Category Archives: History

John Glenn always gave his country 110 percent

astronaut_john_glenn_in_a_state_of_weightlessness_during_friendship_-_gpn-2002-000075

See how I didn’t use, “Godspeed, John Glenn?” I wanted to, but I figured everyone else would…

John Glenn was one of my heroes, but that says nothing special about me, except that I was a kid when the Mercury Seven — of which he was the most illustrious, the most conspicuous — were wowing the nation with their exploits. I remember being herded into the auditorium with the rest of my 3rd-grade class to watch him orbit the Earth, as it happened, on a medium-sized black-and-white TV that had been wheeled in for the occasion.800px-colonel_john_glenn_official_photo

Later, The Right Stuff made me admire him all the more, even though Wolfe made it clear how low the astronauts were on the Test Pilot Pyramid (“A monkey’s gonna make the first flight!”). When he ran for president in 1984, he was the guy I wanted to see take it all. I couldn’t believe he did no better than he did; I chalked it up to a decline in the national character.

An anecdote that illustrates Glenn as an exemplar of old-fashioned virtues: In the book, Tom Wolfe really played up Glenn’s status as the most gung-ho, straight-shooting, hard-working, unapologetic advocate of duty and clean living in the astronaut corps. One small example of how meticulously conscientious he was: Whenever he went on a goodwill tour of one of the factories that were building the components of the Mercury rockets and capsules, within days he would send hand-written thank-you notes to everybody he had met at the plant.

I never met Glenn myself, but early in 1984, his daughter made a visit to Jackson, Tenn., where I was the news editor of the local paper. She came by the paper and met with us, advocating for her dad, and before she left, I put on another hat and asked her whether there was any chance of getting John himself to come speak at the banquet of Leadership Jackson, of which I was the rising president.

In the mail a few days later, I received a card from her in which she went on at length about her efforts to follow up on my request.

So, in addition to being our foremost Single-Combat Warrior Challenging the Godless Commies for Dominance of the Heavens, he was a pretty-good Dad as well, passing on his own relentless habits of following through, of being dutiful even in small things.

OK, I’m going to say it: Godspeed, John Glenn

Pearl Harbor coverage, as it would have looked had there been iPad apps in 1941

ipad-page

I enjoyed this thing that The Wall Street Journal did this morning.

They did a mock home page for their app consisting of actual stories that ran in the paper on Dec. 8, 1941.

Here are links to a couple of the stories:

War With Japan: Washington Sees Fight on 2 Oceans and 3 Continents

All Consumption Curbs Due To Be Stiffened; Scarcity List Will Grow

I’m struck by how matter-of-factly these developments were accepted at the time. The stock market opened as usual the next morning? And can you imagine what a conniption the Journal would have today (on the editorial page, at least) over “consumption curbs?” The government, interfering with the holy marketplace? Good God, Lemon!

Below is an image of the actual front page from that date.

I thought that was pretty cool. But then I’m both a journalist, and a history geek…

original-page

Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’

Kathleen Parker has a good column that points to a way out of the madness for America.

And based on the president-elect’s behavior in the last few days (not to mention the preceding 70 years), we desperately need one:

A movement headed by a mostly Democratic group calling itself Hamilton Electors is trying to persuade Republican electors to defect — not to cede the election to Hillary Clinton but to join with Democrats in selecting a compromise candidate, such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich. It wouldn’t be that hard to do.

Mathematically, only 37 of Trump’s 306 electors are needed to bring his number down to 269, one less than the 270 needed to secure the presidency.

On the Hamilton Electors’ Facebook page, elector Bret Chiafalo, a Democrat from Washington, explains the purpose of the electoral college. If you haven’t previously been a fan of the electoral system, you might become one.

Bottom line: The Founding Fathers didn’t fully trust democracy, fearing mob rule, and so created a republic. They correctly worried that a pure democracy could result in the election of a demagogue (ahem), or a charismatic autocrat (ahem), or someone under foreign influence (ditto), hence the rule that a president must have been born in the United States. We know how seriously Trump takes the latter.

Most important among the founders’ criteria for a president was that he (or now she) be qualified. Thus, the electoral college was created as a braking system that would, if necessary, save the country from an individual such as, frankly, Trump…

Amen to that!

As the courageous Mr. Chiafalo says in the above video, “This is the moment that Hamilton and Madison warned us about. This is the emergency they built the Electoral College for. And if it our constitutional duty, and our moral responsibility, to put the emergency measures into action.”

Bret Chiafalo

Bret Chiafalo

There is no question whatsoever that he is right. This may not be what electors bargained for when they signed on, but their duty is clear. Each day provides us with startling new evidence of Donald Trump’s utter unsuitability for this office. The man is unhinged, and the Electoral College is our one remaining defense against him.

