Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Will This Nightmare End?

The other day I read a Letter to the Editor in The New York Times from Jay Markowitz. Commenting on a May 2 Op-Ed piece by former FBI director James Comey entitled, “How Trump Co-Opts Leaders Like Barr” (https://nyti.ms/2VDZsEX), he crisply wrote, “In William Barr, President Trump has found his Roy Cohn. When will this nightmare end?”

First, let me say that in the two-plus years that The Donald has been our fearful leader, this is the first time I wrote the consecutive words, “President Trump.” Oh, the downside of accurate reporting!

Now, to respond to Jay Markowitz’s obviously plaintive plea—Not until January 20, 2021, at the earliest, but only if the American people wake up from this nightmare, only if they have not become inured to Trump’s assault on the Constitution and its tricameral form of equal branches of government, only if they have not been lulled into submission or complacency by an economy that continues the remarkable rebound initiated by Barack Obama, only if they have not become complicit or accepting of his destruction of the rule of law, only if the American people believe again that their country’s values are the best export we can offer the world and the best import are people from all creeds, religions and regions who are dedicated to equal opportunity and freedom for all. 

It will be impossible to remove Trump from the White House through impeachment, unless he fulfills his wild 2016 campaign boast—that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes—and Senate Republicans defy all reason and excuse his assault as, in the words of Attorney General William Barr, that of someone “frustrated and angry.” 

It was just such reasoning that enabled me to co-win a friendly contest predicting the length of Trump’s presidency. All but two of the 15 contestants thought he would vacate the White House by April 6 of the second year of his term. Connie Goldberg and I chose his full term as the end date.

Of course, I previously opined that Trump might be emboldened to declare a national emergency and not recognize the 2020 election if he loses. He’s already started to lobby for a six year first term, retweeting a Jerry Falwell Jr. comment that he deserves a two year extension because the first two years of his tenure were “stolen” because of the Mueller investigation. 

The man’s chutzpah knows no bounds.

Trump’s defiance of constitutional norms goes beyond the actions of most presidents to minimize scrutiny of their administrations by Congress. James Reston Jr. argued in The Times that failure to comply with congressional subpeonas is an impeachable offense, as Richard Nixon found out during his impeachment proceedings 25 years ago (https://nyti.ms/2ZVizK5).

But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is in no rush to impeach. “Trump is goading us to impeach him,” Ms. Pelosi said at a Cornell University event in Manhattan, according to The Times. “That’s what he is doing, every single day he is just, like, taunting, taunting, taunting. Because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country. But he doesn’t really care; he just wants to solidify his base.”

Her reticence or political savvy aside, the Democratically-controlled House might be more willing to act if it is able to secure testimony from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, both of whom Trump has said should not appear before Congress. Both are privy to information on alleged obstruction of Mueller’s probe into Russian interference with the 2016 election by Trump and his gang of family and aides. 

McGhan is a private citizen; Mueller attains that status at the end of the month. Thus, their willingness to testify would not be subject to Trump’s authority. 

Rather, it would position them as either patriots or more Trump dumpster detritus. 

Trump has repeatedly degraded the FBI, the Justice Department and members of the judiciary. Lately, he has cast the FBI investigation of his campaign as “spying,” a term repeated by Barr during Senate testimony last month. But the current FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, refuted the characterization during a Senate hearing Tuesday (https://nyti.ms/2Wz6isI).

And so, the nightmare continues. Trump’s handpicked FBI chief is staying independent as an officer of the law, even as Trump’s handpicked attorney general, ostensibly the people’s lawyer, has shifted the interpretation of his  role to be defender of the malevolent.  

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Interference at KY Derby a Metaphor for Election

Lots of people are talking about the stunning results from Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Of course, Donald Trump has tweeted his opinion, as well. I’m okay with that. There’s no reason he shouldn’t express his views. 

For the record, Trump believes the “best horse did NOT win” because “political correctness” influenced track officials to declare apparent winner Maximum Security (how could Trump not like a horse by that name?) interfered with other horses on the final turn (naturally, Trump would disagree with any suggestion interference affected the outcome of a race. He also took the time Sunday to opine that special counsel Robert Mueller should not testify before Congress. Obstruction, or as the Churchill Downs stewards called it, interference, was clearly evident in Trump’s post-election actions by anyone save sycophantic Republicans). Track judges stripped Maximum Security of the title and awarded the race to Country House who had finished second by about a length and a half. 

