Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Reading

Learning To Speak Evangelical — Eliza Griswold in The New Yorker on teaching Democrats how to win back faith-based voters.

On a Tuesday afternoon this past summer, Doug Pagitt, a fifty-three-year-old pastor in a blue straw hat and glasses, stood in a conference room at the Democratic Congressional Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., laying out sandwiches. Pagitt was preparing to lead a training session for Democratic members of Congress on how to speak to evangelicals. A table was littered with blue-and-orange lapel pins reading “Vote Common Good,” the name of an organization that Pagitt launched last year to make the religious left more visible. “We want people to know that it exists, and they can join it,” he said. Last year, the group’s members spent a month travelling the country in a tour bus, campaigning for roughly forty progressive candidates on their religious message, but this was their first time speaking to politicians in Washington. Five members of the group took seats around the conference table, some wearing blazers and sensible sandals. Pagitt generally projects an air of ease, but this afternoon he was anxious. “Today is pretty much a beta test,” he told me.

A few minutes later, Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio who, at seventy-three, is the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, arrived wearing a sea-foam jacket. Soon after, Representative Katherine Clark, from Massachusetts, and Ted Lieu, from California, walked in, followed by a half-dozen staff members. Robb Ryerse, a self-described former fundamentalist pastor and the political director of Vote Common Good, opened the meeting with a tip. “Trying to memorize John 3:16 in the car on your way to the event and then quote that is probably not the best way to connect with faith-based voters,” he said. He had seen a candidate try this trick on the way to a rally in Kansas and then struggle to remember the phrase onstage.

The exodus of religious voters from the Democratic Party over the past several decades is typically explained by the culture wars, most notably over abortion. As the historian of religion Randall Balmer notes in his book “Thy Kingdom Come,” in the sixties and seventies, the Democratic Party had a large Catholic contingent and mostly opposed abortion. By contrast, many prominent Republicans—including Nelson Rockefeller; Ronald Reagan, during his time as the governor of California; and Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade—affirmed and expanded abortion rights. But, beginning in the early seventies, evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson worked with Republican strategists to press the Party to more vigorously oppose abortion. At the same time, the second-wave feminist movement pushed the Democratic Party to defend women’s reproductive rights. As a result, pro-life Democrats, most notably religious voters, began defecting from the Party.

Pagitt believes that this history is overly simplistic. He points out that a large percentage of Democratic voters—sixty-seven per cent, according to a Pew poll from 2018—still claim a religious affiliation. He believes that many moderate evangelicals would be happy to vote for Democrats, but that the Party often overlooks them during campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama courted evangelicals, along with Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and Jewish voters, by asking religious leaders to appear as campaign surrogates and to take part in a regular conference call. Pagitt worked on behalf of the campaign, approaching conservative leaders and calling evangelicals who had voted for George W. Bush in 2004. “It wasn’t just me; they kept calling hundreds of leaders and asking if we could spare one more weekend,” Pagitt said. Obama succeeded in taking a large number of white evangelical and Catholic Bush voters.

But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton failed to woo these voters: between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of people who voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate declined among voters in every religious affiliation, and the dropoff was especially sharp among evangelicals. Pagitt pointed out that, though Clinton is a devout Methodist and received daily devotional readings during the campaign, she almost never spoke about her faith in public. “I don’t even know what her favorite Bible passage was,” he said. “I thought, Well, her polling numbers must tell her she doesn’t need religious voters.”

Pagitt describes himself as an evangelical, though he thinks of this as more of a sociological term than a strict theological one. “It’s like saying I’m Midwestern,” he told me. “It locates me.” He grew up near Minneapolis, in a non-religious family, and converted as a teen-ager. He spent eleven years as a pastor at Wooddale, an evangelical megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. In 1999, he planted a progressive, nondenominational church in Minneapolis called Solomon’s Porch. But, in 2018, feeling disappointed by Clinton’s loss, he founded Vote Common Good to target the voters that Clinton had overlooked. In the leadup to the midterm elections, he and fourteen other members held religious revivals in support of candidates across the country. The events featured beer on tap and thumping music from dirty-gospel acts, including Reverend Vince Anderson and Meah Pace. The family-friendly party atmosphere was modelled on revivals that the conservative evangelist Franklin Graham was holding for Donald Trump and other Republicans. “The larger goals were loving your neighbor and creating a check on power,” Diana Butler Bass, a prominent progressive theologian who joined Pagitt’s tour, told me.

Pagitt felt hopeful after the votes were cast. In 2016, eighty-one per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump; last year, in the midterm elections, seventy-five per cent of white evangelicals voted Republican. Pagitt and the other members of Vote Common Good saw this small decline as a sign of progress: in ones and twos, evangelicals were becoming disenchanted with Trump—especially with his overt racism and misogyny, which some saw as against their values. “I don’t think it’s a silent majority,” Ryerse, Vote Common Good’s political director, told me, “but I think there’s a significant silent percentage.”

