Sunday, February 18, 2024

Sunday Reading

No Braver Man — Charles P, Pierce on Alexei Navalny.

Long ago, a very wise friend told me that, under any form of government, Russia does not change. Communist, Tsarist, briefly Democratic, or kleptocratic, as we’ve seen over the past several decades, the dynamics of political power in Russia remain implacable and ruthless. From Reuters:

The death of Navalny, a 47-year-old former lawyer, robs the disparate Russian opposition of its most courageous and charismatic leader just as Putin prepares for an election which will keep the former KGB spy in power until at least 2030. Navalny rose to prominence more than a decade ago by speaking publicly – and documenting – what he said was the vast corruption and opulence among the “crooks and thieves” who ran Putin’s Russia. The Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District said in a statement that Navalny felt unwell after a walk at the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp, about 1,900 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow into the Arctic Circle. He lost consciousness almost immediately and died shortly afterwards despite the efforts of the prison’s medical team and ambulance staff, the prison service said. Attempts to resuscitate him failed, it said.

I don’t mean to jump to conclusions, but this sounds like complete bullshit on ice. And, apparently, I’m not alone. From Politico:

“Whatever story they tell, let us be clear, Russia is responsible,” Harris said during a speech at the Munich Security Conference, adding the Biden administration would have more to say about its response soon. The vice president noted that the United States had yet to confirm the news, but if it’s true, “this would be a further sign of Putin’s brutality.”

And, also, too:

“It is obvious to me: He was killed — like other thousands who were tortured to death because of this one man,” Zelenskyy said of the Russian president, during a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Zelenskyy’s voice was part of a global wave of outrage following the announcement that Navalny had died in a Russian prison colony… Also in Munich, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “I am deeply saddened and concerned about the reports coming from Russia that Alexei Navalny is dead. All the facts have to be established … Russia has serious questions to answer.” He added that Navalny had been a strong voice for freedom and for democracy for many years: “NATO and NATO allies have called for his immediate release for a long time. Today, my thoughts go to his family and his loved ones. Russia has become more and more an authoritarian power.”

“The indecisiveness of the democratic world is seen as weakness by dictators, and they like testing how far they can go without a response,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader, told POLITICO. She also tweeted: “I urge the global community to act now to protect my husband & other political prisoners, who are in great danger.” Her husband Sergei has been a prisoner of Belarusian dictator and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko since 2020.

There was no braver person alive than Navalny, who went back to Russia when he already was the embodiment of resistance to the current regime, which already had tried to kill him once. He was never going to be a Mandela, or a Havel, or a Walesa because he never was going to get out of his Arctic prison alive. Even if he somehow served his full sentence, which was a real long shot even without outside interference, he would’ve been over 70 upon release. Now he has to be a symbol, and he will be a damned good one. Even Republican U.S. Senators like Thom Tillis of North Carolina have noticed.

“Navalny laid down his life fighting for the freedom of the country he loved. Putin is a murderous, paranoid dictator. History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy. Nor will history be kind to America’s leaders who stay silent because they fear backlash from online pundits.”

This country invented the architecture in which political courage can be nurtured and encouraged, and yet it seems in criminally short supply these days. Meanwhile, somehow, it lives again in the wilderness at the top of the world.

Doonesbury — Lesson learned.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday 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-seventh 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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Norman Lear – 1922-2023

I vividly remember the night “All In the Family” premiered on CBS in January 1971.  I loved every minute of it, from the opening bars of “Those Were the Days” to the closing notes of “Remembering You,” and all that came in between.  Even though I lived in an upper middle-class suburb in the Midwest, I knew a lot of people like Archie Bunker; they just had different accents and incomes.  Edith reminded me very much of a favorite aunt, and Mike and Gloria were my contemporaries, if not in age at least in spirit.  (My mother, on the other hand, didn’t care for the show because she said Archie skated a little too close to her own father.)

I would like to think that was what Norman Lear had in mind when he came up with the idea of lifting it — or borrowing it — from the British sitcom “Til Death Do Us Part” that employed the same type of in-your-face bigotry and racism played for laughs.  He wanted to wake us up from the stupor of “Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “The Brady Bunch” where everything was comfortably numb and the biggest crisis was someone burned the dinner.  “All In the Family” and the series he launched that came after — “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” — broke the mold and broke the barriers of polite social comedy, not unlike the way the 18th Century comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Farquhar did by satirizing the rich and the clueless.

Mr. Lear understood that the best way to attack stupidity and bigotry was to show it as it was and let the laughter come from the realization that Archie Bunker was not so far removed from the real people who were running the country — or are trying to again.  His genius was presenting every character in full, flaws and all, including those he may have agreed with such as the braying Maude Findlay or bombastic George Jefferson.  No issue was off the table: civil rights, gay rights, reproductive choice, gun control, religious bigotry, and the loss of a loved one.  I believe that if someone approached a broadcast network today with the pilot for “All In the Family,” they’d have a hard time getting it on the air: it’s too true to be seen on CBS, NBC, or ABC.  Sure, you can say “penis” now, but just try telling the viewers what you’re actually going to do with it… especially in Florida.

Norman Lear lived 101 years, but the gifts he gave us set the standard for the next 101 and beyond.  Those will be the days.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Henry Kissinger – 1923-2023

Tributes are pouring in for the former Secretary of State and national security advisor Henry Kissinger who has died at the age of 100.

Please don’t expect one from me.  He may have able to get Nixon to China and negotiated the end of the war in Vietnam, but the path is strewn with death and destruction, including the carpet bombing of Cambodia that led to the demonstrations against the war in May 1970 and the murders at Kent State, and the coup in Chile that overthrew Salvador Allende.  His philosophy was to, in his words, look at “the big picture” and see how his diplomacy with China, for example, rattled the Soviets.  But he didn’t seem to care about the people who lived outside of the halls of power or ranked on his dating Rolodex.

He may have changed the world, but that’s not always a good thing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

November 22, 1963

JFK 11-22-06Friday, November 22, 1963. I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip gym class 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 dodge-ball? 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 sixty years to that time. More than three-quarters of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day, and I doubt that other than here, there won’t be any commemoration of that awful day in the news. 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 Dealey Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents generation, it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is September 11, 2001, and now January 6, 2021. 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.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sunday Reading

Extinction Is Forever — Charles P. Pierce on the loss of life.

This week, 21 species were declared to be extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These included (from NPR):

Eight Hawaiian honeycreeper birds; Bridled white-eye bird of Guam; Mariana fruit bat of Guam; San Marcos gambusia, a one-inch long fish from Texas; Scioto madtom, a small catfish found exclusively in the Big Darby Creek in Ohio; Bachman’s warbler, a black and yellow songbird found in several Southern states and Cuba; Eight freshwater mussels: the flat pigtoe, green-blossom pearly mussel, southern acornshell, stirrupshell, tubercled-blossom pearly mussel, turgid-blossom pearly mussel, upland combshell and yellow-blossom pearly mussel. 

The news hardly made a ripple. After all, these aren’t snow leopards or Siberian tigers. These were obscure birds, fish, and a bunch of bivalves. They don’t make good TV commercials. “Save The Upland Combshell” makes for a terrible bumper sticker. The disappearance of the San Marcos Gambusia is likely only of interest to other species of gambusia, but the tiny gambusia, or mosquitofish, are vital to mosquito-control efforts in places like Florida. Given the climate-driven spread of tropical diseases, this makes the tiny fish a significant player in environmental progress. The loss of a single species of gambusia must result in great celebration in the Anopheles and Aedes communities. Yellow fever all around, and see what the Malaria in the back room will have!

Still, as they used to say when such things mattered, extinction is forever. The standards for a species’ being declared to be extinct are fairly rigorous. For example, there is the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, aka The Lord God Bird. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of one since 1944, although false alarms have been fairly regular down through the years. Last week, however, Fish and Wildlife once again declined to list the species as being extinct. There are some new photographs out of Louisiana. From CNN:

Since the 1944 sighting, the only other “compelling evidence,” according to the federal wildlife service, was 2005 research from Fitzpatrick and his associates that claimed ivory bill sightings in eastern Arkansas’ Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. “Active searches continue in several regions from Arkansas to Louisiana, and a few images recently released are indeed suggestive,” Fitzpatrick said. The government removes a species from the endangered and threatened species list for just three reasons: it’s recovered so well it no longer needs the law’s protection; new information suggests it isn’t threatened; or it’s gone extinct. Removal helps the agency “to be good stewards of conservation resources,” it has said. 

So, for the nonce, the Lord God Bird will remain the avian equivalent of an unidentified aerial phenomena. However, the species that stayed on the list announced this week are not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. The causes of death range from habitat destruction to the introduction of invasive predatory species. These invasive species include mosquitoes, rat snakes, and Homo sapiens. The impact of all of these has been profound.

There are now 650 species that have gone extinct in the U.S., according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which says factors such as climate change, pollution and invasive species contribute to species loss. Between 2004 and 2022, climate change effects contributed to 39% of amphibian species moving closer to extinction. About 3 billion birds have been decimated in North America since 1970, Fish and Wildlife said. Still, 99% of the animals on the endangered and threatened list have not reached extinction. Fifty-four have been taken off the list due to recovery efforts, while 56 have been downgraded from endangered to threatened, Fish and Wildlife said. 

The Hawaiian honeycreepers are now extinct due to their forest habitat being cut down for development and agriculture. Mosquitoes, which are not native to Hawaii, also spread avian pox and avian malaria. Other Hawaiian birds, such as the ‘akikiki, are also on the brink of extinction, with as little as five known pairs in the wild, the Center for Biological Diversity said. 