Yep, there are state laws binding electors to slavishly follow the choice made by the thing our founders rightly feared — mob rule, a.k.a. direct democracy. But the electors have a higher duty to the Constitution, and must follow it. I will gladly lead a fund-raising campaign to pay any fines levied against them. (And if something more than fines is involved, we need to have an urgent conversation about that.)

Electors who break with the popular vote are called “faithless.” That’s an Orwellian label if ever I’ve heard one. True faith with the nation, as set out in our Constitution, requires that electors be “faithless” in this national crisis.

Yep, Trump’s supporters will go nuts, because they won’t understand this. They’ll say the system is fixed. Well, it is. At least, it’s supposed to be. Hamilton promised us, in selling the Constitution as “Publius,” that “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

And that’s true, if the College steps up and does its job.

Do your duty, electors. Don’t throw away your shot. If you live 100 years, it’s unlikely you will ever have such an opportunity to serve your country, and such an obligation to do so, as you have right now.

Will Mattis cross the Rubicon? Or did Trump already do that?

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

It’s been pointed out many times now that the issue of whether to grant a waiver to allow Gen. James Mattis to become Defense secretary goes back to 1950, when Congress granted a one-time exemption to George C. Marshall.

Actually, the issue goes back much, MUCH farther than that, to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, which signaled the pending demise of the Roman Republic.

In those days — and through much of history — generals tended to have more or less personal armies, filled with soldiers who felt they owed their fealty to the generals themselves at least as much as they did to the larger political entity that the army supposedly served. That proposed a threat to the stability of the Roman Republic, so they had a law — generals had to keep their armies out of Italy.

Julius Caesar broke that rule by taking his legion south of the Rubicon, and sure enough, republicans’ fears were realized.

I’ve always assumed that the reason I had to move around so much growing up as a Navy brat was that the U.S. military wisely keeps its officers from staying with the same unit or in the same community long enough to form those kinds of dangerous relationships — either with their troops or with local political leadership. My exposure early on to the dynamics of military coups in Latin America persuaded me of this.

(Weirdly, if you Google “why do people move so much in the military,” you don’t get that explanation. Which seems weird to me. Can anyone out there confirm whether MY understanding of the reason is correct?)

Anyway, the ironic thing here is that a lot of folks (including me to a certain extent) are painting Trump’s election as a harbinger of the demise of our own republic, as Americans turn to a strongman who promises to solve all our problems, and who has little grounding in the foundational principles of our society.

Some have drawn the comparison to Julius Caesar’s big move on Rome. Over the weekend, I enjoyed reading this piece by a historian, who wrote in The Washington Post to debunk such comparisons:

These comparisons are common. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter has said that embracing an all-powerful figure who promises to solve the nation’s problems is “how the Roman republic fell.” Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, ended democracy “because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved,” Souter said in the 2012 quote, which resurfaced during this fall’s campaign. Along those same lines, a Huffington Post headline claimed: “Rome Had Caesar. America Has Trump. The People Were and Are Desperate.”

But such comparisons are light on scholarship. Simply put, most experts believe there is little to compare. Yes, the United States has seen a rise in populism, but it hasn’t experienced a microgram of the violence that accompanied the fall of the Roman republic. The end came only after numerous civil wars over offices and honor , decades of gang violence in the capital, and waves of sanctioned political murder. By that measure, Trump is no Caesar…

That is somewhat reassuring. The historian is saying, I knew Caesar, and you, Mr. Trump, are no Caesar… And perhaps it’s a good thing to debunk such notions. The Secret Service would not want to see a latter-day Brutus and the rest getting ideas. Nor would I, let me say…

The reason the Trump-as-Caesar analogy strikes me as ironic is that the situation with Gen. Mattis offers the closer parallel to the actual principle involved in requiring the legion to stay in Gaul. And frankly, as I expressed earlier, I find the prospect of someone as qualified as Mattis to be a good and promising thing, by comparison with most aspects of the coming administration.

In other words, Mattis crossing the Rubicon might be a small salvation for our republic, or at least might mitigate some of the damage done by Consul Trump, who recently caused the plebeians to rise up…

rubicon2

… and then he goes ahead and crosses it, with the Legio XIII Gemina.

NO! The problem is NOT that the election was ‘divisive’

I’m getting sick of people saying this, so I need to speak up.

A story today in The Washington Post by the eminent Dan Balz, headlined “Raw emotions persist as Donald Trump prepares for his presidency,” repeats a fallacy that needs to be countered:

But everyone knew or should have known that the wounds from an election that was as raw and divisive and negative as campaign 2016 would not be quickly healed…

No, no, NO!