Let’s leave it to racing touts to work out the final results of the Kentucky Derby. I’m more interested in handicapping the 2020 presidential race.

First, a short review of 2016. Trump lost the popular vote but won the presidency by securing 304 Electoral College votes; 270 being the threshold required to win. Despite more voters preferring Hillary Clinton, she captured just 227 Electoral College votes. 

Conventional wisdom has it that Hillary lost the election by not attracting a combined 80,000 more votes in Michigan (16 EC votes), Pennsylvania (20 EC votes) and Wisconsin (10 EC votes). That would have given her 273 Electoral College votes, a slight but sufficient margin of victory.

By my calculations, the 2020 race will be determined by more than just the outcomes in those three states. Indeed, the field of battleground states is 12, divided equally between states Trump won and those that polled Democratic in 2016.

Trump starts out with a lock on 195 EC votes from states across the South and the middle of the country. He needs 75 more to win reelection. But 106 of his remaining 109 EC votes in 2016 can be considered in play. 

He won Florida’s 29 EC votes by (round numbers) 100,000; Michigan by 13,000; Pennsylvania by 44,000; Wisconsin by 20,000; North Carolina (15 EC votes) by 170,000; and Georgia (16 EC votes) by 200,000. Given the razor thin Republican gubernatorial victories in Florida and Georgia in 2018, it is conceivable Democrats could flip those states in 2020. Dems won governors’ seats in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2018 after flipping North Carolina in 2016. They retained the governorship in Pennsylvania in 2018. 

For the Democratic standard bearer the challenge begins with a lower sure-win number. He or she can expect 182 Electoral College votes mostly garnered from Northeast and West Coast states, 88 fewer than the needed 270. 

In 2016 Hillary Clinton amassed 227 EC votes. But 44 of those nods could turn to Trump in the following states: Clinton won Colorado (9 EC votes) by 120,000 votes; Minnesota (10 EC votes) by 40,000; Virginia (13 EC votes) by 200,000; Maine (2 EC votes) by 20,000; New Hampshire (4 EC votes) by 3,000; and Nevada (6 EC votes) by 27,000. 

What the numbers tell us is that it is waaaaay too early to provide meaningful predictions on who will emerge successful. It’s rather like the recent National Football League draft of college players. Experts try to rank the potential of players, but nothing is certain. For every “sure thing” top draft choice there’s a bust. Considered by many the best quarterback ever, Tom Brady was not drafted until the sixth round, almost as an afterthought. 

Your choices are to tune out political pablum and prognostications for the next 18 months or sit back and enjoy (Is that the right word?) the race, without, hopefully, any interference. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tossing and Turning When Gilda's Away

My wife left me last Tuesday. 

Oh, it is not what you think. 

With Donny staying in New York for business, Gilda accompanied Ellie, CJ and Leo back to Omaha. She will be coming home today.  

Being able to help care for our grandchildren is one of the benefits she is reaping in retirement, the freedom to travel on her own schedule, for pleasure or to help out. 

I’m not embarrassed to admit I have had a hard time sleeping when she’s not lying next to me. During my career I often traveled days at a time. Frequently five days a month away from home. 

As publisher and editor I could assign others to travel with me. Ostensibly to help train or support a staffer, it camouflaged a perq of my office to keep me from being alone on the road. It worked during the daytime and through a good dinner but when my hotel room door closed behind me I could not escape the loneliness of being away from home, from Gilda. 

Her trip to Omaha brought the experience back, but in reverse. In my hotel room after dinner I would turn on the TV. I’d be exhausted but unable to fall into deep sleep. I’d set the TV timer only to be awakened from light slumber when it clicked off around 12:30. I couldn’t control the air quality in the room. The room would be stuffy. The pillows were not to my liking. I’d stumble across to the bathroom once or twice. I’d turn the TV back on and for hours watch a bad movie or some silly sitcoms. 

My TV options are better now. I can scroll through hundreds of cable stations with scores of movies. The first night Gilda was gone I watched a West Coast Yankees game and two episodes of Veep before finally closing my eyes for several hours. 

When Gilda’s home we usually go to sleep around 11:30. I wake up around 8. This past week sleep has not come till nearly 2 and has not lasted past 7:30. This blog, for example, was written about 1:30 am, a half hour after I woke up from sleep initiated at the start of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. I woke up at 7:07.

For all my complaints, the truth is I believe a partner’s independent short-term travel is healthy for any relationship. Time away allows both partners to more fully appreciate each other. To recharge the excitement of being together. 

