Trump plans to offer citizenship to 1.8 million.
Doomsday clock nears closer to apocalypse.
Fossil shows humans left Africa far earlier than first thought.
Senate to release Trump Jr. transcripts.
Letter claims to be from 1962 Alcatraz escapee.
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-fourth 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 To Remember — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on how this next month could make or break Trump’s presidency.
Donald Trump is unique among modern Presidents in that he has no significant legislative accomplishments to show for ten months after taking office. Year one is when Presidents usually make their mark, especially if they came into office with unified control of the government, as Trump and his party did. Presidents in the first year of their first term are often at the peak of their popularity, have the biggest margins in Congress, and are free from the scandals and intense partisanship that start to gather around them later and make governing ever more difficult. By the second year, a President’s legislative agenda becomes complicated by the hesitancy of members of Congress to take risky votes as midterm elections approach, particularly if a President is unpopular. The math is stark: on average, modern Presidents have historically lost thirty House seats and four Senate seats in their first midterm elections.
Trump is governing well below the optimal levels of recent successful first-year Presidents. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, Reagan was so personally popular that he was able to convince a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a major tax cut. In 1993, Bill Clinton used a Democratic Congress to pass a major economic plan, the Family and Medical Leave Act, gun legislation, and NAFTA, though his signature health-care bill eventually failed. (The political cost was high: in midterm elections the following year, Clinton lost his Democratic Congress for the rest of his Presidency and was later engulfed in scandals that slowed his agenda.) In 2001, George W. Bush, who also started with a Congress controlled by his own party, passed a major tax cut and a significant rewrite of federal education policy, two pieces of legislation that came with significant support from Democrats. Barack Obama came into office, in 2009, with large Democratic majorities, high approval ratings, and a massive economic crisis, all of which he leveraged to pass the most ambitious first-year agenda of any President since Lyndon Johnson, including an enormous economic-stimulus package and major reforms of the financial regulatory system and health care. (The final version of Obamacare, after some drama, was actually signed into law in March of his second year.)
Trump’s first year has been different. He has a record low approval rating. He is mired in scandal. And he, so far, has no major legislative accomplishments. He looks like a President in his eighth year rather than one in his first. All of this makes December crucial for the White House.
From now until the New Year, Congress will be jammed with legislative activity that may make or break Trump’s first year in office. Most of the attention has focussed on Trump’s tax-cut legislation, which is deeply unpopular according to public-opinion polls but which Republicans believe is essential to pass in order for them to have something to show for the year. But there are many other politically consequential bills that must be passed in the weeks ahead. On December 8th, the money to fund the federal government runs out. Staff members for the four top Democratic and Republican leaders have been meeting with the White House for weeks to negotiate a deal. On Tuesday, these leaders—Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer—will meet with Trump at the White House about the issue.
Schumer and Pelosi have been maneuvering for this moment all year, and they have significant leverage. The Republican Party, despite unified control of Congress, does not have the votes to pass bills to fund the government in either the House, where many conservatives refuse to support annual appropriations bills, or the Senate, where they need sixty votes but have only fifty-two Republicans. For several years, a coalition of mostly Republican defense hawks, who want higher levels of Pentagon spending, and Democrats, who want higher levels of discretionary spending, have joined forces to provide the votes for the annual appropriations bills. Pelosi and Schumer will not deliver those Democratic votes without extracting a price from Trump and Republicans.
There are three major pieces of legislation that Democrats want: a bipartisan fix for Obamacare, a legislative fix for the Obama-era DACA program that Trump recently ended, and the extension of a popular health-care program for children—SCHIP—that recently expired.
Some liberal Democratic senators have said that they won’t vote to fund the government unless the DACA fix is included, though that is not yet a Party-wide position. As for the Obamacare fix, which is known as Alexander-Murray, after the two senators who negotiated it, the current version of the G.O.P. tax-cut bill includes a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which would hobble Obamacare rather than fix it. The politics for Trump are tricky. Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, a shaky vote on the tax bill, has hinted that she wants the bipartisan health-care legislation passed as the price for her vote on any tax bill that repeals the mandate. Schumer has said that passing a mandate repeal would blow up the Alexander-Murray Obamacare fix. In other words, Schumer is not going to help pass the health-care fix as a way to grease the skids for McConnell to secure Collins’s vote on tax cuts. Trump is likely going to have to give ground on one or more of these Democratic priorities.
“Any Republican senator who thinks they can pass the individual mandate [repeal] and then turn around and get Murray-Alexander passed is dead wrong,” Schumer said on November 15th, after McConnell added the Obamacare-mandate repeal to the Republican tax bill.
The last time Trump cut a deal with Schumer and Pelosi was in May, when the leftover spending bills from the previous year were negotiated and passed to keep the government operating through the end of the fiscal year. In fact, this was arguably the most significant piece of legislation of Trump’s first year, and it was widely considered to be an enormous success for the Democrats because it included high levels of discretionary spending opposed by Trump and no funding for the border wall that he requested. Trump was so angry about the coverage that he tweeted that perhaps there needed to be a government shutdown the next time the two sides entered spending negotiations. “The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there!” Trump said in a series of tweets. “We either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ .”
Tuesday’s meeting at the White House between Trump and congressional leaders from both parties is meant to avoid a December 8th government shutdown. How much Republicans are willing to give Democrats may depend on the status of the G.O.P. tax bill. There are at least half a dozen G.O.P. senators with serious policy concerns regarding the tax proposal. And there are three Republican senators—John McCain and Jeff Flake, of Arizona, and Bob Corker, of Tennessee—who dislike Trump so much that they may be looking for reasons to oppose any legislation that empowers his Presidency. Republicans already have a ready-made conservative reason: the proposed tax changes will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion.
If the tax bill is cruising through the Senate—McConnell wants a vote next week—there may be less incentive for Republicans to risk a shutdown. But if it dies next week, or is delayed, Trump will be under intense pressure to avoid ending the year with no major legislative accomplishments—and the chaos of a government shutdown. In order to keep the government running, Trump would have to strike another deal with Pelosi and Schumer and sign a bipartisan spending deal that includes major Democratic priorities.
As a result, Trump would end his first year in office with no Republican legislative accomplishments and two deals with Pelosi and Schumer that boost the Democratic agenda. If that seems likely to happen, it would enrage conservatives and the Republican base. For Trump, December could be the month that makes or breaks his first year in office.
The Dangers Of Losing Net Neutrality — John Nichols in The Nation.
Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet. It guarantees that speech is equal on the network of networks—whether the words come from Walmart, the corporate behemoth that identifies as the largest retailer in the world, or Walmart Watch, the movement that “seeks to hold Walmart fully accountable for its impact on communities, America’s workforce, the retail sector, the environment and the economy.”
Net-neutrality protections assure that the essential democratic discourse on the World Wide Web cannot be bartered off to the highest bidders of a billionaire class that dominates the political debate on so many other media platforms.
Citizens love net neutrality. “The overwhelming majority of people who wrote unique comments to the Federal Communications Commission want the FCC to keep its current net neutrality rules and classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act,” Ars Technica reported in August. How overwhelming? “98.5% of unique net neutrality comments oppose Ajit Pai’s anti–Title II plan,” read the headline.
The media monopolists of the telecommunications industry hate net neutrality. They have worked for years to overturn guarantees of an open Internet because those guarantees get in their way of their profiteering. If net neutrality is eliminated, they will restructure how the Internet works, creating information superhighways for corporate and political elites and digital dirt roads for those who cannot afford the corporate tolls.
No one will be surprised to learn which side Donald Trump’s FCC has chosen.
FCC chair Ajit Pai, who does the bidding of the telecommunications conglomerates with the rigid determination and focus of the former Verizon lawyer that he is, has been racing to eliminate net neutrality. Pai plans to have the FCC vote on December 14 to overturn the safeguards that were put in place during the Obama administration. If Pai and the Trump-aligned majority on the five-member commission succeed in gutting the existing Open Internet Order, they will alter the future of communications in America.
That alteration would “rig the internet,” according to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who say, “If [Pai] is successful, Chairman Pai will hand the keys to our open internet to major corporations to charge more for a tiered system where wealthy and powerful websites can pay to have their content delivered faster to consumers. This leaves smaller, independent websites with slower load times and consumers with obstructed access to the internet—a particularly harmful decision for communities of color, students, and online activists. This is an assault on the freedom of speech and therefore our democracy.”
“There can be no truly open internet without net neutrality,” says Copps. “To believe otherwise is to be captive to special interest power brokers or to an old and discredited ideology that thinks monopoly and not government oversight best serves the nation. In this case, I think it’s both. The FCC under Pai is handing over the internet to a few humongous gatekeepers who see the rest of us as products to be delivered to advertisers, not as citizens needing communications that serve democracy’s needs. By empowering ISPs to create fast lanes for the few and squelch alternative points of view, the Trump FCC fecklessly casts aside years of popular consensus that the public needs net neutrality. The tens of thousands of Americans I have talked with, both Republicans and Democrats, fully understand this need.”
Copps says: “This naked corporatism is Washington at its worst.”
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the worst of the Trump agenda is on display in the attack on net neutrality. The stakes are that high.
It’s Still The Same Old Story — Noah Isenberg in Salon on why “Casablanca” is still revered 75 years later.
When a movie is still talked about three quarters of a century after its debut, revered in the kind of hushed tones normally reserved for discussing a nation’s most precious cultural treasures, people often want to know why. In the case of “Casablanca,” that holy grail of classical Hollywood that turns 75 on Sunday, there is no easy answer.
Sure, there are the iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and company. There’s also the film’s auspicious timing, appearing as it did just weeks after General Patton’s troops deployed in Operation Torch declared victory in the North African city where it’s set. Then, too, there are its endlessly quoted lines (“Round up the usual suspects!”), crafted by screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, together with Howard Koch, and the many decades of packed revival screenings at repertory theaters and student film societies, not to mention innumerable television broadcasts and TCM airings.
While we may search in vain for a single reason that accounts for the magic of “Casablanca’s” enduring success, it can’t merely be considered “the happiest of happy accidents,” as critic Andrew Sarris once branded it. Even its theme song, “As Time Goes By,” — a Tin Pan Alley number from the 1930s written by Herman Hupfeld, which composer Max Steiner initially shunned — has in its lyrics a line that almost makes a deliberate claim on a deeper narrative foundation that is at once eternal, an ever-green of sorts: “It’s still the same old story.”
Perhaps this explains why screenwriters, novelists and composers still turn to “Casablanca” for source material. “We drink at the well of ‘Casablanca’ many times,” said television writer and producer Matt Selman, who’s had a hand in creating several of the episodes of “The Simpsons” that offer a satirical wink at the picture, in a phone interview with me in 2016. Today, it’s such an essential part of our cultural lexicon that you don’t even need to have seen the movie to recognize the references.
Last year alone brought us a pair of movies that paid homage to that most quoted of classics. In “La La Land,” a blustery love letter to old Hollywood, writer-director Damien Chazelle made a conscious decision not only to cast Emma Stone as an aspiring actress with an outsize Ingrid Bergman obsession, bedroom poster and all, but to have her work on the Warner Bros. lot at a café directly opposite of the set once used for Bogart and Bergman. There’s even the faint suggestion of a direct quote (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”), or perhaps more of a thought bubble, delivered by Ryan Gosling’s character, and a recognizable nod to the famous bittersweet ending.