The problem is not that the election was “divisive,” or even “negative.” Those factors have been givens in American politics in recent decades. We’ve had negative campaigns across the country since the early 1980s, when the old guideline that a candidate would damage himself if he “went negative” died and was buried. Lee Atwater rose during those days, but the rule was being broken by others, such as Robin Beard, who used creative, negative ads against Jim Sasser in the 1982 Senate race in Tennessee (where I was at the time), gaining national attention but failing to win the election (which briefly seemed to confirm the old commandment against negativity).

As for divisive — well, it’s been pretty awful ever since the election of 1992, when bumper stickers that said “Don’t Blame Me — I Voted Republican” appeared on cars even before Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993. Since then, the parties have not been satisfied merely to disagree, but have increasingly regarded leaders of the opposite party to be illegitimate and utterly beyond the pale.

So it is that the terms “divisive” and “negative” say nothing about the recent election; they do not in any way distinguish the presidential election of 2016 from any contest that preceded it.

And yet we all know that this election was different from every one that preceded it in American history, right? So how do we describe that difference?

THIS is the difference, folks.

THIS is the difference, folks.

Well, it’s really not all that hard — although describing the underlying causes is more difficult. The difference is Donald Trump.

This was an election between a relatively normal, reasonably qualified candidate, and a grotesquely unfit one — a crude, rude, petty, childish, ignorant, unstable man who had done nothing in his life that in any way prepared him for the job.

You can complicate it if you wish. Feminists want to characterize Hillary Clinton as a groundbreaking candidate of historic proportions — which is silly. She was as conventional as can be: As a former senator and secretary of state, you don’t even have to mention her time as first lady to describe her qualifications. She was Establishment; she was a centrist (center-left if you prefer); she was someone completely at home in the consensus about the role of the United States in the world that has prevailed since Harry Truman. The main thing is, she was qualified.

Yes, she was the second most-hated major party nominee (second to the man who beat her) in the history of keeping track of such things, which is an important reason she lost. Some people who should have known better hated her so much that they were able to rationalize voting for the astonishingly unfit Trump in order to stop her, so that was definitely a factor. But aside from that, she was a normal candidate, from the usual mold, a person who people who knew what they were about — such as Republican foreign-policy experts — were comfortable voting for, knowing the nation would be in reasonably safe hands.

She was business-as-usual (which also helped sink her, as we know), while Trump was a complete departure from anything that had ever before risen its ugly, bizarrely-coiffed head to this level in American politics. It wasn’t just a matter of resume. This man got up very early every morning to start making statements — by Twitter before others rose, out loud later in the day — that absolutely screamed of his unfitness. A rational employer would not hire someone that unstable to do anything, much less to become the most powerful man in the world.

I need not provide a list of his outrages, right? You all remember the election we just went through, right?

TRUMP is what distinguishes this election from all others. TRUMP is what people are trying to get over — which we can’t, of course, because he’s now with us for the next four years. I ran into a former Republican lawmaker yesterday — a member of the revolutionary class of 1994, the original Angry White Male revolt — who expressed his utter bewilderment and sense of unreality that has been with him daily since the election. To him, as to me, the fact that Trump won the election can’t possibly BE a fact. Nothing in our lives prior to this prepared us for such a bizarre eventuality.

Yes, there are complicating factors — the populist impulse that has swept the West recently, which sometimes seemed would prevent Hillary Clinton from winning her own party’s nomination, despite her socialist opponent’s clear unsuitability and the fact that it was understood in her party that it was Her Turn. The roots of that are difficult to plumb. As is the fact that the GOP was bound and determined to reject all qualified candidates and nominate someone completely unsuitable — if not Trump, it would have been Ted Cruz, whom tout le monde despised. Both factors can be attributed to the populist obsession, but contain important differences.

So yes, there was a force abroad in the land (and in the lands of our chief allies) that was determined to sweep aside qualifications, good sense and known quantities in favor of the outlandish. And that helped produce Trump.

But still, particularly if you look directly at what happened on Nov. 8, the difference is Trump himself.

And that MUST be faced by anyone attempting to explain what has happened.

Ever since he started closing in on the nomination, I’ve been begging everyone in the commentariat and beyond to resist the lazy temptation to normalize Trump, to write or speak as though this were just another quadrennial contest between Democrat and Republican, to be spoken of in the usual terms. I was hardly alone. Plenty of others wrote in similar terms about the danger of pretending this election was in any way like any other.