Time was when a countdown to extinction was national news. The country was riveted by it. It was a time when the United States was prospering in dozens of new ways, not all of them healthy or wise, so that The Last Of Something was big news. It was a measure of time and change, a melancholy one, because we were the invasive species that had made it possible. The whole country seemed to be atoning in mourning for leaving Martha the last of her kind.

Once, they obliterated the sky so thoroughly that even the indigenous people stood in awe of their numbers. The National Audubon Society reported about one such event in the middle of the 19th Century.

In May 1850, a 20-year-old Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River during trapping season when a far-off gurgling sound startled him. It seemed as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me,” he later wrote. “As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful.” The mysterious sound came “nearer and nearer,” until Pokagon deduced its source: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”

…Pokagon remembered how sometimes a traveling flock, arriving at a deep valley, would “pour its living mass” hundreds of feet into a downward plunge. “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.” Pokagon recorded these memories in 1895, more than four decades after his Manistee River observation. By then he was in the final years of his life. Passenger pigeons, too, were in their final years. 

They bred by the thousands, by the millions, in the oak barrens off Wisconsin. They were by far the most common American birds, and it wasn’t entirely clear that they weren’t the largest population of an individual species of bird in the world. They were the Passenger Pigeon, and they were hunted until they were no more. The flocks were so thick that you could kill several by waving a stout pole into the middle of one. They were killed for sport, for food, to protect crops, and for their feathers to adorn fine ladies’ hats. The last wild bird was killed in 1900 by an Ohio kid with a BB gun. And it took slightly more than a half-century until there was only one of them left.

Her name was Martha and she lived in the Cincinnati Zoo. How she came to be there is a matter of some dispute. Most people believe that she came from a collector in Chicago, although some people claim that she was one of the only survivors of a group of birds shipped down from Milwaukee. In any case, by July of 1910, Martha was the last passenger pigeon known to be alive. She became what scientists call, in what appears to be a nod to Tolkien, an endling. Which made her a national celebrity. Hundreds of people came to Cincinnati to see The Last One.

The zoo made repeated attempts to breed Martha, but they all failed. Eventually, she had a stroke. Her keepers had to keep lowering her perch so that Martha would not fall very far. Eventually, she became almost completely immobile; gawkers would toss sand at her, trying to get her to move. Finally, at the advanced age of an estimated 29, Martha died on September 14, 1914. There were no more passenger pigeons left in the world. Most species die off in silence. We don’t catch on until years after it happens. But we know the exact date of the end of the passenger pigeon because it was in all the papers.

Martha’s corpse was immediately packed in a block of ice and shipped off to the Smithsonian in Washington, where she still resides to this day. The taxidermists went to work on the body with unusual sensitivity. (They did not dissect Martha’s heart, largely for sentimental reasons.) On the hundredth anniversary of her passing, in 2014, a project was announced to use modern technology to bring back the passenger pigeon. But this opened up a whole barrel of environmental and ethical questions. Extinction is forever and we’re living in a lot of forevers now.

Doonesbury — You have one job.

Monday, September 19, 2022

A Class Act

Autumn Brewington at the Washington Post explains why Queen Elizabeth II has fascinated people all over the world, including Americans.

LONDON — To understand the scale of events involved in laying to rest Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, consider some of the preparations both visible and invisible here: Hundreds of foreign leaders have arrived from capitals elsewhere — and agreed to be transported not in their typical luxurious vehicles but crowded shuttle buses. Representatives from 23 royal families will be seated ahead of government dignitaries at Westminster Abbey, per royal protocol, which differs from diplomatic protocol, which is just one of the many elements of logistics planning being hashed out in an area of the U.K. foreign office dubbed “the Hangar.” Before troops began rehearsing at 2 a.m. last week, royal gardeners started prepping the streets four hours earlier — among other things, pouring thousands of pounds of sand to ease the passage of the gun carriage ferrying the queen’s coffin.

My Post colleagues William Booth, Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam dive here into the question of why the world is fascinated by Queen Elizabeth. There are lots of other royal families, they note. Yet people aren’t similarly enthralled by the king of Belgium, the sultan of Brunei “or the ‘bicycling royals’ of northern Europe — interesting and colorful as they may be.”

My take? The queen’s funeral is a reminder to millions of the relentless passage of time and how one mortal spent it: Her parents were the last emperor and empress of India. She was on the cover of Time magazine at age 3. She was raised not to show emotion, certainly not in public. She was born in an era when women did not wash their own hair, in a class where a nanny was a more regular presence than a parent. She was also taught to be humble; when as a child she remarked about crowds waiting outside for a glimpse of their royal presence, her grandmother Queen Mary ordered young Elizabeth to be taken home by a back door.

She was an upper-class Englishwoman — happiest in the countryside with her dogs and horses — who made a straightforward commitment to her role. The extraordinary thing is how long and how consistently she kept it.

I think that the fascination and connection comes from the fact that she had something that has nothing whatsoever to do with her royal status, her finances, or her place in history.  It’s because she had class.

Class has nothing to do with income or position in society.  I have known people all my life who had that immutable and enigmatic quality; people who couldn’t rub two dimes together at times or who didn’t have a list of degrees from elite universities.  But they were able to give me that sense that they had it, and whether we’re talking about Her Majesty the Queen or Elizabeth Windsor, she had it.

Class is something that we expect from our leaders, be they monarchs or presidents or the mayor of our hometown.  It is a quality that gives us confidence about their role in our lives and the trust that we’ve put in them.  We’ve had presidents in my lifetime who had that quality — Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter come to mind — and those who did not.  Class is something that is comes naturally; you can’t buy it or rent it, although many have tried.

I think Americans have been paying attention to the coverage of the queen’s passing and the ceremonies that have followed because she had qualities that we want to see in ourselves: the ability to make others feel welcome and good about themselves. It may seem like a small thing, but a lot of times, that’s all that matters.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Fifth of July

Fifth of July is not just a date, it’s a play by Lanford Wilson. It opened off-Broadway in 1978, then, after some revision, on Broadway in 1980. It’s also the play that was the starting point of my doctoral studies and the subject of my doctoral thesis in 1988.

In 1985 I directed a production of the play at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder with a great cast.

Fifth of July Nomads March 1985

The cast of Fifth of July at Nomads Theatre, Boulder, Colorado, March 1985

In the course of my studies I became friends with Mr. Wilson, and the director of the productions, Marshall W. Mason. So ever since then, I have marked the 5th of July as a special day for me and my love of theatre.

“Matt didn’t believe in death and I don’t either…. There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on.” – Sally Talley, Fifth of July.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Bob Dole

I met Bob Dole once.  I was working for WBNZ, a radio station in Frankfort, Michigan, in 1978 and he flew into the area to campaign for candidates in the mid-term elections.  A small group of reporters gathered in a room at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City and he went around the room handing out soundbites.  His acerbic wit was on display, but there was none of the vitriol that has come to be the norm for campaigning today, and he entertained our questions genially.  He was a classy guy, which is something that has nothing to do with upbringing, education, or family history.  Yeah, he could be really cranky and mean-spirited, and I have a hard time understanding why he backed Trump, but one thing made him different than the former guy and a lot of the MAGA crowd: there was not an ounce of phoniness to him.

I was rather glad he did not win the election in 1996, and in a way I think he was, too.  But he was a true patriot, something you don’t see much of anymore.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Sunday Reading

A Last Visit with Stephen Sondheim — Michael Paulson of the New York Times visited him five days before his death.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa, New York Times.

ROXBURY, Conn. — Stephen Sondheim stood by the gleaming piano in his study, surrounded by posters of international productions of his many famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired whether a visitor might be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but hadn’t finished yet.

“And now would you like to hear the score?” he asked. Of course, the answer was yes. “You got some time?” he asked, before laughing, loudly, with a sense of mischief: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!”

That was Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, had welcomed me to his longtime country house for a 90-minute interview with him and the theater director Marianne Elliott about a revival of “Company” that is now in previews on Broadway. It would turn out to be his final major interview.

There was little indication that Mr. Sondheim, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, was unwell. He was engaged and lucid, with strong opinions and playfully pugnacious, as with the tease about his long-gestating, unfinished final musical. At one moment he complained that his memory wasn’t as strong as it had been, but he was also telling anecdotes from a half-century earlier with ease.

He was having a little trouble getting around — using a cane, seeking assistance to get in and out of chairs, and in obvious pain when walking — which he attributed to an injury. Asked about the state of his health, he answered by knocking on a wood table and saying, “Outside of my sprained ankle, OK.”

He was busy right until the end. On Nov. 14 he attended the opening of an Off Broadway revival of his musical “Assassins,” directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company. The next night he went to the first post-shutdown preview for the Broadway revival of “Company” — a reimagined production, opening Dec. 9, in which the protagonist, who has traditionally been played by a man, is now played by a woman. And just this week, two days before he died, he did a doubleheader, seeing a Wednesday matinee of “Is This a Room” and an evening performance of “Dana H.,” two short documentary plays on Broadway.
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“I can’t wait,” he said as he anticipated seeing those shows. “I can smell both of those and how much I’m going to love them.”

He was not inclined to make any grand pronouncements on the state of Broadway. “I don’t take overviews — I never have taken overviews,” he said. “Whither Broadway? I don’t answer the question. Who knows. I don’t really care. That’s the future. Whatever happens will happen.”

One thing he was hoping would happen: one more musical. For years he had been collaborating with the playwright David Ives and the director Joe Mantello on a new musical, most recently titled “Square One,” adapted from two movies directed by Luis Buñuel.