Similarly, in his deeply personal, and comparatively underrated, “20th Century Women,” writer-director Mike Mills incorporated his own mother’s love of Bogart movies of the 1940s into the script. In the film’s opening scene, as the voice-over narration given by the family matriarch Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) describes the various things that she introduces her son to, when she gets to movies, the camera cuts to an iconic still of Bogart and Bergman on the airport tarmac in their trench coats and snap brim hats. This sort of subtle touch confirms a statement made by Umberto Eco in the 1980s: “Casablanca” is not just one movie, it is “the movies.”
This same tendency to draw on “Casablanca,” and to weave strands of its celebrated story into a new plot, can be found in several highly successful recent novels as well. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize-winning “Orphan Master’s Son,” published in 2012 and set in modern-day North Korea, involves a furtive viewing of the contraband DVD on a laptop in Pyongyang. Its story offers inspiration for a daring escape to America in the absence of letters of transit.
More recently, Amor Towles’ enormously popular novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” includes a pivotal late chapter in which the novel’s protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, watches the movie with a former Red Army colonel. In addition to adding an extra layer of narrative complexity, the episode allows the novel’s protagonist — and, of course, readers along with him — to indulge in the film (“when the smoke from Rick’s cigarette dissolves into a montage of his days in Paris with Ilsa, the Count’s thoughts dissolved into a Parisian montage of his own”).
As Ingrid Bergman once observed of the film late in life: “I feel about ‘Casablanca’ that it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film.” Many decades later that need does not yet seem to have left us, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
Doonesbury — “It’s Hedley.”
Friday, November 22, 1963. 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-four 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.
Originally published in 2003.
Today is the 99th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I in 1918. It used to be called Armistice Day. Today it is the official holiday to commemorate Veterans Day.
It’s become my tradition here to mark the day with the poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae (1872-1918)
I honor my father, two uncles, a cousin, a great uncle, many friends and colleagues, and the millions known and unknown who served our country in the armed forces.
The Trolls of St. Petersburg — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker.
“Seen any of these before?” a headline blared on CNN’s Web site this week. “You may have been targeted by Russian ads on Facebook.” One half expected a toll-free number of a law firm to flash across the screen, or perhaps the name of a medicine to take post-exposure to Russian ads. Among other revelations of the past few days: Russian ads may have reached a third of Americans! And some of them were paid for with rubles! The very thought seemed to be enough to make Senator Al Franken cradle his head in distress on Tuesday, during congressional hearings in which representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter were questioned about Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential campaign.
In the past few weeks, we have learned a fair amount about the Russian online presence during the election. What matters, though, is not that Russian interference reached a third of Americans—that, in fact, is a significant exaggeration of the testimony by Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, who said that a hundred and twenty-six million people, not necessarily Americans, “may have been served” content associated with Russian accounts sometime between 2015 and 2017, with a majority of impressions landing after the election. He also mentioned that “this equals about four-thousandths of one per cent of content in News Feed, or approximately one out of twenty-three thousand pieces of content.” Nor is it significant that, as a “CNN exclusive” headline announced, “Russian-linked Facebook ads targeted Michigan and Wisconsin.” The story that followed actually said nothing of the sort. The real revelation is this: Russian online interference was a god-awful mess, a cacophony.
The Times published some of the ads that Facebook has traced to Russian accounts. Among them: a superhero figure with a green leg and a fuchsia leg, red trunks, and a head vaguely reminiscent of Bernie Sanders, all of which is apparently meant to read as pro-L.G.B.T.Q.; a Jesus figure arm-wrestling Satan, with a caption indicating that Satan is Hillary; an ad reminding us that “Black Panthers, group formed to protect black people from the KKK, was dismantled by us govt but the KKK exists today”; and an anti-immigrant ad featuring a sign that says “No invaders allowed!,” among others.
Several former staff members of a St. Petersburg company widely known as the Kremlin’s “troll factory” gave interviews to different Russian-language media outlets last month. One told TV Rain, an independent Web-based television channel, that hired trolls were obligated to watch “House of Cards,” presumably to gain an understanding of American politics. At the same time, trolls took English classes and classes on American politics. In the former, they learned the difference between the present-perfect and past-simple tenses (“I have done” versus “I did,” for example); in the latter they learned that if the subject concerned L.G.B.T. rights, then the troll should use religious rhetoric: “You should always write that sodomy is a sin, and that will bring you a couple of dozen ‘likes.’ ”
Another Russian outlet, RBC, published the most detailed investigative report yet on the “troll factory.” RBC found that the company had a budget of roughly $2.2 million and employed between eight hundred and nine hundred people, about ten per cent of whom worked on American politics. The trolls’ job was not so much to aid a particular Presidential candidate as to wreak havoc by posting on controversial subjects. Their success was measured by the number of times a post was shared, retweeted, or liked. RBC calculated that, at most, two dozen of the trolls’ posts scored audiences of a million or more; the vast majority had less than a thousand page views. On at least a couple of occasions, the trolls organized protests in the U.S. simply by strategically posting the dates and times on Facebook. In Charlotte, South Carolina, an entity calling itself BlackMattersUS scheduled a protest and reached out to an actual local activist who ended up organizing it—and a BlackMattersUS contact gave him a bank card to pay for sound equipment.
These reports don’t exactly support the assumption that the Russian effort was designed to get Donald Trump elected President. In fact, as The Hill reported on Tuesday, a Russian account announced plans for an anti-Trump march in New York City four days after the election—and thousands attended.
Why did Russian trolls, funded at least in part by the Kremlin, work to incite protests against Trump and an ersatz Black Lives Matter protest, and, at least in one offline case, work to pit American protesters against one another? “We were just having fun,” one of the troll-factory employees interviewed by RBC explained. They were also making money—not a lot, but more than most college students and recent graduates, who comprised most of the troll-factory staff, would have earned elsewhere. In exchange, they had to show that they could meddle effectively in American politics.
Russians have long been convinced that their own politics are infiltrated by Americans. During the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, Putin famously accused Hillary Clinton personally of inciting the unrest. At the time, I was involved in organizing the protests. In advance of a large protest in February, 2012, I helped a particularly generous donor, who had shown up out of the blue volunteering to provide snacks, to connect with the hot-tea coördinator. A few weeks later, state-controlled television aired a propaganda film that used footage of protesters eating donated cookies and drinking tea, which was intended to expose the U.S. State Department’s sponsorship of the Moscow protests; the voice-over claimed that America had lured protesters out with cookies. A few months later, we learned that the generous donor had been an undercover agent who had used Kremlin rubles to purchase the cookies. In the end, protesters got tea and cookies, and millions of Russians became convinced that the anti-Putin protests were an American conspiracy.
The cookie story is not a perfect analogy, but it is an antecedent of sorts to the narrative of Russian meddling in the American election, and it is instructive. Was the Moscow protest made any less real because a fake donor had brought cookies? Was the protest in New York in November of last year any less real, or any less opposed to Trump, because a Russia-linked account originally called for it? Is Trump any less President because Russians paid for some ads on Facebook? Is there any reason, at this point, to think that a tiny drop in the sea of Facebook ads changed any American votes? The answer to all of these questions is: no, not really.
The most interesting question is: What were the Russians doing? In the weeks leading up to the election, Putin made it clear that he expected Hillary Clinton to become President. There is every indication that Moscow was as surprised as New York when the vote results came in. Indeed, in Russia, where election results are always known ahead of time, the Trump victory might have been even more difficult to absorb. So what, then, was the point of Russian meddling—what was the vision behind the multicolored Bernie superhero and the “No invaders” ad?
All of us, including the trolls of St. Petersburg, want the world to make sense. Given the opportunity, we want to show that it works the way we think it does. Russians generally believe that politics are a cacophonous mess with foreign interference but a fixed outcome, so they invested in affirming that vision. In the aftermath, and following a perfectly symmetrical impulse, a great many Americans want to prove that the Russians elected Trump, and Americans did not.
Rainbows and Unicorns — Charles P. Pierce on the GOP tax plan.
With Sudden Sam Clovis suddenly cleared out, there was room for the House Republicans to uncrate their long-awaited tax plan and it was pretty much as disastrous as you thought it would be.
(And I should point out how stunned I am that the administration would not want a guy already under FBI investigation to go under oath in a completely separate proceeding in which would be examined his credentials to do a job for which he was completely unqualified. ‘Ees a puzzlement.)
One good way to understand what’s going on with this latest exercise in financial misdirection is to notice that this plan will tax the interest payment on one student’s loans, but that it may no longer tax another student’s multibillion-dollar inheritance. Of course, the estate tax will go away entirely in six years, probably when nobody’s watching. It also will cap the mortgage-interest deduction, probably in the interest of eliminating it entirely when nobody’s watching. So that’s what all that “middle-class” bafflegab is really all about.
Brownback’s catastrophic imbibing of straight supply-side Sterno crippled his state, and the Center for American Progress immediately pointed out the similarities between what Brownback did in his state and what the Republican plan proposes to do to the country. Otherwise, the Republican plan is pretty much the same thing as David Stockman long ago said the first Reagan budget was: a Trojan horse to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthiest among us. From The Washington Post:
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent and collapse the seven tax brackets paid by families and individuals down to four. It would create giant new benefits for the wealthy by cutting business taxes, eliminating the estate tax, and ending the alternative minimum tax.
The elimination of the deduction for state and local taxes seems to be based in an entirely new riff that’s become popular among congresscritters who are tired of seeing their laissez-faire hellholes called moochers because the hellholes take in more money from the federal government than they send back to it in taxes. Now, believe it or not, and you will believe it because these people will say anything, the argument is being made that the high-tax states are somehow luxuriating on the backs of Good Country People in places like Alabama and, yes, Kansas. In any event, this provision of the bill has put Republicans from places like New York and New Jersey in a considerable bind, so much so that insisting upon it may be enough to sink the bill entirely.
And, finally, of course, we have the most spavined old nag in this entire herd of unicorns.
The bill would add $1.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years, but Republicans believe the changes would trigger a surge in economic growth, higher wages, and job creation.
Clap as hard as you want, America. This is not going to happen because it never has happened in all the years that Republicans have been running this con on the country. It never has happened because it can’t happen. In the immortal words of Rocket J. Squirrel:
“But that trick never works.”
Time Was… Michael S. Rosenwald on the chaotic history of timekeeping in America.
One of the crazier facts about life in America is this: For roughly two decades, nobody had any clue what time it was.
In office buildings, it could be 4 p.m. on one floor and 5 p.m. on another — an important matter for several reasons, including who punched out first to get to happy hour. People would step off airplanes with no idea how to set their watches. Ponder this head-scratcher:
“A short trip from Steubenville, Ohio, to Moundsville, West Virginia became a symbol of the deteriorating situation. A bus ride down this thirty-five-mile stretch of highway took less than an hour. But along that route, the local time changed seven times.”
That “deteriorating situation,” as historian Michael Downing put it in his book “Spring Forward,” is the reason millions of Americans will set their clocks back this weekend for Daylight Saving. (And it is daylight saving, not savings. You’re welcome.) Those who forget are going to be very early for Sunday brunch.
Before 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson solved the craziness over America’s clocks two years after passing the Civil Rights Act, time was essentially anything governments or businesses wanted it to be. Though laws mandating daylight saving — to save fuel, to give shoppers extra time in the light — passed in 1918, by the end of World War II the system had become fractured and was ultimately dismantled.