And now, we still have that battle to fight, as veteran (and novice) scribes seek to describe the transition to a (shudder) Trump administration in the usual terms, even though some have admirably noted the stark difference. (I particularly appreciated the Post piece yesterday accurately explaining the similarities between this unique transition and Reality TV. — which is another new thing, folks, as we slouch toward Idiocracy.)

It’s a battle that must be fought every day, until — four years from now, or eight, or however many years it takes (assuming our nation even can recover from this fall, which is in doubt) — a normal, qualified person is elected president.

Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

In a comment earlier I wrote about how concerned I am about the course of my country — and of the world. More so than I’ve ever been in my more than six decades on this planet.

It’s not just Trump — he’s just a glaring, ugly sign of it. Take a step back, and reflect: Who came in second in the GOP primaries? The only guy who gave Trump any kind of a run for his money as the worst candidate ever — Ted Cruz. All the better-suited candidates were stuck in single digits. And the Democrats have nothing to brag about — they put forward the second-most (second to Trump) despised candidate in the history of such things being measured. And she had trouble putting away a cranky old socialist to get that far.

How can I blame Trump when the real problem is that millions of people voted for him? I actually almost feel sorry for this bizarre figure, because he truly had zero reason to expect that he’d actually end up in this position.

I mean seriously: If you don’t even go deeper than his hair, you can tell at a glance that the country’s really, really in trouble. This is what will lead us?krauthammer

And the rest of the world, too. As Charles Krauthammer wrote today, “After a mere 25 years, the triumph of the West is over.” The promise of 1991, with the Soviet Union finally collapsing and the U.S. leading a broad coalition against Saddam in Kuwait — the New World Order in which Civilization, led by the City on a Hill, would enforce its values against aggressors — is behind us.

The United States is pulling back, and the bad guys just can’t wait to flow into the vacuum. In fact, they haven’t been waiting — in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or the South China Sea. Or even in our own backyard.

He sums it up this way, blaming BOTH Obama and Trump:

Donald Trump wants to continue the pullback, though for entirely different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was not good enough for the world, too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us — undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices. Time to look after our own American interests.

I think he’s trying a little too hard at false equivalence there, but at the same time, while Obama’s a smart guy who knows how to say the right things (unlike, you know, the other guy), there has been a noticeable tinge of “Oh, this country isn’t all that special” in his stance toward the world. A tinge that some of you agree with, and with which I couldn’t disagree more. But if you’re right, if the United States isn’t all that special — if it can’t be relied upon as the chief champion of liberal democracy — then the world doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because there’s always somebody wanting to be the hegemon, and the leading candidates running to take our place are pretty much a nightmare.

ISIS is a wannabe and never-was on that score. Russia wants to be a contender again, instead of bum, Charlie. But my money has long been on the oppressive authoritarians of the world’s largest country, China.

One of the first editorials I wrote for The State — maybe the first — when I joined the editorial board in 1994 was about the disturbing signs I saw of the Chinese buying friends and influencing people right here in our hemisphere, the long-forgotten Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. I was worried that nobody else in this country seemed to see it, thanks to the fact that few of my fellow Americans ever took a moment to think about what happens to the south of us. (Side note: We wrote a lot about international affairs when I joined the editorial board; when I became editor, we would focus far more closely on South Carolina, which needed the scrutiny.)

Well, more people have noticed it since then. But not enough people. And not enough of the ones who have noticed care. President Obama, to his credit, started his “pivot” to focus on the Pacific Rim. That was the smart thing to do for this country’s long-term interests, and those of liberal democracy in general. China needs to be countered, with both soft power and, when necessary, hard.

Probably the most chilling paragraph in Krauthammer’s column is this one:

As for China, the other great challenger to the post-Cold War order, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into an abject failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. And the rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed the Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested that China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now abandoned by both political parties in the United States….

TPP was smart policy, encouraging our allies in the region to join with us in confidence, tying themselves more closely with U.S. interests in the face of the Chinese challenge. And this year, neither party was willing to stand up for it — even though one of the nominees (the one who lost, of course) knew better. If she’d been elected, at least we’d have had the chance of her breaking that bad campaign promise.

We painstakingly fashioned that strategic instrument, then dropped it like a hot potato when the populists began howling. And China is preparing to pick it up. And maybe you don’t, but I feel the Earth’s center of gravity shifting in the wrong direction.

Oh, but hey, Carrier’s not moving a plant to Mexico — at least, not completely. So everything’s OK, right? We’ve entered the era of short-term, inwardly focused international goals. Or something…

On Al Capone and you-know-who: What’s the appeal?

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Yesterday, Bryan Burrough reviewed a new book about Al Capone in The Wall Street Journal.

The writer, himself an author of a popular book on criminals of that era, confessed he was somewhat at a loss to explain why Capone remains such a favorite subject of readers: “I’ve read my share of books devoted to his life and legend, and I must admit, his appeal eludes me.”