“The first act is based on ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,’ and the second act is based on ‘The Exterminating Angel,’ ” he explained during the interview. “I don’t know if I should give the so-called plot away, but the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”

Asked if he had any sense when it might be finished, Mr. Sondheim said, “No.”

Why did he hope to keep working when he could just bask in appreciation?

“What else am I going to do?” he asked. “I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?”

And did he write daily in his final weeks? “No, I’m a procrastinator,” he said. “I need a collaborator who pushes me, who gets impatient.”

When it was pointed out that he had been a procrastinator throughout his career, and that it had seemed to work for him, he said, “Yes, I have. Yeah, I think forever. Not when I was a hungry teenager — when I wanted so much to have a show done, I don’t think I was a procrastinator then. But once I had a show done, I think part of me got lazy.”

But with his shows running on Broadway and off, and a major film adaptation of “West Side Story” about to be released, Mr. Sondheim was clearly feeling good about the current reception of his work.

He confirmed his longstanding lack of interest in movie musicals, saying, “Growing up, I was a huge fan of movies, and the only genre that I wasn’t a fan of was musicals — I loved the songs, but not the musicals.”

But he was obviously delighted about the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation of “West Side Story,” a musical for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, that is scheduled to be released next month. “I think it’s just great,” he said. He added, “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”

He was looking forward to even more in the months to come: a new production of “Into the Woods,” for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, is scheduled to be staged by the Encores! program at New York City Center next May. Also, Mr. Sondheim revealed, New York Theater Workshop is hoping to stage an Off Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, directed by Maria Friedman, who has previously directed well received productions in London and Boston.

Asked which of his shows he’d most like to see revived next, he appeared stumped. “What would I like to see again that I haven’t seen in a while? I’d have to think about it, because an awful lot of the shows I’ve been a writer of have been done in the last few years.” He added, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had good revivals of the shows that I like.”

Oh, No, The Books Are Back — Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post.

I regret to say they are putting the books back on the shelves now in Virginia, the threatened books, the banned ones. They have evaluated them and found them to contain no threat. (Reports of their containing pornography were greatly exaggerated, or perhaps adjudicators were simply not flipping fast enough.)

This is no good. Such books are bad. Maybe all books are bad, not just the challenged ones. Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside. They make you feel things, sometimes, hope and grief and shame and confusion; they tell you that you’re not alone, or that you are, that you shouldn’t feel ashamed, or that you should; replace your answers with questions or questions with answers. This feels dangerous to do, a strange operation to perform on yourself, especially late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping.

They are an insidious and deadly poison. Years after you read them, they come back and bother you late at night. They clang around inside your skull. They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again. They have no respect for the boundaries of your dreams. They put turns of phrase into your gut where you digest them slowly and regurgitate them where they are least expected.

They make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows. Nothing happens in them at all, or they take you to hell and take you back out of it. They teach you how to fold a paper airplane or what is the wrong dress to wear. When people in them do things that are wrong, you are just as upset as you would be if you knew them.

Some of them, of course, pose less of a risk. They take you nowhere; they contain only stale, bland, erroneous facts; they are full of people you dislike, and you understand them less when you put them down than when you started. These are less threatening. Their illusions are less complete.

People should not be left long unsupervised with books. You can be riding a bus and miss eight stops because you are not riding a bus at all — you are somewhere entirely different watching somebody throw an important piece of jewelry into a volcano. Books give you the faulty idea that you can safely travel in realms of gold or voyage leagues underwater without getting wet; they make it impossible to be certain that your new classmate is not a rat under a series of raincoats; they send you pingponging into the past where you could do considerable harm if allowed to wander; they dispatch you into futures that don’t exist and trick you into thinking they could. Some of them are terrifying. Some of them are stomach-churning. All of them are treacherous, especially if you are reading them when walking. Don’t read them when walking.

Let me tell you about something that a book did: It convinced me that the things inside it were true; it told me so many lies that I started to believe it. I loved it; it infuriated me; I broke its spine in half. Books have taken me into dark woods and the bellies of whales and spat me out dazed and blinking into my own living room and knocked me around backward and forward through time and delivered me gossip from the distant past and facts from the recent present.

Books give you recipes for living, and some of the recipes are good and others taste foul the first time you try them. You read them with friends and come away with entirely different ideas of what has happened. They are uncontainable, uncontrollable, except if you never open them.

Burning them is odd. You would think that objects of such power would give off extraordinary heat or light, or explode, but they just burn as though unaware of what they are made of. They go off shelves and onto banned lists in the same manner, quietly, as though not conscious of their power.

You are right to be frightened of them, and it is very bad they are being brought back. You will realize they are much too dangerous when you think of all they can do.

Doonesbury — That’ll show ’em.

Monday, February 15, 2021

That’s A Wrap

Okay, so the second impeachment of Trump is over and went the way we all knew it would.  I am not surprised that seven Republicans voted to convict: two of them have announced they’re retiring, and the others were just re-elected so they are relying on the notoriously short memory of the electorate so that when they are next up for re-election it will be in the middle of Joe Biden’s second term.  They get a golf-clap if not for their courage than for their political calculation.

As far as the focus of this entire exercise, I am determined to relegate him to the ash-heap of history.  In the last four years, I made it a small point to myself never to use the word “president” as a modifier or honorific for Trump (that does not include the articles I posted) because while I believe the office is more important than the occupant, he did everything he could to defile the space occupied by such men as Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy who understood the burden they undertook.  None of them were perfect, and some had more success in office than others, but at the very least they did not attempt to remake the nation into an authoritarian state in their own perverted image.

I wish I could promise that I will never write about him again, but that’s irresponsible blogging (like there’s a rule about that), and I look forward to seeing the arc of justice bend down and bite him in the ass.  But for now, there’s too much work to do to get our normal back.  And to quote President Jed Bartlet, “what’s next?”

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Good Morning

It feels different already.  When I wake up, I turn on the radio next to my bed and listen to the BBC World Service, which is the overnight broadcast from the local NPR station.  For the last four years I’ve been hearing from them with their patented British understatement what’s been happening overnight, often leading with something Trump did or said that made me want to roll over and put the pillow over my ears.  But this morning…

Things are happening.  Good things.  Xenophobic and regressive policies are being rolled back.  Covid-19 is being taken seriously.  A press secretary at the podium in the White House briefing room is actually answering questions instead of making shit up on the fly.  People are smiling; you can see it under their masks.

It’s not just about policy, either.  It’s just a feeling that the confrontations, the bullying, the lying for the sake of one-upping, the brutal glare of petulant score-keeping even on those rare occasions when things go well, is now in the past.  The adolescent tantrums are being replaced by the steady hand of maturity and grace.

My jaw isn’t clenched.  I am still aware of the dangers of the pandemic, of those forces inside and out who are against us, but at least I don’t feel that we are teetering on the edge of a cliff.

I know that the euphoria won’t last, but now we can at least get back to work.  We have too much to do.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday 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-sixth 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.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sunday Reading

History Walks with Deb Haaland — by Charlie Pierce.

In 1972, a group of Native American activists occupied the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island off San Francisco. They based their claim on the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which stated that, under certain circumstance, unused federal lands could revert to their original owners. A Native-American health center in San Francisco had burned down recently, so the occupiers decided that the Rock would serve as a fine replacement. The occupation lasted almost two years and, though it ended roughly, it marked a new era in the relationship of the federal government and the Native peoples to whom that government had done so much injury over the previous 300 years. One particular offender down through the decades had been the United States Department of the Interior—the Bureau of Indian Affairs is lodged in there. And the Interior Department was tasked with enforcing the Dawes Act, which did so much to demolish tribal unity and identity.

So, all of American history, good and bad, echoed on Wednesday when President-Elect Joe Biden named New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be his Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, is the first Native American to be named to a Cabinet position and, as we’ve seen, her appointment to run Interior has a significance far beyond the ordinary Cabinet appointment. From the New York Times:

Ms. Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, one of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes, would helm the federal agency most responsible for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Indigenous people. Among other things, the Interior Department runs the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages the financial assets of American Indians held in trust. For generations, Native Americans have fought the department’s policies and demanded a greater voice in its operation. In one instance, in 1972, about 500 activists took over the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., protesting living standards and broken treaties.

I have been excessively neutral on most of Biden’s Cabinet picks so far. If he wants a Cabinet with whom he feels comfortable, then I’m all right with that. Having sat through most of the confirmation hearings for the previous passel of crooks and mountebanks—Mnuchin, who forget to list assets, and DeVos and her grizzlies, and Interior nominee Ryan Zinke, who left after two years under a hail of writs—I’m willing to accept almost anybody Biden appoints. I have qualms about Lloyd Austin at Defense because of the whole civilian-military thing. I’m OK with Pete Buttigieg at Transportation because, what the hell, Biden wasn’t going to appoint a subway motorman or an airline pilot to the gig.

But, to me, anyway, Haaland is the home run pick that bounces onto Lansdowne Street. Not only is her appointment of profound historical resonance, but she’s a brilliant political organizer, and that’s what it’s going to take to wrench Interior back to its original mission and away from being the auction house that the departing administration had made of it.

Over the past two years, Ms. Haaland has served on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department. Under the Trump administration, the current and former Interior secretaries, David Bernhardt and Ryan Zinke, have used the agency to make it easier to mine and drill on public lands, while also weakening protections on endangered species. Just this week, the Interior Department finalized two rules that limit protections to animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act. Ms. Haaland has not held back in her fierce criticism of policies that have opened millions of acres to oil and gas drilling.

“The sad fact is that we have a president who is intent on selling off our public lands to his friends for fracking and drilling,” she said in a speech earlier this year. She noted that under Mr. Bernhardt and Mr. Zinke, the Interior Department slashed the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, national monuments in Utah that are adjacent to Navajo nation territories and a Hopi reservation, opening up the land to mining and drilling.