These were nutty times, Downing writes, with some localities observing daylight saving, some not:
Left to their own devices, private enterprise and local governments — which had repeatedly demanded the right not to alter their clocks — took to changing the time as often as they changed their socks, setting off a nationwide frenzy of time tampering …
Especially in Iowa, which had 23 different Daylight Saving dates. “If you wanted to get out of Iowa, you had to time your departure carefully,” Downing writes. “Motorists driving west through the 5 p.m. rush hour in Council Bluffs, Iowa, found themselves tied up in the 5 p.m. rush hour in Omaha, Nebraska, an hour later.”
The historian also offers this truly astonishing fact: “By 1963, no federal agency of commission was even attempting to keep track of timekeeping practices in the United States.”
When the government did finally get involved, a committee was, of course, established.
It was called, “The Committee for Time Uniformity.”
Congressional hearings were held. Legislation was proposed. Editorials were written.
The measure “is a bid for the termination of chaos,” this newspaper opined. To those who would oppose such a sensible idea, the Post editorial page said, “It is better for them to adjust to the will of the majority than to tolerate the Babel of contradictory clocks.”
The Uniform Time Act of 1966 — designed “to promote the observance of a uniform system of time throughout the United States” — was signed into law by Johnson on April 13, 1966.
Six months later it became the law of the land, though one wonders: Did it go into effect at the very same time in New York and Chicago, which is one hour behind?
Actually, never mind.
Doonesbury — Rhyme time.
Josh Marshall takes a look at White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly’s views on the Civil War and his refusal to apologize to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) for his obviously erroneous comments about her.
Ta-Nehisi Coates did a systematic take-down of John Kelly after he presented a revisionist history of the Civil War on Laura Ingraham’s new show on Fox [Monday] night. You can see that here. Kelly’s key points were that the cause (and for us the lesson) of the Civil War was an unwillingness to compromise and that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable” man.
Coates offers a good, clear rebuttal which there’s no need for me to duplicate. But I wanted to ask a more general question. Why is John Kelly talking about Robert E. Lee? Let alone praising him or attacking him, why is Lee even a topic of discussion? Kelly is an Irish Catholic from Boston born in 1950. He is not someone born in the Deep South who was reared in the Lee cult and coming to grips with that legacy or unable to shake it fully. Why is this even something we’re talking about?
Kelly did another notable thing. He pledged he would “never” apologize for his comments about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). This is despite the fact that it has been repeatedly and clearly shown that his central claim about her was false. We can give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his memory was faulty on the first take. I think we should. But sticking to the claim in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence makes it a clear lie on the second and third and every subsequent take. He also thinks Mueller should be investigating Secretary Clinton.
I take this performance as showing two things. One is what we saw in Kelly’s attack on Rep. Wilson. Kelly is not an adult in the room. He’s an example of what we might call Total Quality Trumpism, Trumpist ideology in a more disciplined, duty-focused, professional package. The core ideology and beliefs about reclamation and rectitude are the same. It’s not an accident that he ended up in the tightest circle of Trump’s orbit. The other is that, once again, Trump damages everything he touches.
But there’s something subtly different about Kelly compared to all the others who cozied up to Trump and saw their reputations and dignity destroyed through a deep inner weakness, desperation or lack of character – Christie, Pence, Tillerson, Priebus et al. Kelly’s eyes appear wide open. His tie to Trump seems to be based on a deep commonality of belief and a desire to sand away the rough edges of Trump to ensure the core goals of Trumpism succeed.
Gen. Kelly is not the only one who thinks the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and we could have avoided all of that unpleasantness had we only left the South alone; slavery would have died out on its own because of the industrial revolution. It’s the Jim Crow version, but in his case, James Corvus. I’ve heard that from so many people who also think “Gone With The Wind” was a documentary that it’s no wonder that a white guy from Boston would accept it.
As for the idea that Kelly is a smoother, more palatable version of Trump and his ideology, there too we’ve all seen them on TV as clear-eyed and in control of their outbursts, but still gently pushing the ideas that Trump carries around on the end of a pitchfork. They can explain away their views of life and How Things Should Be in such a way that even when they are sharing demonstrable lies and misconceptions they sound like the most reasonable person in the room.
But underneath we still know there lurks danger and poison, and when you strip down the polish to bare metal, you have, as actor Wendell Pierce noted, a racist prick.
Ross Douthat is blaming Harvey Weinstein’s crimes on the 1970’s and Hugh Hefner.
The coarse worldview I’ve called “Hefnerism” endured, as the victims of Weinstein and Bill Clinton and Donald Trump can well attest. But while feminism struggled to restrain it, in the educated classes some restraint has been imposed. And the worldview you might call Polanski-ism, which winked at the use and abuse of teenagers, became disreputable and then generally condemned.
Moreover this relative-to-the-1970s restraint has held lately, at least provisionally, even as we’ve gone through an aftershock of that social revolution, in which religion has waned some more and permissiveness increasingly dominates opinion polls. Old-fashioned mores are not coming back — but neither, for now, is the wild erotic acting-out of the ’70s, their often-cruel dionysianism.
No, actually it started long before that — check with the women of Hollywood in the 1930’s — and it wasn’t just Hollywood and Hefner. It was the updated macho bullshit culture that was a backlash against the rise of feminism of the 1960’s. And it involved a lot of so called “family values” men and their enablers who hit back.
Ross Douthat was born in 1979, so his recollection of the time is based on purely what he’s read in the history books, which are still being written, or re-runs of “That ’70’s Show.” Either way, it helps if you were actually there before using the collective “we.”
(For what it’s worth, I remember the ’70’s as being far more restrained and refined than the 1960’s. But that’s just me.)
Under The Cloak — Jelani Cobb on how sexual predators keep up appearances.
The great mystery of evil is not that it persists but, rather, that so many of its practitioners wish to do so while being thought of as saints. Consider the fact that such a bizarre, oxymoronic accolade as the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples once existed—and that it was created after his plans for agricultural collectivization resulted in the deaths of some four million Ukrainians. Once considered a hallmark of Soviet ineptitude, the starvation now appears, Anne Applebaum writes in her new book, “Red Famine,” to have been the deliberate result of a plan to rid the state of a rebellious peasantry. Or think of Leopold II, the nineteenth-century Belgian king who carefully cultivated a reputation for outsized philanthropy and Christian devotion while overseeing the ruthless subjugation of the population of the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, and commanding an army that committed massacres and routine disfigurements of locals. These are hypocrisies on the grand brutal scale, but, as the past week has demonstrated once again, there is no shortage of smaller tyrannies and compromised altruism in our times and in our midst.
In a matter of days, Harvey Weinstein went from being heralded as a formidable media titan to being accused as a serial sexual predator. The charges of sexual harassment levelled against him last Thursday in a New York Times report, followed by further allegations in Ronan Farrow’s article published by The New Yorker, five days later, bracketed a period that saw a maelstrom of social-media outrage and Weinstein’s firing from the prestigious film company that he had helped found. There have since been reports that his wife is leaving him, and he has come under investigation by police in New York City and London, and been accused of rape by a fourth woman. Last Saturday, in a statement that appeared to prove that, like Einsteinian space-time, irony is capable of bending to dimensions that we cannot fully grasp, Donald Trump remarked that he had known Weinstein for a long time and “I am not at all surprised.” Game, as the adage says, recognizes game.
What is perhaps more notable than the fact that Weinstein’s alleged transgressions could persist for so long with so little scrutiny is that they coexisted with his reputation as a stalwart of progressive causes. Weinstein’s films generated more than three hundred Oscar nominations and earned Best Actress honors for several women in films that he produced. In any other context, this would be a banner legacy of helping women achieve standing and power in an industry that, as the director Ava DuVernay has said, was “created by men, for men, to tell stories about men.” Last week, it was reported that Weinstein had pledged five million dollars to the University of Southern California film school toward a scholarship fund for female filmmakers. (The school is reportedly rejecting the pledge.) He also championed Hillary Clinton’s bid to be the first female President of the United States, and donated to the campaigns of a number of other women, including Senator Elizabeth Warren. (Both women are now donating the money to charities.)
Weinstein’s palette of giving earned him the standing as a man who was, if not an embodiment of male progressivism, at least someone willing to stand on its periphery. In that way, Weinstein’s public demise recalls Hugh Hefner’s mortal one, last month. Hefner, whose great realization, as my colleague Adam Gopnik has pointed out, was that virtually anything, even pornography, can be mainstreamed in America if it is paired with a measure of upper-class aspiration, contained contradictions similar to Weinstein’s, though they were a great deal more transparent. Critics maintained that Hefner innovated the tradition of female objectification and hijacked the idea of women’s sexual autonomy for his own agenda of furthering male prerogatives. His defenders claimed that he “empowered” women—a vague term that can be deployed to camouflage the fact that one group of people is getting rich while the “empowered” group is getting hustled—and was a strong advocate of women’s reproductive rights and of civil rights. The reality, though, is that it’s possible, maybe even typical, for all these things to be true.
It’s not uncommon for people to tangentially benefit groups that they’re simultaneously exploiting. Note that of the boldface names recently associated with charges of sexual harassment or assault—Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Weinstein—every one of them could, and some did, argue that they’d hired and promoted women in their professional enterprises. None of this obviates the possibility that any of them harassed or assaulted women in those same enterprises.
It’s striking that a former temporary employee at the Weinstein Company reported to Farrow that Weinstein had said that “he’d never had to do anything like Bill Cosby”—apparently a reference to the fact that some of Cosby’s accusers have said that he drugged them prior to assaulting them—though otherwise there are distinct similarities in the accounts of how both men used their positions of power against vulnerable women whose careers they purported to help. Another commonality extends to their relationships with philanthropy.
Bill Cosby was particularly hailed for his largesse in the nineteen-eighties, when he paid college tuition for students in need who wrote to him, created scholarships, and gave broadly to causes connected to African-Americans. The donation that cemented his status as a minor deity among African-Americans came when he and his wife, Camille, donated twenty million dollars to Spelman College, in Atlanta, in 1988. At the time, it was the largest single donation ever given to a historically black college. The fact that Spelman is also a women’s college seemed to certify Cosby as a man whose credentials as a humanitarian were beyond impeachment. (Amid the swirling controversy over Cosby’s behavior, the college terminated a professorship endowed in his name and returned related funds in 2015.)
One view is that philanthropy can operate as a kind of penance mechanism. The individual who recognizes that he has done wrong attempts to make good in equal measure, to place a thumb on the scale of karma. This kind of moral licensing—do-gooding to offset wrongdoing—is not unusual. We just recognized the annual awarding of an international peace prize created by a man who grew rich from the sales of dynamite and the attendant war munitions. Many of the great name-brand foundations were created in honor of individuals whose personal character or wealth was connected to deeply morally compromising actions.
Yet this is not quite what seems to be happening here. Both Weinstein and Cosby gave publicly and visibly, and that inevitably created situations which also left their beneficiaries vulnerable. When Fareed Zakaria interviewed Hillary Clinton earlier this week, she denied any knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged history of predation, which prompted Anthony Bourdain, who is currently in a relationship with one of Weinstein’s accusers, to suggest on Twitter that Clinton’s claim strained credulity. (Clinton seems fated to be in close proximity to men who both assist her career and undermine it through their alleged sexual impropriety.)