The best bit of the review was this paragraph:

The portrait that invariably emerges is of a rank outsider, a Brooklynite making his way as a “businessman” in Chicago, a grandiose bloviator handed much of his empire in his 20s by his mentor, the retiring Johnny Torrio. When Capone encounters difficulties, he whines about his persecution by the press and a legal system “rigged” against him. Half the country thinks him a monster; others view him as the common man’s champion. Wait: This is beginning to sound familiar. I guess this isn’t the first time I’ve underestimated the appeal of such a man….

Yeah, I know the feeling.

No doubt there are a lot of voters out there — a lot more than most people had supposed — who would be interested in reading about such a man…

Capone's FBI rap sheet -- which seems oddly blank.

Capone’s FBI rap sheet — which seems oddly blank.

The death of Fidel Castro (and Ron Glass, too!)

fidel-castro-1959

By now, you’ve heard that Fidel Castro outlasted 10 U.S. presidents. I’ve read that several times. But I make it 11. Check my math:

  1. Eisenhower
  2. Kennedy
  3. Johnson
  4. Nixon
  5. Ford
  6. Carter
  7. Reagan
  8. Bush 41
  9. Clinton
  10. Bush 43
  11. Obama

Oh, I get it. They’re not counting Obama, since Fidel didn’t quite outlast him. Duh.

Whatever. Guy was in office a long time, longer than a lot of you have been alive.

And what’s he got to show for it? Almost six decades of oppression, and some beautifully preserved antique cars. I read over the weekend that since the thaw began, a huge part of the Cuban economy is American tourism and the officially tolerated sex trade, which takes us back to where he came in.

He’s been there so long, that it’s nice to do a recap to refresh your memory. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The big question now is, will things get better between the U.S. and Cuba now, or worse? I’m not overly optimistic, with you-know-who about to take over in Washington.

ron-glassAnd now, let’s pause a moment to remember Ron Glass, whom we all remember (if we’re old enough) from “Barney Miller,” but I recall more fondly as Shepherd Book from “Firefly.” As you may recall if you’re a Browncoat, one of the great unsolved mysteries from the short-lived series was just what sort of shady past the Shepherd had.

Now we’ll never know, even if there’s a revival of the series, which there should be.

Requiescat in pace, Ron… (Do they have Latin in the future ‘verse, or is it just English and Chinese?)

shepherd-book

‘Aaron Burr’ just couldn’t follow his own advice with Pence

“Hamilton” actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, did not take to heart the advice his character gives the young Hamilton:

While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice:

Talk less…

Smile more…

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for…

If he had been the real Burr, he would not have singled out his successor-elect, Mike Pence, for embarrassment after the show the other night.

A lot of people who are as distressed over the election results as I am think it was great for Dixon to deliver this message from the stage to Pence, who was in the audience:

“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening,” he said to audience hoots and laughter. “And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.”

As he pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket, Dixon encouraged people to record and share what he was about to say, “because this message needs to be spread far and wide.” The cast, in their 18th-century costumes, and the crew, in jeans and T-shirts, linked arms and hands behind Dixon….

“Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do,” Dixon said to further applause. “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us . . .”

The audience erupted in cheers again. “Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

As I say, some thought it was great. I did not. It seemed tacky, gauche, not the proper place. The man in the audience was a guest, and did not come to harangue anyone — or to be harangued.

It’s not that the actor was hostile or cruel or anything like that. He wasn’t inciting anything; he was just saying, We’re all pretty upset your ticket got elected, so please reassure us by your actions. Which is the sort of thing I myself might say to Pence were I to run into him and be introduced. But of course, that’s a different dynamic from singling someone out of a crowd.

Nor did Pence mind, or so he says. (as to what Trump thought, which we learned all about when he launched him on another of his childish rants, I address that in a comment below.) And I get that the cast and crew didn’t want to throw away their shot. But it just didn’t seem the place. I’d have felt terribly awkward had I been there. I feel awkward just hearing about it, especially since, as I am so dismayed at the election result — because of Trump, remember, not Pence — this gaucherie was committed by someone who agrees with me on that point. That makes me feel responsible.

So I thought I’d say something…

One more thought: One would think that everything the cast and crew wanted to say — about “diversity,” about the value of immigrants, about fundamental rights — had already been said, beautifully and creatively, by the play they had just performed. And since Pence had come to hear it, it seems to me that the message had been delivered, by the masterpiece it took Lin-Manuel Miranda seven years to write, far better than a hastily-penned speech could do.

The only thing the little speech said that the play did not was, Yo, Mike Pence — we see you out there — yeah, you. And we’ve got a problem with you.