I could never have sustained the life of a traveling salesman or similar profession that required extended overnight travel most weeks of the year. 

As much as I “suffered” through this past week, my experience is not comparable to what Gilda went through when I traveled. She was left to care for our children, to feed and, when they were younger, clothe them. To make sure they went off safely to school and back. For most of those years she also had a full-time job. And if it snowed—it always seemed to snow when I was away during the winter—she had to shovel the driveway. No, my seven nights tossing and turning cannot be compared to her years of underappreciated dedication.

There’s no guarantee my sleep tonight will be better with Gilda lying next to me. But hearing her breathing, being able to reach out and touch her arm in the middle of the night, relying on her body heat instead of the heated mattress pad to warm our bed, signals a return to normalcy. To a contentment appreciated for sure by anyone in a lifetime partner relationship. 

Her plane is scheduled to land at Newark airport at 4:30 pm. I’ll be there. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

My Letter in The Times Lights the Way

It took more than two weeks, but The New York Times finally published my letter to the editor, online Sunday and in Monday’s printed edition. 

Back on April 12 two of Thomas Edison’s great-grandsons opined in The Times that “the Department of Energy now wants to roll back new efficiency standards (for light bulbs) signed into law by President George W. Bush and updated, as required, during the Obama administration” (https://nyti.ms/2VDXgtT).

The proposed withdrawal is another example of Donald Trump’s demonic compulsion to eliminate any vestige of progressive action by his predecessors, especially if it smacks of any environmental benefit to reduce the impact of climate change.  

The Edison progeny advocated public and congressional opposition to any plan by the Energy Department to narrow the scope of energy saving standards. 

It was in that context that I sent my letter to The Times. With slight editing to my original submission, The Times ran the following:

“We cannot rely on the Trump administration to do the right thing when it comes to enforcing light bulb energy standards. Instead, private enterprise must lead the way.

“Large chain stores—Walmart, Target, Kmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards, Costco and Ace Hardware, as well as Amazon—should exert their public service commitment by not buying or stocking less energy efficient incandescent light bulbs.
“Retailers can shine a positive light on the future direction of our country.”

Naturally, not everyone is on board with any plan that would deny consumers the opportunity to buy cheaper 100-watt incandescent bulbs compared to more expensive L.E.D.s. In response to a friend who brought up the issue after seeing my letter, I wrote back, 

“Yes, it will cost more and the poor would be disproportionately hurt. But just as we have required seat belts in cars at a higher cost, just as we require food safety inspections that raise the price of food, just as we have tolls on roads that make travel costlier, there are some mandates that are put in place for the common good. Call it totalitarianism. Or socialism. Or saving the planet for our grandchildren. Doing nothing is not an option for long term survival.”

Here’s how the Edisons put it: “Few actions can reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet as cheaply and easily as replacing energy-wasting bulbs with highly efficient ones. The group (the Natural Resources Defense Council) estimates that if every household in the United States replaced just one old bulb with an L.E.D., the country’s overall electric bill would be cut by more than $5 billion in 10 years, and two million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution would be avoided. 

“The savings are so big because the average American household has around 40 lighting sockets, and many still employ energy-wasting bulbs. We need efficiency standards to spur more innovation and ensure that our store shelves carry new bulbs reflecting the latest technology.

“Regrettably, special interests have reared their heads once again. Big bulb manufacturers supported by the Energy Department prefer to take the cheap, inefficient and environmentally harmful path for short-term profits. They would sacrifice our common good for their selfish greed.”

This was not my first letter published in The Times. Eleven years ago, when Allianz was reported by The Times to be near to securing the naming rights to the then new Meadowlands stadium where the New York Giants and Jets would play, I revealed the link between the company and its history of insuring Nazi death camps. To its credit Allianz already had disclosed on its website its association with the Nazi regime. But The Times article merely identified Allianz as a German financial services company (no doubt that is how the company identifies itself in press releases).

After my letter was published The Times followed up with a major story entitled “Naming Rights and Historic Wrongs.” Less than a week after my letter appeared, after intense public rejection of the Allianz overture, Allianz abandoned its bid. Only then did MetLife step in to secure the naming rights (https://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2010/01/chain-of-one-person-events.html).

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Don McGhan: Patriot or Trump Enabler?

In the pantheon of American patriots who sacrificed position to preserve the republic and avoid a constitutional crisis, how would you rank former White House counsel Don McGahn?  

