Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump and the Truth: Never the Twain Shall Meet

And so it begins. A new president who vowed in his inaugural address to fight for the American people wasted little time embarking on a Twitter war to soothe his ego at not drawing a crowd as large as Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The people’s president has shown his true colors as the me-me-me president. 

And so it begins. Four, maybe even eight, years of living in an alternative universe where facts and realities that do not align with our feckless leader’s views are contradicted by his Twitter feed or removed from public disclosure by cowed government agencies. 

Here’s how Politico reported the Trumpest-in-a-teapot brouhaha on crowd size: 

“A clear signal was sent to federal employees that public dissent would not tolerated after the National Park Service’s Twitter account posted pictures showing the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was far smaller than that which attended Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in. A memo was quickly sent that agencies within the Department of the Interior were to cease activity on Twitter. The posts in question were deleted, and the NPS returned to Twitter Saturday with an apology.

‘We regret the mistaken RTs from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you,’ the agency said, posting a picture of a buffalo with the message.” (

What’s next are at least four years of “America First,” an  America in the words of our new president Donald J. Trump, that will buy American made goods and employ Americans first before foreigners. 

I am trying to imagine the euphoria Trumpsters are feeling with the inauguration of The Donald. 

The natural inclination is to compare the ecstasy to that experienced when Obama took the oath of office eight years ago, a time when his supporters felt barriers of inequality would finally be surmounted, prosperity would emerge for all from the financial crisis inherited from Republican mismanagement and benign neglect, and our standing in the world would be restored. 

For sure the Obama years did not reap all that was hoped for. But our country still is the greatest in the world which makes Trump’s slogan—Make America Great Again—a dark, cruel commentary on reality, somewhat softened by the outpouring Saturday of millions who rallied in cities across the country and the world in support of women’s rights. 

Those swing state voters who fervently hope and believe Trump can resurrect factories and their jobs are to be pitied, not chastised, for their ignorance of economic trends and realities. 

Trump is critical of companies that replace factories in the U.S. with plants abroad. But if you believe in capitalism and in the rule of law you must appreciate that Trump is asking corporate executives of public companies to violate their fiduciary responsibilities to maximize the investment of shareholders, a task Trump admitted during the primary season was his primary motivation as a businessman. 

So while he may secure public relations points when some high profile companies keep some jobs in America the trend line will remain tipped toward foreign manufacturing. The public might say they want goods Made in America but if confronted by higher price tags consumers will reject domestic products in favor of merchandise made abroad at a fraction of the labor cost. 

And, since Trump is against a higher minimum wage, he will not make it any easier for workers to afford higher priced American made merchandise.

Trump’s inaugural speech lacked flowery passages. It was meat and potatoes. Nothing wrong with that. Trump campaigned and won on bleak messages, so it would have been out of character for him to turn poetic on his big day. He even showed some decency by abstaining from declaring he would repeal and replace Obamacare, perhaps in deference to the presence of President Obama seated directly to his left. But he did begin the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act by signing an executive order later in the day. How he will manage to replace Obamacare and sustain comparable coverage at a lower price for the more than 20 million Obamacare participants is a challenge I hope he can meet for the sake of all the people he says he cares about.

One can be unhappy with policy decisions on health care, the environment, global alliances and more, but respectful that in a democracy the victor gets to set the agenda. 

However, a much deeper problem is the erosion of truth, the falsification or denial of facts for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, the degradation of opponents, the manipulation of public opinion—all tactics autocrats practice to consolidate power.

They are not an impeachable offenses but they are the very foundation of what may come later. It is like what happens with credit card fraud. First, perpetrators use a stolen card to make a 99 cents charge. If it gets approved and undetected they move on to larger, fraudulent purchases. 

Trump is testing how far he can go in stretching, nay creating, the truth and in painting the media as corrupt and liars. It will not be enough for journalists to call him out. It will not be enough for Democrats to say the emperor has no clothes. Those dissenters are to be expected.

The truth must be defended by Trump’s staff—the Kellyanne Conways, the Sean Spicers who must trot out his absurdities and fabrications—and by vice president Mike Pence and Republican senators and congressmen who should care more about our republic than for the man in the Oval Office. They, after all, took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.”  

For the last 19 months we have watched as Trump campaigns and now governs. For him it always comes down to size. The size of his hands. The size of his penis. The size of inaugural crowds. 

As Trump himself would tweet, the situation is SO SAD!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Rain or Shine, Donald J. Trump Takes Control Friday

As surely as the sun will rise Friday morning (though rain is in the midday forecast for Washington, D.C.), Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America at noon.