And that’s the bit that seemed to me unnecessary.

If they wanted to acknowledge Pence, the stage manager could have stepped onto the stage before the show to say, We have a special guest in the audience tonight, vice president-elect Mike Pence. Mr. Pence, we hope you enjoy the show, take it to heart, and go forth inspired. We hope you all do.

That would have been appropriate…

Refreshing my memory about the Electoral College

rs-243008-lin

Never mind all the paintings you’ve seen; most photographs of “Hamilton” found via Google look like this.

In a comment earlier today, I sought to excuse myself from any errors in memory by confessing that I hadn’t read all of the Federalist Papers in decades.

Realizing that was lame, I decided that I should at least go back and read the one that addressed the subject at hand, the Electoral College. That’s Federalist No. 68, probably by Hamilton.

I must say, there was little mentioned about the importance of having the president chosen by states rather than masses of people, beyond oblique references such as these:

And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place….

Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States….

But such commentary is hardly necessary since the Constitution itself makes it perfectly clear that the president is to be chosen by electors who are themselves chosen by states:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

So there.

Of course, there is a good deal to suggest that Hamilton thought it proper that the method of selection defer to “the sense of the people,” not least the fact that the House would be the body to decide if a clear winner did not emerge from the electors’ deliberation.

Note that the idea that there should be deliberation, and not an up-or-down vote of the people, was crystal-clear:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations….

Also, remember yesterday when I suggested that “It would be nice for it to be an actual COLLEGE, in which people study year after year our nation’s history and political science, so that they are completely infused with the kind of knowledge that Donald Trump utterly lacks?”

Hamilton would have hated that idea, apparently. He thought the temporary nature of the college — assembled ad hoc, for the immediate task of electing a president once — was one of the system’s great virtues. Of the Framers, he wrote:

They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it….

The context of that, by the way, was in part to guard against this danger:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention….

Vladimir Putin might get a good chuckle out of that. But on the other hand, every foreign government except those of Russia and China preferred Hillary Clinton. Still, can the mechanism be said to work when the desires of our allies are thwarted, and the preferences of our adversaries granted?

If you haven’t wept for your country yet after last week, consider this hope of Hamilton’s:

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications…. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. … we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration….

Riiiight…

The final irony is that, while today the College is perhaps the most reviled part of the Constitution, at the time Hamilton saw it as hardly needing defending, since it was one of the few parts not being heavily criticized:

THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. [1] I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for….

What a difference a couple of centuries make…

How far we’ve come (or if you prefer, how low we’ve sunk)

I got to thinking about this the last couple of days, and I managed to figure out a few minutes ago how to go find this Tweet from 2011:

I Tweeted that during the SC Republican Convention on Saturday, May 7 of that year. By that time, if I recall correctly, we knew Trump wasn’t going to run for president — in 2012. This young man was the only person I encountered at the convention who expressed his wish that that would change.

I distinctly remember debating with myself whether to post that. I didn’t want to seem to be holding the young man up to ridicule for advocating for something outlandish. But it seemed newsworthy, in something between a man-bites-dog and take-note-of way, that someone was actually pushing this position. So I compromised with myself. I merely noted the fact, with his explanation of why he was for Trump, without comment from me of any kind.

The Tweet was mainly ignored. One person reTweeted it, I now see. Probably not approvingly, given what I see on her feed.

Look how far we’ve come now. That one young man, we now know, was a harbinger. The first robin of spring (or, if you’re of a more apocalyptic mind, the first White Walker of Winter.) Something that everyone but him regarded as an outlandish idea has come to pass — Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president of the United States of America.

We just need to hope, and if it’s not blasphemous pray, that another thing that we have regarded as even more impossible does not happen today…

Just in time, a comforting message from Her Majesty

Since Friday night, my wife and I have been semi-bingeing (I think we’ve seen five episodes so far) on “The Crown,” the new series from Netflix.

So it seems a delightful coincidence that Samuel Tenenbaum shares the following important message with me via email.royal_coat_of_arms_of_the_united_kingdom-svg

I find it comforting, a warm embrace from our Mother Country, just when we were thoroughly traumatized and needed one.

(Digression: As you know, I’ve been listening to the music from “Hamilton” lately, and have enjoyed the songs sung by “King George” in the play… although I think there’s a good bit of Rebel propaganda in that version. I prefer the clip above from HBO’s “John Adams,” which is pretty much word-for-word accurate, according to David McCullough’s biography. You can easily see that while His Majesty didn’t want us to go, he was quite willing to be a sport about it, after the fact.)

