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.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sunday Reading

Tech Note: We’ve been moving the site from one server another and we may have lost the first edition of today’s post in the transition.

Eulogy by Barack Obama for John McCain.  From the New York Times.

To John’s beloved family — Mrs. McCain; to Cindy and the McCain children, President and Mrs. Bush, President and Secretary Clinton; Vice President and Mrs. Biden; Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, Vice President Gore, and, as John would say, my friends:

We come to celebrate an extraordinary man – a warrior, a statesman, a patriot who embodied so much that is best in America.

President Bush and I are among the fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics. He made us better presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better. So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor.

Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I’ll admit sadness and also a certain surprise. But after our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities.

To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either.

It also showed John’s disdain for self-pity. He had been to hell and back, and he had somehow never lost his energy, or his optimism, or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him, and he would maintain that buoyant spirit to very end, too stubborn to sit still, opinionated as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all, to his family.

It showed his irreverence – his sense of humor, little bit of a mischievous streak. After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?

And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground. And in fact, on the surface, John and I could not have been more different. We’re of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father; John was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool; John — not so much. We were standard bearers of different American political traditions, and throughout my presidency, John never hesitated to tell me when he thought I was screwing up – which, by his calculation, was about once a day.

But for all our differences, for all the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand, the longstanding admiration that I had for him.

By his own account, John was a rebellious young man. In his case, that’s understandable – what faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of admirals than to mutiny?

Eventually, though, he concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself. And for John, that meant answering the highest of callings – serving his country in a time of war.

Others this week and this morning have spoken to the depths of his torment, and the depths of his courage, there in the cells of Hanoi, when day after day, year after year, that youthful iron was tempered into steel. It brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote in the book that Meghan referred to, his favorite book:

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.

Much has been said this week about what a maverick John was. Now, in fact, John was a pretty conservative guy. Trust me, I was on the receiving end of some of those votes. But he did understand that some principles transcend politics. That some values transcend party. He considered it part of his duty to uphold those principles and uphold those values.

John cared about the institutions of self-government – our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law and separation of powers, even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate. He knew that, in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together and give shape and order to our common life, even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.

John believed in honest argument and hearing other views. He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate. And the fact that it earned him some good coverage didn’t hurt, either.

John understood, as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are. It’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal. Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.

It’s been mentioned today, and we’ve seen footage this week of John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful, but I wasn’t surprised. As Joe Lieberman said, it was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race, or religion, or gender. And I’m certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine, for he considered it the imperative of every citizen who loves this country to treat all people fairly.

And finally, while John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings comes great responsibility. That burden is borne most heavily by our men and women in uniform – service members like Doug, Jimmy, and Jack, who followed in their father’s footsteps – as well as the families who serve alongside our troops. But John understood that our security and our influence was won not just by our military might, not just by our wealth, not just by our ability to bend others to our will, but from our capacity to inspire others, with our adherence to a set of universal values – like rule of law and human rights, and an insistence on the God-given dignity of every human being.

Of course, John was the first to tell us that he was not perfect. Like all of us who go into public service, he did have an ego. Like all of us, there were no doubt some votes he cast, some compromises he struck, some decisions he made that he wished he could have back. It’s no secret, it’s been mentioned that he had a temper, and when it flared up, it was a force of nature, a wonder to behold – his jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you. Not that I ever experienced it firsthand, mind you.

But to know John was to know that as quick as his passions might flare, he was just as quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness. He knew more than most his own flaws and his blind spots, and he knew how to laugh at himself. And that self-awareness made him all the more compelling.

We didn’t advertise it, but every so often over the course of my presidency, John would come over to the White House, and we’d just sit and talk in the Oval Office, just the two of us – we’d talk about policy and we’d talk about family and we’d talk about the state of our politics. And our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations. Those were real, and they were often deep. But we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights. And we laughed with each other, and we learned from each other. We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.

For all of our differences, we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched, and fought, and sacrificed, and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals here at home, and to do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.

More than once during his career, John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m sure it’s been noted that Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” oration seems tailored to John. Most of you know it: Roosevelt speaks of those who strive, who dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish a good fight – a contrast to those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Isn’t that the spirit we celebrate this week?

That striving to be better, to do better, to be worthy of the great inheritance that our founders bestowed.

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.

John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.”

What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than, as best we can, follow his example?

To prove that the willingness to get in the arena and fight for this country is not reserved for the few, it is open to all of us, that in fact it’s demanded of all of us, as citizens of this great republic?

That’s perhaps how we honor him best – by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party, or ambition, or money, or fame or power. That there are some things that are worth risking everything for. Principles that are eternal. Truths that are abiding.

At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.

May God bless John McCain, and may God bless this country he served so well.

Doonesbury — Pearls of wisdom.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Lost Art of Decency — Todd S. Purdum in The Atlantic on John McCain.

He loomed as one of the last remaining larger than life figures in American politics, but it’s the small, human moments with John McCain that linger indelibly in memory now.

In his prime, before the compromises of his last presidential campaign shrunk him into a defensive crouch, his preferred method of controlling his image was to abandon all the modern methods of self-presentation, whether conducting a rollicking running seminar aboard his “Straight Talk Express” bus, or ruminating with a solitary journalist on a long flight in a small chartered plane.

“Most current fiction bores the shit out of me,” he once told me somewhere over New England, as I followed him around for weeks of stumping in the 2006 midterm elections that amounted to the beginning of his own 2008 campaign. As I wrote in a 2007 profile of McCain for Vanity Fair, he once allowed, to a gathering of midwestern businessmen, “I want to keep health-care costs down until I get sick, and then I don’t give a goddamn.” To a group of Wisconsin college kids waiting to have their pictures taken with him, he mock-grumbled, “All right, you little jerks!” And on an executive jet high above Iowa, he read aloud a USA Today headline: “Actor [Wesley] Snipes Faces Indictment on Tax Fraud Charges” and muttered: “All our childhood heroes—shattered!”

The Tao of John McCain was unlike that of any other politician I’ve ever covered. Ed Koch was as colorful, Mario Cuomo as smart, George W. Bush as human. But no one combined McCain’s unflinching mix of bracing candor, impossibly high standards and rueful self-recrimination when he (inevitably) failed to live up to the ideals he outlined for himself. Count me as a card-carrying member of the perennially fascinated constituency that McCain used to refer to as his base: the working press.

In his 2000 primary campaign against Bush in South Carolina, he at first denounced the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism and slavery, and then—after his advisers went berserk— took to reading aloud a statement explaining, “I understand both sides.” His maverick campaign never rebounded any more than his reputation ever completely recovered after he chose the palpably unqualified Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate. But just as he later lashed himself for not picking his first choice— the Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman—so he analyzed his failure on the flag issue with an unsparing eye.

“By the time I was asked the question the fourth or fifth time,” he wrote in a memoir, “I could have delivered the response from memory. But I persisted with the theatrics of unfolding the paper and reading it as if I were making a hostage statement. I wanted to telegraph to reporters that I really didn’t mean to suggest I supported flying the flag, but political imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president. I think that made the offense worse. Acknowledging my dishonesty with a wink didn’t make it less a lie. It compounded the offense by revealing how willful it had been. You either have the guts to tell the truth or you don’t. You don’t get any dispensation for lying in a way that suggests your dishonesty.”