Under Trump’s presidency we’re going to see if the government can be run as a business or like a business. There’s a difference. 

To be run as a business requires a balanced budget (even a surplus), which means tough decisions on how revenues are raised and appropriated. The last president to produce a surplus was Bill Clinton. Generally speaking, Republican dogma has called for lower taxes tied to reduced expenditure allocations to social welfare programs. The GOP also advocates diluted, if not eliminated,  protections for consumers, workers, the environment, civil liberties and voting rights.

To run the government like a business implies leeway in strict adherence to capitalism, layering in programs to help the less fortunate and vulnerable. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his second inaugural address in 1937, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

A few months prior, in the acceptance speech for his renomination, FDR said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” 

Those are compelling thoughts during a time when health care coverage for 20 million people hangs in the balance, when environmental regulations may be stripped away in the name of creating a better business climate, and social service initiatives, such as Medicare and Medicaid, may be severely cut back because Republicans have never been supporters of FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society programs.

Trump can claim he saved jobs at Carrier (700 or 1,100 depending on whom you believe) and 700 more at Ford, both rescues the result of pressuring those companies to jettison projected job relocations to plants in Mexico. Whether you like Trump or not, you’ve got to be happy for those who will continue to receive paychecks.

But Trump’s bully pulpit to end globalization that kills American jobs, coupled with his determination to Make America Great Again, ignores seismic changes occurring throughout the national and international economies. As much as he might want us to return to a simpler time, progress—the future—will not be stopped.

Take, for example, what is happening in the retail industry. More and more sales are transpiring over the Internet. The industry has known for decades that it is overstored. Macy’s is but one of many chains that will shutter stores. It will close 100 of its 730 units and lay off 10,000 workers. Their jobs are not going south or to some other exotic locale. The jobs are lost to cyberspace. 

King-of-electronic-retailing Amazon says it will hire 100,000 workers, an impressive sum, but hardly as many as the workers at brick and mortar retailers dislocated by the emergence of electronic retailing. 

Retailing is like the taxi/limousine field affected by Uber and Lyft, like the hotel business assaulted by Airbnb, like the newspaper business devastated first by Craig’s List and then by Web news sites, real and fake—it is being intermediated by technology. No amount of jawboning or handwringing will slow the inevitable adaptation of our  economy. 

Going forward we are also going to see how thick is the Trump straw that stirs the drink, or if Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, in concert or separately, can sway Republican control of the government. Trump’s stated views on a replacement for Obamacare, for example, differ markedly from Ryan’s and McConnell’s. 

In addition, we will wait to see which John McCain will show up for what probably is his last term in the Senate. Will it be the maverick straight shooter who charmed the electorate in the mid-2000s, or the sycophantic senator who clutched Trump’s coattails to win reelection last year?

It’s politics as usual down in the swamp. After campaigning he would drain the swamp Trump is the head of a muck mired in self-aggrandizement, ethical challenges and broken campaign promises. 

Throughout his campaign he railed against the influence of Wall Street and specifically Goldman Sachs. Yet since the election he has proposed filling three key financial spots with men affiliated with Goldman Sachs and is in favor of reducing constraints on the financial community. 

Politics will color our interpretation of events during the next four years. But hard facts will provide an objective report card on Trump’s vow to “make America great again.”

Trump will be judged on the state of the country and the world in 2020, so here are markers, financial and global, we should check in September 2020 against September 2016, with specific attention to results in the four swing states that chose him over Hillary Clinton—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio:

*Annual domestic economic growth rate
*Size of national debt
*Size of annual deficit 
*Size of trade imbalance
*Small business growth rate overall 
*Small business growth rates in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Level of Dow Jones Industrial Averages 
*Unemployment rate overall
*Unemployment rates in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Black/African-American unemployment rate overall
*Black/African-American unemployment rate (16-19 year olds)
*Labor force participation rate overall
*Labor force participation rate among Black/Afro-Americans
*Jobs created last four years nationally
*Civilian jobs in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Number of manufacturing jobs nationally
*Number of manufacturing jobs Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Average weekly earnings manufacturing jobs
*Number of construction jobs nationally
*Number of construction jobs Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Average weekly earnings construction jobs
*Number of mining/logging/oil/gas jobs nationally
*Number of mining/logging/oil/gas jobs Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio
*Average weekly earnings mining/logging/oil/gas jobs
*Number of federal government jobs
*Number of government jobs nationally
*Number of uninsured for health care
*Average tax bill for middle class family
*Average national price of gallon of regular gasoline
*Inflation rate
*30 year mortgage rate
*Number of homicides
*Number of hate crimes
*Number of people living in poverty
*Number of military personnel in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Germany, Japan, South Korea
*Status of wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan
*Status of Iran nuclear deal
*Level of imports from China
*Status of North Korea
*Status of Israel-Palestinian conflict
*Number of police officers killed nationally
*Number of minorities killed by police