In the conference room, Katie Paris, a media trainer with Vote Common Good, discussed campaign tactics with the representatives. She noted that, during the midterms, Republicans had contacted religious leaders district by district to shore up their support, and often remained in close touch with them between election seasons. “You need to make it more difficult for the right to organize against you,” she said. She suggested that the representatives also reach out to religious leaders to introduce themselves. They didn’t have to fake piety, she said, but they should acknowledge that these communities were important to their constituencies. She also felt that Democrats had become afraid to mention religion at campaign events, which ceded faith to the right. She urged the representatives to discuss spirituality “wherever your values come from”—whether or not they were believers. The important thing was to make it clear that they took religion seriously and didn’t look down on the devout.

Pagitt thinks that, among the Democratic Presidential candidates, for example, Elizabeth Warren is doing a good job of integrating faith seamlessly into her message, beginning sentences with phrases like “As a Sunday-school teacher . . .” and by singing the hymns from her conservative childhood church in a defense of same-sex marriage. Bernie Sanders seems to avoid speaking of religion—his own, Judaism, or that of others—at all costs. Cory Booker often speaks about God in generalizations that can feel bland. Some candidates seem willing to openly antagonize religious voters; last week, at a town-hall discussion on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, Beto O’Rourke said that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage—the first time a major Presidential candidate has stated such a position.

Paris encouraged the representatives to think of people they knew who were motivated by their faith, whom they could mention on the trail. After a minute, she asked Kaptur brightly, “You got one?”

“I got thousands,” Kaptur replied, slightly irritated.

“My mom is one,” Clark offered. Her mother had been a committed Episcopalian and an ardent feminist who was also an early advocate for women to be priests. (The Episcopal Church officially began ordaining women in 1976.) “I do talk about her frequently,” Clark said. “But I can’t recall talking about her faith.”

“You should,” Paris said.

As the event wound to a close, Pagitt called for questions. “How do you talk about abortion?” Lieu asked. He comes from a progressive district, but he felt that the issue would be central to other races around the country. Pagitt noted that there is a divide between pro-life voters who want to reverse Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortions, and those who are primarily focussed on reducing their number. There wasn’t much to say to the former, he said, but when speaking to the latter, candidates should emphasize that making abortion illegal had historically proved ineffective at reducing the number. In the past, Democrats had backed measures aimed at reducing abortions. Barack Obama tasked a joint White House initiative between the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Council on Women and Girls with “reducing the need for abortion.” Bill Clinton had made a motto of making abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had dropped the “rare” from her platform, bringing the Party further to the left on the issue. Pagitt felt that a more moderate approach to abortion could help attract religious voters.

This may have its own pitfalls. There are many voters within the Party who don’t want to see it give up ground on progressive issues like reproductive rights. There are also many who believe that religion is a private matter that should be separated from politics, and that publicly discussing it alienates religious minorities and non-religious voters. “We get pushback all the time from people within the political industry saying that the Democratic Party shouldn’t court these evangelical people,” he said. But he felt that evangelicals represented a large enough segment of the electorate that the Party had to take them into consideration. “What we want you to do is like religious people enough that you can ask for their votes,” he said. “There are seventy million evangelicals. Moving fifteen per cent of seventy million is a large number.”

After the meeting in Washington, Pagitt decided that the group would do more good advising candidates in the field and decided to take it back on the road. Since then, Vote Common Good has run several training seminars in New York City and around the country for Democratic congressional candidates. “In all five boroughs, there are evangelicals and other religiously motivated candidates,” he told me recently, while in New York. “We give candidates a breakdown by religious affiliation in their districts, and it’s shocking how many religious voters there are.” Last week, they launched a love-in-politics pledge, which is based on I Corinthians 13:4-7 (“Love is patient, love is kind . . .”) and calls on politicians to hold others to a standard of decency and compassion. “We’re skeptical of Mike Pence’s willingness to be swayed,” he said, of the Vice-President. “But we’re helping religiously motivated voters to have the rationale and support to change their votes.” The group is also planning a forum in Iowa, in January, where Democratic Presidential candidates could reflect on their vision of faith. Pagitt says that the major campaigns have indicated interest, though none has committed. “I think they should take religiously motivated voters seriously,” he told me. “If they don’t, it’s at their own peril.”

Winter Soldier — Charles P. Pierce pays tribute to Elijah Cummings.

Upon hearing the news of Rep. Elijah Cummings’ passing Thursday morning, the first thing I thought of was the beginning of the eulogy that the late Robin Williams delivered for rock promoter Bill Graham: “Bill’s dead and Strom Thurmond doesn’t even have a cold?”