A Weinstein Company executive told Farrow that she was particularly disturbed that Weinstein seemed to use female employees as “a honeypot to lure these women in, to make them feel safe.” In that light, the philanthropy can be seen as a sort of honeypot scheme, in which a concern for social issues lulls people into seeing only one side of the giver. In some cases, charity doesn’t contradict monstrosity. It enables it.
Governing By Disruption — Dan Balz in the Washington Post.
Nine months into his first term, President Trump is perfecting a style of leadership commensurate with his campaign promise to disrupt business as usual in Washington. Call it governing by cattle prod.
It is a tactic borne of frustration and dissatisfaction. Its impact has been to overload the circuits of government — from Capitol Hill to the White House to the Pentagon to the State Department and beyond. In the face of his own unhappiness, the president is trying to raise the pain level wherever he can.
The permanent campaign has long been a staple of politics in this country, the idea that running for office never stops and that decisions are shaped by what will help one candidate or another, one party or another, win the next election.
President Trump has raised this to a high and at times destructive art. He cares about ratings, praise and success. Absent demonstrable achievements, he reverts to what worked during the campaign, which is to depend on his own instincts and to touch the hot buttons that roused his voters in 2016. As president, he has never tried seriously to reach beyond that base.
The past week was a perfect example of the Trump school of governing. Start with the end of the week. In rapid succession between late Thursday and midday Friday, he took steps to break the Affordable Care Act and then potentially end the Iran nuclear agreement.
These moves will earn him accolades from the people who supported his candidacy last year, which might be the principal objective. But neither action solved a problem. It will be left to others to do that, if they can. In a few hours, the nation and the world got a double dose of what Trump’s frustrations can mean in terms of their impact on important issues.
Those were only two of the moments that defined the president’s disruptive style of leadership in just one week. It was, after all, only a week ago that the president started a Twitter war with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The tweets resulted in Corker firing off a snarky tweet in return and then bluntly calling out the president’s character and fitness in a New York Times interview in which he warned that the president’s recklessness could result in World War III.
It was also within that week that the president, with an assist from Vice President Pence, escalated and perhaps seized the advantage in his feud with professional football players who kneel during the national anthem. Amid outrage from his critics, Trump has managed to turn an issue that once was about police violence in minority communities into a cultural battle about patriotism, the flag and pride in the military. His critics are now on the defensive.
The week saw one other example of Trump’s governing by pique. Hours before the steps he took on health care, he lashed out again at critics of his handling of the hurricane cleanup in Puerto Rico, tweeting that he would cut back the federal response. Like many of his tweets, it is no doubt an idle threat, but one nonetheless designed to give a jolt of displeasure to the status quo.
Trump’s Twitter feed is an obsession, both for a president who finds release through 140-character blasts at opponents or enemies and for a media trained to jump at the moment the tweets light up smartphones. But his actions on health care and Iran were reminders that the most consequential steps are those in which he is attempting to reverse course on policies without a clear sense of a path to success.
There’s little doubt that part of the president’s motivation is to undo what former president Barack Obama did. He campaigned against Obamacare, although his prescriptions for what should replace it lacked consistency or, for that matter, clear alternatives. He railed against the Iran nuclear deal and now is trying to undo it despite the fact that all relevant parties say the Iranians are adhering to its terms.
Trump prefers to look past that history. He wants his supporters to believe that he is trying to fulfill his campaign promises in the face of resistance from entrenched powers. If it doesn’t get done, pin the blame on others. It’s still the president vs. the swamp.
The president asks much — of the Congress and of his own team. Congress is flailing, and now the president has added to the burdens on the backs of legislators. Lawmakers still must deal with funding the government and acting on the debt ceiling. Trump also wants a big tax bill, as do Republicans, and the work on that has been going on for months without any major action.
Beyond that, Trump has tossed the issue of the “dreamers” into the laps of lawmakers, with a clock ticking on action. He made a tentative deal with Democrats, but there is disagreement on the terms. So far there’s no sign of an accord. Now he has decided to force Congress to act on whether to fund the insurance subsidies that help lower-income Americans purchase health insurance. That’s another way he’s trying to bring the Democrats to the table, but the potential political costs to his party in 2018 could be significant.
The policy initiative aimed at Iran has some merit. The Obama administration tried to say that the nuclear agreement should be seen as a separate issue from other bad actions by the Iranians and that making the deal to block the Iranian path to nuclear weapons didn’t lessen concerns about the funding of terrorism and other activities.
Trump is trying to ratchet up attention to those problems but by threatening to walk away from the nuclear agreement has created a rift with U.S. partners to that pact that will necessarily complicate prospects for overall success.
But there is another element related to the Iran initiative that should not be overlooked, which is the danger of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea. That is a far more dangerous situation at the moment and one that requires constant attention from the president’s national security team. Foreign policy experts worry that by opening up a new confrontation with Iran, the administration may be stretching its capacity to handle both matters with the patience, skill and delicacy they require. Presidential tweets aimed at Kim Jong Un have not and probably will not resolve the North Korea standoff.
The president has proved himself capable and willing to start controversies and policy confrontations. That’s what being a disrupter is all about. But there is more to the presidency than initiating conflict, and on that measure, Trump has much to prove.
Final Approach — Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker remembers the 747.
How much do I, a Boeing 747 pilot, love the airplane that I fly? It’s tough, and maybe a little embarrassing, to answer. But as the iconic jet’s eventual retirement draws closer, I am surely not the only 747 fan who’s taking some very long flights down memory lane.
To share with you the jumbo dimensions of my 747 obsession, I could describe my wedding cake (hint: it had wings of marzipan, and four chocolate engines). I could share my Twitter moniker, @markv747. Or I could go farther back, to the day when I, an awkward 14-year-old, stood with my mom and dad atop the Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and stared in wonder at the towering tail fins of the 747s all around us, as proud and promising to my wide-opened eyes as masts in a harbor.
I could tell you pretty much everything about my first passenger flight on a 747, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight to Amsterdam, on June 25, 1988 (in 33A — a window seat, of course). And I’d certainly describe the marvelous night of Dec. 12, 2007, when I first piloted a 747, for British Airways, the airline I now fly for, from London to Hong Kong. That night the majesty of the 747 made the experience of takeoff new again, as joyful as it had been on my first flying lesson years earlier, when a steely-eyed instructor and I strapped ourselves into a Cessna, rumbled down the runway of my hometown airport in Pittsfield, Mass., and lifted into an autumn-blue Berkshire sky.
Recent news reports have suggested that the last 747s in passenger service with U.S. airlines will be retired this year. It’s worth noting that other 747s — including refurbished, newer and cargo versions — will fly for years to come. New passenger 747s took flight as recently as this summer, and cargo models continue to roll off the assembly line. Nevertheless, as many 747 pilots start to ponder which aircraft we’ll fly next (personally, I am drawn to the sleek lines and “Star Trek”-caliber cockpit of the Boeing 787), it is a good time to reflect on the outsize importance of the plane known as “Queen of the Skies” — not just to its most passionate and geekiest, pilots, but to billions of passengers and to the world it helped change.
For those who grew up under 747-crossed skies, it can be hard to appreciate how revolutionary the jet’s dimensions were when it first (and improbably, to some observers) got airborne in 1969. The inaugural model, the 747-100, was the world’s first wide-bodied airliner. The jet weighed hundreds of thousands of pounds more than its predecessors (the Boeing 707, for example), and carried more than twice as many passengers. Born in a factory so large that clouds once formed within it, the 747-100 was nearly twice as long as the Wright brothers’ entire first flight.
The aviation historian Martin Bowman has written that during the 747’s first takeoff, from Paine Field, in Everett, Wash., in February 1969, the blast of its engines knocked over a photographer. Indeed, the jet’s elephantine proportions were both a gift and a challenge to the travel industry. Peter Walter, who retired in 2011 after 47 years in ground-based aviation jobs, shared with me his memories of the day the 747 first came to the airport in Freeport, Bahamas. “The aircraft did not look all that big on the runway, but once it was on the ramp it looked enormous,” he wrote. The mobile steps that had serviced a previous generation of airliners were too short, so crews stacked one set of steps atop another in order to reach the lofty doors of the new leviathan.
For pilots, crew members and passengers who love the 747, it’s easy to forget that the airliner was first of all a business proposition, one that aimed to harness economies of scale and a raft of new technologies to cut the seat-per-mile cost of air travel by about 30 percent. Yet on a planet that previously only the richest could cross at will, the 747’s most lasting impact may have been on everyday notions of distance and difference. Having inaugurated the “age of mass intercontinental travel,” wrote the scholar Vaclav Smil, the 747 “became a powerful symbol of global civilization.” The writer J.G. Ballard compared the jet to nothing less than the Parthenon — each the embodiment of “an entire geopolitical world-view.” Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s legendary founder, called the 747 “a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind’s destiny.”
The hopes and fears of the era that gave us the 747 can seem distant. Nor is it easy, in the age of the internet, to feel the same awe at the 747’s ability to shrink and connect the world. Looking back, it’s perhaps enough to marvel at the billions of reunions, migrations, exchanges and collaborations of all manner that were made possible, or at least more affordable, by this aircraft. Today, the equivalent of around half the planet’s population has flown on a 747. The jets have also served in firefighting, military and humanitarian roles. In 1991, as part of Operation Solomon, about 1,100 Ethiopian Jews boarded the 747 that would take them to Israel. Never before had an aircraft carried so many passengers — including, by the time the jet touched down, several babies born midair.
If the 747’s place in history is assured, so too, it seems, is its cultural stature. The jet remains a go-to synonym for aerial enormity, one that a “Game of Thrones” director recently deployed to suggest the dimensions of a dragon. The 747 also endures as a symbol of speed, escape and, frankly, sexiness, one that — along with the pleasingly palindromic rhythm of its number-name — has appealed in particular to singers. A 747 playlist might include Prince (“you are flying aboard the seduction 747”); Earth, Wind and Fire (“just move yourself and glide like a 747”); and Joni Mitchell, who gave perhaps my favorite tribute to 747s (“…over geometric farms.”)
The jet also seems certain to be remembered as an icon of modern design. “This is one of the great ones,” said Charles Lindbergh of the aircraft that many consider to be uniquely good-looking. I am surely not the first to speculate that the jet’s distinctive hump (fashioned to facilitate cargo-loading in a future that many expected to be dominated by supersonic passenger jets) suggests the graceful head of an avian archetype. Frequently, looking up from my cockpit paperwork, I’ll spot several passengers in the terminal photographing the very jet in which I am sitting. I often see even senior 747 pilots disembark the aircraft that they’ve just spent 11 hours flying to Cape Town or Los Angeles, and then pause, turn around and photograph it.
Indeed, the jet may be most esteemed by those who have been lucky enough to fly it. The very first to do so, the test pilot Jack Waddell, described it as “a pilot’s dream” and a “two-finger airplane” — one that can be flown with just the forefinger and thumb on the control wheel; it is hard to imagine higher praise for such an enormous aircraft. Personally, I find the aircraft to be both smooth and maneuverable, a joy to fly and to land.