Show me a politician—any politician, anywhere—who still talks that way in the 21st century, or will ever talk that way again. In that sense, McCain’s death marks the passing not only of a spirited public servant, but the disappearance of a certain brand of decent self-awareness in public life, a recognition that politics isn’t a reality show, or any kind of show, but a real and serious business on which millions of lives and the fates of nations depend. Like his hero Robert Jordan, in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, McCain always believed that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.”

Did McCain often fall short? Yes. He had his craven, infuriating moments. Fending off a conservative primary challenger in his 2010 Senate re-election campaign he, by turns, flip-flopped on overturning the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving openly; abandoned his support of comprehensive immigration reform; chose not to support a legislative fix after the Supreme Court overturned a key element of his signature campaign-finance reform law; and even went so far as to declare that he had never considered himself to be a maverick at all, prompting Jon Stewart to note that he had not only sold his soul, but sold it short.

I myself then wrote somewhat peevishly that it was possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a “ruthless and self-centered survivor,” who had never pursued an overriding philosophy or legislative agenda, but simply lived for the fight. He once told his press secretary Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well. For his part, in the thick of that primary campaign, McCain just said, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.”

When his North Vietnamese captors demanded the names of his flight squadron, McCain recited the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line, knowing that the false information would suffice (for the moment) to end their abuse. “There’s no bar fight he will walk away from,” his onetime political strategist John Weaver once told me.

To the last, it’s that fighting spirit that defines McCain. Nearly alone among his Republican Senate colleagues, he stood up to Donald Trump, depriving the president of a deciding vote on the repeal of Obamacare, and repeatedly rebuking him in no uncertain terms when he felt like it, memorably declaring that the president had “abased himself” in front of Vladimir Putin, a “tyrant.”

In high school, one of McCain’s nicknames was McNasty, and his belligerence did not always endear him to either the Republicans or Democrats with whom he often feuded. But in the end, he out-fought and out-thought and outlasted most of them, and the evident courage with which he has faced his final illness prompted bipartisan expressions of admiration and respect that felt as unforced as his own outspoken pronouncements over the years. In his captivity in Vietnam, McCain endured more pain than most people could ever imagine. His wartime injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders; he could not comb his own hair without help.

Once, as we prepared to get out of a small airplane in Vermont, where McCain would be greeted by the governor, he struggled to put on his suit jacket. I turned away for a moment, only to notice that he was upset. He could sense that his coat collar was all bunched up, and he asked me matter-of-factly to help him straighten it. It was the smallest thing, but I’ll never forget the sudden, sharp, painful impression it made on me as McCain ducked down the stairs: I was standing behind a very big man.

Doonesbury — Dream on.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Night Martin Luther King Died

You have to be over the age of sixty to remember Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, but age doesn’t matter in order to understand why he was — and still is — an important person in our nation’s history. Growing up on the outskirts of a city with a large black population, I was aware of Dr. King’s work as a part of the daily news coverage in the 1960’s as we watched the march on Selma, the water hoses, the riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Toledo, and heard the pleas for justice, equality, tolerance, and brotherhood during the March on Washington in 1963 and in every city where Dr. King spoke. And I knew that he was an inspiration to a lot of people outside of the black community; anyone who faced injustice based on their skin color or their sexual orientation or any other reason knew what he was talking about. In 1968 I was fifteen years old and wondering whether my attraction to other boys was just me or were there others who faced bullying and discrimination for the same reason. In some small way I knew that Dr. King was speaking to me, too.

I remember very well the night fifty years ago today — April 4, 1968 — when Dr. King was murdered. I was a freshman at boarding school, just back from spring break, when the dorm master, who was also the school chaplain, called us into the common room and announced with both sadness and anger that “They’ve killed Martin Luther King.” He didn’t explain who the “they” were, but we knew what he meant, and two months later, on the day that Bobby Kennedy was buried at Arlington, James Earl Ray was arrested. Ray pled guilty and went to his grave claiming he was part of a conspiracy, but no one else was ever arrested or came forward to back up his claim. But when the chaplain said “they,” he was talking not just about accessories to a crime but to the attitude of a lot of people in America then — as now — who still believe that Dr. King was a communist, an agitator, a rabble-rouser, and a threat to their way of life. And when Dr. King died, there were a lot of people who thought that at long last those uppity agitators would know what they were in for if they kept up their nonsense.

But of course the dream did not die, and in spite of the tumult and anger that came with the loss there came a sense of purpose borne from the realization that if Dr. King had to die for his cause, it must be a powerful cause that touches more than just the lives of black citizens. What we take for granted today in terms of equality and voting rights is still under threat; human nature does not change that quickly in fifty or a hundred years. Dr. King, like the men who wrote the Constitution, knew that they were starting something that would outlive them and their generations; all they had to do was give it a good start.

If you don’t remember Dr. King when he was alive, you are certainly aware of his life and his legacy, and I don’t just mean because you might get the day off on his birthday in January. Regardless of your race, your religion, your sex, or your occupation, Dr. King’s work has changed it, either during your lifetime or setting the stage for it now. And no matter what history may record of his life as a man, a preacher, a father, a husband, or a scholar, it is hard to imagine what this country — and indeed the world — would be like had he not been with us for all too brief a time. And now, more than ever before, we must not forget.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

November 22, 1963

JFK 11-22-06Friday, November 22, 1963. I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened – an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.

There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.

I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.

At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-four years to that time. According to NPR, more than sixty percent of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.

But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is Challenger in 1986, and of course September 11, 2001. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.

Originally published in 2003.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Remembering Paul Wellstone

Martin Longman has a very nice tribute to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) who died 15 years ago in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election and running against Republican Norm Coleman.

As it happens, I’m reading Al Franken’s book “Giant Of The Senate,” which is a very funny and insightful story of his career both in comedy and in politics, which seem to be interchangeable.  A good deal of Mr. Franken’s impetus to run for the Senate was based on his reaction to Norm Coleman’s smug and snotty attitude about winning the election in 2002, and Mr. Franken’s determination to defeat Mr. Coleman in 2008.

Paul Wellstone was an inspiration to a lot of people and the legacy he established is still on-going.

(And yes, I remember where I was when I heard the news.  I was driving home from work, just getting off I-95 onto US 1 in Miami.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Reading

Leslie Nielsen and The Meaning of Life — Josh Marshall.

Leslie Nielsen died 6 1/2 years ago at the age of 84, a respectable degree of longevity after a working life as an actor that stretched over 60 years. I started thinking about him today for no particular reason: I was paddling around the Internet, reading one thing and then another and then happened upon Leslie Nielsen. For what it’s worth, my browsing history shows a series of searches and pages tied to the firing of Reince Priebus followed by stuff about Leslie Nielsen. How I got from one to the other I do not know.

Today I poked a bit deeper into something I’ve thought about here and there many times. Nielsen began his career in 1950 during the so-called ‘Television Golden Age’. According to his Wikipedia page he appeared in 46 live TV episodes in 1950 alone. His first big success was in the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet. From 1950 to 1980 he worked more or less in this vein as a successful TV and movie actor. But if his career had ended in 1980 he would be indistinguishable from and largely immemorable as one of hundreds or thousands of mid-grade actors and actresses who populated film and television over many years but who few of us today would remember or have any need to remember.