Anyway, here’s the message. It has apparently been passed around on the Web so much that no one knows who originated it. So, you know, it could actually be from Elizabeth Windsor:

A MESSAGE FROM THE QUEEN

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
In light of your failure to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately. (You should look up ‘revocation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy).
Your new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections.
Congress and the Senate will be disbanded.
A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.
To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:
———————–
1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’
Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’).
————————
2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’
——————-
3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.
—————–
4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers, or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. Guns should only be used for shooting grouse. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to shoot grouse.
———————-
5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
———————-
6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.
——————–
7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.
——————-
8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup, but with vinegar.
——————-
9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.
———————
10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie Macdowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.
———————
11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).
———————
12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.
——————–
13.. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.
—————–
14. An internal revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).
—————
15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.
God Save the Queen!
PS: Only share this with friends who have a good sense of humour (NOT humor)!

Personally, I can go along with all of the conditions except 3, 6 and 12. If Her Majesty insists on those points, I’m afraid we’ll have to keep muddling on without her….

I don’t have the luxury of making a gesture with my vote

I was glad he was going to lose, but wanted to make a statement about Nixon.

I was glad he was going to lose, but wanted to make a statement about Nixon.

In my morning reading today, I ran across two things that impressed me. Both were from Republicans trying to explain just what a nightmare Trump is. Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, had another strong column headlined “My Former Republican Party.” An excerpt:

Foreign policy: In 1947 Harry Truman asked Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to support his efforts to shore up the governments in Greece and Turkey against Soviet aggression. Vandenberg agreed, marking his—and the GOP’s—turn from isolationism to internationalism.

Since then, six Republican presidents have never wavered in their view that a robust system of treaty alliances such as NATO are critical for defending the international liberal order, or that the U.S. should dissuade faraway allies such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia from seeking nuclear weapons, or that states such as Russia should be kept out of regions such as the Middle East.

Where, amid Mr. Trump’s routine denunciations of our allegedly freeloading allies, or Newt Gingrich’s public doubts about defending NATO member Estonia against Russian aggression, or the alt-right’s attacks on “globalism,” or Sean Hannity’s newfound championship of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, is that Republican Party today?…

Then there was the piece from Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post‘s duty conservative, headlined “The Republicans who want to beat Trump by as much as possible.” An excerpt:

Trump and the mind-set of slavish Republicans who follow him deserve repudiation. Some Republicans think the party can be disinfected after the Trump experience and some want to start all over. (“These are generational problems. So maybe over time, over a number of decades, these changes can be made, but the reality is the conservative movement doesn’t have time for that,” said McMullin in defense of the latter approach. “And if the Republican Party can’t make the changes, as wasn’t able to do after 2012, the conservative movement will need a new political vehicle.”)

Either way, McMullin and others who want wholesale change on the right are rooting for Trump’s annihilation and his flacks’ and bully boys’ humiliation. The bigger the margin by which he loses, the more preposterous Trump’s claim that the election is fixed. Indeed, it’s more important for Republicans — if they want to get back their party — to vote against Trump than it is for Democrats. “By taking the leap to Clinton, these Republicans have set an example for all Americans to shed the home-team culture and put country before party,” Stubbs said. Maybe if they can recover some self-respect and devotion to principle by repudiating Trump, they will be prepared to create something superior to replace the GOP.

Absolutely. Republicans who care at all about their party and what it supposedly stands for have far more reason to want to see Trump utterly crushed than Democrats do. If you’re a partisan Democrat, you’re happy for Hillary to just squeak by, giving you more of an excuse to spend the next four years raising money to help you stop those horrid Republicans.

That is, if you’re the blinder sort of partisan Democrat. But whatever your party affiliation or lack thereof, if you understand the situation and care about the country we share, you want to see Trumpism crushed so that it slinks away and is never heard from again.

Which is why I, as a voter who cares, have no choice but to vote for Hillary Clinton. The same goes for you, if you can see it. She’s the only person on the planet who can defeat him, and just squeaking by won’t be enough.

We’ve had some terrific arguments here on the blog about that. And I still run into otherwise reasonable people who think an adequate response to Trump is to vote for neither of them. But that is NOT an adequate response.

Yeah, I understand the concept of using your vote to make a gesture, independent of any consideration of whether the candidate you vote for can win. I’ve done it myself — but only in rare circumstances when I had the luxury to do so. Or thought I did, anyway.

In 1972, my first election, I stood in the booth for awhile, undecided still. But in the end, I decided this: I voted for McGovern. I voted for him purely as a protest. I did it even though I thought he’d be a disaster as president. If the election had been close, if there’d been any chance of my vote deciding the outcome, I’d have voted for Nixon, because I trusted him more to have the judgment and abilities to run the country. But there was NO danger of McGovern winning, and even though I saw Nixon as more competent, I had a big problem with what I was sensing (but did not yet fully know) about Watergate.