Like every 747 pilot since, Mr. Waddell also took a keen interest in how the plane looked. Remarkably, he did so even as he was piloting the new jet on that first-ever flight. “What kind of a looking ship is this from out there, Paul?” he said over the radio to Paul Bennett, a pilot in the “chase” aircraft that was following the newborn 747 through the skies of the Pacific Northwest. The reply from Mr. Bennett echoes through aviation history: “It’s very good looking, Jack. Fantastic!”
Many 747 pilots feel the same, and are pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the British architect Norman Foster once named the aircraft his favorite building of the 20th century. Now, well into the 21st century, I asked Mr. Foster for an update. The 747 “still moves me now as it did then,” he told me in an email. “Perhaps with the passage of time, and in an age of ‘look-alikes,’ even more so.”
Mr. Foster has plenty of company. At the start of my first book, a sort of love letter to my job as a pilot, I invited readers to send me their favorite window seat photographs. Many also wrote to share their particular passion for the 747. One reader detailed his first 747 flight, on Alitalia, bound for Rome in 1971. “I have been hooked ever since,” he said. Another, Andrew Flowers, a 42-year-old South African writer who lives in Helsinki, wrote that the 747s he saw as a child in Cape Town stood for what “I wanted most in the world: a way to Europe, to adventure, to freedom.”
When Mr. Foster emailed me, he also attached a transcript of remarks he made about the 747 in a 1991 BBC documentary. “I suppose it’s the grandeur, the scale; it’s heroic, it’s also pure sculpture,” he said then of the jet. “It does not really need to fly, it could sit on the ground, it could be in a museum.”
Today the first 747 is indeed in a museum — the Museum of Flight in Seattle. When I last visited, I couldn’t stay long. (Inevitably, I had a flight to catch.) But if you see me there another time — perhaps in a few decades when I myself am retired, with more time, I hope, to sit on benches and listen to Joni Mitchell — come say hello. I’ll tell you how much I loved this plane, and how sorry I was that my parents did not live to join me on one of my flights. Perhaps you’ll tell me about the first time you ever saw a 747, or flew on one, and together we’ll marvel at how it towers above us even at its lowest altitude, even as it rests on the world.
Doonesbury — Ink now, regret later.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
American Dignity on the Fourth of July — David Remnick in The New Yorker.
More than three-quarters of a century after the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to quit the Kingdom of Great Britain and declared that “all men are created equal,” Frederick Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked:
I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
The dissection of American reality, in all its complexity, is essential to political progress, and yet it rarely goes unpunished. One reason that the Republican right and its attendant media loathed Barack Obama is that his public rhetoric, while far more buoyant with post-civil-rights-era uplift than Douglass’s, was also an affront to reactionary pieties. Even as Obama tried to win votes, he did not paper over the duality of the American condition: its idealism and its injustices; its heroism in the fight against Fascism and its bloody misadventures before and after. His idea of a patriotic song was “America the Beautiful”—not in its sentimental ballpark versions but the way that Ray Charles sang it, as a blues, capturing the “fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top.”
Donald Trump, who, in fairness, has noted that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” represents an entirely different tradition. He has no interest in the wholeness of reality. He descends from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters. The thematic shift from Obama to Trump has been from “lifting as we climb” to “raising the drawbridge and bolting the door.” Trump may operate a twenty-first-century Twitter machine, but he is still a frontier-era drummer peddling snake oil, juniper tar, and Dr. Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Cure for profit from the back of a dusty wagon.
As a candidate, Trump told his followers that he would fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed for your country.” But he is a plutocrat. His loyalty is to the interests of the plutocracy. Trump’s vows of solidarity with the struggling working class, with the victims of globalization and deindustrialization, are a fraud. He made coal miners a symbol of his campaign, but he has always held them in contempt. To him, they are luckless schmoes who fail to possess his ineffable talents. “The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” Trump once told Playboy. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination—or whatever—to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’ ”
Trump is hardly the first bad President in American history—he has not had adequate time to eclipse, in deed, the very worst—but when has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak? Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more. He tells a lie. He tells another. He trolls Arnold Schwarzenegger. He trolls the press, bellowing “enemy of the people” and “fake news!” He shoves aside a Balkan head of state. He summons his Cabinet members to have them swear fealty to his awesomeness. He leers at an Irish journalist. Last Thursday, he tweeted at Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came . . . to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” The President’s misogyny and his indecency are well established. When is it time to question his mental stability?
The atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House, it appears, is contagious. Trump’s family and the aides who hastened to serve him have learned to imitate his grossest reflexes, and to hell with the contradictions. Melania Trump, whose “cause” is cyber-bullying, defends the poisoned tweet at Brzezinski. His righteously feminist daughter Ivanka stays mum. After the recent special election in Georgia, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, tweeted, “Laughing my #Ossoff.” The wit! The valor! Verily, the return of Camelot!
Trump began his national ascendancy by hoisting the racist banner of birtherism. Since then, as candidate and as President, he has found countless ways to pollute the national atmosphere. If someone suggests a lie that is useful to him, he will happily pass it along or endorse it. This habit is not without purpose or cumulative effect. Even if Trump fails in his most ambitious policy initiatives, whether it is liberating the wealthy from their tax obligations or liberating the poor from their health care, he has already begun to foster a public sphere in which, as Hannah Arendt put it in her treatise on totalitarian states, millions come to believe that “everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way.
Making the Grade — The Miami Herald editorial board.
Every traditional public school in Miami-Dade County made the grade, and not one of those grades was an F. It’s a gratifying and hard-won accomplishment for schools chief Alberto Carvalho and his team, School Board members, educators in all capacities, parents and, of course, the students. And it’s a first.
The achievement is the result of a slow but steady march to the day when the state Department of Education would release the annual school grades and every school in the county would receive a passing grade. That glorious day arrived last week.
Success came despite the challenges — or maybe because of them. There are schools with large numbers of students living in poverty and low parental engagement. About 70 percent of students district-wide get reduced-price or free lunch because they come from low-income families. And more than 72,000 students are learning English. All are indicators of students facing the most hurdles to academic success. The district amped up the focus on them. “We put in counselors and coaches,” Carvalho told the Editorial Board. “ We put in new supports for fragile schools.”
The district earned a B average overall; two-thirds of all schools received a grade of A or B. Almost 20 years ago, there were 26 F schools in Miami-Dade.
School grades are weighted most heavily toward students’ scores on standardized tests, with graduation rates and the number of students taking advanced courses also factored in. What makes the school district’s no-F achievement even more remarkable is that since 1999, when the tests were first administered, state legislators have tinkered and rejiggered and generally messed around, making the test always more difficult — arbitrarily setting back some students’ progress — and harder to administer. The introduction of computers, for instance, was a disaster, plus many poor students had little experience with such technology in their homes.
In fact, the only failure in the district’s good-news story is that of the state Legislature — again. As reported by Kristen Clark of the Herald/Tallahassee new bureau, because of the new education reform law, Senate Bill 7069, passed during the session, 650 charter schools throughout the state, privately managed and independent of schools districts, could be entitled to receive as much as $96 million from school districts’ taxpayer funds for construction and maintenance. At the very least, lawmakers imposed certain financial and academic standards before many of these for-profit schools can receive funds.
There’s more: Superintendent Carvalho rightly laments new restrictions placed on the use of federal Title 1 funds. Public-school districts are expected to distribute this funding for schools with poor and at-risk students to private and charter schools, as well. In addition, under a new state-imposed formula, the Title 1 money that remains with the district must be spread further throughout the district, clearly with the potential to dilute the beneficial impact these funds have when concentrated in the neediest schools.
“SB 7069 rewards publicly funded schools that don’t have a track record of lifting failing students,” Carvalho told the Editorial Board. He later added that “These funding levels and restrictions will endanger the progress we have made.”
It’s a legitimate fear. For this sweeping law that will likely undermine hard-won gains like those in Miami-Dade, lawmakers have earned an F.
How to Get an Asteroid Named After You — Marina Koren in The Atlantic.
Mary Lou Whitehorne was at a work conference in 2007 when her colleagues surprised her with an asteroid.They were at an annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Calgary. Whitehorne, a member of the organization and a longtime science educator, was standing outside of a pub, engaged in a conversation, when a coworker called her inside. He had a special announcement to make: A small asteroid, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, had been named after Whitehorne.“I was completely floored and completely speechless,” Whitehorne says.
Whitehorne’s colleagues had waited about two years for the name to be approved. Asteroids can’t be named for just anything or anyone; there’s a careful selection process with lots of rules, managed by an international organization in charge of collecting and sorting observational data for asteroids. The organization is the Minor Planet Center, which is run out of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and under the purview of the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers.
The first asteroids to be discovered, in the early 1800s, were named for figures in Roman and Greek mythology, like Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta. Astronomers ran out of those options fairly quickly, so they started looking elsewhere. Today, most asteroids are named for people, both real and fictional, and the rest for places, animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. The discoverers of asteroids are responsible for proposing the names—but there are rules, and their proposals can get denied.When a new asteroid is first spotted, the Minor Planet Center gives it a provisional designation composed of the the year of discovery and two numbers. If astronomers successfully study and confirm its orbit, it gets a permanent numeral designation that corresponds with the object’s place on the chronological list of previous discoveries. The discoverer then has 10 years to suggest and submit a name for the object, including a short pitch for why the name should be accepted. A 15-person committee at the International Astronomical Union judges the name and, if it approves, publishes it in a monthly newsletter.The names should be “16 characters or less in length; preferably one word; pronounceable (in some language); non-offensive; and not too similar to an existing name” of an asteroid, according to the Minor Planet Center’s website.
There are guidelines for certain kinds of asteroids. Objects that cross or approach the orbit of Neptune, for example, must be named for mythological figures associated with the underworld, while objects right outside of Neptune’s orbit get named for mythological figures related to creation.
Asteroids can’t be named for pets, but there’s at least one named for a cat, allowed perhaps because the cat itself was named for a Star Trek character. In 1985, an astronomer received approval to name his asteroid Mr. Spock, after the cat that had kept him company during long hours at work.Discoverers can’t sell the chance to name their asteroid, but naming contests are allowed. In 2012, NASA asked students to name (101955) 1999 RQ36, a near-Earth asteroid and the target of a robotic mission, OSIRIS-REx, which launched last year. They picked Bennu, for the Egyptian mythological bird resembling a heron.Whitehorne’s asteroid was among a number of asteroids discovered by three astronomers doing comet surveys in 2004. Her colleagues knew of the trio and their work, and asked them whether they could claim one in Whitehorne’s honor, to celebrate her years of contributions to the field. Whitehorne started out 30 years ago as a volunteer amateur astronomer at a small planetarium in Halifax, her hometown. Not long after, she jumped into astronomy and science education, working with students and teachers and developing programs and curricula for schools across the country. In 2015, she became the first female fellow at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a position created to recognize the contributions of long-serving members.
Whitehorne has seen only a photograph of her asteroid, which is about three-kilometers across. It’s too faint to see with her backyard telescope. She calls it her “orbiting tombstone.”
“I am mortal and I am going to die, but my name is going to be on the asteroid as long as there’s human civilization and society on this planet,” she says. “Every once in a while I think about that and think, my goodness, what have I done?”
Al Franken, the Anti-Trump — Joan Walsh profiles the Minnesota senator in The Nation.