But in 1980 Nielsen appeared as Dr. Rumack, his first ever comedic role, in Airplane!, a wildly successful spoof of the then popular transportation disaster movie genre. (Nielsen had also appeared in one of the classics of the genre, 1972’s Poseidon Adventure.) The Dr. Rumack character was an early iteration of the deadpan/ridiculous Det. Frank Drebin character Nielsen went on to play in the Police Squad!/Naked Gun franchise, the character he is now known for.

If you’re my age or older you’re old enough to have some memory of the pre-Airplane! Nielsen, which I think is at least marginally necessary to fully get the magic of the characters he played for the next 34 years of his life. It wasn’t just that Nielsen wasn’t a comedy actor. Nielsen specialized in a genre of mid-20th century American male screen roles from which all traces of comedy or irony were systematically removed through some chemical process in pre-production or earlier. He was the straightest of straight men. That’s what made his comedic roles – playing against that type or rather playing the same type in a world suddenly revealed as absurd – just magic.

There’s a great life lesson here about hope and the unknown, I’ve always thought, for those willing to see it, whatever our age. When Airplane! premiered, Nielsen was 54 years old, well into mid-life and at a stage when most of us are thinking more about what we have accomplished than what we will. It is certainly not like Nielsen had been any sort of professional failure in life. Far from it. He’d worked successfully as an actor for three decades. And yet not only was the story not over; it was really only beginning.

Years later, after his true calling as a comedic actor was widely recognized, he told an interviewer that rather than playing against type, comedy is what he’d always wanted to do. He just hadn’t had a chance. This makes me think of a gay man who only lets himself come out in the middle or late in life and yet still has a chance – enough time – to live as himself. Hopefully, happily, this seems likely to be less of a type in the future than it was in the past. But it applies as much to anyone who finds their true selves or calling with enough time left in the race.

Two years after Airplane! in 1982, the same team of which created Airplane! cast Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! This is the ur-Nielsen comedic character, the straight ahead and no-nonsense character walking through and oblivious to a world that is only nonsense. I watched this show at the time and absolutely loved it. It was in 1982 and I was 13, lonely and deeply damaged without really knowing it, having lost my mother in a car wreck a year earlier. I needed comedy and I found it. I could scarcely believe when I was reading up on Police Squad! earlier this afternoon that not only did the show not make it past one season, it aired only 6 episodes! Six episodes! I remember looking forward to each new episode every week. It’s hard for me to believe it went on for such a short period of time. But memory plays tricks on us.

Let me quote at length from Police Squad’s wikipedia entry on the failure of the show (which of course wasn’t really a failure since it spawned the Naked Gun movies) with particular reference to Matt Groening on how the show was actually far ahead of its time …

ABC announced the cancellation of Police Squad! after four of its six episodes had aired in March 1982. The final two episodes were aired that summer. According to the DVD Commentary of “A Substantial Gift” (episode 1), then-ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos said “Police Squad! was cancelled because “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” What Thomopoulos meant was that the viewer had to pay very close attention to the show in order to get much of the humor, while most other TV shows did not demand as much effort from the viewer. In its annual “Cheers and Jeers” issue, TV Guide magazine called the explanation for the cancellation “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.”[citation needed]

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, has said, “If Police Squad! had been made twenty years later, it would have been a smash. It was before its time. In 1982 your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes. But these days they’d have no problems keeping up, I think we’ve proved that.”

This wasn’t the only way that Nielsen was and remained ahead of his time, even as the Drebin character and various permutations of that ur-Nielsen character became something on the level of pop cultural touchstones. Whoever wrote the lede of Nielsen’s wikipedia entry described his comedic oeuvre like this: “In his comedy roles, Nielsen specialized in portraying characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.”

I can scarcely think of a more concise description. That is also what makes Nielsen the great comedic interpreter of the Trump Era, even though he didn’t live to see it.

Can there be any description of our time, the last two years and especially the last six months, better than “characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.” I do not think so. It captures so much of the comedy, horror, absurdity and moral rot of our times. It is unquestionably why this “nothing to see here” gif of Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin has become so ubiquitous a signifier during the Trump presidency.

While there’s life, there’s hope, as the aphorism has it. And humor, which Nielsen gave us so much of, is one of the things that makes life both joy (at the high moments) and endurable (at the low). You will never know till your life is over entirely what it meant or fully who you were. And sometimes not even then. There is always possibility.

Taking It To The Streets — Charlie Pierce on how resistance worked.

All week, the South Lawn of the Capitol had been the scene of protests of varying sizes, all of them directed at the U.S. Senate for the purposes of demonstrating how unpopular were that body’s attempts to slice and dice the Affordable Care Act. There were protests in Upper Senate Park, too, across Constitution Avenue, the home of the world’s most off-key carillon. On Wednesday evening, there was a big rally there supporting Planned Parenthood. Both Senator Al Franken and Senator Professor Warren spoke at that one. At odd moments, I’d wander out and talk to the people gathered there.

They were from all over the country. Some of them had been very sick. Some of them still were. All of them were very uneasy about their personal future. On Tuesday night, when it looked like Mitch McConnell had won his gamble against representative democracy, there were 15 people on the South Lawn, at midnight, chanting up at the empty Capitol. They were the stakes in McConnell’s gamble, and they were shouting at a vacant building. This was a scene that seemed suitable, and sadly symbolic, to the moment at hand.

All that changed early Friday morning, when 51 senators raided McConnell’s game. You could hear the cheers from outside in the halls of the Senate. Various senators, including SPW again, went outside and congratulated the people on the South Lawn. The last (for now) attempt to chloroform the ACA formally through legislation had failed. (Watch, however, how the campaign to sabotage it ramps up now, led by the White House, whose petulant occupant will gladly pull your temple down on his head.) As I walked back into the Capitol, what came to mind were all the people I have heard over the years who told me that political activism was a sucker’s game, a rigged wheel, a space for performance art with an audience of rich people. I agreed with a lot of the last part of that, and still do. But there are only two ways to go, even if you accept the latter part of the premise. You can accept that political activism is a sucker’s game and give up, or wrap yourself in the robes of ideological purity as though they were suits of armor. Or, you can accept that political activism is a sucker’s game and then engage in political activism to make it less so. And, as I went back and forth between the Senate chamber and the South Lawn in the dark of the early morning on Friday, I thought a lot about Alaska.

In 2010, the American people elected the worst Congress in the history of the republic. (This distinction held until 2014 when, against all odds, they elected a worse one.) One of the reasons this happened was that the well-financed AstroTurfed Tea Party movement took down a number of Republican incumbents in primary elections in favor of an odd lot of utter whackadoos. (This is how we got Sharron Angle’s running against Harry Reid on a platform of putting America’s currency back on the poultry standard.) Nowhere was this more clear than in Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost her primary to a militia-tinged meathead named Joe Miller. (Among his other deeply held positions, Miller was quite complimentary toward the late East Germany for how effectively its wall worked.) Instead of walking away, Murkowski organized a write-in campaign to run in the general election. Granted, it was better funded than most such efforts, but it was still the first successful write-in campaign for the Senate since 1954.