The first time I met Elijah Cummings was at a campaign event at Morgan State University in his beloved Baltimore. It was 1999 and Cummings was campaigning for Bill Bradley’s primary challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore. I was on assignment for this magazine to write about it. The Bradley campaign—and the candidate, as well—were beginning to show the early symptoms of the creeping petrification that eventually would doom it and him. Outside the hall, I stopped to chat with Cummings, and Bradley’s incomprehensible stiffness came up in the conversation. Cummings smiled that canny politician’s smile that I’ve seen on everyone from Tip O’Neill to AOC.

“We’re working on that,” he said, twinkling. “We’re working on loosening the man up.”

I liked him a great deal that day, so I was happy over the past decade when he became an eloquent and ferocious legislative warrior against a Republican Party that had lost so much of its mind that it couldn’t stop itself from electing a vulgar talking yam in 2016. In the minority, he fought hard against the phony Benghazi, BENGHAZI, BENGHAZI! farce, and against the depthless fraud that was perpetrated against Hillary Rodham Clinton over Her Emails. In the majority, as chair of the House Oversight Committee, nobody did more to call to account the renegade incompetence and bone-deep corruption that is the only perceivable characteristic of the current administration*.

Elijah Cummings—and nobody ever has been more worthy of his first name than he was—never wavered, never faltered, and never took one step backwards in his defense of the Constitution and the rule of law. To borrow a turn of phrase from the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, as she was contemplating the impeachment of another criminal president: Elijah Cummings’ faith in the Constitution was whole, it was complete, and he didn’t plan to sit there and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of it. He was, as Thomas Paine wrote, a winter soldier of the first rank.

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Paine fought for a golden ideal. Elijah Cummings fought to keep it alive against all the forces that would coin it into cheap brass. They would like each other a great deal, I’m thinking today.

Doonesbury — aging gracefully?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Smoking Arsenal — Charles P. Pierce.

What the hell do we call this? The smoking arsenal?

The release of a motherlode of criminal evidence in the form of texts between various inmates at Camp Runamuck, all of which concerns the president*’s attempt to extort Ukraine into helping him ratfck the 2020 election, establishes the guilt of the president* beyond the shadow of a doubt. In the released material, you can see a whole brigade of hapless functionaries stumbling from one crime to another, fully aware that they are doing so, and concocting strategies on the fly to carry out the president*’s criminal orders. You read for yourself how they all ended up toadying to Rudy Giuliani’s insane “mission” to Kiev. It’s like reading a John Le Carré novel starring the Marx Brothers.

The simple politics of the release is pure genius. On Thursday, former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker briefed House investigators on the matter. Around midday, presidential* lawn ornaments Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows threw themselves at a microphone to deliver the Nothing To See Here party line. Then, the texts were released and now every single Republican in the Congress looks like a fool or a crook. There’s no third alternative.

But the politics of it are a lesser concern. The conduct revealed in the texts is as subversive as anything undertaken by any KGB operative in the high days of the Cold War. The president* set the government of the United States against itself, and he used a vulnerable ally to do so. He could have travelled the world shooting our ambassadors personally and done less damage. Nobody will trust American diplomats again for a very long time, nor should they. From NBC News:

In fact, the only U.S. official included in the text messages who pushes back is a career diplomat, William Taylor, who became the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine after Trump pulled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch out of her post earlier this year. Yovanovitch’s ouster has become another topic of key interest to Democratic lawmakers in their impeachment inquiry.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote, using an acronym for the White House, after Trump canceled a planned meeting with Zelenskiy in Poland. A week later, he told Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland, several hours later, pushed back, telling Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind.” He suggests they stop discussing the matter via text message.

That certainly sounds legitimate to me. Sondland is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Now, Ukraine is not a member of the European Union. So what, you may wonder, is Sondland’s dog in this fight. Clearly, he was one of the White House messenger boys in the extortion and bribery plot that was unfolding all around West Asia. And the conspicuous “no quid pro quo,” followed immediately by a suggestion that they no longer put these perfectly innocent requests into writing, would be comic if the stakes weren’t so very high. From The New York Times:

Mr. Volker told the House investigators that the Ukrainians had earlier proposed language promising a statement on fighting corruption that did not specifically mention Burisma and 2016. When Mr. Giuliani was shown that original language, Mr. Volker told the House, he indicated to Mr. Volker that it was not sufficient and said the Ukrainians should be asked for specific public commitments to investigate Burisma and 2016.

By Mr. Volker’s account, according to the person familiar with his testimony, he was eventually told by Mr. Yermak that the Ukrainian government could not agree to the language being sought by Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Volker told Mr. Yermak that he was right, and the idea was dropped, according to the account Mr. Volker provided the House.