Torrential rain came down on the late May afternoon I interviewed Senator Al Franken about his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (yes, he’s still funny). Thunder and lightning jolted our conversation, along with laughter, much of it his. (Staffers say they can always find him at events by following the laugh.) Having won reelection in 2014 and endured the nightmare of 2016, he has decided to Let Franken Be Franken Again: Hilarious. Sometimes, I told him, the book reads as though he saved up all the jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell over the last decade. “There were a few of them,” he admits. “That [Antonin] Scalia’s dissent [on marriage equality] was ‘very gay…’ I really fought for that one! I’d already been reelected. I will argue my case, but if my people say absolutely not, I pay attention almost all the time.”
As a demoralized Democratic Party looks for new leadership, Franken has written the kind of thoughtful, bracing book that will make people say: “Al Franken is running for president in 2020.” He resolutely says he’s not—but Giant of the Senate is enough to make you wish he’d change his mind, in part because of the way Franken is an ideal foil to Donald Trump. Superficially, they both entered politics as TV stars. But, as he chronicles in Giant, Franken worked hard to become a senator who happens to be a comedian, rather than a comedian who unexpectedly became a senator, earning the respect of his colleagues in the process. Trump has resolutely and dangerously refused to do the same.
Now, with this book, Franken is both resistance leader and family counselor. Giant sometimes reads like a pep talk for Democrats devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Yet it was mostly written before November 8, when Franken, like virtually everyone in public life, believed Clinton would be the next president. “I was essentially finished with the book,” he admits. “So then I had to figure out what to do with Trump. I decided I’d tie it into what was already there. My pep talk to the troops is actually about what happened between the 2004 presidential loss and 2008. I mean, [Karl] Rove was talking about a permanent GOP majority.”
But Democrats pushed back, and Franken was part of that resistance, eviscerating the right with best-sellers like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, then hosting a popular three-hour daily Air America radio show where he deconstructed the lies in real time.
Trump seems the culmination of everything Franken wrote about in Lying Liars, I note. “Don’t you find that depressing?” I ask him.
He sighs. “You can’t allow yourself that,” he warns me. Remember, he says, that the work of the left in 2005, in organizations from the late, great Air America to the Center for American Progress, beat back a Bush plan to privatize Social Security and led “to [Democrats taking back the House in] 2006. Then 2008 and then boom, there’s the reversal.”
Boom. He makes it sound easy. He knows it’s not.
Franken’s mission for Giant is serious: to use his personal story to illuminate and entertain, and ultimately reorient the nation around progressive priorities that direct government to help families and businesses rebuild the middle class. In many ways, the book’s moral center is the story of his family and the family of his wife, Franni. He was born in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century in the middle of the greatest middle class ever created; Franni grew up poor.
“I felt like the luckiest kid in the world—and that’s because I was,” he told me. “Then I met Franni, and she didn’t grow up that way. She grew up poor, because her dad died when she was 18 months old. Her mom was 29 years old with five kids and a high-school education. They were hungry; they had the heat turned off and the phone turned off. But they made it. And they made it because of Social Security survivors’ benefits. They made it because of Pell Grants and scholarships. They made it because of the GI Bill. My mother-in-law took out a GI Bill loan [as the widow of a veteran] and went to college and had all of her loans forgiven because she taught Title I kids. That’s the story: Every one of her kids made it into the middle class. They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? But first you have to have the boots. And the government gave them the boots.”
The book is not all tributes to the hard-working middle class or detailed economic prescriptions, though there’s some of that. Franken also tells his own personal story with candor. He puts all his drug use on the record, for example, going beyond the Barack Obama political-memoir standard (weed and cocaine) to LSD. There’s a chapter titled: “Saturday Night Live (The Drug Part),” which is funny and bawdy and ultimately heartbreaking, as you watch the cast lose not just John Belushi but Chris Farley to addiction.
Franken also talks about the late Tom Davis, his beloved comic partner from high school into the 1990s, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. Franni, the soul of the book, also developed a reliance on alcohol as she raised their two kids. Franni got sober, and her husband went to Al Anon, where he learned he could be sort of a judgmental jerk. His Stuart Smalley SNL character—“You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you!”—was a comic tribute to the simple wisdom of the recovery movement on what it takes to face down life’s hard knocks without relying on alcohol or on being an asshole.
I came of age with early SNL, so all of this was like candy to me. The chapters on Franken’s post-SNL career, and the way he transitioned first to truth-telling, best-selling author, then Air America host and finally Senate candidate, were just as absorbing for someone who survived the Bush presidency. His recounting of those years really does help remind us that we can organize our way through dark times. For Franken, maybe the darkest day was when Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash right before his election, with his wife, daughter, three staffers, and two pilots. The lying liars on the right depicted the public Wellstone tribute as a crude, menacing partisan rage-fest, infuriating Franken.
But it’s when Wellstone’s successor, Republican Norm Coleman, boasted that he’s “a 99 percent improvement” over Wellstone that Franken started to feel the stirrings of political ambition.
From that point on, the book is a hilarious guide to what happens when a comedian runs for Congress. Franken can change his shtick, tell fewer jokes, show a serious side, give 45-minute orations on the skyrocketing costs of college or health care. The one thing he can’t do is erase the jokes that are already out there. Some GOP hit pieces took his gags out of context; those didn’t land a blow.
But Franken suffered over three: first, an apparent Holocaust joke about the worst gift to give Anne Frank (the answer: drums). It turns out that Franken didn’t even write or tell that joke, but he was in close proximity, and it made some Minnesota establishment politicians a little anxious. (It made Harry Reid, however, cry with laughter, when Franken called to tell him about the controversy over the phone.)
He gets in more trouble with a spoof he wrote for Playboy headlined “Porn-O-Rama,” about visiting a virtual-sex institute. But the worst was a joke attributed to Franken from a 1994 2 am SNL writers’ room rewrite session, working on a sketch in which cornball 60 Minutes staple Andy Rooney goes from banal to berserk. Franken suggested that Rooney find an empty bottle of sedatives and give the pills to show correspondent Lesley Stahl, and then he’d “take her to the closet and rape her.” In the book, Franken has the space to give the context for the joke: that he knows it’s terrible, that it was never meant to be aired, that it was the kind of free-associative crazy idea intended to jolt everyone’s psyches and inspire better (and less offensive) jokes. His SNL pal Conan O’Brian commiserates, telling Franken: “If I was on the stand at a trial, and the prosecutor asked me, ‘Mr. O’Brien, have you ever joked at a rewrite table about defiling Lincoln’s body immediately after he was shot? I’d have to throw myself on the mercy of the court.”
But rewrite-room excuses didn’t fly in the 24/7 reality of the campaign, and the “joke” almost killed Franken’s campaign. It landed on the eve of the Minnesota convention where he hoped to be chosen as the Democratic nominee to face Coleman. He made the dangerous move of addressing the controversy in a raw convention speech. “It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate,” he told the crowd. I’m sorry for that.” He went on to acknowledge he’d written and told some “offensive” jokes over the years, that he’d made some folks “uncomfortable,” and ended: “But I’m in this race because there are some people in Washington who could afford to feel a little less comfortable.” And he promised the first person he’d make uncomfortable was Norm Coleman.
He won the nomination, but the GOP continued to depict him as a “rape-joking pornographer,” though he had the strong support of women’s groups and his campaign was run by Stephanie Schriock, who now run’s Emily’s List. Candidate Obama refused to campaign with him when he came to Minnesota for his own race, though Hillary Clinton did, twice. Even after his formal state nomination, the head then of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to shop around for a new candidate. Franken had to promise that if he couldn’t cut his deficit with Coleman to 5 percent by Labor Day, he’d drop out and let a Schumer-picked Minnesota Democrat take his place.
Franken did what he had to do, but trailed Coleman in tracking polls into October. “That’s when Franni saved the campaign,” he writes. His wife, who’d been private about her struggles with alcoholism, did an ad about it. “When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me.” The ad diluted the GOP’s toxic claims that Franken disrespected women. He won, after a recount, by 312 votes. But Coleman fought the results by every means possible, and Franken didn’t take his Senate seat until July.
The trauma of being accused of disrespecting women made it even more incredible, to Franken, that Trump could be elected. “My experience in ’08 was really having to agonize about this stuff,” he recalls, “stuff that was only a joke.” “And then Trump got elected in ’16, with all this awful stuff about him that was real!”
Arriving late to the Senate, Franken won a seat on the Judiciary Committee, where he’s made news with his dogged questioning of Supreme Court nominees and now Trump cabinet appointees. He had one of his finest moments dragging Justice Neil Gorsuch over his ruling against a trucker who abandoned his nonfunctioning vehicle in subzero weather, basically to save his life. “What would you have done?” Franken asked fiercely, and Gorsuch bleated, shamelessly: “Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would’ve done—I wasn’t in his shoes.”
Franken’s tough questioning also led, ultimately, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s having to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, after he essentially perjured himself by telling Franken he’d never had contact with Russian officials, though he’d met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.
Some progressives, I note, worry that the Russia investigation is distracting Democrats from other pressing issues. Some see it as a way for Clinton supporters to cover over the troubles in her campaign that led her to lose to a misogynist joke like Trump. Franken disagrees. “The Russia investigation is incredibly important—it’s about a foreign power interfering with the very basis of our democracy. So we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time—health care being a prime example.”
There’s only one topic on which Franken is tight-lipped: the Democratic Party divisions that linger since the bruising 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Franken endorsed Clinton early, and I asked if he regretted that, given what came later (the Minnesota Democratic caucus went for Sanders). I got a quick and resounding “No.”
We talked about single-payer health insurance–there’s a bill in California to establish a statewide single payer system, and some on the left want to make supporting it a litmus test for California Democrats. Is he worried about that?
“Vermont tried it and they couldn’t quite get to it,” he observed. Franken writes positively about single payer in his book, noting that it would have been a “much simpler” solution than the ACA. “But I also wrote that we needed 60 votes to pass something, and single payer was about 50 votes short. There are many ways to get to universal health care coverage; the problem is we don’t have a health care system, we have systems.”
Franken is as pro-choice as senators come, so I ask him about the tensions over the place in the party of so-called pro-life Democrats, which flared in the unsuccessful Omaha mayoral campaign of Heath Mello. Does he worry the party is in danger of putting the pursuit of white working-class guys over the women and people of color that make up its base?
“We do have to pay attention to them, clearly—but not at the exclusion of anybody else.” He repeats himself. “Not at the exclusion of anybody else. We have to talk about economic issues. It’s clear from the budget that Trump was talking out of one side of his mouth and he doesn’t care about those people, because if he did, this wouldn’t be his budget. So we need to take that message to them.”
But Clinton talked about economic issues, I remind him. Still, she fell short—in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even his own state of Minnesota was a tighter contest than many expected.
“I think part of it was the Bernie problem,” he replied. “These people are angry. And they’re angry because they feel the system is rigged—and it is rigged, but not in the way they think.
“And we have the problem of people segmenting themselves in terms of where they get their news, and they just don’t wanna hear the other side of it. But you have to go there. I represent rural Minnesota, and I go there all the time. I co-chair the rural health caucus. I toured around there after the first [version of AHCA], and people up there hated it. The rural hospitals? They know how bad this bill was. But you gotta go everywhere, and reach them with the same message. Wellstone had the message: We all do better when we all do better.”