The last time I saw Deb Haaland was at an pre-caucus event on the Meskwaki Settlement in Iowa. She was there as a campaign surrogate for Senator Professor Warren. This is part of what she said to her audience, most of whom were Meskwaki, a people that originally had lived on land in upstate New York only to get moved westward as the United States grew, often through the kind offices of the Department of the Interior.

“For a lot of my life,” she said, “I was the only Indian in the room. The only Indian in the classroom. The only one on the job site, or wherever. So it was nice to have someone else in Congress [Sharice Davids of Kansas, who was elected in 2018 just as Haaland was] who knows what it’s like to be me.”

History, good and bad, walks with this woman.

The Loser — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker.

In the six weeks since the Presidential election, various theories—many of them persuasive—have been advanced to explain President Trump’s refusal to accept Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s decision to attack the legitimacy of the election has been seen, correctly, as an attack on democracy itself, and as a purposeful and brutally effective use of disinformation. And also as the behavior of a would-be dictator who is dragging an entire political party into a fever dream of denialism. Trump’s protracted post-election fit has been analyzed as preparation for a comeback bid in 2024 and as a fund-raising scam that has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to support his post-White House political efforts. Very likely, Trump’s continued rejection of his defeat is some of all the above.

But in politics, and especially with this President, the simplest explanation for something is usually the best one. Whatever the other reasons are for his ongoing post-election temper tantrum, it couldn’t be more clear that Trump is also motivated by the simple psychological fact that he really, really hates being called a “loser.” It’s one of his favorite insults, and a label he would do anything to avoid having affixed to his own name. Just in the course of this election year, he has called Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, “a totally overrated loser,” and George Conway, the conservative lawyer who became one of his sharpest critics, a “deranged loser of a husband” to his adviser Kellyanne Conway. He said that Cory Booker, Chris Cuomo, John Kasich, and John Kelly were losers, too. In September, The Atlantic reported that he had called American soldiers who died fighting overseas “suckers” and “losers.” When the Republican senator Mitt Romney has criticized Trump, the President has responded by reminding the former Republican Presidential nominee of his defeat in the 2012 election. “LOSER!” he tweeted, after one such episode, taunting Romney by attaching a video of his 2012 concession alongside Trump’s 2016 victory speech. Since November 3rd, however, the word has practically disappeared from his vocabulary.

“If I lost, I’d be a very gracious loser,” the President told a rally, in Georgia, on December 5th—more than a month after he did, in fact, lose. On Monday, the Electoral College met in all fifty state capitals to ratify that loss. Trump was not only not gracious; he continued to refuse to accept his defeat. A few weeks ago, in one of his few post-election comments to the media, a very testy Trump insisted that he would leave office if and when the Electoral College certified Biden’s victory. “Certainly, I will. Certainly, I will,” Trump said. “And you know that.” Now that the Electoral College has affirmed Biden’s win, however, Trump is no longer acknowledging that he will leave office. CNN even reported, the other day, that, in private, he has backed away from previous indications to his aides that he accepts his defeat.

Perhaps Trump believes that his continued rejection of the reality of his loss makes him appear to be a fighter. Perhaps he really has convinced himself that the outrageous claims he is making about an election conspiracy so vast that it involves millions of fraudulent votes, a dead Venezuelan dictator, and Republican officials in a half-dozen states are true. Many commentators—including me—have pointed with alarm to Trump’s success at convincing millions of Republican voters to doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s win, and the fact that two-thirds of the House Republican Conference last week signed onto the quickly dismissed Texas lawsuit to throw out the results in four key states—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—where Biden prevailed. If Trump’s goal was proving that the Party remains loyal to him, he has succeeded extraordinarily. Who could have imagined four years ago that a large part of the national G.O.P. leadership would be so devoted to Donald Trump that it would follow him down the path of outright rejection when the election did not go his way?

But there is another way of looking at what Trump has been doing since November 3rd, and it does not suggest a strategy of political genius—or, really, much of a strategy at all. In pushing back so insistently and filing so many baseless lawsuits, Trump has forced dozens of conservatives at every level of American society to attest to the integrity of the vote—and highlight Trump’s loss. Republican governors in states such as Arizona and Georgia have affirmed that he lost—not only their states but the election over all. Republican-appointed judges have affirmed that he lost. So have many Republican officials who played a role in certifying the results in the states that handed the Presidency to Biden. “Voters, not lawyers, choose the President,” Stephanos Bibas, a federal appeals-court judge appointed by Trump, wrote, in throwing out one of the Pennsylvania cases. Trump, he noted, can’t just tweet his way to victory: “Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here. Calling an election unfair does not make it so.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a ruling by a conservative Republican justice, warned that Trump, in seeking to “disenfranchise every Wisconsin voter,” was testing the “faith in our system of free and fair elections.” The two cases that Trump sought to bring to the U.S. Supreme Court were so weak that the nine Justices declined even to hear arguments on their merits.

The President’s extraordinary challenge to the electoral system has forced even some of Trump’s staunchest loyalists here in Washington to finally push back and defend the integrity of the vote. Attorney General William Barr stated publicly that there was no evidence of widespread fraud sufficient enough to overturn the election results, and, after Trump became furious about that comment, announced his resignation, earlier this week. On Tuesday, in the wake of the Electoral College’s decision, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell belatedly affirmed that Trump had lost, congratulated Biden, and urged Republican senators not to go along with further efforts to contest the result, because they risked forcing the Senate into a political loser of a vote. A few hard-core Trump supporters in the House are now pushing for a last stand on January 6th, when Congress must meet to receive the Electoral College results. But that effort, too, is doomed to fail, and could only result in McConnell’s Republicans having to vote against it in the Senate—and showcasing, once again, that Trump was decisively and convincingly defeated. “I don’t think it’s a good decision right now,” John Thune, the Republican senator from South Dakota, who is McConnell’s deputy, told reporters, on Thursday. “And I don’t think it’s good for the country.”

Is any of this really serving Trump well? I know we’ve got used to thinking of Trump as a genius in turning bad news on its head, in creating grievance out of setbacks and then using those grievances to further cement his hold over his Party. I’ve watched him run this play over and over again. I get it. But the alternate way of looking at his post-election behavior is that he is cementing his reputation as the sorest of sore losers. Not only that, but he is crying so long and loudly about the unfairness of his loss that he is forcing officials at every level of government, across the country, to take sides—against him. His frenetic efforts to deny his defeat have simply underscored it. Trump really is leaving office on January 20th, and he really will go out as an impeached and defeated President, forevermore listed in the history books alongside Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter and all the other one-termers he disdains. He is now, and will always be, a loser.

Doonesbury — Who was that masked man?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sunday Reading

Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, scholar, lawyer, judge, and Justice, died on Friday at the age of eighty-seven. Born the year Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady, Ginsburg bore witness to, argued for, and helped to constitutionalize the most hard-fought and least-appreciated revolution in modern American history: the emancipation of women. Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.

The change Ginsburg ushered into American politics began a half century ago, and reckoning with its magnitude requires measuring the distance between now and then. At the time, only three in a hundred legal professionals and fewer than two hundred of the nation’s ten thousand judges were women. In 1971, as Richard Nixon prepared to make two appointments to the Supreme Court, he faced a dilemma. Yet another Southerner he’d tapped had been nixed for an opposition to desegregation, so Nixon decided to look for someone who was, preferably, not a racist. He considered naming a woman. “I’m not for women, frankly, in any job,” he told his aides, in a little fit of hysterics. “Thank God we don’t have any in the Cabinet.” He didn’t think women should be educated, or “ever be allowed to vote, even.” But, given the momentum of the women’s-rights movement, he conceded the political necessity of naming a woman to the bench: it might gain him a small but crucial number of votes in the upcoming election. “It’s like the Negro vote,” he said. “It’s a hell of a thing.” Then Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a similar huff, told Nixon that, if he were to nominate a woman, he’d resign. In the end, Nixon named Lewis Powell.

While all these men were dithering, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was working for the A.C.L.U., writing the brief for a case set to go before the Court, Reed v. Reed. Decided on November 22, 1971, weeks after Powell’s confirmation hearings, Reed v. Reed upended a century of American jurisprudence and the entirety of political thought going back to the beginning of the Republic. Before 1971, as Ginsburg would later write, “Neither legislators nor judges regarded gender lines as ‘back of the bus’ regulations. Rather, these rules were said to place women on a pedestal.” Thomas Jefferson had taken the trouble to explain that women had no part in the Framers’ understanding of the government devised by the Constitution. “Were our state a pure democracy,” he wrote, “there would yet be excluded from their deliberations . . . women; who, to prevent deprivation of morals, and ambiguity of issues, could not mix promiscuously in the public gatherings of men.” Women were to be excluded for their own protection. The early women’s-rights movement, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, had not defeated that argument, and the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, did not explicitly—or implicitly, according to the Court—bar discrimination on the basis of sex. In 1873, ruling on a case in which Myra Bradwell had sued the state of Illinois for denying her the right to practice law, one Supreme Court Justice explained his logic this way: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” That, as Ginsburg liked to say, was a cage, pretending to be a pedestal.

Reed v. Reed, in 1971, involved an Idaho statute that gave preference to men—“males must be preferred to females”—in executing estates. The Court, following Ginsburg’s brief, ruled for the first time that discrimination on the basis of sex violated the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Burger used language that had been introduced by Ginsburg: “To give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits, is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and whatever may be said as to the positive values of avoiding intrafamily controversy, the choice in this context may not lawfully be mandated solely on the basis of sex.” Just a few years later, Ginsburg was arguing her own cases before the Court, and the Chief Justice was stumbling over how to address her. “Mrs. Bader? Mrs. Ginsburg?”

Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933 and went to Cornell, where she met Martin Ginsburg. They married and enrolled at Harvard Law School, which had only just begun admitting women. Ginsburg raised their baby, and also cared for Marty, who was diagnosed with cancer, and then she followed him to New York, finishing her law degree at Columbia. She faced discrimination on the basis of sex at every stage of her career. Tied for first in her class at Columbia, she was unable to get a job practicing law at a New York firm. But, far from being defeated by discrimination, she decided to study it. She began teaching at Rutgers in 1963; in 1969, the year her second child entered nursery school, she was promoted to full professor, and began volunteering for the A.C.L.U., where she later headed the Women’s Rights Project.

In 1972, just two months after the Court handed down its ruling in Reed v. Reed, Ginsburg became the first woman to hold a full professorship at Columbia. “The only confining thing for me is time,” she told the New York Times. “I’m not going to curtail my activities in any way to please them.” While teaching at Columbia, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Court, and won four. As Jeffrey Toobin reported in a Profile of Ginsburg, she took a crucial tip from the woman who typed her briefs. “I was doing all these sex-discrimination cases, and my secretary said, ‘I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about,’ ” Ginsburg said. She decided to rename this type of complaint “gender discrimination.”

Ginsburg sometimes said that tackling gender discrimination, case by case, was like “knitting a sweater,” a phrase perhaps meant to disarm her opponents. The actual sweater should have been a constitutional amendment. Ginsburg advocated, vehemently, for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been passed by Congress in 1972; she argued that it looked “toward a legal system in which each person will be judged on individual merit and not on the basis of an unalterable trait of birth.” And she regretted the Court’s logic in Roe v. Wade, in 1973, a case decided not on an equal-rights argument but on a privacy one. (As I pointed out in a 2018 essay, when asked by the A.C.L.U. to take on the defense of Roe, Ginsburg declined.) In 1980, when Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to the D.C. Circuit Court, an aide in Strom Thurmond’s office, at her confirmation hearings, called her a “one-issue woman.” Thurmond was the only member of the committee to vote against her.

Ginsburg’s position on Roe earned her the ire of many feminists who failed to support her nomination to the Supreme Court, in 1993. “My approach, I believe, is neither liberal nor conservative,” she told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Joe Biden. That her nomination had been uncontroversial is entirely a myth, as is the idea that her opinions, after her confirmation, were caustic and biting, the “Ginsburns” of her character on “Saturday Night Live.” Ginsburg believed in the body of the Court, in collegiality of argument, and in moderation of expression. She was famously, even maddeningly, careful. She took so much time thinking about what people said to her, and choosing her own words, Toobin reported, that “her clerks came up with what they call the two-Mississippi rule: after speaking, wait two beats before you say anything else.”

Her most significant opinions were those she wrote for the majority, including in U.S. v. Virginia, a 1996 case in which the Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to enroll female students violated the equal-protection clause. Ginsburg’s opinion served as a history lesson, partly for the public and partly for her fellow-Justices. “Through a century plus three decades and more, women did not count among voters composing ‘We the People,’ ” she wrote. “Not until 1920 did women gain a constitutional right to the franchise. And for a half century thereafter, it remained the prevailing doctrine that government, both federal and state, could withhold from women opportunities accorded men so long as any ‘basis in reason’ could be conceived for the discrimination.” The turning point, she observed, had come in Reed v. Reed: “In 1971, for the first time in our Nation’s history, this Court ruled in favor of a woman who complained that her State had denied her the equal protection of its laws.”

Of course, the real turning point had come when Ginsburg joined the bench. For most of Ginsburg’s career, the Court had been fairly moderate. It was not until the nineteen-eighties, when Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia, that modern conservatives began to join the Court. During Ginsburg’s tenure, George W. Bush appointed Justices Roberts and Alito, and Trump appointed Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. As the Court shifted, Ginsburg was cast as its Great Dissenter, though the role went largely against her disposition. Ginsburg cherished honest disagreement, firmly expressed, but she disliked petty, scathing opinions. In “Speaking in a Judicial Voice,” a lecture she delivered in 1992, the year before she joined the Court, she condemned “the immoderate tone of statements diverging from the positions of the court’s majority.” “The most effective dissent,” she wrote, “spells out differences without jeopardizing collegiality or public respect for and confidence in the judiciary.”

She stood by that, even as she found herself writing more and more separate opinions, a turn that began with Bush v. Gore (2000), in which she objected to the majority’s decision to halt the recount in Florida. “The Court’s conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested,” she wrote. “Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.” At the conclusion of that opinion, she allowed a rare breach of decorum, writing not “Respectfully, I dissent,” but, with a quiet fury, “I dissent.”

Ginsburg’s dissents carried a particular power, not only rhetorically but politically. On the Roberts Court, she became the leader of the liberal wing, and, in 2007, in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor for Goodyear Tires, she wrote a dissent objecting to the majority’s denial of an argument about sex discrimination in employment. That opinion was so compelling that it led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by Barack Obama in 2009. And perhaps Ginsburg’s most resonant dissent, in light of this year’s election, is the one she wrote in Shelby County v. Holder, in 2013, in which the majority all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, on the basis of the bizarre argument that it (and one of its features, known as “preclearance”) had effectively solved voter suppression for posterity. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes,” Ginsburg wrote, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” When she read the dissent aloud in Court, as Jane Sherron De Hart observed in a recent biography, she added a conclusion that was not in the written version. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” she said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. But it only bends that way, she went on, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” Much that Ginsburg predicted about the stripping away of voting rights has come to pass.

During Ginsburg’s final two decades on the court, she fought colon cancer (first diagnosed in 1999), pancreatic cancer (2009), underwent heart surgery (2014), suffered injuries from falls (2012 and 2018), underwent surgery for malignancies on her left lung (2018), and had radiation when the pancreatic cancer returned (2019). She seldom missed a day in court. She also regrettably, and presumably thinking Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump in 2016, resisted calls to retire during Obama’s second term, when he could have appointed a liberal Justice as her successor.

The pleasure Ginsburg took in her own celebrity, as she became a feminist icon, is understandable, if also troubling. Historically, the Court is meant to be insulated from public opinion, which also requires of the Justices that they lead largely private lives. Ginsburg was by no means the first to flout this convention, but she flouted it considerably, appearing on late-night television shows and becoming the subject of documentaries, feature films, and books for children. She spoke, in the last years of her life, to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. And she came to regret the changes to the Court itself, the way hyperpolarization had transformed the nomination and confirmation process. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and have it go back to the way it was,” she said in 2018, after the Kavanaugh hearings.

There is no magic wand, and there is no going back. The Supreme Court, like much of the rest of the federal government, is at risk of becoming an instrument of the executive instead of a check against it. Preserving the Court’s independence will require courage and conviction of Ginsburgian force. And there are changes, too, that most of us would never want undone. A century after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pioneering career as a scholar, advocate, and judge stands as a monument to the power of dissent. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. It took centuries, and tens of millions of women, to dismantle that nonsense. And no single one of them was more important than Ginsburg, warm-hearted, razor-sharp, and dauntless.

The Real Deal — Charlie Pierce says Attorney General William Barr is the real authoritarian.

No matter how you feel about El Caudillo Del Mar-a-Lago‘s gifts as an authoritarian, there’s no mistaking the fact that, for his entire public career, William Barr has been the genuine article. He really does believe that the Constitution bestows upon the president—even this burlesque of a president* that we have now—absolute power, or something close enough to it that still would allow the country to call itself a democratic republic without the rest of the world doing a spit-take you could hear on Mars. As a special prosecutor was closing in on President George H.W. Bush for the latter’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, Barr was the one who told Bush to pardon everyone except Shoeless Joe Jackson on his way out the door because a cover-up was well within the powers of the presidency as described in Article II. This was so egregious that even the late William Safire, who wrote speeches for Nixon, for pity’s sake, called Barr the “Cover-Up General.”

Now, though, because he’s working for a president* who doesn’t know anything about anything, and who is proud of that fact, Barr has the perfect vessel through whom to exercise all those theories of his that wear armbands when they go to work. There simply is nothing that this president* can do that Barr can’t cloak in highfalutin’ lawyer-speak, which the president* will repeat, because he doesn’t know anything about anything. On Wednesday, though, Barr went out on his own and let his freak flag fly proudly in a Constitution Day speech at Hillsdale College. Quite simply, he went to war against the prosecutors in the Department of Justice that he purportedly leads.

The Justice Department is not a praetorian guard that watches over society impervious to the ebbs and flows of politics. It is an agency within the Executive Branch of a democratic republic — a form of government where the power of the state is ultimately reposed in the people acting through their elected president and elected representatives. The men and women who have ultimate authority in the Justice Department are thus the ones on whom our elected officials have conferred that responsibility — by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. That blessing by the two political branches of government gives these officials democratic legitimacy that career officials simply do not possess.

The same process that produces these officials also holds them accountable. The elected President can fire senior DOJ officials at will and the elected Congress can summon them to explain their decisions to the people’s representatives and to the public. And because these officials have the imprimatur of both the President and Congress, they also have the stature to resist these political pressures when necessary. They can take the heat for what the Justice Department does or doesn’t do.

Line prosecutors, by contrast, are generally part of the permanent bureaucracy. They do not have the political legitimacy to be the public face of tough decisions and they lack the political buy-in necessary to publicly defend those decisions. Nor can the public and its representatives hold civil servants accountable in the same way as appointed officials. Indeed, the public’s only tool to hold the government accountable is an election — and the bureaucracy is neither elected nor easily replaced by those who are.