Four years is a long time to wait for results. But they need not be filled with cowering. If you want to see how Trump and his advisors, particularly Kellyanne Conway, can be handled politely but appropriately, watch how Seth Meyers interviewed her last week. It’s a seminar in solid interviewing/reporting all journalists and TV/radio talk show hosts should study and learn from:

That said, there is reason to not be comfortable after 12:01 pm Friday. Take the time to read Politico’s roundtable discussion with three of Trump’s biographers about what to expect from the new president:

If you made it through the depths of that article, you might not be criticized for believing this is a time to worry and fret. But do not despair. For encouragement read David Leonhardt’s analysis of President Obama’s impact and the difficulty Republicans will have in trying to knock down his legacy:

Beyond that, take heart in Orphan Annie’s ballad to FDR: “The sun will come out tomorrow …”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Journalism in the Age of Trump

I came of age professionally at the dawn of the Watergate era. While studying for a master’s degree in newspaper journalism, my Syracuse University classmates and I met with Jeb Magruder, president Richard Nixon’s re-election committee head in early 1972, just months before the Watergate break-in, two years before Magruder would plead guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, to defraud the United States, and to illegally eavesdrop on the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

During our first summer of matrimony, in 1973, Gilda spent most of her days watching the Senate Watergate hearings. Lowell Weicker Jr. of Connecticut gained national prominence during the hearings as a Republican critic of Nixon. I interviewed Weicker at his Greenwich home on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. We made national news when I quoted him asserting he would not try to capitalize on his new-found prominence by running for president in 1976, though he did try to mount a presidential bid in 1980.

In the years following Watergate and the bravura reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, not to mention their celluloid alter-egos Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, it seemed every young person graduating college wanted to be an investigative reporter, someone who toppled the high and mighty. It didn’t matter if their chosen targets presided in Washington or Podunk, Indiana. What mattered was the press had to show that it was supreme.

For the most part the nation benefitted from such zeal, though excesses did occur, such as the intrusive, destructive coverage of Gary Hart and his non affair with Donna Rice, which submarined his presidential hopes in 1988.

Relations between the press and presidents (and would-be presidents) are rarely absent of acrimony. Reporters are a skeptical, cynical lot, always looking for the real story behind any presidential action. They bristle at any attempt to corral their activity. Administrations, on the other hand, are the ultimate public relations practitioners. Media access is to be restricted and managed.

Which brings us to media coverage in the age of Trump. The Internet has vastly expanded the number of bodies able to disseminate news, real and fake. The biggest body of all belongs to Donald J. Trump and his peripatetic fingers.

The twit-in-chief has upended traditional news distribution routes. His team has hinted of changes to the daily briefings in the White House press room. Indeed, the very room itself may become extinct.

It is a strategy to bypass traditional media that Trump believes is biased against him. He may be right about the bias claim, but he is fooling himself if he seriously believes upsetting the press room applecart will stifle critical reporting and analysis of his administration. If anything, it will galvanize real reporters to probe deeper.

The contretemps over Buzzfeed’s publishing the contents of a questionably accurate dossier of behavior by Trump while in Russia several years ago is the latest example of the press pushing the limits of journalistic decorum.

Yet, it is the height of chutzpah for a president-elect who uses Twitter bullying tactics, the retweeting of falsehoods and innuendo and near total disregard for the truth to complain about his coverage and portrayal in the media.

I suspect Trump is not very well read, but he probably knows the saying, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

He might also be acquainted with another proverb journalists embrace: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Celebrating a Father's Birthday With Memories

Today is my father’s 106th birthday. Or maybe his 105th. My brother, sister and I were never sure. He died 18 years ago.

His death certificate records his birthday as January 5, 1911. Dad usually said he was a year younger, one annum subtracted as was the custom for boys in Ottynia, a shtetl in the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so he would not be drafted into the army when he turned 18. Back then recruits remained in the military for some two decades, making avoiding the draft by any means no small accomplishment. On his tombstone we inscribed his birth year as 1912.

Of course, by the time our father, Kopel Fuersetzer, turned 18 the empire had been long dissolved after its defeat in what we now call World War I. Ottynia became part of southeastern Poland (today it is part of Ukraine). When he was 16 Kopel ventured far away from Ottynia to the northwest “Free City of Danzig,” now called Gdansk, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. There he lived the life of a traveling salesman until he left Europe for good, arriving in New York in January 1939.