Franken is fairly optimistic the Senate can beat back the so-called American Health Care Act. “Even Mitch McConnell says he doesn’t know if he can get 50 votes.” I ask if he saw the news that House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows cried when talking about how the amendment his caucus sponsored might threaten people with preexisting conditions. “He cried? I gotta tell you, I’m sometimes aghast at some of my Republican colleagues who really don’t understand how this stuff works.” He shares the story of a Republican Senate colleague, who he won’t name, who didn’t understand the way the House bill hurt people with preexisting conditions until Franken explained it.
The most clueless may be Donald Trump. “The quote of the year has to be ‘nobody knew how complicated healthcare was.’ Everybody knew. That is such an enormously dumb thing to say.”
Soon a staffer warns us we’ve only got five more minutes, so I throw out a last few bonus questions: Who in the Senate could have been a Saturday Night Live cast member?
“No one,” he answers immediately. “No one. Remember, I wasn’t a cast member, I wanted to be a cast member. I was just a featured player!” (Obviously, this still rankles.)
Could any of his SNL colleagues be senators?
“Oh yeah. A lot of them. Conan [O’Brien], definitely.”
And then, while we’re talking about role switching, I ask the question he’s already answered dozens of times, while talking about the book and elsewhere: Does he ever think about running for president against Trump? “No,” he says, again decisively. Why not?
He laughs. “It’s a really, really hard job!”
So there are no circumstances?
I warn him that a lot of people may finish the book and either think he’s running—or wish he was. He shrugs.
“What I think is funny about the book—remember I started writing it in 2015, I’d basically finished it when Trump was elected—is some people are gonna read it now and go: ‘Oh, Franken really cracked the code of what kind of a memoir to write in a post-Trump world! He’s clearly playing three-dimensional chess and he’s four moves ahead of anyone else!’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’”
Our time is (long past) up, but Franken waits with me for my ride to arrive. He is still talking when I turn off my tape recorder; I warn him I have to pay attention; once I hit delete instead of save because I was distracted; I confess I’m too embarrassed to say who I was interviewing.
“Nelson Mandela!” he deadpans, and we crack up.
My car arrives, he walks me to the door, and I make peace with the fact that Franken may never be president, but he’ll continue to be an excellent senator from Minnesota. We just need another dozen folks like him to begin to roll back what the GOP has wrought.
Attack on the First — David Snyder in Mother Jones looks at Trump’s war on free speech.
On May 17, while delivering a graduation speech to cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, a scandal-plagued President Donald Trump took the opportunity to complain, yet again, about the news media. No leader in history, he said, has been treated as unfairly as he has been. Shortly thereafter, when the graduates presented Trump with a ceremonial sword, a live mic picked up Homeland Security chief John F. Kelly telling the president, “Use that on the press, sir!”
Kelly was presumably joking, but the press isn’t laughing. Presidents have complained bitterly about reporters since George Washington (“infamous scribblers“), but Trump has gone after the media with a venom unmatched by any modern president—including Richard Nixon. At campaign rallies, Trump herded reporters into pens, where they served as rhetorical cannon fodder, and things only got worse after the election. Prior to November 8, the media were “scum” and “disgusting.” Afterward, they became the “enemy of the American people.” (Even Nixon never went that far, noted reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Nixon did refer to the press as “the enemy,” but only in private and without “the American people” part—an important distinction for students of authoritarianism.)
On April 29, the same day as this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which Trump boycotted), the president held a rally in Pennsylvania to commemorate his first 100 days. He spent his first 10 minutes or so attacking the media: CNN and MSNBC were “fake news.” The “totally failing New York Times” was getting “smaller and smaller,” now operating out of “a very ugly office building in a very crummy location.” Trump went on: “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very big, fat failing grade. [Cheers.] Very dishonest people!”
Trump’s animosity toward the press isn’t limited to rhetoric. His administration has excluded from press briefings reporters who wrote critical stories, and it famously barred American media from his Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States while inviting in Russia’s state-controlled news service.
Before firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump reportedly urged Comey to jail journalists who published classified information. As a litigious businessman, the president has expressed his desire to “open up” libel laws. In April, White House chief of staff Reince Preibus acknowledged that the administration had indeed examined its options on that front.
This behavior seems to be having a ripple effect: On May 9, a journalist was arrested in West Virginia for repeatedly asking a question that Tom Price, Trump’s health secretary, refused to answer. Nine days later, a veteran reporter was manhandled and roughly escorted out of a federal building after he tried (politely) to question an FCC commissioner. Montana Republican Greg Gianforte won a seat in the House of Representatives last week, one day after he was charged with assaulting a reporter who had pressed Gianforte for his take on the House health care bill. And over the long weekend, although it could be a coincidence, someone fired a gun of some sort at the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader, a paper singled out days earlier by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who likened journalists to “cicadas” who “don’t actually seem to care about Kentucky.”
Where is all of this headed? It’s hard to know for sure, but as a lawyer (and former newspaper reporter) who has spent years defending press freedoms in America, I can say with some confidence that the First Amendment will soon be tested in ways we haven’t seen before. Let’s look at three key areas that First Amendment watchdogs are monitoring with trepidation.
The First Amendment offers limited protections when a prosecutor or a civil litigant subpoenas a journalist in the hope of obtaining confidential notes and sources. In the 1972 case of Branzburg v. Hayes, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not shield reporters from the obligation of complying with a grand jury subpoena. But the decision left room for the protection of journalists who refuse to burn a source in other contexts—in civil cases, for instance, or in criminal cases that don’t involve a grand jury. Some lower courts have ruled that the First Amendment indeed provides such protections.Unlike most states, Congress has refused to pass a law protecting journalists who won’t burn their confidential sources.
The Constitution, of course, is merely a baseline for civil liberties. Recognizing the gap left by the Branzburg ruling, a majority of the states have enacted shield laws that give journalists protections that Branzburg held were not granted by the Constitution. Yet Congress, despite repeated efforts, has refused to pass such a law. This gives litigants in federal court, including prosecutors, significant leverage to force journalists into compliance. (In 2005, Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her secret source to a federal grand jury investigating the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. The source, Miller eventually admitted, was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.)
Trump will almost certainly take advantage of his leverage. He and his innermost circle have already demonstrated that they either fail to understand or fail to respect (or both) America’s long-standing tradition of restraint when it comes to a free press. During the campaign, Trump tweeted that Americans who burn the flag—a free-speech act explicitly protected by the Supreme Court—should be locked up or stripped of citizenship “perhaps.” In December, after the New York Times published a portion of Trump’s tax returns, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski declared that executive editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail.”
Trump took over the reins from an executive branch that was arguably harder on the press than any administration in recent history. President Barack Obama oversaw more prosecutions of leakers under the vaguely worded Espionage Act of 1917 than all other presidents combined, and he was more aggressive than most in wrenching confidential information from journalists.
Over the course of two months in 2012, Obama’s Justice Department secretly subpoenaed and seized phone records from more than 100 Associated Press reporters, potentially in violation of the department’s own policies. Thanks to the rampant overclassification of government documents, Obama’s pursuit of whistleblowers meant that even relatively mundane disclosures could have serious, even criminal, consequences for the leaker. Under Obama, McClatchy noted in 2013, “leaks to media are equated with espionage.”The Obama administration went after leakers with zeal. One can only assume Trump will up the ante.
One can only assume Trump will up the ante. His administration’s calls to find and prosecute leakers grow more strident by the day. He and his surrogates in Congress have repeatedly tried to divert public discussion away from White House-Russia connections and in the direction of the leaks that brought those connections to light. It stands to reason that Trump’s Justice Department will try to obtain the sources, notes, and communication records of journalists on the receiving end of the leaks.
This could already be happening without our knowledge, and that would be a dangerous thing. Under current guidelines, the Justice Department is generally barred from deploying secret subpoenas for journalists’ records—subpoenas whose existence is not revealed to those whose records are sought. But there are exceptions: The attorney general or another “senior official” may approve no-notice subpoenas when alerting the subject would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”
The guidelines are not legally binding, in any case, so there may be little to prevent Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department from ignoring them or scrapping them entirely. Team Trump has already jettisoned the policies of its predecessors in other departments, and it’s pretty clear how Trump feels about the press.
The use of secret subpoenas against journalists is deeply problematic in a democracy. Their targets lack the knowledge to consult with a lawyer or to contest the subpoena in court. The public, also in the dark, is unable to pressure government officials to prevent them from subjecting reporters to what could be abusive fishing expeditions.
As president, Trump sets the tone for executives, lawmakers, and prosecutors at all levels. We have already seen a “Trump effect” in the abusive treatment of a reporter in the halls of the Federal Communications Commission, the arrest of the reporter in West Virginia, and the attack by Congressman-elect Gianforte.
We are also seeing the Trump effect in state legislatures, where the president’s rants may have contributed to a spate of legislative proposals deeply hostile to free speech, including bills that would essentially authorize police brutality or “unintentional” civilian violence against protesters and make some forms of lawful protest a felony. A leader who normalizes the use of overly broad or abusive subpoenas against journalists could cause damage all across the land.
A second area of concern is the Espionage Act of 1917, a law that has been used for nearly a century to prosecute leakers of classified information—from Daniel Ellsburg and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The government hasn’t ever tried to use it to prosecute the journalists or media organizations that publish the offending leaks—possibly because it was seen as a bad move in a nation that enshrines press protections in its founding document. But free-speech advocates have long been wary of the possibility.
The successful prosecution of a journalist under the Espionage Act seems unlikely—a long string of Supreme Court decisions supports the notion that reporters and news outlets are immune from civil or criminal liability when they publish information of legitimate public interest that was obtained unlawfully by an outside source. “A stranger’s illegal conduct,” the court’s majority opined in the 2001 Bartnicki v. Vopper case, “does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield about a matter of public concern.” But like any appellate decision, the Bartnicki ruling is based on a specific set of facts. So there are no guarantees here.
Very, very rich people with grievances against the press are as old as the press itself. But the number of megawealthy Americans has exploded in recent years, as has the number of small, nonprofit, or independent media outlets—many of which lack ready access to legal counsel. In short, billionaires who wish to exact vengeance for unflattering coverage enjoy a target-rich environment.Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet.
Trump did not create this environment. But from his presidential bully pulpit, he has pushed a narrative that can only fuel the fire. The Trumpian worldview holds that the media deserves to be put in its place; the press is venal, dishonest, and “fake” most of the time. It should be more subject to legal liability so that, in his words, “we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet, particularly one with limited means (which, these days, is most media outlets). Some lawsuits by deep-pocketed plaintiffs, like the one filed against Mother Jones by Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot (a case I helped defend), are ultimately dismissed by the courts. Others, such as Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media—funded by Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump adviser Peter Thiel—succeed and put the media outlet out of business. Another recent suit, filed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson against a Wall Street Journal reporter, ultimately settled.
Regardless of the outcome of such cases, the message to the media is clear: Don’t offend people who have vast resources. Even a frivolous lawsuit can stifle free speech by hitting publishers where it hurts (the wallet) and subjecting them to legal harassment. This is especially so in the 22 states that lack anti-SLAPP statutes—laws that facilitate the rapid dismissal of libel claims without merit.