This is nothing less than the Attorney General of the United States cutting the legs out from under every federal prosecutor across the country. Moreover, in talking darkly about the “permanent bureaucracy,” Barr is plowing headlong into Caputoland. Michael Caputo resigned his post at the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday because he’d gone bananas in a Facebook Live chat, yammering about “deep state” actors at the Centers for Disease Control. Here now comes William Barr saying pretty much the same thing about the career prosecutors under his nominal command, and arguing that only the Senate-confirmed officials at the top of the DOJ food chain have “democratic legitimacy”—in other words, only people like William Barr have the political credibility to resist political pressure.

By clear implication, Barr is defining the job of attorney general as a purely political post, an extension of the executive power of the president, a theory that has not worked out very well in practice over the past two or three Republican presidencies, and a theory that I will bet a buffalo nickel Barr would never apply to, say, Loretta Lynch. But it is a theory under which Barr can justify being this administration*’s primary manure spreader. For example, an AG has no business doing an interview in which he opines about what a big socialist Joe Biden is, which Barr did only this week. However, if Barr perceives his job as a political arm of the executive, then that is something he would feel free to do.

As far as putting these theories into practice, we only have to look in the New York Times to discover that Barr planned to bring the full weight of the Italian government of 1932 down on the United States of 2020.

The attorney general has also asked prosecutors in the Justice Department’s civil rights division to explore whether they could bring criminal charges against Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle for allowing some residents to establish a police-free protest zone near the city’s downtown for weeks this summer, according to two people briefed on those discussions. Late Wednesday, a department spokesman said that Mr. Barr did not direct the civil rights division to explore this idea.

The directives are in keeping with Mr. Barr’s approach to prosecute crimes as aggressively as possible in cities where protests have given way to violence. But in suggesting possible prosecution of Ms. Durkan, a Democrat, Mr. Barr also took aim at an elected official whom President Trump has repeatedly attacked…

“The power to execute and enforce the law is an executive function altogether,” Mr. Barr said in remarks at an event in suburban Washington celebrating the Constitution. “That means discretion is invested in the executive to determine when to exercise the prosecutorial power.”

Of course, Barr can legitimately sic the DOJ on the mayor of Seattle because Barr was confirmed by the Senate and, if the president* thinks he’s gone too far, he can be removed through the political process. I see nothing that can possibly go wrong with this.

Or, we only have to pick up the Washington Post‘s story about the government’s apparent desire to make a slaughter pen out of Lafayette Square so that the president* could walk across the street and hold up a Bible.

D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam D. DeMarco told lawmakers that defense officials were searching for crowd control technology deemed too unpredictable to use in war zones and had authorized the transfer of about 7,000 rounds of ammunition to the D.C. Armory as protests against police use of force and racial injustice roiled Washington. …

Just before noon on June 1, the Defense Department’s top military police officer in the Washington region sent an email to officers in the D.C. National Guard. It asked whether the unit had a Long Range Acoustic Device, also known as an LRAD, or a microwave-like weapon called the Active Denial System, which was designed by the military to make people feel like their skin is burning when in range of its invisible rays. The technology, also called a “heat ray,” was developed to disperse large crowds in the early 2000s but was shelved amid concerns about its effectiveness, safety and the ethics of using it on human beings.

Heat rays? Seven thousand rounds of live ammunition? Under an AG who hates the whole notion of federal prosecutors, largely because they inconvenienced the criminal-adjacent presidencies he has served? I’m sure there would be solid constitutional grounds of any ensuing bloodletting. William Barr means it. The sooner he’s pried loose from his job, the better.

Doonesbury — The true test.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Sunday Reading

The Legacy of John Lewis — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

John Robert Lewis was born in 1940 near the Black Belt town of Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers, and he grew up spending Sundays with a great-grandfather who was born into slavery, and hearing about the lynchings of Black men and women that were still a commonplace in the region. When Lewis was a few months old, the manager of a chicken farm named Jesse Thornton was lynched about twenty miles down the road, in the town of Luverne. His offense was referring to a police officer by his first name, not as “Mister.” A mob pursued Thornton, stoned and shot him, then dumped his body in a swamp; it was found, a week later, surrounded by vultures.

These stories, and the realities of Jim Crow-era segregation, prompted Lewis to become an American dissident. Steeped in the teachings of his church and the radio sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., he left home for Nashville, to study theology and the tactics of nonviolent resistance. King teased him as “the boy from Troy,” the youngest face at the forefront of the movement. In a long career as an activist, Lewis was arrested forty-five times and beaten repeatedly by the police and by white supremacists, most famously in Selma, on March 7, 1965—Bloody Sunday—when he helped lead six hundred people marching for voting rights. After they had peacefully crossed a bridge, Alabama troopers attacked, using tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips. Within moments of their charge, Lewis lay unconscious, his skull fractured. He later said, “I thought I was going to die.”

Too often in this country, seeming progress is derailed, reversed, or overwhelmed. Bloody Sunday led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act––and yet suppressing the Black vote is a pillar of today’s Republican Party strategy. The election of the first African-American President was followed by a bigot running for election, and now reëlection, on a platform of racism and resentment. The murder of Jesse Thornton has its echoes in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. Indeed, to this day, the bridge where Lewis nearly lost his life is named in honor of Edmund Pettus, a U.S. senator who was a Confederate officer and a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

And so there were times when Lewis, who died on Friday, at the age of eighty, might have felt the temptation at times to give up, to give way. But it was probably his most salient characteristic that he always refused despair; with open eyes, he acknowledged the darkest chapters of American history yet insisted that change was always possible. Recently, he took part in a Zoom town hall with Barack Obama and a group of activists, and told them that he had been inspired by the weeks of demonstrations for racial justice across the country. The protesters, he said, will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”

Dissent is an essential component of the American story and the American future. In that spirit, next week’s issue of The New Yorker will feature Profiles, reporting, essays, fiction, and poetry from the archives on this theme. Some of the figures written about here were dissenters in the public arena, like Dr. King, Margaret Fuller, and Cesar Chavez, who set out to battle the established order of racism, misogyny, and exploitation. Others were artists, like Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, who provide the vision and the language to understand our predicament and, perhaps, to help transform it. And then there are those, like the scientist James Hansen, whose bravery is to insist on the validity of fact, when willful ignorance can lead to the catastrophic warming of the planet—or to the spread of a deadly virus. All of them persevered against countless obstacles even as they knew they might not live to see their most fundamental struggles concluded.

The Most Powerful Vice President in History — Christian Paz in The Atlantic.

If Joe Biden wins in November, his running mate could become the most consequential vice president in modern American history. The woman Biden picks could be seen as a potential president-in-waiting, a signal for the Democratic Party’s agenda in the years to come, and perhaps the most significant player trying to help Biden manage a country—and a federal government—in crisis.

Under normal conditions, the presidency and its manifold obligations are already too much for one person to handle. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden redefined the office by assuming a level of responsibility that his predecessors never had. If elected, Biden would likely follow a similar model, and potentially expand the authority of a constitutionally insignificant office beyond precedent.

Those responsibilities will be even more weighty as the country combats the coronavirus pandemic; endures the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; and reckons with questions of race, policing, and discrimination reignited by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Joe Biden’s vice president will most likely be the most powerful vice president in history because the trend is toward more powerful vice presidents, Joe Biden knows the value of having a vice president with lots of responsibility, and Joe Biden is going to inherit an epic disaster,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama senior adviser and co-host of Pod Save America, told me.

At the same time, with Biden planning to serve as a “transition candidate” for a new wave of younger and more racially diverse Democratic politicians, she’s also likely to face a degree of attention and scrutiny that few vice presidents ever have. The task for Biden come January would be to maintain a healthy partnership with his vice president—without worrying that she’ll outshine him.

“History tells us that consequential presidents and vice presidents come out at times where they’re tested and tried, and I can’t imagine a period of time where the president and vice president are going to be tested more than in January 2021,” Michael Feldman, a senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, told me. “There’s just no chance that the person who he picks is not a consequential vice president or consequential historical figure. They just will be.”

For most of American history, the vice presidency was an insignificant office famously described as a “bucket of warm piss” and as “useful as a cow’s fifth teat” (or “a fate worse than death,” according to the HBO comedy Veep). That changed in 1976, when Walter Mondale accepted Jimmy Carter’s VP offer and laid out a vision for how the vice president could play a more intimate and active role in White House politics. Mondale, who would be leaving a safe Senate seat and a position on a select committee conducting one of Congress’s first major oversight investigations of the intelligence community, made clear to Carter that he wanted real authority, and he didn’t want to be bound to a singular policy area.

“The one thing that was not always true was that the vice president had power—it was only to the extent that the president allowed it,” Mondale told me. “I was able to help a lot because Carter had not been in Washington … and I had quite a bit of experience there.”

Carter agreed to Mondale’s terms. He integrated Mondale’s staff with his own, gave him an office in the West Wing, set up weekly lunches for the two to discuss the president’s agenda, included Mondale in the flow of national-security paperwork, and assigned him to be his chief troubleshooter to manage relationships on Capitol Hill, in state governments, and with labor unions. “Mondale didn’t want to be in charge of any specific program or department, because he thought that would be infringing on somebody else’s turf,” Richard Moe, Mondale’s chief of staff and a former Carter senior staffer, told me. “He wanted to be a general adviser and to take specific assignments when required.”

To this day, vice presidents have kept their White House offices and weekly lunches (though Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s are no longer one-on-one), and successive administrations have expanded the Carter-Mondale model of power-sharing. Gore, for example, championed environmental reforms and the “information superhighway,” an effort to expand the internet’s reach. Dick Cheney wielded tremendous influence on national security and the War on Terror.