I have no sympathy for any of these people, and neither should you. They sold their souls to a crook and a charlatan who may well be half-mad into the bargain. They sold out the diplomatic status of the country in service to a lunatic conspiracy theory that was the obsession of a president* who believes anything his favorite TV commentators tell him. They sold out an embattled ally in order to aid in the reelection of a president* against whom this country may not survive in recognizable form.

On Thursday, just as the current storm was rising, the president* tweeted of his “absolute right” to conduct foreign policy in this manner. No president has an “absolute right” to do fck-all. The longer this man is allowed to infect this republic, the more it will change into something very different. He cannot be allowed to remain in office and, god help us, he cannot be reelected. That would be the end of things.

Glamour and Substance — Nichelle Gainer has an appreciation of Diahann Carroll.

I am an ’80s kid. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb that, to my mind’s eye, bore more than a passing resemblance to the fictional town in “Stranger Things.” While I enjoyed shows like “Square Pegs” and movies like “The Breakfast Club,” I was perplexed by how homogeneous they were, especially since my high school had nearly an even balance of black and white kids.

That’s where Jet magazine came in. At that time, black faces were still rare enough on the big and small screens that the publication printed out a listing of every black performer appearing on American television that week. Thanks to those listings, I discovered a magnetic performance by one of my favorite stars Diahann Carroll, who died this week at 84.

It was from the NBC TV movie “Sister, Sister,” which first aired in 1982. Written by Maya Angelou, the story follows three very different siblings and their struggle to heal old wounds and sell their family home following the death of their mother. In one of my favorite scenes, two of the sisters (played by Ms. Carroll and Rosalind Cash) confront each other about long-held secrets and their screaming match turns to blows. It is glorious and satisfying — a “cat fight” that would make the “Dynasty” divas Dominique Devereaux and Alexis Carrington applaud in respect.

Even when she was sparring onscreen, Ms. Carroll’s class and elegance went unquestioned, but early in her career, the public perception of her commitment to issues affecting black Americans was another matter. Like many black stars in the ’60s and ’70s, her personal and professional moves were scrutinized relentlessly. She wore clothes by white designers, married white men and, to the untrained eye, appeared to live in a mostly white world, seemingly oblivious to “real” problems. Her character on “Julia” was a single mother, and aside from the occasional guest star the show lacked a consistent black father figure.

Yet Ms. Carroll is also the same star who testified before Adam Clayton Powell Jr. about the lack of opportunities for black performers and held a fund-raiser in her home for the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm. She never allowed public perception to dictate the choices she made.

It is crucial to remember her substance. Her educated and well-spoken character Julia Baker, the first black professional woman depicted in an American TV series, stood in stark contrast to the subservient roles typically reserved for black characters. Ms. Carroll was keenly aware of the responsibility she bore in this role and was strategic in how she handled the press at a time when riots in black neighborhoods in major cities across the country were not infrequent. She refused to do any interviews for “Julia” without “racial quotes” being read back to her.

She once said of a “well-meaning” reporter: “He was not aware that a little word here and a little word there could kill me.”

She added, “I told him I think everything going on in the black community now has a more positive feeling than before. He wanted me to say that a certain element was detrimental and I wouldn’t.”

She rebuffed those who felt she lacked social awareness. “I was not ignorant about the issues of civil rights in this country, or my place as a national celebrity who could voice opinions to help make changes,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir “The Legs Are the Last to Go.” She would point to the efforts she made in supporting the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers.

Beyond the checklist of history-making “firsts,” she was savvy throughout her career, navigating the minefields of racism and sexism with an aplomb that seemed effortless. She attended charm school, modeled for Ebony magazine as a teenager and transformed her glitzy look from her early days as a Las Vegas nightclub performer to the softer, housewife chic that would be more “relatable” to “Julia” television audiences who needed to be spoon fed images of a black woman who did not fit a stereotype.

She often told the story of her first meeting with Richard Rodgers, who created her Tony-winning role in “No Strings.”

“The day that he asked me to join him for lunch before he left for Europe, I thought it was very important that I startle him when I arrived at the restaurant,” she recalled in 1998. “I think that business of overwhelming people with your presence, and your grooming — it’s not part of today. It’s not important today. I cannot tell you what it meant then. I was dressed in Givenchy from head to toe. It meant a great deal during an interview.”

Sometimes, she deglamorized herself, as she did in her Oscar-nominated role as a poor mother of six in the 1974 film, “Claudine,” or as a fortune teller in the 1997 film, “Eve’s Bayou.”

Ms. Carroll’s career and life were long enough for her to bear witness to the fruits of her labor. Black performers of her generation were accustomed to the pressures of navigating rarefied spaces in Hollywood, and so it was no surprise that she said she was proud to see so many young black people behind the scenes on the set of “A Different World” and was “choked up” as she watched Shonda Rhimes call the shots on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy” nearly a decade later.