(And, let’s be fair, “Murkowski” is tough sledding for a write-in candidate. In fact, one of the causes of action in Miller’s subsequent endless litigation of the results was trying to disqualify any ballot on which Murkowski’s name was misspelled.)

And that happened to be how Lisa Murkowski was even in the Senate at all this week to stand firm against the pressure from her caucus and against clumsy threats from down at Camp Runamuck. That happened to be how she was even in the chamber at all to stick to John McCain like his shadow through the long run-up to the climactic vote. That happened to be how she was in the Senate at all—because, in 2010, a lot of people in Alaska went the extra mile to keep her there. That’s how political activism works—one little ripple seven years earlier becomes a kind of wave at the most unexpected time.

And that is the final and lasting lesson of this week in Washington. The primary force driving the events of Thursday night and Friday morning was the energy and (yes) persistence of all those people who swamped town hall meetings, who wrote, or called, or e-mailed various congresscritters to show them what real political pressure felt like. I remember watching town halls in Maine, to which people drove hundreds of miles to tell Susan Collins what they thought. Those people bucked up vulnerable Democratic senators so that Chuck Schumer could count on a united Congress.

They brought pressure on Republican governors, too. People like Brian Sandoval in Nevada and John Kasich in Ohio were handed put-up-or-shut-up choices from their constituents. Perhaps the most significant Republican governor was Doug Ducey of Arizona, whom McCain repeatedly said he would consult before voting. Late on Thursday afternoon, Ducey came out strongly against the bill. But it all begins with the people who put themselves in the streets, and the people in wheelchairs who got roughed up on Capitol Hill, and all those impassioned voices on the phone, just as Lisa Murkowski’s continued political survival depended on all those Alaskans who took the extra time to write in her name on a ballot.

We all decide, ultimately and individually, if the country is worth saving, one heavy lift at a time, knowing that, if the country is worth saving, we never will come to the last of them.

Crazy On Line 1 — Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker got a phone call.  Warning: for those of you who don’t like harsh language, move on.

On Wednesday night, I received a phone call from Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director. He wasn’t happy. Earlier in the night, I’d tweeted, citing a “senior White House official,” that Scaramucci was having dinner at the White House with President Trump, the First Lady, Sean Hannity, and the former Fox News executive Bill Shine. It was an interesting group, and raised some questions. Was Trump getting strategic advice from Hannity? Was he considering hiring Shine? But Scaramucci had his own question—for me.

“Who leaked that to you?” he asked. I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. “What I’m going to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” he said. I laughed, not sure if he really believed that such a threat would convince a journalist to reveal a source. He continued to press me and complain about the staff he’s inherited in his new job. “I ask these guys not to leak anything and they can’t help themselves,” he said. “You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.”

In Scaramucci’s view, the fact that word of the dinner had reached a reporter was evidence that his rivals in the West Wing, particularly Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, were plotting against him. While they have publicly maintained that there is no bad blood between them, Scaramucci and Priebus have been feuding for months. After the election, Trump asked Scaramucci to join his Administration, and Scaramucci sold his company, SkyBridge Capital, in anticipation of taking on a senior role. But Priebus didn’t want him in the White House, and successfully blocked him from being appointed to a job until last week, when Trump offered him the communications job over Priebus’s vehement objections. In response to Scaramucci’s appointment, Sean Spicer, an ally of Priebus’s, resigned his position as press secretary. And in an additional slight to Priebus, the White House’s official announcement of Scaramucci’s hiring noted that he would report directly to the President, rather than to the chief of staff.

Scaramucci’s first public appearance as communications director was a slick and conciliatory performance at the lectern in the White House briefing room last Friday. He suggested it was time for the White House to turn a page. But since then, he has become obsessed with leaks and threatened to fire staffers if he discovers that they have given unauthorized information to reporters. Michael Short, a White House press aide considered close to Priebus, resigned on Tuesday after Scaramucci publicly spoke about firing him. Meanwhile, several damaging stories about Scaramucci have appeared in the press, and he blamed Priebus for most of them. Now, he wanted to know whom I had been talking to about his dinner with the President. Scaramucci, who initiated the call, did not ask for the conversation to be off the record or on background.

“Is it an assistant to the President?” he asked. I again told him I couldn’t say. “O.K., I’m going to fire every one of them, and then you haven’t protected anybody, so the entire place will be fired over the next two weeks.”

I asked him why it was so important for the dinner to be kept a secret. Surely, I said, it would become public at some point. “I’ve asked people not to leak things for a period of time and give me a honeymoon period,” he said. “They won’t do it.” He was getting more and more worked up, and he eventually convinced himself that Priebus was my source.

“They’ll all be fired by me,” he said. “I fired one guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow. I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.” The issue, he said, was that he believed Priebus had been worried about the dinner because he hadn’t been invited. “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ” (Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.)

Scaramucci was particularly incensed by a Politico report about his financial-disclosure form, which he viewed as an illegal act of retaliation by Priebus. The reporter said Thursday morning that the document was publicly available and she had obtained it from the Export-Import Bank. Scaramucci didn’t know this at the time, and he insisted to me that Priebus had leaked the document, and that the act was “a felony.”

“I’ve called the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice,” he told me.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“The swamp will not defeat him,” he said, breaking into the third person. “They’re trying to resist me, but it’s not going to work. I’ve done nothing wrong on my financial disclosures, so they’re going to have to go fuck themselves.”

Scaramucci also told me that, unlike other senior officials, he had no interest in media attention. “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.” (Bannon declined to comment.)

He reiterated that Priebus would resign soon, and he noted that he told Trump that he expected Priebus to launch a campaign against him. “He didn’t get the hint that I was reporting directly to the President,” he said. “And I said to the President here are the four or five things that he will do to me.” His list of allegations included leaking the Hannity dinner and the details from his financial-disclosure form.

I got the sense that Scaramucci’s campaign against leakers flows from his intense loyalty to Trump. Unlike other Trump advisers, I’ve never heard him say a bad word about the President. “What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers and I want to get the President’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people,” he told me.

He cryptically suggested that he had more information about White House aides. “O.K., the Mooch showed up a week ago,” he said. “This is going to get cleaned up very shortly, O.K.? Because I nailed these guys. I’ve got digital fingerprints on everything they’ve done through the F.B.I. and the fucking Department of Justice.”

“What?” I interjected.

“Well, the felony, they’re gonna get prosecuted, probably, for the felony.” He added, “The lie detector starts—” but then he changed the subject and returned to what he thought was the illegal leak of his financial-disclosure forms. I asked if the President knew all of this.

“Well, he doesn’t know the extent of all that, he knows about some of that, but he’ll know about the rest of it first thing tomorrow morning when I see him.”

Scaramucci said he had to get going. “Yeah, let me go, though, because I’ve gotta start tweeting some shit to make this guy crazy.”

Minutes later, he tweeted, “In light of the leak of my financial info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.” With the addition of Priebus’s Twitter handle, he was making public what he had just told me: that he believed Priebus was leaking information about him. The tweet quickly went viral.