He married our mother three years later. Working together in their lingerie factory in lower Manhattan while living in Brooklyn they raised three children, of which I am the youngest. By any standard they were successful.

He was not a perfect man or father. He was no Alan Thicke of Growing Pains, no Robert Young of Father Knows Best. Nor was he a Carroll O’Connor/Archie Bunker of All in the Family. He was human, which means he made mistakes. He screamed. He got angry. He was, like my brother’s nickname for him, the “Boss,” at work and at home.

But I learned from him the value of tzedakah, charity. Of communal responsibility and service. Of treating workers fairly and with dignity. Of being a good story teller. 

He liked to tell of the time in the 1950s when he accompanied one of his salesmen to the headquarters of C. R. Anthony, a junior department store chain based in Oklahoma City. They met with Mr. Anthony himself. By the end of the visit Mr. Anthony playfully admonished the salesman that if he wanted any repeat business he would have to bring along the storyteller again to close the deal. I think that pleased our father almost, if not more, than getting the order.

As much as some people romanticize life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Ottynia, near the Carpathian Mountains on the train line between Kolomaya and Stanislav, was not a place our father longed to be in. His ambitions, his drive, his quest for independence led him to seek a more fulfilling way of life, first in Danzig, then in New York. 

From Danzig he would return now and then to his parents’ home—one of my favorite pictures is of him dressed in peasant pants and shirt, almost like pajamas, lying on the oversized fender of a large car in Ottynia. Yet, neither he nor his brother Willy, sole immediate family survivor of the Holocaust, talked much about Ottynia, or Danzig, where Willy lived as well for a short time. They preferred to look forward, not backward. 

Much of what I know about Ottynia comes from a video tape of the two my brother and I conducted some 25 years ago and from writings from some of his landtsmen, fellow immigrants and their descendants from Ottynia. We always were skeptical of our father’s claim to have walked miles to school and back. But our cousin, Norman Latner, in a monograph on life in Ottynia some years back, confirmed that children had to walk several miles to get to school. Instruction lasted through sixth grade. 

Norman also provided an explanation why Dad said they’d have to walk through deep snow. Ottynia, he noted, is “located at 49 degree latitude, which puts it about as far north as Winnipeg, Canada. Winters were quite cold and the summer were hot.”

Our father was active in the Young Men’s Benevolent Association of Ottynia, becoming president of the “society” for many years. He also became president of our synagogue in Brooklyn. When New York University moved to evict small apparel manufacturers from their leased lofts along Broadway, my father led an ultimately unsuccessful city hall protest.

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, to me, the Ottynia society often meant keeping track of phone calls. My father never liked to see anyone on the phone in our house. But he had no qualms using it to talk to his society brethren.

To my brother Bernie, my sister Lee, and me, Ottynia meant a tight knit group of couples that formed a monthly floating poker game, men in one room, women in another. The stakes were nickel, dime, quarter. I don’t know many Yiddish words, I am not even sure it is Yiddish—it could be Polish or Ukrainian—but one of the first foreign words I learned was from Harry Brooks. Whenever he’d need a special card to fill, say, an inside straight, before he was dealt a card, he’d call out, “Chei-cha.” I think it means, give me good luck.

During these card games I learned how to mix highballs for the players. When I was around 10, they would let me sit in for a few hands whenever my mother or father would take a break from the game. It was a lot rougher playing with the women. They took their poker very seriously. The men would coddle me. The women were after my nickels.

Poker aside, what Ottynia meant to Kopel Forseter was continuity. It meant commitment to family and friends. Ottynia meant helping those in need. It meant remembering one’s traditions and roots. 

To Bernie, Lee and me it also meant an impossible to follow melody when reading the Passover Haggadah as Willy and Dad droned on and on. 

For all its simple, peasant-like charm, if I might use that word to describe Ottynia, Ottynia must have had qualities that imbued in my father and scores of others a set of values that have served them well.  

“Today in Ukraine,” my cousin ended his monograph, there is still a town called Ottynia, but it is not the Ottynia of the Kletters (or Forseters). All traces of a Jewish presence are gone. There are no shuls, no cheder (Hebrew school), no Hebrew texts and no chulent warming on the stove … All that remains of the Ottynia of the past, a place of hardship and a place of joy, lives on in the hearts and the memory of the few survivors, and in us, and our children if we too try to preserve these memories of the past.”