“Some people come of age as teenagers, I came of age as a senior citizen,” she wrote in her memoir. Sometimes we forget that even timeless legends don’t see themselves the way that we do. Diahann Carroll not only embodied glamour, she expanded its very definition with her bold choices while never attempting to hide herself behind a perfect image. I will forever be in awe.

Photo: NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images.

Doonesbury — Pick a fact!  (Click on the picture to embiggen.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Cokie Roberts

Rest in peace.

Cokie Roberts, a journalist and political commentator who became one of the most prominent Washington broadcasters of her era and championed young women in media during a long career with NPR and ABC News, died Sept. 17 in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications from breast cancer, according to a family statement provided by ABC.

Ms. Roberts earned three Emmy Awards, was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named a “living legend” by the Library of Congress in 2008.

From a young age, she was intimately familiar with the trappings of power in Washington. She wandered the halls of Congress, where her father, Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs Sr. of Louisiana, rose to become Democratic majority leader. Her mother, Lindy Boggs, launched her own congressional career after her husband died in a 1972 plane crash.

She used to annoy me with her card-carrying both-sides-do-it attitude in her commentary, but I strongly and firmly admired her for her fearless strides into broadcast journalism where men ruled as a matter of course.  For that alone she was a remarkable force.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Passings

One life lost, and another journey ended.

Gil Christner, the creator of the blog skippy the bush kangaroo which cited this blog and taught a lot of us how to do it, passed away at the end of July.

Melissa McEwan, the creator and driving force of Shakesville, has retired from blogging and said farewell in the style and forthrightness that only she could bring to the pixels.  Over the last fifteen years she has been a presence in my work and blogging, and for a long time I was a regular contributor to Shakesville.  Her dedication to her work and to her community stand head and shoulders above so many others, and while I am glad that she is going out in style and on her own terms, I will miss her very, very much.

Thank you, Gil, and thank you, Melissa.  The world was made better with you here with us.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sunday Reading

Two views on the life of George H.W. Bush.

Nice Guy — Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker.

“Leave the kid alone,” George Herbert Walker Bush said, when, as a teen-age boy at Andover, he spotted a fellow-student being bullied. As if he were Zorro, performing a casual rescue and then vanishing, Bush left Bruce Gelb, the undersized Jewish kid he’d aided, to ask a witness, “Who was that?” Gelb learned that it was Poppy Bush, “the greatest kid in the school.”

The eulogies for “41,” who died on Friday, will note his underage enlistment in the Navy after Pearl Harbor—how he went from preppy god of the baseball diamond to bomber pilot over the Pacific, with no intermediate step—but the scourge-of-bullies story, told in Jon Meacham’s biography of him, is the essential tale from Bush’s Andover days. It contains the boy who, almost fifty years later, startled the Republican Convention that had just nominated him for President by saying that he wanted a “kinder, gentler nation.” The phrase seemed odd, even candy-assed, to some; it would be mocked, its potential meanings never much pondered. What that night’s audience liked better was “Read my lips,” the signal for a no-new-taxes pledge, a piece of absolutism that didn’t come naturally to a pragmatic moderate. It was those words that, four years later, would do Bush in.

The 1988 campaign was anything but kind and gentle. There was the racially charged Willie Horton ad, in which Bush attacked Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for Massachusetts prisoners. Bush’s opponents—and some of his friends—thought that he had cheapened himself in the bare-knuckled grasp of his young campaign manager, Lee Atwater. The opponents acted surprised, claimed they were disappointed in him, as if anyone ever got that far in the game without playing rough. (Al Gore had first gone after the furlough program, albeit without mentioning Horton, when running against Dukakis in the primaries.) Bush’s foes derided his résumé as a sort of gilded joke, reciting all the appointive offices he’d briefly held—U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee chairman, U.S. Special Representative to China, C.I.A. director—as if they were a string of presents meted out to some trust-fund boy who’d done nothing to earn them. In fact, Bush rose in the Party because of electoral, not appointive, politics. And he rose, curiously enough, by losing—twice, in Senate runs in a still-blue Texas, in 1964 and 1970. He took two for the team, and the Republican Party owed him.

Even when he tried to kick ass with the silver foot supposedly lodged in his mouth from birth, there remained an irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, boy-next-door bonhomie, and parody-begging goofiness—“the vision thing.” He can be found, still on his way up, in his late forties, making some appearances, as both conversationalist and subject, on the Nixon White House tapes. On November 29, 1972, the President is making sure that H. R. Haldeman presses Bob Dole to leave the R.N.C. chairmanship sooner rather than later, so that it can be turned over to Bush, who was then the U.N. Ambassador. Nixon, afraid that Bush will be oversensitive to Dole’s feelings and won’t join in the effort to speed up implementation of what’s already a done deal, reminds his chief of staff that “George is such a sweet guy.” He doesn’t say it with the scorn or sarcasm that a word like “sweet” usually called forth from him. He utters it with a sort of charmed appreciation, as if he’s just remembered a unicorn that sometimes gambols on the South Lawn. In November, 1972, weeks after Nixon’s reëlection landslide, with Watergate just a passing cloud, the R.N.C. job was still a plum. A few months later, Bush would start to take a third, prolonged pummelling for the team.