Scaramucci seemed to have second thoughts. Within two hours he deleted the original tweet and posted a new one denying that he was targeting the chief of staff. “Wrong!” he said, adding a screenshot of an Axios article that said, “Scaramucci appears to want Priebus investigated by FBI.” Scaramucci continued, “Tweet was public notice to leakers that all Sr Adm officials are helping to end illegal leaks. @Reince45.”

A few hours later, I appeared on CNN to discuss the overnight drama. As I was talking about Scaramucci, he called into the show himself and referenced our conversation. He changed his story about Priebus. Instead of saying that he was trying to expose Priebus as a leaker, he said that the reason he mentioned Priebus in his deleted tweet was because he wanted to work together with Priebus to discover the leakers.

“He’s the chief of staff, he’s responsible for understanding and uncovering and helping me do that inside the White House, which is why I put that tweet out last night,” Scaramucci said, after noting that he had talked to me Wednesday night. He then made an argument that journalists were assuming that he was accusing Priebus because they know Priebus leaks to the press.

“When I put out a tweet, and I put Reince’s name in the tweet,” he said, “they’re all making the assumption that it’s him because journalists know who the leakers are. So, if Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that.”

Scaramucci then made a plea to viewers. “Let me tell you something about myself,” he said. “I am a straight shooter.”

Since this article was published, Reince Priebus was fired as Chief of Staff and Mr. Scarmucci’s wife filed for divorce.

Doonesbury — Those parts are gone.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Let This Be His Legacy

Charles P. Pierce on what’s left of John McCain’s record.

… But the ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure. He flew all the way across the country, leaving his high-end government healthcare behind in Arizona, in order to cast the deciding vote to allow debate on whatever ghastly critter emerges from what has been an utterly undemocratic process. He flew all the way across the country in order to facilitate the process of denying to millions of Americans the kind of medical treatment that is keeping him alive, and to do so at the behest of a president* who mocked McCain’s undeniable military heroism.

For longtime McCain watchers, and I count myself as one of them, this is something of a pattern. In 2000, George W. Bush’s campaign slandered him and his young daughter, and radical fundamentalist Christians joined in so eagerly that McCain delivered the best speech of his career, calling those people “agents of intolerance.” By 2006, he was on Meet The Press, which ultimately always was the constituency he cared most about, saying that the late Jerry Falwell was no longer an agent of intolerance. He was hugging Bush, and he was speaking at Liberty University. All of this seems to support the theory that the best way to win over John McCain is to treat him as badly as possible.

So he got a standing ovation when he walked into the chamber, and that was all right, and then he cast the vote to proceed. And then, having done so, he climbed onto his high horse and delivered an address every word of which was belied by the simple “yes” he had traveled so far to cast.

[…]

I wanted this to be different. In 2000, I thought McCain might be the person to lead his party back to marginal sanity at least. But he wanted to be president, so he became like all the rest of them. Yes, he scolded that person who said Barack Obama was a Muslim, but he chose as his running mate a nutty person who still may believe he is. Yes, he put his name on a campaign finance reform bill, but he also voted for every member of the Supreme Court who subsequently eviscerated that law, and others like it, and he’s been absent from that fight ever since. There have been very few senators as loyal to the party line as John McCain. He has been a great lost opportunity to the country. Now, he will end his career as the face of whatever wretchedness is brought on the country by whatever the bill finally is.

The comparisons to Jefferson Smith end now.

Monday, January 16, 2017

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-third 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, January 11, 2017

President Obama’s Farewell

The President spoke in Chicago last night.  Here’s the video (auto-play) and transcript via the Los Angeles Times.

An excerpt:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you.  I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain.  For now, whether you’re young or young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe.  Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes We Can.

Yes We Did.

Yes We Can.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Short Takes

Hillary Clinton went back on the campaign trail.

President Obama designated the first national marine monument off the coast of New England.

The Senate passed a bill to help Flint repair the water system.

Feds recall 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s.

The Tigers lost to the Twins 5-1.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

President Obama’s Speech

This was worth staying up late for.

I have heard a lot of speeches in my time but this one was everything you’d hope for. It wasn’t just political, it was consequential. The president acknowledged his mistakes, shared credit for his successes, and made the case for Hillary Clinton. And he basically dared the country to vote for Donald Trump, saying in essence, “After all I did for you, don’t go and throw it all away by giving in to your lizard brain and electing him.”

Short Takes

Trump appeals to Russia for help in his campaign.

All charges against police dropped in Freddie Gray case.

Apple says it has sold 1 billion iPhones (but not to me).

President Obama has chosen a historic Chicago neighborhood for his library.

John Hinckley to be released.

The Tigers swept the Red Sox 4-3.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sunday Reading

Transcendent — Charlie Pierce on Muhammad Ali.

I play it cool/I dig all jive/That is how I stay alive

—Langston Hughes

There is no real place to begin with him and no ending fit enough for the life he led. Muhammad Ali died on Friday, true enough. They will take him to his final rest on Wednesday in Louisville, which was only his first hometown in a world that he made his true hometown. So he was not immortal, the way we all thought he might be, but he lived a life beyond the bounds of mortality anyway, a life that has no real beginning and that still has a vital spirit for which no ending is adequate.

He was an iconic human being in an era that produced icons with every turn of the television dial, every front page of every morning newspaper and, my god, most of them died young. John and Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. None of them ever made 50. None of them ever made old bones. Only Ali lived to see how he truly changed the world around him, how it had come to understand that some lives are lived beyond the mortal limits.

He was a transcendent athlete, first and foremost, every bit as skilled at what he did for a living as Michael Jordan or Pele. The greatest change in athletes over the span of his physical life is that big athletes got fast. LeBron James plays basketball and he is just about the same size as Antonio Gates, who is a tight end. When he first arrived at Wimbledon, Boris Becker looked like a college linebacker. Ali was tall for a heavyweight, bigger than anyone who was faster than he was and faster than anyone who was bigger.

You have to have seen him before he was stripped of his livelihood to appreciate fully his gifts as an athlete. Foot speed. Hand speed. Before it all hit the fan in 1968, Sports Illustrated put him in a lab with strobe lights and everything, to time the speed of his punches. The results looked something out of a special-effects lab. In one of his routines, the late Richard Pryor used to talk about sparring with Ali in a charity exhibition. A Golden Gloves fighter in his youth, as Pryor later put it, “you don’t see his punches until they comin’ back. And your mind be sayin’, ‘Wait a minute now. There was some shit in my face a minute ago. I know that.'” He was an accelerated man in an accelerated age. Saying he was “ahead of his time” was only the half of it. His time was all time.

That was what led to the rest of it—the opposition to the criminal stupidity that was being practiced by this country in Southeast Asia, stated in terms as fundamentally American as the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law…” His stubborn insistence that his life was his own, that it did not belong to the sclerotic old gangsters who still ran boxing, nor to the sclerotic old men who still ran the government, with their wiretaps and their phony indictments and their lawbooks. He was too fast for them all to catch, ultimately, and too pretty for a country that was vandalizing its most beautiful elements. That stubbornness also likely led to his physical downfall. All gifts have their dark side. All debts come due.