Is he worthy of adulation for thwarting the worst impulses of a petty president? Should we laud him for ignoring the rants of Donald Trump, the commands of a megalomaniac, the wanton dictates of a wannabe autocrat? For surely on more than one occasion, according to his own testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller, McGhan saved Trump’s presidency by not executing his orders. 

So where do you stand on McGhan? Patriot or enabler of tyranny for keeping Trump in the White House?

Before you respond, here’s a thought to muddle your thinking: Along with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, McGhan is responsible for a decades’ long turn to the right in our federal judiciary. He managed the selections and confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and dozens of lower court judges appointed for life. 

Now what do you say? Is McGhan to be praised or reviled? Trump has him tops on his most current “s— list” because he has revealed the nakedness of Trump’s intellect and disdain for the Constitution. He spilled the beans—on the record—on the dysfunction in the Oval Office. He corroborated previously reported stories, based on sources, that Trump’s aides ignored his directives and assiduously worked to keep him from violating the law or corroding the government. 

Naturally, the denier-in-chief rejected the idea that anyone stifled his impulses, but testimony under oath to the contrary is difficult to rebut, especially since it came from several officials.

Yet, there are those judges McGhan put on the bench. Would America be better off if McGhan had resigned rather than helped Trump stay in office? 

Probably not. Because Mike Pence as a replacement president would have nominated those same judges, if not more conservative jurists. Liberal values were screwed no matter who served as president or counsel to the president as long as Republicans held a majority in the Senate. 

Ideology aside, it may be argued McGhan acted in the best interests of the nation. He forestalled a constitutional crisis. It will be interesting to observe how he reacts and responds to the subpoena Congress just extended to him. 

Attorney General William Barr, on the other hand, has openly displayed his bias. Rather than be the people’s attorney, Barr has shown himself to be Trump’s best defense lawyer. His repeated use of Trump’s catch-phrase “no collusion” was an open acknowledgment that he was conspiring with Trump to undermine the findings of the Mueller report. 

Collusion is not a legal term to be used in the context of the Mueller probe. Mueller found insufficient evidence to say there was a conspiracy with Russia to sway the election. He did not make a judgment on the question of obstruction of justice. Barr did, saying no obstruction occurred. But Mueller’s report provided numerous instances where Trump interfered with the investigation or its legitimacy. 

An unbiased attorney general would have let Congress decide the matter. He would not have pre-judged the question. Unlike McGhan, Barr added fuel to the fire of possible impeachment and constitutional crisis. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Aglow in Sadness From Notre-Dame's Flames

A little more than a week ago I watched, for the umpteenth time, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the classic 1939 film adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel starring Charles Laughton. It is a great movie.

The first time I saw the film I must have been no more than 10 years old. I watched it with my mother, probably as one of the Million Dollar Movies that played each night for a full week on WOR-TV Channel 9 in New York during the 1950s. From that time, indelibly imprinted in my mind was the scene wherein the hunchback bellringer Quasimodo pours molten lead through gargoyles on the roof of the cathedral onto Parisian beggars and riffraff attacking Notre-Dame. 

For years I thought the mob was trying to free the Gypsy maiden Esmeralda from his grasp. He had saved her from the gallows, invoking “sanctuary” inside the church.  

The mob actually was trying to shield Esmeralda from a threatened royal revocation of sanctuary safety. Deaf, Quasimodo had no way of knowing the mob was not attacking him. 

To my young eyes and ears, the spectacle was all that mattered. The hunchback saved the girl. 

Hugo’s book is far different from its various movie iterations. Look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested in knowing the differences. One thing is a constant—Notre-Dame commands the screen. 

I climbed to the top of the cathedral during my first trip to Paris in August 1966. I arrived at the base of Notre-Dame just before closing time. New visitors were not allowed entry through the main entrance that day anymore. Being a bold teenager of 17, I decided that up the down staircase was good enough for me. I raced up one of the towers, the right one if memory serves me correctly. The climb is 387 stairs. It took about 10 minutes. 

A few steps short of the top a young man descending said something to me I could not understand. Having just spent six weeks in Israel, I reflexively responded, “Mah?,” Hebrew for “what?”. He laughed and answered me in Hebrew that the viewing area was closing and being cleared of tourists. I rushed ahead and managed a short but thrilling view of Paris from above.