He eventually became the President who presided over a brief but glorious Pax Americana. (Bruce Gelb, by then a wealthy businessman and devoted contributor, became his Ambassador to Belgium, the little country handed to the kid like a signed jersey.) If Reagan had thrown the touchdown pass of the Cold War, Bush was the one who caught it, and when he got to the end zone he famously refused to spike the ball, as if he’d also caught sight of his mother in the grandstand, warning against self-congratulation. (He is the only modern-day President not to have written his memoirs.) Between 1989 and 1993, Bush became, in Maureen Dowd’s phrase, “the gracious cruise director of international politics.” He also directed a just war—Kuwait was being bullied—toward a fast conclusion.

As the “vision thing” goes, kinder and gentler was actually profound. It didn’t take, of course. The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population. Now, instead of having the greatest kid in the school as our President, we have Cartman, someone who surely would have been smacking Bruce Gelb around in 1940. One’s strange reaction to the death of George Bush—the end of a life well-lived into its tenth decade—turns out to be bitter disappointment. I’ve just dug out a friend’s e-mail from December, 2016: “I was discussing 41’s health with a colleague this morning, and we realized that Trump will be delivering his eulogy if GHWB can’t hang on for four years. What a rotten end for an honorable man.”

A Disgrace — Steven W. Thrasher in The Nation.

Just after midnight on December 1, World AIDS Day, I learned that President George Herbert Walker Bush had died. And I was dismayed not just that the hagiography afforded dead presidents would overshadow Bush’s own appalling legacy on AIDS, but that his death would eclipse the tens of millions of lives we should be remembering today.

When I teach AIDS history, I always show a clip of ACT UP’s October 11, 1992, “ashes action” at the White House, in which brave activists took the cremated bodies of loved ones who had died of AIDS and hurled them onto Bush’s lawn. (If you’ve never seen it, I dare you to watch without crying).

The ashes action is brilliant not just for how raw it was but also for how it held a powerful man to account without civility. (ACT UP had also gone to Bush’s vacation home in Maine, and they hounded him up until the night he lost reelection, when they marched the dead body of Mark Fisher to his campaign headquarters.) For in life—and, sadly, in the first obits, in death—Bush dangerously hid the vast nature of American violence beneath the seductive cloak of civility, that opiate of mass media that gets journalists and readers to let violence go unremarked.

But at a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot the day after the ashes action, journalist John Mashek asked Bush:

Mr. President, yesterday tens of thousands of people paraded past the White House to demonstrate about their concern about the disease, AIDS. A celebrated member of your commission, Magic Johnson, quit, saying there was too much inaction. Where is this widespread feeling coming from that your administration is not doing enough about AIDS?

Looking annoyed, Bush listed what his administration was doing before saying, seemingly irritated, “I can’t tell you where it’s coming from. I am very much concerned about AIDS. And I believe we have the best researchers in the world at NIH working on the problem.” But then he added:

It’s one of the few diseases where behavior matters. And I once called on somebody, “Well, change your behavior! If the behavior you’re using is prone to cause AIDs, change the behavior!” Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is saying, “Bush ought to change his behavior!” You can’t talk about it rationally!

Bush’s words are not just cruel; they fundamentally misunderstand what causes AIDS and how to effectively address it. Sex—yes, even gay sex—is a part of being human, and the people who died of AIDS did so because of societal neglect, not because of their human acts. And while he was nominally better than his predecessor (a very low bar) at addressing the consequences of AIDS, he’d been unforgivably quiet as Reagan’s vice president.

But as director of the CIA, vice president, and then president, Bush exacerbated the material conditions that allow AIDS to flourish in the first place. For what causes AIDS? And why has it always so disparately affected black people? Medical research and pharmaceutical interventions are important in dealing with the consequences of seroconversion and limiting onward transmission of HIV. But AIDS is caused by broader social problems: homelessness, inadequate access to to health care, political instability, racism, homophobia, and the violence of capitalism. And on these fronts, Bush is guilty; his “behavior matters.” As a former head of the CIA, Bush created political instability in nations around the globe where AIDS would thrive. He hyped up racism with his Willie Horton ad, by replacing civil-rights titan Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court with Clarence Thomas, and by vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990.

And, of course, in starting the 1991 Iraq War, he set our country on a nearly three-decade-long disaster which has left millions sick, disabled, and dead—many of them LGBTQ soldiers and civilians.