He was a prophet, in every way that America makes its prophets, in the same way that was William Lloyd Garrison, who told his country “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD,” and in the same way that was Dr. King, who told that same country that:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note.”

He embodied the country, in all its historic, inherent contradictions, in all its promises, broken and unbroken, and in all of its lost promises and hard-won glories. He insisted on the rights that the country said were his from birth and, in demanding them, freed himself to enjoy them, and freed the country, if only for a moment, to be something more than even the Founders thought it would be. And now, he’s passed from the earth. It was a great, golden trumpet of a life he led, and it is calling, calling still, and will still be calling, as the old hymn puts it, when time shall be no more.

The Real Scandal — Julianne Hing in The Nation on Donald Trump’s scam “university.”

This is where we are at this point of the collective national nightmare of the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign: On Thursday, Donald Trump toldThe Wall Street Journal that because of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s “Mexican heritage,” the federal judge has an “absolute conflict” in presiding over a lawsuit brought by former students of Trump’s self-named real-estate courses. Curiel’s ethnic background is of importance because, Trump said, “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.” Trump clearly misunderstands the concept; a defendant’s own prejudices have no bearing on whether a judge is unfit for the job.

When Trump first mentioned the Indiana-born judge’s ethnicity at a San Diego rally last Friday, it was to do his usual jabbing and dancing to avoid ethical punches. At that event, Trump raised Curiel and mentioned his ethnic background in the same breath: “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine,” adding that he was sure that Mexican Americans would come around to support him “when I give all these jobs, OK?” Then he circled back around. “I’m getting railroaded by the legal system,” he said, “Frankly, they should be ashamed.” Trump labeled Curiel “a hater of Donald Trump,” and also called him “a total disgrace.”

It was a classic Trump move: create bogeymen out of thin air in order to prop up his self-imagined victimhood; home in on a person’s race or sex as the basis for his attacks; and then antagonize as a form of diversion from the matter at hand. That matter would be Trump University, the mogul’s real-estate courses that purportedly taught customers how to become like Trump, for as much as $35,000, or starting at the low, low price of $1,495. The lawsuit alleges that far from teaching students actual real-estate expertise, Trump ran a fraudulent business scheme.

The marketing schemes for Trump’s real-estate seminars at times sound ripped straight from the recruitment playbooks of the scandal-plagued for-profit school industry, which has preyed on single moms, people of color, veterans, and those who’ve been locked out of more prestigious avenues for higher education.

Take, for instance, the 2010 Senate testimony of Joshua Pruyn, a former admissions representative for Westwood College, a for-profit chain of, at the time, 17 campuses. Pruyn was technically an admissions advisor, but in reality his position was that of a glorified sales rep. “During the interview, we were taught to portray ourselves as advisors looking out for the students’ best interests and ensuring they were a good fit for the school. This fake interview would allow the representative to ask students questions to uncover a student’s motivators and pain points—their hopes, fears, and insecurities—all of which would later be used to pressure a student to enroll,” Pruyn testified.

The for-profit schools industry targeted people of color, poor people, and veterans because they more likely to be eligible for public financial aid like Pell Grants. This much-parodied Everest College commercial should be very familiar with anyone who watches daytime television.

Students of color ended up forming the backbone of the industry’s explosive growth in the early and mid-2000s. In the 2010–11 school year, just as the Obama administration’s regulatory hammer started to fall on the industry, the for-profit system University of Phoenix was the nation’s top producer of new black undergrad graduates. The nation’s second-highest producer of new black baccalaureates that year was Ashford University, also a for-profit college.

When the industry’s comeuppance came, it was devastating. In lawsuit after lawsuit, universities were accused of fleecing students of their federal student-aid money and saddling them with debt they couldn’t repay, and leaving students with an education and credits that weren’t transferrable or recognized as valid by other educational institutions. In December 2015, after multiple settlements in various lawsuits, Westwood College—where former admissions recruiter Pruyn worked—agreed not to enroll any more students.

After suffering a barrage of these kinds of lawsuits and increased regulation from the Obama administration, the for-profit schools industry is now in the tank these days. Enrollment is down; many have been maligned for the shady businesses that they were, including Trump University.

Hours after Trump brought Judge Curiel into his campaign theater last week, Curiel unsealed documents related to his case, at the request of The Washington Post. Those documents detail the aggressive marketing and recruitment playbook that Trump University sales staffers worked from. The playbook urged sales members to not let prospective customers be deterred by their own lack of money (“If they believe in you and your product, they will find the money”), and to guide consumers through “the roller coaster of emotions,” so as to encourage students to cough up cash. The guides urged sales members to home in on people’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect “during closing time.” (“For example: are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food?”)

These tactics, Trump would rather not discuss. Always easier, after all, to pivot to the most base of appeals—racial and ethnic antagonism—and the cheapest of tactics—bullying others and calling it self-defense.

Spectacles Spectacle — Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker on the latest art craze.

A recent little sensation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art delights and bemuses. Two teen-age boys from San Jose were perusing, with perplexity, the museum’s exhibits of contemporary art when they had a notion. One of them, Kevin Nguyen, sixteen, set his opened eyeglasses on the floor, neatly perpendicular to a nearby wall. He and T. J. Khayatan, seventeen, then stood back to watch what ensued: viewers observing the glasses with the curiosity and respect befitting a work of art—which, under the circumstances, they were.

Not that the glasses were good art, necessarily—an issue made moot, in any case, when Nguyen picked them up and put them back on.

But consider: an object manufactured to enhance seeing, presented as something to see. By being underfoot, the glasses were divorced from their function and protected only by the don’t-touch protocol of museums. They might have seemed, to a suggestible audience, to be about being-in-a-museum—and that audience could have included me. Suggestibility, undaunted by fear of proving foolish, is essential to art love.

Invoked, of course, was the evergreen aesthetic of the readymade, demonstrated by Marcel Duchamp with a urinal, in 1917. But that trope is hardly surefire. During their visit, Nguyen and Khayatan ventured two other placements, of a jacket and a baseball cap, which, at least visibly, intrigued no one. Some conceptual poetry or satirical bite is needed to bring a readymade off. The glasses managed both the former, at first, and then the latter, when their backstory emerged.

Many sane citizens will deem the spectacle of the spectacles ridiculous. They won’t be wrong. A risk of absurdity always attends the willingness to surrender oneself to the spell of any mere object: the dirtied swatch of cloth that is a painting, for example. It’s a game, whatever else it is, which makes sense only with knowledge of the rules and customs that are in play.

Museums edit, for our convenience, the universe of existing things. What they let in and what they keep out shape culture. How far in the way of inclusion is too far? How much in the way of discrimination is just crabby?

Have we witnessed the entire art career, now, of the San Jose Two?

You go, boys.

Doonesbury — Heir Apparent.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday Reading

Stand Up, Miss Jean Louise — Charlie Pierce on the truth Harper Lee taught us.

There are a handful of movie scenes that make the room very, very dusty for me. It’s predictable. I’ve seen the movies hundreds of times. I know the scenes are coming. It doesn’t make any difference. The blurring occurs like an autonomic reflex. The Marsellaisescene in Casablanca is one. So are the last couple of scenes from Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. (“Ah, bugger it. I meant to say cheeri-o.”) Dorothy’s farewells, especially to the Scarecrow, is another, as is the moment Harry Bailey says, “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town.”

