class a couple of the students approached me and explained that their dads were cabbies when they first came to the United States, and that their fathers had told them that the things they sometimes heard from people in their cabs were amazing.
Think about that for a second. These students are first generation Americans. Their fathers immigrated to this country and started out by being taxi drivers. Now, their children are attending Yale University. I’m a patriotic man and those are the stories that help me understand how, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of negativity surrounding it, the American Dream is still alive and kicking. It makes my heart sing every time I see those kids.
Let me address this “snowflake” thing. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “snowflake” is a “term for someone that thinks they are unique and special, but really are not. It gained popularity after the movie Fight Club from the quote ‘You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ ”
I hear the term occasionally from buddies of mine who I love. They say things like, “How are things up there with the liberal snowflakes?”
Let me assure you, I have not met one kid who fits that description. None of the kids I’ve met seem to think that they are “special” any more than any other 18–22-year-old. These kids work their asses off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello. There is an exceptional young woman from Chicago who wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News expressing the importance of public demonstrations in light of a recent police shooting. She and I are polar opposites. I am the “patriarchy” at first glance, and she is a young black woman who is keen on public protests. Not the type of soul I generally find myself in conversation with. We come from different worlds and yet we both read classic works with open hearts and minds.
We recently met with a prominent writer from a think tank who is researching the state of the humanities in the university setting. There were four of us students: two young men, the young woman from Chicago, and me, the old guy. As the younger students started to express their thoughts, the young woman (truly a unicorn of a human) used the word “safe space” and it hit me forcefully. I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. This works both ways. What I mean is, this young woman was comfortable, in this university setting, wrestling with things like the Aristotelian idea of some humans being born as “natural slaves.” She was quite comfortable in that space. The question was, how comfortable was the 52-year-old white guy in that discussion? Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m grateful for the discomfort. Thinking about things I don’t understand or have, for most of my life, written off, is a good thing.
Being uncomfortable is KEY in this world of ours. Not altogether different from the world of special operations, where the work needs to be done, regardless of weather or personal feelings. The climate in this educational institution is one where most students understand that there HAS to be a place where people can assault ideas openly and discuss them vigorously and respectfully in order to improve the state of humanity. I’ll call that a “safe space” and I’m glad those places exist.
Here in the “Directed Studies” program, instead of “tuning in” to our favorite self-confirming “news” source, we are given a timeless text with heavy ideas and then we throw them out on the floor and discuss them with people who have, as I mentioned earlier, made these works and their meaning, their vocation.
In my opinion, the real snowflakes are the people who are afraid of that situation. The poor souls who never take the opportunity to discuss ideas in a group of people who will very likely respectfully disagree with them. I challenge any of you hyper-opinionated zealots out there to actually sit down with a group of people who disagree with you and be open to having your mind changed. I’m not talking about submitting your deeply held beliefs to your twitter/facebook/instagram feeds for agreement from those who “follow” you. That unreal “safe space” where the accountability for one’s words is essentially null. I have sure had my mind changed here at Yale. To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect.
On Veteran’s Day, there was a great scene on Cross Campus. A bunch of American flags had been placed there and I stopped on my morning walk to class and took photos of my dog in front of them and sent them to my friends. Later at some point during the day, a young student placed a glove with red paint on it on one of the flags as she wanted to demonstrate her displeasure with something…I’m not quite sure what.
That same afternoon, some of my fellow students from “Directed Studies,” after a lecture, gave me this:
It is a card thanking me for my service to our nation. I was humbled and amazed.
These hardworking kids are very kind and thoughtful. A far cry from the picture that is often painted of them.
One of my professors, a Professor of Philosophy, told me once “a good leader is a bridge builder.” Professor David Charles is a man who has been teaching bright young people, and some slow and old ones like me, the most difficult subject for me, at Oxford and now Yale. He’s been doing this for over 30 years. He is extremely humble and very kind, in addition to being brilliant. I’m motivated by his words and I want to build bridges and lead, in some small way, a new conversation where we stop pointing out the perceived differences in each other, or this group vs that group, and start pointing out similarities. We don’t need more condescending friction in humanity. We need less. One step in the direction of less societal friction is to seek commonalities. Another step, and one that is sorely needed, is respect.
Now before you think I’m preaching, please know that I come from a place where I was distinctly the opposite of this ideal. I looked for reasons to disregard the opinions of those I didn’t respect. I discounted the ideas of people I felt like hadn’t earned the right to share what was in their mind. Particularly when it came to national security issues, I felt that if you hadn’t taken a gun into combat, I didn’t give a damn what your opinion was.
I’d like to count this as my first brick in attempting to build a bridge between the people here at Yale and those like me before I arrived here. We need everyone who gives a damn about this American experiment to contribute and make it succeed. We humans have much more in common than we have different. Thanks Yale, for helping me to become an aspiring bridge-builder at the age of 52.
In our welcome speech at the beginning of this semester, with all of us Freshman sitting in Woolsey Hall, me sitting next to another veteran, one who’d served in the 82nd Airborne, President Salovey said:
“There is so much we do not know. Let us embrace, together, our humility — our willingness to admit what we have yet to discover. After all, if you knew all the answers, you would not need Yale. And if humanity knew all the answers, the world would not need Yale.”
Now back to that bridge. I need to figure out how to actually build one. Good thing I’ve found a place where I can get help. If this place is peopled by “snowflakes” I’m proudly one of them. I’m a snowflake with a purple heart.
Today is Presidents Day, the federal holiday mashed together to honor Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday which used to be holidays on their own. This one generically honors all presidents and remembering the times when we had one, and it’s a mid-winter break for schools and a day off for those of us who work in them.
Today is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way. But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me. This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them. And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.
Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights. He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone. He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause. I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else. The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.
There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion? But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for? Last August marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. That marked a moment; a milestone.
Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.
For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.
Today is also a school holiday, so blogging will be on a holiday schedule.
December 17, 1903: Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, made the first powered heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
And their luggage ended up in Boise.
Seriously, folks, that was only 116 years ago, and within the lifetime of someone born at that time, like my maternal grandmother, we had landed people on the moon. By that measure, we should be utilizing warp drive to Mars by now.
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 whollystannable 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.”)
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 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.