Sadly, gay journalists have been among the worst to immediately whitewash this part of Bush’s legacy. Frank Bruni published a gushing New York Times column on World AIDS Day (“George H.W. Bush’s Uncommon Grace”) without mentioning the words “gay,” “homosexual,” AIDS, or HIV. Meanwhile, over at the gay magazine the Advocate, Neal Boverman headlined his insipid revisionism “George H.W. Bush, No Ally But No Enemy of LGBTQ People, Dead at 94.”

The American desire for civility is so strong that many liberals who were enraged that Trump nominated and stood by Brett Kavanaugh have been silent that Bush nominated and stood by Clarence Thomas. Even in the Me Too era, many seem to be eliding that Bush was recently accused of groping women (while allegedly declaring “I’m David Cop-A-Feel!”).

On World AIDS Day, it would be an unforgivable injury to those who died of AIDS because of Bush’s actions and inactions to let him off the hook. Instead, look at what drove grieving lovers and friends to pour ashes onto Bush’s lawn—and really sit with the violence of American empire embodied by George Herbert Walker Bush.

Doonesbury — Speaking of nice guys…

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018

Friday, October 12, 2018

Rest In Peace At Last, Matthew Shepard

From the New York Times:

For 20 years, the ashes of Matthew Shepard have not been laid to rest.

Mr. Shepard’s killing in 1998, when he was a 21-year-old college student, led to national outrage and, almost overnight, turned him into a symbol of deadly violence against gay people.

Mourners flocked to his funeral that year in Casper, Wyo., but there were also some protesters, carrying derogatory signs. Mr. Shepard’s parents worried that if they chose a final resting place for their son, it would be at risk of desecration.

Now they have found a safe place. On Oct. 26, Mr. Shepard will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral, the neo-Gothic, Episcopal house of worship that is a fixture of American politics and religion.

“I think it’s the perfect, appropriate place,” Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, said in an interview on Thursday. “We are, as a family, happy and relieved that we now have a final home for Matthew, a place that he himself would love.”

Peace be with you, Matthew.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Right Thing To Do — Charles P. Pierce on the newspaper editorials’ response to Trump.

Congress shall make no law…

To tell you the truth, I was preparing to mock the idea of a couple hundred newspapers’ getting together all at the same time to punch back at El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago. It seems like so much inside-baseball wankery, and it didn’t look to change any minds, and, frankly, the real enemy of local newspapers are the beancounters in the various corporate headquarters who think you can cover a city with two reporters, a laptop, and a couple of drones. Media consolidation and corporate timidity completed the job that Spiro Agnew started in the modern era. But I thought about the year 2030, and then I changed my mind.

One day in the future, when the awful crime this country committed against itself somehow has been largely expiated, it’s going to be important to remember who stood against an incompetent and half-mad Peronista wannabe, and who did not. That the idea came from my most recent alma mater fills me with not a little pride, too. From the editorial published in The Boston Globe on Thursday, its central theme reiterated in 200 newspapers, small and large, all across the country:

Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country. Today in the United States we have a president who has created a mantra that members of the media who do not blatantly support the policies of the current US administration are the “enemy of the people.” This is one of the many lies that have been thrown out by this president, much like an old-time charlatan threw out “magic” dust or water on a hopeful crowd…

There was once broad, bipartisan, intergenerational agreement in the United States that the press played this important role. Yet that view is no longer shared by many Americans. “The news media is the enemy of the American people,” is a sentiment endorsed by 48 percent of Republicans surveyed this month by Ipsos polling firm. That poll is not an outlier. One published this week found 51 percent of Republicans considered the press “the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.”

Having spent the last two decades watching American newspapers flounder against new technologies, and debase themselves in a hundred ways trying to coddle what readers they had by telling those readers what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear, and turning “objectivity” and “balance” into a kind of survival cult in which any idea, no matter how pernicious, was treated as having an equal value with any other idea simply because a desperate business model didn’t want to lose even one set of eyeballs, it was bracing to see the editorials call out their readers for failing to inform themselves the way good citizens of a self-governing republic should. That was long overdue. It also recognizes that newspapers are trying to atone for their own shortcomings in abetting a spavined and desiccated attitude toward the truth that made the current president* not only possible, but inevitable.

I still don’t think this changes any minds. But I no longer think that’s important. Sometimes, it’s just the right thing to do simply to yell at the correct buildings. Truth is in a fight for survival at the moment, and if this profession won’t join that fight, it’s hard to think of another one that will. If the role of the press in a self-governing republic is going to be imperiled, can it at least be imperiled by a person of some substance, instead of a television carny barker confused by the concept of time zones? I mean, holy hell, this profession has faced down dictators and actual armies. What good are we if we can’t defend ourselves against an obvious clown?

The Clairvoyance of Aretha Franklin — Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker.