And this one.

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Harper Lee, who died on Friday at 89, taught so many of us how first to read a book without pictures. (Whenever I am reminded that To Kill A Mockingbird is somehow as equally revered as that unlikable mess, Catcher In The Rye, I despair of American youth.) She taught us what simple humanity was before we were old enough to put a name to it. She taught us–gently, as was the fashion of the times–that there was something very wrong at the heart of the America in which we were being raised. I know it’s fashionable now to deride Lee’s masterpiece as a tepid depiction of the segregated South in which she was raised. (And let us be charitable and forget the unseemly circus surrounding Go Tell The Watchman.) But, when I consider these arguments, I am reminded always of what Frederick Douglass said in the aftermath of the murder of Abraham Lincoln:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

It was 1960 when Lee published her book. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were still alive. So were Viola Liuzzo and Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were still going happily to Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I like to believe that, even if we didn’t know it at the time, even if it were only subconsciously, Lee’s book gave millions of schoolchildren something to stash away in ourselves to make sense of what was coming to the country and to determine for ourselves on which side justice was arrayed. I believe, given the sentiment of its times, To Kill A Mockingbird became genuinely subversive over the following decade.

And, anyway, it was beautifully written, which counts, too. Stand up. Miss Lee’s passing.

The End of the Road — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on Jeb Bush ending his run.

Almost all presidential campaigns end in failure. But few complete an arc as dramatic as Jeb Bush’s bid: Once considered a highly unlikely candidate, Bush surged almost immediately upon his entry into the pole position, then almost as quickly fell out contention and became a punch line.

Bush announced on Saturday night that he would leave the race, after a disappointing finish in South Carolina on Saturday. “The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision,” he said. “So tonight I am suspending my campaign.”

It followed an excruciating week of campaigning—a week in which the Jeb finally brought his brother to campaign as a desperation step, tried contacts for the first time in his life, lashed out at pundits and his rivals, and practically begged voters to believe in him.

[…]

What will Jeb Bush’s legacy in the 2016 race be? For a one-time frontrunner, the answer is precious little. It’s hard to see much policy impact, and given his standing in the polls, hard to see much political impact. In the final months of the campaign, Bush tried to position himself as Trump’s top assailant, attacking him during debates and on the stump—whether because he thought that would benefit him or because he figured he might as well help the party out on his way out.
His major impact, however, may be the damage he did to his former protege Marco Rubio. First, by staying in the race well past the time when he realistically had a chance, Bush clogged up the “establishment lane” Rubio needs to consolidate. Secondly, Right to Rise unloaded on Rubio for weeks, trying to weaken him to Bush’s benefit. It didn’t help Jeb, but it might have hurt Marco. Rubio heads to Nevada, after finishing abreast of Cruz in South Carolina—and that’s the highest he’s finished so far. Maybe Rubio would have faltered anyway, but if the race comes down to Cruz and Trump, expect a great deal of establishment finger-pointing at Bush and Right to Rise for destroying Rubio’s chances.One thing that can be said for Jeb Bush’s candidacy is that he foretold his own fate at the start.

“I don’t know if I would be a good candidate or a bad one, but I kinda know how a Republican could win, whether it’s me or somebody else, and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive,” he said at a Wall Street Journal event in December 2014, adding that a GOP nominee must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.”

There were a few cringeworthy moments—like the contacts—but in general, it’s a credo that Bush kept to. While he wasn’t above attacking rivals, he was never comfortable adopting the tactics of a Trump or a Cruz. He tried to stay positive. Whether Bush was capable of winning the general election is now only a matter of speculation, but he was willing to lose the primary to do it.

No Bridges, But A Wall — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—As America’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure dangerously deteriorate from decades of neglect, there is a mounting sense of urgency that it is time to build a giant wall.

Across the U.S., whose rail system is a rickety antique plagued by deadly accidents, Americans are increasingly recognizing that building a wall with Mexico, and possibly another one with Canada, should be the country’s top priority.

Harland Dorrinson, the executive director of a Washington-based think tank called the Center for Responsible Immigration, believes that most Americans favor the building of border walls over extravagant pet projects like structurally sound freeway overpasses.

“The estimated cost of a border wall with Mexico is five billion dollars,” he said. “We could easily blow the same amount of money on infrastructure repairs and have nothing to show for it but functioning highways.”

Congress has dragged its feet on infrastructure spending in recent years, but Dorrinson senses growing support in Washington for building a giant border wall. “Even if for some reason we don’t get the Mexicans to pay for it, five billion is a steal,” he said.

While some think that America’s declining infrastructure is a national-security threat, Dorrinson strongly disagrees. “If immigrants somehow get over the wall, the condition of our bridges and roads will keep them from getting very far,” he said.

Doonesbury — Six of seven.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Year From Today

A year from today will be the first day of a new president’s administration.  Hopefully it will not be the first day of the administration of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, and Barack Obama will have left office to someone who is not going to turn the clock and the country back to whatever it would be for someone who demands that they “want our country back.”

Keeping with my New Year’s Eve prediction, I believe it will be Hillary Clinton, but a year is an eternity in politics, and a year ago no one really believed that Donald Trump would be the GOP front runner or that Bernie Sanders would be running neck-and-neck in some polls with Ms. Clinton.

One thing that I know will not change is that the right wing noise machine will still be in full force and that even if the Democrats re-take the Senate and chip away at the GOP majority in the House, the Republicans will still be in full denial and recalcitrance mode.  The vow to thwart a Democratic president’s every move will be renewed if not redoubled; a wounded and tattered GOP is still dangerous, and after losing three presidential elections in a row, they will not be in any mood to compromise, and they will, of course, blame it all on everyone else.

I have no idea what it will take to get them to break away from their desperate nail-hold on some semblance of power, and shake off the lunacy that somehow “the American people” are with them or agree with their fringe views on women, minorities, immigration, guns, and taxes.  But as long as they’re held in the thrall of a few people with a lot of money to support their 18th century views on equality and rights, they will keep pushing for them.  Money is a powerful drug and so far there is no cure or rehab for it in politics.

If though, by some stunning reversal of evolution and progress, a Republican is walking in to the Oval Office a year from today, it will be as if the country is rewarding them for their infantile and reckless behavior over the last thirty years, made all the worse by the number of Democrats, independents, and even the few remaining moderate Republicans who decided they were above it all and found some excuse for not voting the previous November.

So we have a year, folks.  A year to get ready to take on the money, the hatred, the gob-smacking lies and grasps of desperation that will infest this nation until November 2016 and beyond.  It’s not going to get easier and trust me when I tell you that there will be many times we are going to get to the point of saying the hell with it and start Googling permanent residence status in St. Kitts.  But it’s our country, too, and I’m not going to give it over to the fear and loathing crowd.  Not without a fight.

Monday, January 18, 2016

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 fiftieth 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, July 19, 2015

Sunday Reading

Obama and History — Josh Marshall on what a legacy means to President Obama.