But Biden’s vice presidency was the biggest leap forward from the Carter-Mondale model yet. Unlike previous veeps, Biden sustained a high level of influence with the president throughout their two terms in office, Joel Goldstein, a vice-presidential scholar at St. Louis University, told me. As Goldstein has previously written, much of that prestige was derived from Biden’s public loyalty to Obama, which he accomplished “without surrendering his public identity and becoming lost in the president’s shadow.”

“It was a natural role for Biden because it involved a lot of dealing with governors and mayors and legislators, and Biden likes that,” Goldstein told me. “He was good at it.”

In addition to his weekly lunches with Obama, Biden’s schedule was packed with time with the president, in keeping with his request to be the “last man in the room.” On any given day, Biden would start the morning by joining Obama for the Presidential Daily Briefing in the Oval Office after making the crosstown drive from the Naval Observatory. He might have additional meetings in the Oval Office with Obama and a Cabinet secretary, or a Situation Room briefing with intelligence-agency heads. Depending on the day, he’d head out of town for an address, a tour, or a foreign visit, or stay in Washington for meetings with legislators.

While previous vice presidents did wield authority over special projects, they weren’t in charge of the defining issues for an administration, such as Biden’s role in implementing the Recovery Act after the Great Recession and leading efforts to whip Republican support to pass the Affordable Care Act. Biden also received major foreign-policy assignments throughout both terms, including his role as a chief adviser and surrogate as the administration debated its Afghanistan policy in 2009.

Obama has credited Biden’s influence in policy discussions before, telling The New Yorker that “there were times where Joe would ask questions, essentially on my behalf, to give me decision-making space, to help stir up a vigorous debate.” And, as far as is publicly known, he never lost the president’s trust, unlike Cheney, who was iced out after Bush’s reelection, or Gore, whose presidential ambitions strained his ties with Bill Clinton. Biden has already signaled that he hopes for a similarly close relationship with his vice president, saying he’ll pick a “simpatico” partner.

Reflecting on Biden’s broad portfolio as vice president, Pfeiffer told me that “one reason he had so many projects is because of what we inherited.” If Biden and his running mate win in November, he’ll “yearn for the good ole days of the 2009 financial crisis.”

The former campaign advisers and administration officials I spoke with said that in selecting his vice president, Biden should be thinking well beyond the campaign itself and focus instead on which person would best help him run the FDR-size presidency he’s alluded to building.

Just as it’s easy to imagine what the dynamic between them could be like, it’s possible to anticipate what kinds of responsibilities she’ll have. An Elizabeth Warren vice presidency, for example, could see her playing a major role in the economic recovery and implementing bankruptcy reforms that Biden adopted from her campaign platform. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico and the only Latina known to be still in the running, has been praised for her handling of the state’s coronavirus outbreak and could help Biden manage the federal response. Rising stars like Keisha Lance Bottoms, the reformist Atlanta mayor, and Val Demings, the police chief turned Florida congresswoman, could lead on criminal-justice reform. Kamala Harris, the apparent favorite to win the veepstakes, could do the same, while serving as a key congressional liaison.

What is almost certain about Biden’s pick is that, if he’s elected, she will be seen as the heir apparent, whether Biden is a one-term president or she runs in her own right eight years later, the longtime Republican strategist Charlie Black told me. “Whoever he picks is going to have even more scrutiny and testing than a normal VP nominee does,” Black said, “because of all the speculation there will be that they’re going to be the front-runner to be the president in four years.” That’s perhaps especially true if he picks a Latina or Black woman, positioning her to run as the face of a new, younger, and more diverse Democratic Party, and signaling to Black and Latino voters that their party cares about representation at the top of the ticket.

Biden has been careful on the question of whether he’ll seek a second term as president. But if he does forgo reelection, his vice president could establish another VP milestone by launching a presidential campaign in the middle of the first term, while still performing whatever duties Biden deputizes to her—something modern vice presidents have never done.

Launching a campaign so soon would mean she’d assume a level of influence over Democratic politics that vice presidents don’t usually have. In carving out an agenda for her own administration by about 2022, she’d set up a preview of what the Democratic Party could look like through the rest of the 2020s. If that agenda is more progressive, it could help energize the younger, more diverse voters the Democratic Party needs, attracting goodwill not only to her campaign, but to Biden too.

Still, the perception of Biden’s deputy as his successor could also challenge their relationship, regardless of how many terms he serves. If her vision of the Democratic Party meaningfully conflicts with Biden’s, it could create real or imagined tension between them. As my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere recently wrote, Biden “wants to win, but he wants the win to be about him, not his running mate.”

She’ll have to spend time defining herself as a governing partner while fending off speculation about any conflicts in the West Wing, especially if the press begins to overanalyze her larger political ambitions, Jennifer Palmieri, the former communications director for the White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told me. If she does her job well, she may be accused of trying to be too independent. If she tries to keep a low profile, she’ll be criticized for not having ambition.

Plus, she would be the first female vice president in history—a completely new experience for the country, on top of the fresh challenges of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and civil unrest. “It will be new and different because it’s a woman, but it is not going to be an easy relationship for either of them to balance, because of all the expectations and intrigue that will surround her,” Palmieri said. “Singular positions of power are subject to a lot of scrutiny and conflicting standards. So God love her. I think it’s going to be—it will be a lot.”

Doonesbury — Suitable for framing.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

That Moment Of Silence

There will be a lot of commemorations today to mark the first anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Our school administration will hold a moment of silence in the entryway to our building that houses the offices of the fourth-largest school district in the country, and I am very sure that there will be sincere and meaningful words spoken to honor the memories of the people who were killed and comfort the families of the lost.  And well there should be; to forget them and the moment is as much as crime as the assault itself.

But we should also remember that not a whole lot has been done to prevent something like that from happening again, because since that horrible day in February, a lot more people have been killed or wounded in mass shootings both in schools and other places. Legislation has been passed in Florida to harden the schools so a gunman will find it harder to get in, and I know for a fact that millions of dollars are being allocated to beef up security, hire more school police, and buy closed-circuit TV equipment to see them coming before they enter the schoolyard.

That’s fine; I’m sure the people of Florida are all in favor of having safe schools, although based on some of the plans I’ve read about, the school is going to look more like a prison than a place of learning.  And in all the dollars being allocated for new door locks, new CCTV systems, new ID card readers, and new school resource officers (that’s “police” in educational lingo), I haven’t seen anything put up to prevent anyone from arming themselves and going off.

I don’t mean gun control; that’s not going to happen as long as the gun-rights people hold the strings of power in Tallahassee and Washington, and repealing the Second Amendment isn’t going to happen at all.  (We Americans love our anachronisms: the Second Amendment is from a time when the country was 98% rural and we had no standing army.  It has survived, just as our 18th century system of weights and measures has, and defiantly so.  We’re not giving an inch.)  And even if we did, it would only increase the black market for guns and ammo.  Take a lesson from Prohibition.  What I mean is that nothing is being done to seek out and get help for people who might commit harm to themselves and others.

That sounds hard to do, and it is, but in nearly every case after the horror and the smoke is clearing, someone steps up and says they saw signs that the shooter was having problems, but, and they always say this, “I had no idea they’d go this far.”

Does that mean we should all be paranoid and freaked out every time someone on the train starts talking to themselves or accosts you for whatever reason is causing their outburst?  Common sense can distinguish between someone listening to music on a Bluetooth or someone presenting a danger to themselves and others.  And we’re spending a lot of money to paper public places with “SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING” posters.

I certainly do not have the answers, and I have yet to hear from anyone in or out of public office or in a position of authority come up with a way to stop a massacre before it happens.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  So in the moments of silence that will be offered today, perhaps we should collectively seek out ways to end the torture, stop the carnage, and hold back the tears.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday Reading

Meet Pete Buttigieg — Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiles the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who wants to be president.

Last week, Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who recently announced that he is exploring a Presidential candidacy, arrived in New York to meet the press. First up, on Thursday, was an interview on “CBS This Morning,” where the show’s hosts seemed slightly impatient, like college-admissions officers who had been asked to interview a benefactor’s son. Norah O’Donnell positioned her eyebrows skeptically. “You’re thirty-seven, you represent a town of a hundred and two thousand people—did I get that right? What qualifies you to be President of the United States?” Buttigieg, who has pale skin, thick brown hair, and a formal manner, gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I know that I’m the youngest person in this conversation, but I think that the experience of leading a city through a transformation is really relevant right now,” he said. “Things are changing tectonically in our country, and we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We can’t nibble around the edges of a system that no longer works.” John Dickerson pointed out that other Democratic candidates were proposing very big ideas—Medicare for All, the abolition of private health insurance—and asked, “What is your idea that is so big that nobody would mistake it for nibbling around the edges?” Buttigieg answered, “Well, first of all, we’ve got to repair our democracy. The Electoral College needs to go, because it’s made our society less and less democratic.” He went on in this vein, suggesting that electoral reform was essential, and promising that other policies, on security and health care, would follow. Viewers were left with the image of an impressive and fluent young politician, whose presence in the Presidential race, and on their screens, had never really been explained.