An inarticulate misery, and yet the desperate need to articulate it, is what brought the thunderous wonder of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to the earth. In August of 1932, the musician, who had left the packed blues clubs and rent-raising parties of the South for a Baptist-church choir in Chicago, took brief leave of his pregnant wife, Nettie Dorsey, for a gig in St. Louis. While performing, a messenger handed him a Western Union telegram that read “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.” The baby died, too. He buried his wife and son in the same casket.

When Dorsey returned to his empty South Side apartment, he was prepared to abandon his God. The Baptist-church elders, stern in their faith, advised him to submit to God’s will. Later, Dorsey would recall being coaxed by his choir associate, Theodore Frye, to approach a piano in a local school. Before the instrument, Dorsey felt overcome with a strange peace. A melody of the nineteenth-century religious composer George Nelson Allen coursed through him. “As my fingers began to manipulate over keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock,” Dorsey later said. He gave the first performance of “Precious Lord” at his church shortly after his wife and baby’s death, and the act of uninhibited spiritual praise was forever changed.

How this hymn, the greatest example of American lamentation, how it travels. It passed through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who electrified Dorsey’s pleas; through Nina Simone, who grasped the first verse so delicately that it is nearly painful to attend; through Elvis Presley, who dared to root the song more deeply in the workaday wretchedness of man; through Mahalia Jackson, who made the hymn somehow more transcendent. Jackson was in the habit of visiting with C. L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist, in Detroit. She was taken by the preacher’s young daughter Aretha, who was, in her craft, trying to match her father’s prophetic fire. Through Aretha—so many times through Aretha—“Precious Lord” was an existential cry, a justice prayer shed of pretense. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s favorite hymn, and it’s said that his last words were a request to have it ring at his funeral. Franklin sang the song at a memorial service for her friend King, in 1968; she was still in tune with the primal frisson when she delivered her rendition at the dedication of the memorial to King in Washington, D.C., in 2011. She assisted Jackson’s transition to that other realm, washing the faithful with “Precious Lord” at Jackson’s funeral, in Chicago, in 1972. “Precious Lord, take my hand . . .  I’m tired / I’m weak / I’m ’lone”: Franklin interprets it as a relationship song—did God do her and her people wrong? The hymn is a confrontation, spurred by agony, then loneliness, then immobilizing veneration.

What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her. She was a vessel and a commander. She knew her God like John Donne did—intensely, almost physically. She was of the black church, the church of protest, the church of brash women, the church of sorrows and of ecstasy, and yet she was also of her own church. We hear that church, already clarion, in the 1956 recording of “Precious Lord,” from her first album, “Songs of Faith.” It was recorded at New Bethel; the congregation hollers. Franklin was just fourteen years old, already a mother, without her mother. She draws from a font of pain and awe and indignation so worldly that you may flinch in disbelief: “Hear my cry, hear my call.” It is as though she is wrapping her instrument around death and strangling it. She then leaves Dorsey’s man-made words behind, as they are inefficient for expressing the way she feels both about her God and about transmitting the miracle of her voice. The child elder starts humming, then moaning, deep and steady and not at all faintly aroused. Moaning in the church. The interlude is a premonition of her career, which imprinted on us the power and the anguish in sacred and sexual love. “Ain’t no harm to moan,” she says, before taking up the verse again. Listening now, during this national wake for her, we know where Franklin will go, what educations she will preach. The fourteen-year-old maybe knows, too. The clairvoyance of her “Precious Lord” is staggering.

Doonesbury — Trivial Pursuit.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Allen J. Pfannenstiel 1964-2018

We met at the Spring Dance in Boulder on April 22, 1984, and for the next fifteen years he was my partner, my cohort, my love, my best friend, and an indelible part of my life.  We went from Colorado to Michigan to New Mexico, raising gardens and a puppy, Sam, and sharing the joys and tribulations, good times and sad, tests and the odds that all couples face.  We never married because we couldn’t by law, but we had everything married couples have, and when we parted in June 1999, we stayed friends, even to the point of being better friends apart.

When I moved to Miami in 2001, he moved back to Colorado, and ended up there last year.  He suffered a stroke last Christmas and complications developed two weeks ago.  He slept away last night in the house he grew up in with his family at his side, at peace and the way he wanted to go.

I have so many memories, so many thoughts, so many pictures; after all, fifteen years together can’t be summarized in just words and pictures.  I will just say that my life was better with him in it than without and that he will always be a part of me.  The reminders at home and in my heart are good things of good times and a good life.

Lake Charlevoix, 1986

This is one of my favorite pictures of him, taken in August 1986 when we went on a sailing trip around northern Michigan for my dad’s 60th birthday. Although the biggest piece of water he’d ever seen was the man-made lake behind his house in Longmont, he took to sailing right away.  It was the first of many such adventures we took, and his attitude was always “It’ll be fun!”  And so it was.

I will always call you sweetheart.