We all remember that week last month when the country seemed to be marching with history. The Court upheld the Affordable Care Act against what is likely its last serious legal challenge, effectively embedding it deeply into the structure of American social policy. The Court then (in what was unfortunately a weakly argued majority decision) made marriage equality the law of the land nationwide. Then on the heels of these events came the President’s speech (transcript here) in Charleston, South Carolina – actually a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Emmanuel Church massacre on June 17 but in fact a commemoration and meditation on the meaning of the whole event. (James Fallows’ is one of the best appreciations and treatments of it.)

[…]

When I look at Obama I don’t see a President desperately trying to cram legacy achievements into the declining months of his presidency. I see achievements coming to fruition that were usually years in the making but often seemed errant or quixotic and uncertain in their outcome. This is what for many was so bracing about the end of June. This has been a long long seven years. What seemed like an uncertain list of achievements, long on promise but hacked apart by mid-term election reverses and Obama’s sometimes over-desire for accommodation, suddenly appeared closer to profound, like a novel or a play which seems scattered or unresolved until all the pieces fall into place, clearly planned all along, at the end.

Whatever you think of this Iran agreement, it is not only the product of years of work but is core to the foreign policy vision Obama brought with him to the presidency. It’s as core to the goals he entered the presidency with as anything that has happened in recent weeks. He has it in view; his political opponents will be very hard pressed to block him. And he is pushing ahead to get it done.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a clear and palpable change in the President’s affect and demeanor. His presidency is coming to an end and his range of action will diminish further as the presidential election moves to center stage next year. As the budget deficit has receded from public view, Obama’s fucks deficit has come to the forefront. After six and a half years in office, he may have a small stockpile of fucks left. But he has none left to give. He is increasingly indifferent to the complaints and anger of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters. You can see it too in the more frequent lean-in-on-the-lectern moments during press conferences and speeches. He’s truly out of fucks to give. But it’s more a product of focus on finishing aspects of his presidency in motion for years than of cramming at the end. For most of his supporters, this was the Obama they always wanted. And he’s giving it to them. What comes off to reporters as testiness is more like the indifference of someone who’s got work to do and is intent on doing it.

Scout’s Honor — Dale Russakoff in The New Yorker reconnects with the woman who played Scout in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird looks back at her role on and off the screen.

After playing Scout in the movie of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1962, Mary Badham endured a rude homecoming when she returned to Birmingham, Alabama. Having just spent six months in California with her mother, living in a racially integrated apartment complex, she found herself suddenly an outsider back home. “The attitude was ‘Lord knows what she might’ve learned out there!’ ” Badham recalled the other day. “Some families, I’d been welcome in their homes, and after the film, I was no longer welcome.”

Like the adult Scout in Harper Lee’s newly published “Go Set a Watchman,” Badham left the South during the era of segregation, and returned to find that people she once considered unequivocally good in fact bore the markings of that evil system. In the case of Scout, as revealed with alarm by reviewers of “Watchman,” it’s her sainted father, Atticus, who emerges as an overt racist, inveighing against threats to segregation from the U.S. Supreme Court and local lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P. Badham similarly discovered a mean streak in family friends who didn’t tolerate her breaking of Southern white taboos. “I was ostracized and it was painful,” said the adult Badham.

This past Tuesday night, nine hundred people, a sellout crowd, came to hear Badham read from “Go Set a Watchman” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the 92nd Street Y. Harper Lee herself made New York City—specifically the Upper East Side neighborhood around the Y—her second home for more than fifty years. These were her fans, and they clearly had come looking for something to celebrate. When Badham was introduced, they whooped and cheered.

Badham, who was nine when she played the iconic six-year-old and is now sixty-two, was completely overcome. Today a furniture-restorer in rural Virginia, she clasped her hands, raised them in celebration, then took a bow, and finally laughed until she almost cried. She read a brief excerpt from “Mockingbird,” and the first chapter of “Watchman.” Her voice is slow and lilting, quintessentially Southern. Alternately funny and poignant, Badham’s channelling of Jean Louise Finch—in “Watchman,” she has mostly shed her famous nickname—elicited frequent laughter.

In the Q. & A. that followed, moderator Mary Murphy, the director of the documentary “Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman,” asked Badham if she was surprised by the evolution of Atticus. She was not. In the Alabama she knew, it was not unheard of for a white man like him to righteously defend a black man like Tom Robinson against an unjustified charge of rape, and at the same time believe, as Atticus says in “Watchman,” that black people were “backward,” not “ready” to exercise their full civil rights. She heard all that and much more growing up in Birmingham. We all did.

Could Florida Democrats Blow It Again? — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on the fight brewing for the Senate seat.

The road to a Democratic majority in the Senate is a narrow one, and it runs through Florida. Marco Rubio is running for president, so he can’t run for reelection, freeing up his seat—and in a swing state like Florida, with the more Democratic-friendly electorate of a presidential cycle, there’s a good chance Democrats can win.

If they have the right candidate, of course.

That’s where Alan Grayson comes in. Democrats have had a rough run in Florida recently. In 2010, their candidate was walloped in a three-way Senate race that Rubio won—Governor Charlie Crist ran as an independent after losing the Republican primary; Democrat Kendrick Meek finished a distant third. That same year, Alex Sink lost a close race for governor to Rick Scott. In early 2014, Sink lost a special election for the seat of deceased Representative C. W. “Bill” Young. In fall 2014, Crist—by now a Democrat—lost the governor’s race to Scott, even though the incumbent was strongly disliked.

The remedy, state and national Democrats believe, is Patrick Murphy, a young two-term representative who reached office after defeating Representative Allen West—as fiery and controversial a Republican as Grayson is a Democrat—in 2012. Murphy is a notably moderate Democrat (he was previously a Republican), but he’s a polished candidate who showed he could win in a closely divided district. Party leaders marked him for great things. Early polls show him leading the top Republican candidates.

Then Grayson announced his decision to run. He’s the famously (or infamously) loudmouthed U.S. representative from Orlando—the guy who, during the healthcare-reform debate said the Republican health plan was “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” Grayson has a long history of similarly inflammatory or hotheaded comments, which he says is evidence that he’s willing to fight for his principles. The wealthy liberal is serving his third term, but it’s nonconsecutive—elected in 2008, he was defeated in 2010 and then returned to Congress in the 2012 election.

How big a threat to Murphy is Grayson? That’s a tough call. There’s not a great deal of good polling in the race. Several earlier polls showed a close race. A poll in early July from Gravis Marketing showed Grayson leading Murphy by an astonishing 63-19 margin. It’s probably best not to put too much stock in that result—it’s early, it’s an outlier, and Gravis’s track record is, um, not sterling.

But Grayson has one big advantage: He’s willing to say anything. In particular, he’ll deliver inflammatory quotes left and right about anything and anyone, allowing him to effectively tap into the Democratic id. Or in his own, typically modest words, “Voters will crawl naked over hot coals to vote for me. And that’s something that no other candidate in either party can say.” That also means he has strong fundraising potential from the grassroots, though he’s also independently wealthy. His act might play well in a Democratic primary, but could he win a general election in a purple state? The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seems unconvinced. The DSCC praised Murphy in a statement when Grayson officially entered the race last week, but didn’t even mention Grayson’s name.

Doonesbury — Hotter than ever.