The VanderSloot lawsuit is instructive. Although a court in Idaho ultimately threw out all the billionaire’s claims against Mother Jones, the process took almost two years. During that time, VanderSloot and Mother Jones engaged in a grueling regimen of coast-to-coast depositions and extensive and costly discovery and legal motions. Along the way, VanderSloot sued a former small-town newspaper reporter and subjected him to 10 hours of depositions, which resulted in the reporter breaking down in tears while VanderSloot, who had flown to Portland for the occasion, looked on. VanderSloot also deposed the journalist’s ex-boyfriend and threatened to sue him until he agreed to recant statements he had made online.Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has.
Victory did not come cheap for Mother Jones: The final tab was about $2.5 million, only part of which was covered by insurance. And because Idaho lacks an anti-SLAPP statute, none of the magazine’s legal costs could be recovered from VanderSloot.
Despite his threats, Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has. First lady Melania Trump sued the Daily Mail in February over a story she said portrayed her falsely “as a prostitute.” The Daily Mail retracted the offending article with a statement explaining (a) that the paper did not “intend to state or suggest that Mrs. Trump ever worked as an ‘escort’ or in the sex business,” (b) that the article “stated that there was no support for the allegations,” and (c) that “the point of the article was that these allegations could impact the U.S. presidential election even if they are untrue.”
So which billionaire will be next to sue, and who will the target be? The question looms over America’s media organizations like a dark cloud. That is an unacceptable situation in a nation whose Constitution guarantees “robust, uninhibited and wide-open” discussion of public issues, as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in the landmark First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan.
Trump has yet to act on his most outrageous rhetorical attacks on the media and free speech, but it’s likely only a matter of time. When he does act, it will be important to remember that constitutional protections are quite broad, and that there’s only so much any White House can do to the press without the backing of Congress or the courts. Such cooperation is hardly out of the question, though. Stranger things have already happened in this strangest of political times.
Farewell, My Lovely! — From The New Yorker in May 1936, E.B. White pays tribute to the Model T.
I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger than men’s clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene—which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene.
It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it. My own generation identifies it with Youth, with its gaudy, irretrievable excitements; before it fades into the mist, I would like to pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob, and set down random entries in a shape somewhat less cumbersome than a Sears Roebuck catalogue.
The Model T was distinguished from all other makes of cars by the fact that its transmission was of a type known as planetary—which was half metaphysics, half sheer friction. Engineers accepted the word “planetary” in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also meant “wandering,” “erratic.” Because of the peculiar nature of this planetary element, there was always, in Model T, a certain dull rapport between engine and wheels, and even when the car was in a state known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to inch forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling the bit on its tongue, and country people brought to it the same technique they used with draft animals.
Its most remarkable quality was its rate of acceleration. In its palmy days the Model T could take off faster than anything on the road. The reason was simple. To get under way, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever on the steering column, pulled down hard, and shoved your left foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions; the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your toe off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car, possessed of only two forward speeds, catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equalled in other cars of the period. The human leg was (and still is) incapable of letting in a clutch with anything like the forthright abandon that used to send Model T on its way. Letting in a clutch is a negative, hesitant motion, depending on delicate nervous control; pushing down the Ford pedal was a simple, country motion—an expansive act, which came as natural as kicking an old door to make it budge.
The driver of the old Model T was a man enthroned. The car, with top up, stood seven feet high. The driver sat on top of the gas tank, brooding it with his own body. When he wanted gasoline, he alighted, along with everything else in the front seat; the seat was pulled off, the metal cap unscrewed, and a wooden stick thrust down to sound the liquid in the well. There were always a couple of these sounding sticks kicking around in the ratty sub-cushion regions of a flivver. Refuelling was more of a social function then, because the driver had to unbend, whether he wanted to or not. Directly in front of the driver was the windshield—high, uncompromisingly erect. Nobody talked about air resistance, and the four cylinders pushed the car through the atmosphere with a simple disregard of physical law.
There was this about a Model T: the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start—a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware. Driving away from the agency, hugging the new wheel between your knees, you were already full of creative worry. A Ford was born naked as a baby, and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combatting its fascinating diseases. Those were the great days of lily-painting. I have been looking at some old Sears Roebuck catalogues, and they bring everything back so clear.
First you bought a Ruby Safety Reflector for the rear, so that your posterior would glow in another car’s brilliance. Then you invested thirty-nine cents in some radiator Moto Wings, a popular ornament which gave the Pegasus touch to the machine and did something godlike to the owner. For nine cents you bought a fan-belt guide to keep the belt from slipping off the pulley.
You bought a radiator compound to stop leaks. This was as much a part of everybody’s equipment as aspirin tablets are of a medicine cabinet. You bought special oil to prevent chattering, a clamp-on dash light, a patching outfit, a tool box which you bolted to the running board, a sun visor, a steering-column brace to keep the column rigid, and a set of emergency containers for gas, oil, and water—three thin, disc-like cans which reposed in a case on the running board during long, important journeys—red for gas, gray for water, green for oil. It was only a beginning. After the car was about a year old, steps were taken to check the alarming disintegration. (Model T was full of tumors, but they were benign.) A set of anti-rattlers (98c) was a popular panacea. You hooked them on to the gas and spark rods, to the brake pull rod, and to the steering-rod connections. Hood silencers, of black rubber, were applied to the fluttering hood. Shock-absorbers and snubbers gave “complete relaxation.” Some people bought rubber pedal pads, to fit over the standard metal pedals. (I didn’t like these, I remember.) Persons of a suspicious or pugnacious turn of mind bought a rear-view mirror; but most Model T owners weren’t worried by what was coming from behind because they would soon enough see it out in front. They rode in a state of cheerful catalepsy. Quite a large mutinous clique among Ford owners went over to a foot accelerator (you could buy one and screw it to the floor board), but there was a certain madness in these people, because the Model T, just as she stood, had a choice of three foot pedals to push, and there were plenty of moments when both feet were occupied in the routine performance of duty and when the only way to speed up the engine was with the hand throttle.
Gadget bred gadget. Owners not only bought ready-made gadgets, they invented gadgets to meet special needs. I myself drove my car directly from the agency to the blacksmith’s, and had the smith affix two enormous iron brackets to the port running board to support an army trunk.
People who owned closed models builded along different lines: they bought ball grip handles for opening doors, window anti-rattlers, and de-luxe flower vases of the cut-glass anti-splash type. People with delicate sensibilities garnished their car with a device called the Donna Lee Automobile Disseminator—a porous vase guaranteed, according to Sears, to fill the car with a “faint clean odor of lavender.” The gap between open cars and closed cars was not as great then as it is now: for $11.95, Sears Roebuck converted your touring car into a sedan and you went forth renewed. One agreeable quality of the old Fords was that they had no bumpers, and their fenders softened and wilted with the years and permitted driver to squeeze in and out of tight places.
Tires were 30 x 3 1/2, cost about twelve dollars, and punctured readily. Everybody carried a Jiffy patching set, with a nutmeg grater to roughen the tube before the goo was spread on. Everybody was capable of putting on a patch, expected to have to, and did have to.
During my association with Model T’s, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator), and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded—first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
In zero weather, ordinary cranking became an impossibility, except for giants. The oil thickened, and it became necessary to jack up the rear wheels, which, for some planetary reason, eased the throw.
The lore and legend that governed the Ford were boundless. Owners had their own theories about everything; they discussed mutual problems in that wise, infinitely resourceful way old women discuss rheumatism. Exact knowledge was pretty scarce, and often proved less effective than superstition. Dropping a camphor ball into the gas tank was a popular expedient; it seemed to have a tonic effect on both man and machine. There wasn’t much to base exact knowledge on. The Ford driver flew blind. He didn’t know the temperature of his engine, the speed of his car, the amount of his fuel or the pressure of his oil (the old Ford lubricated itself by what was amiably described as the “splash system”). A speedometer cost money and was an extra, like a windshield-wiper. The dashboard of the early models was bare save for an ignition key; later models, grown effete, boasted an ammeter which pulsated alarmingly with the throbbing of the car. Under the dash was a box of coils, with vibrators which you adjusted, or thought you adjusted. Whatever the driver learned of his motor, he learned not through instruments but through sudden developments. I remember that the timer was one of the vital organs about which there was ample doctrine. When everything else had been checked, you “had a look” at the timer. It was an extravagantly odd little device, simple in construction, mysterious in function. It contained a roller, held by a spring, and there were four contact points on the inside of the case against which, many people believed, the roller rolled. I have had a timer apart on a sick Ford many times, but I never really knew what I was up to—I was just showing off before God. There were almost as many schools of thought as there were timers. Some people, when things went wrong, just clenched their teeth and gave the timer a smart crack with a wrench. Other people opened it up and blew on it. There was a school that held that the timer needed large amounts of oil; they fixed it by frequent baptism. And there was a school that was positive it was meant to run dry as a bone; these people were continually taking it off and wiping it. I remember once spitting into a timer; not in anger, but in a spirit of research. You see, the Model T driver moved in the realm of metaphysics. He believed his car could be hexed.
One reason the Ford anatomy was never reduced to an exact science was that, having “fixed” it, the owner couldn’t honestly claim that the treatment had brought about the cure. There were too many authenticated cases of Fords fixing themselves—restored naturally to health after a short rest. Farmers soon discovered this, and it fitted nicely with their draft-horse philosophy: “Let ‘er cool off and she’ll snap into it again.”
A Ford owner had Number One Bearing constantly in mind. This bearing, being at the front end of the motor, was the one that always burned out, because the oil didn’t reach it when the car was climbing hills. (That’s what I was always told, anyway.) The oil used to recede and leave Number One dry as a clam flat; you had to watch that bearing like a hawk. It was like a weak heart—you could hear it start knocking, and that was when you stopped and let her cool off. Try as you would to keep the oil supply right, in the end Number One always went out. “Number One Bearing burned out on me and I had to have her replaced,” you would say, wisely; and your companions always had a lot to tell about how to protect and pamper Number One to keep her alive.
Sprinkled not too liberally among the millions of amateur witch doctors who drove Fords and applied their own abominable cures were the heaven-sent mechanics who could really make the car talk. These professionals turned up in undreamed-of spots. One time, on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington, I heard the rear end go out of my Model T when I was trying to whip it up a steep incline onto the deck of a ferry. Something snapped; the car slid backward into the mud. It seemed to me like the end of the trail. But the captain of the ferry, observing the withered remnant, spoke up.
“What’s got her?” he asked.
“I guess it’s the rear end,” I replied, listlessly. The captain leaned over the rail and stared. Then I saw that there was a hunger in his eyes that set him off from other men.
“Tell you what,” he said, carelessly, trying to cover up his eagerness, “let’s pull the son of a bitch up onto the boat, and I’ll help you fix her while we’re going back and forth on the river.”
We did just this. All that day I plied between the towns of Pasco and Kennewick, while the skipper (who had once worked in a Ford garage) directed the amazing work of resetting the bones of my car.
Springtime in the heyday of the Model T was a delirious season. Owning a car was still a major excitement, roads were still wonderful and bad. The Fords were obviously conceived in madness: any car which was capable of going from forward into reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mighty challenging thing to the human imagination. Boys used to veer them off the highway into a level pasture and run wild with them, as though they were cutting up with a girl. Most everybody used the reverse pedal quite as much as the regular foot brake—it distributed the wear over the bands and wore them all down evenly. That was the big trick, to wear all the bands down evenly, so that the final chattering would be total and the whole unit scream for renewal.
The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it’s time to say goodbye. Farewell, my lovely!
Doonesbury — Short-Term Memory aid.