I’ve returned with Gilda to Paris several times. Notre-Dame has been one of our memorable stops.

Paris without Notre-Dame in its glory would be like visiting London without seeing Big Ben or Westminster Abbey, Rome without St. Peter’s Basilica or the Coliseum, Jerusalem without the Western Wall or the Dome of the Rock. 

Begun in 1163, the Gothic cathedral was completed in 1345 at a cost impossible to fathom.

Will Notre-Dame be restored? Would the French government sustain such an expense for an expected lengthy restoration? 

If there is a model of hope for a resurrection of the edifice it can be found at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Built by Tsar Peter the Great on the shore of the Baltic Sea in the early part of the 18th century, Peterhof’s elaborate gardens, fountains and buildings were largely ravaged by the invading German army in 1941. Restoration began at the end of World War II and lasted through decades. Gilda and I can attest to its beauty. 

In Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia (“holy family”) Church is slated for completion in 2026. Construction began in 1882, but did not take on its current design until Antoni Gaudi took over as architectural director in 1884. Gaudi died in 1926 with only 20% of the project complete. Gilda liked it when we saw it about 15 yers ago. I didn't warm to it.

These days the French are not a particularly religious people. But the importance of Notre-Dame transcends beliefs. When the shock of the blaze is reduced to embers, a burning desire to rekindle national pride will fuel a revival of the grande dame of Paris.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Sharing Voices in a Chorus

On the eve of the 10th day from Wednesday, April 10, Jews the world over will sit down to a seder commemorating the exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. It has become a festival of nationhood, a symbol of freedom from oppression and bondage, a reminder that they should treat the strangers among them with dignity and fairness because, as it is written in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, God “befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

How far we Americans—Jews and non Jews—have come from this biblical ideal. 

Days after celebrating Purim, the holiday that rejoices in the foiling of Haman’s plot to annihilate all Jews inside the Persian empire because they were different, and days before the Passover holiday when Jews became refugees seeking a new life, the Trump administration has vigorously renewed its attack on legal asylum seekers. 

Trump has claimed there is no room in the United States for all the asylum seekers. He made that argument before a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas (on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, of all days). Of course, his facts were wrong (https://nyti.ms/2UpZ1hF).

Reportedly, the purge of officials at the Department of Homeland Security in favor of those who would implement a more repressive immigration policy has been championed by Stephen Miller, himself a great grandson of a Jewish refugee fleeing pogroms in Belarus. How shameful. Miller is a modern day Torquemada, whose medieval family converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Torquemada became a priest and led the Spanish Inquisition against Moslems and Jews who converted but were suspected of less than complete adherence to Catholic practices.

Facebook and Twitter are enlightening sources. Here’s a post from Jackie Calmes. Above a picture of Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939, Calmes wrote, “Never thought an audience of Jews would cheer words like Trump’s in NV on Sat against asylum, labeling migrants fleeing violence as threats & saying US is ‘full.’”

Under the picture, a link to an article in Smithsonian Magazine recounting the State Department’s long history of anti-Semitism. The headline: “The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies-180957324/#V6QqrCfvfc4Ktrpo.03).

Lee Clark on Twitter wrote, “Trump went to Las Vegas and in front of the Jewish people used the same analogy against the South Americans that the country used against the Jews in 1939, the country was full and could not take in any more refugees. Refusing to let the Jew in sending them away Hitler killed all of them. The same thing Trump is doing to the South Americans.”

Words matter. Why is it that when Trump talks about Puerto Ricans or Jewish Americans it sounds like he does not consider them to be American citizens. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he referred to Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” suggesting that the Jews he was speaking to were not American citizens but rather Israelis, that their loyalty was, at the very least, divided.

The case is being made by some Jews that it is in their best interest to abandon the Democratic Party in favor of Republicans. It’s called “Jexodus”  https://nyti.ms/2Yc2yhO. 

I’m not buying it. I’m not turning my back on millennia of Jewish ideals, like support for human rights, equality, equality of opportunity, support for education, civil rights, community, respect for scientific knowledge.  

The noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan, in his 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,”  forecast the type of existence we find ourselves in today. Here’s a Twitter post of Sagan’s thoughts from his book from Dan Kaminsky via a Bret Thorn retweet:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

“The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

We deserve a leader who would help us reverse the decline, yes, to make us great again, not by dividing us into competitive camps but by uniting us toward a common goal. 

Instead, we are faced with the reality of another Sagan quote from his book: “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”