A few hours later, I met Buttigieg in a busy restaurant in the basement of Rockefeller Center, where the windows looked out at the ice-skating rink. He had taken off his sports coat for an appearance on “The View,” but put it back on for lunch, and he arrived carrying an enormous backpack over his left shoulder. “The View” had gone much better. The hosts were intrigued by the idea that Buttigieg, who came out three and a half years ago, could be the first gay President, and by his campaign’s main theme, which he calls intergenerational justice—he believes that millennials are suffering from their elders’ short-term thinking on climate change, economics, and other issues. Whoopi Goldberg wondered whether such a case could be made without alienating older Americans, and Buttigieg watched her intently, absorbing the criticism. “I think we really hit on something with this idea of intergenerational justice,” Buttigieg told me. “I think the trick for us—and this was a big part of what Whoopi Goldberg was asking about—is there should be a way to make a generational case without this all being about generational conflict. And I think there’s a way to do it.”

Buttigieg, who attended Harvard, studied philosophy, politics, and economics (P.P.E.) at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and did a tour in Afghanistan as a naval reservist, can seem like an “old person’s idea of a young person,” as Michael Kinsley once said of Al Gore. Certainly, against the image of the millennial left, and of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Buttigieg appears to be a more prosaic political character—he has a habit of giving answers in numbered sequence, and he uses phrases like “pathway to peace.” But, in his own understated way, he is suggesting a sharp break with the past. If you thought in terms of the effects of public policy on millennials, he said, you began to see generational imbalances everywhere. The victims of school shootings suffered because of the gun liberties given to older Americans. Cutting taxes for the richest Americans meant that young people, inevitably, would have to pay the bill. Climate policy, he said, was the deepest example of the imbalance, but the Iraq War was perhaps the most tangible. “There’s this romantic idea that’s built up around war,” he said. “But the pragmatic view is there are tons of people of my generation who have lost their lives, lost their marriages, or lost their health as a consequence of being sent to wars which could have been avoided.” Then he quoted, happily, from “Lawrence of Arabia”: “The virtues of war are the virtues of young men—courage and hope for the future. The vices of peace are the vices of old men—mistrust and caution.”

For much of his life, Buttigieg has been giving those around him the impression of extreme promise. Both of his parents were professors at Notre Dame, and he grew up in South Bend, near the campus. His father, Joe, was a translator of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and a scholar of James Joyce. His mother, Anne Montgomery, is a linguist. At Harvard, Buttigieg was the student president of the Institute of Politics, a role sought by the most ambitious of the exceptionally ambitious, but he could also suggest a more inquisitive nature. His close friend Nathaniel Myers recalled that Buttigieg had become entranced by the Norwegian novel “Naïve. Super,” by Erlend Loe, taught himself the language to translate another work by the author, and then started periodically attending a Norwegian church in Chicago to keep up. He plays piano, and has sat in with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra and Ben Folds. He was elected mayor of South Bend, in 2011, when he was twenty-nine, and only came out in advance of his reëlection campaign, when he was thirty-three. His wedding, to Chasten Glezman, who was a Montessori middle-school teacher, was broadcast live online.

In 2015, Buttigieg gave a speech at Harvard, and David Axelrod, President Obama’s longtime chief strategist, was in the audience. The speech, Axelrod told me this week, was moving and thoughtful, and he noticed that, though Buttigieg had notes, he rarely consulted them. What struck him was a familiar kind of talent. “His story is an incredible story,” Axelrod said, “but more impressive than the story is the guy. At a time when people are aching for hope and a path forward that we can all walk, he is a relentlessly positive person.”

The following year, Frank Bruni wrote a column proposing Buttigieg as “the first gay President.” In an interview with David Remnick, Obama included Buttigieg on a short list of gifted rising Democrats. “If I told you he was anything other than a long shot, you’d hang up the phone,” Axelrod said, of the Presidential race, but he emphasized the possibility that, as he put it, lightning could strike. “The practical political point is it’s hard to see where he’s going in Indiana. If it doesn’t work out, if there’s a Democratic President looking for talent, I know Pete well enough to know he’s going to be high on the list, and higher for having run.” At the very least, Axelrod said, Buttigieg was likely to emerge from this as “an interesting voice from his generation.”

Part of the paradox of Buttigieg’s candidacy is that he has placed himself in a performative role, without the benefit of a performative personality. “He is reserved, and maybe that’s a hindrance,” Axelrod told me. Chasten Glezman, his husband, told a reporter that Buttigieg is “still coming out of some shells.” In our conversation, he seemed most practiced when talking about policy but most alive when discussing James Joyce. When I asked how he had made the decision to run for President, he brightened, and said that, though he wasn’t a Catholic, he made use of the “Ignatian process of discernment.” He pictured a world in which he became President—perhaps shy of using the word, he referred to it only as “the end state”—and then considered whether it gave him a feeling of “fulfillment or desolation.” Fulfillment, it turned out.

I had noticed that, in his interview on “CBS This Morning,” no one mentioned that Buttigieg could be the first gay President. I asked him whether he saw that as a measure of how quickly gay identity has become accepted. “Depends where you are,” he said, thoughtfully. “You quickly get plunged into this world where you’re supposed to represent your community,” but at that point he had little experience of the gay community. “Like, I will fight for the trans woman of color, but do I really know anything about her experience because I’m married to a dude?”

Coming out while he was mayor also helped emphasize to him the political importance of meeting people where they were. He mentioned an older woman in South Bend who had greeted him after a public event by saying how impressed she was with his “friend.” This could have been a moment to discuss the difference between a friend and a partner, or how important it is not to be euphemistic about love, but Buttigieg decided against it, because the woman obviously felt so good about recognizing his “friend”—for her, this was progress. “So much of politics is about people’s relationships with themselves,” Buttigieg said. “You do better if you make people feel secure in who they are.”

One reason that there are so many candidates for the Democratic nomination for President is that there is no longer much certainty about what qualifies a person for the role. The two Democratic phenomenons of 2018, Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke, were a twentysomething activist and a congressman who emphasized his dissolute youth. The President is a former reality-show star. That Buttigieg can plausibly run for the Democratic nomination, as the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of a city that is roughly half the size of Yonkers, depends on this new uncertainty. But it also owes something, paradoxically, to his conventional political style and résumé, which can help persuade the Party’s elders that they are looking not at a revolution but at talent.

Buttigieg described it a little bit differently: part of the gift of being a young politician was what you simply could not remember. In South Bend, which Newsweek had listed among ten dying American cities as he announced his first campaign for mayor, his efforts had been focussed on converting a factory economy to a post-industrial one, and during his tenure the city’s unemployment rate halved. Buttigieg said the break with the past had been easier for him because he could not remember a time when the Studebaker factories that once dominated South Bend were open—they had always just been abandoned urban “furniture” to him.

The element of his generation that most people miss, Buttigieg said, is that it is essentially pragmatic. “Actually, sometimes pragmatism points you in a comparatively radical direction,” he added. “So take universal health care,” he went on. “It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this tend to be better than the countries that don’t. The system we have isn’t working very well, we ought to try this other system. Politically, it’s never been possible, because it’s been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way.”

As I got deeper into lunch with Buttigieg, I began to see him not as a counterweight to the radicalization of his Party but as an expression of it. If the cautious, studious, improbably ambitious Rhodes Scholar in the race, who emphasized the necessity of meeting middle America where it was, was himself supporting the abolition of the Electoral College, then that suggested that the generational transformation of the Party had been completed. Looks deceive. “I am among the most surprised that, as a thirty-seven-year-old mayor, I am being taken at least a little seriously as a candidate for President,” Buttigieg said. “But that very fact reflects that there is something in this moment that calls for newness.”

John Dingell’s Farewell — The longest-serving congressman saved the best for last.

John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1955 to 2015, was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history. He dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.

One of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.

And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.

My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.

Think about it:

Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.

Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.

We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.

And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.

Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.

I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).

In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”

It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).

I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.

As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

Doonesbury — Who said that?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way. But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me. This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them. And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.

Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights. He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone. He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause. I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else. The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.

There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion? But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for? Last August marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. That marked a moment; a milestone.

Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.

For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.


Today is also a school holiday, so blogging will be on a holiday schedule.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Permanent Stench

Brett Kavanaugh begins his inevitable journey to confirmation on the Supreme Court today.

Hours before the start of hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the lawyer for former president George W. Bush turned over 42,000 pages of documents from the nominee’s service in the Bush White House, angering Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who issued what is certain to be a futile call to delay the proceedings.

“Not a single senator will be able to review these records before tomorrow,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted Monday evening.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), responded that “our review team will be able to complete its examination of this latest batch in short order, before tomorrow’s hearing begins.” A few hours later, a tweet from the committee said that the “Majority staff has now completed its review of each and every one of these pages.”

The hearings are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, with opening statements by committee members. No information was released on the subject matter of the documents, and Bush’s lawyer asked that they be kept from the public, made available only to committee members and staff.

Kavanaugh, appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by Bush, served the president in the White House Counsel’s Office from 2001 to 2003 and as staff secretary from 2003 to 2006. 

The cable networks will cover this live.  Judge Kavanugh will give non-committal answers to questions on points of law and his views on hot topics like abortion, voting rights, and marriage equality, and Republicans will extol his virtues as a great car-pool dad and even-handed jurist who will spend the rest of his life running ours.

We’ve heard all of this before from both sides.  I’ve been through enough of these — the first one I remember was the attempt to put Abe Fortas on the court during the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew), followed by Bork, O’Connor, Thomas, and so on — to know that it’s all amateur theatre, and this appointment will go through as most of the others have.  Unless there’s some pretty hard-core surprises in the new batch of 42,000 pages (which the committee skimmed through the way most people read internet user service agreements), he’ll be wearing his robes by the first Monday in October.

One thing to remember: History will record that Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court by the most corrupt and incompetent president in the history of the nation.  No matter how he acquits himself on the bench for the next forty years or so, it will be a stench that we will be smelling long after Trump is relegated to the dumpster.