So it was a protest vote, pure and simple.

I did the same thing in 1996, although the positions of the parties were reversed (which matters not at all to me, but I realize does to some people). On a personal level, I preferred Dole to Clinton. I thought Dole was the better man. But the abysmal campaign he had run had utterly persuaded me that he would be a disaster as president. He simply lacked the political skills to be effective. Had the election been so close that my vote could conceivably decide it, I’d have voted for Clinton, as the more competent leader between the two. But I had a lot of problems with Clinton by this time, and there was no way my vote would make a difference — South Carolina would go for Dole, and the country would go for Clinton; that was clear by the end. So I expressed my distaste for Clinton by casting my vote for Dole.

Another pure protest, without any intended practical effect.

Silly, really, in both cases. What good is a protest if no one even knows you’re making it? And no one did know (apart from a few intimates), until now. In each case, I was just making a gesture, for my own, private satisfaction. It was childish, in a way — I’m so mad at you I’m going to vote for this guy I don’t even think should win!

In both cases, I thought I had that luxury. This year, I absolutely don’t.

Oh, I could make a private gesture expressing my dissatisfaction with both candidates by, I don’t know, voting for Evan McMullin, or someone else who doesn’t have a chance.

But I can’t. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be president, and it is my duty as a citizen to do whatever I can to affect which way it goes. And whatever else I think or feel about Hillary Clinton (I’m not going to waste time here going through a list of her shortcomings, because they are beside the point in light of Trump), she is a person with the skills, experience and understanding to do the job. Donald Trump absolutely does not possess those qualities, and is a walking, talking negation of what this country stands for.

Yeah, she’s probably going to beat him, but that’s by no means certain. (Remember, as Trump keeps reminding us, Brexit was supposed to lose.) And that’s not enough. Trump must lose badly (or “bigly,” if you prefer), as Ms. Rubin suggests.

So I really don’t have the luxury this time to make a gesture with my vote. It matters too much this time.

How could a guy who ran such an awful campaign run the government?

How could a guy who ran such an awful campaign run the government?

Finally taking the time to get into Hamilton

07hamilton-slide-dr5r-superjumbo

Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at The State, talking on the phone with Fritz Hollings. This was shortly after he had left office, and we frequently had occasion to talk. I don’t know what we were talking about, or who had called whom. It might have been about one of several op-ed pieces he wrote for us in that period — he was still having trouble letting go of policymaking. Maybe it was the conversation in which I called him to ask a favor — his good friend Joe Biden was going to be in town, and I wanted him to drop by the office if he had time so we could get acquainted, before he ran again for national office (Fritz came through on that).

Anyway, we got off the subject, whatever it was. Fritz had just read Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, and he started singing its praises, saying I must read it. I took his advice — almost. I put the book on my list for family members looking for gift ideas for my birthday or Christmas, and someone promptly gave it to me. And… it has sat on my shelf ever since, until this weekend.alexander-hamilton

I really, truly, meant to read it. I’d always been interested in the Founders. On my way to sort of inadvertently getting a second major in history, I concentrated to a certain extent on that period. And I came away convinced that had I been alive and in politics at the time, I’d have been a Federalist. That was the party Hamilton had founded, and I knew he was brilliant, and that he provided most of the arguments that sold the Constitution to the country among other startling achievements, but… I was less attracted to him than to the others, and I knew that as a result I had neglected him. Which is why I had dutifully put the book on my list. But still, I kept my distance. Maybe I had absorbed some of the propaganda put out about him by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but it seemed to me that there was a reason why Hamilton wasn’t ever president, and I thought that if I was a Federalist, I was more of an Adams Federalist than a Hamiltonian. I mean, the guy was so into money and all…

So there the book sat. And during the years that I failed to read it, a young man named Lin-Manuel Miranda picked it up, and it set his mind on fire. He was inspired to write a musical based on the book, and it became the biggest hit on Broadway in a generation.

So, I missed a big opportunity there.

I kept hearing about the play, and seeing video clips from it, and I thought it was really exciting that someone had made a hit out of one of the Founders (and, to my mind, the Founder least likely to inspire a hit musical), but I had some Clueless White Guy questions: What did hip-hop have to do with the guy who had founded banks and our whole financial system? And why were most of the actors on the stage black — or at least, seemingly nonAnglo-Saxon? I didn’t object to them being black — I just wondered why. It seemed that there was a point being made, but I didn’t understand what the point was. I wondered whether it had to do with Hamilton’s obscure origins. All I knew (thanks to Jefferson’s folks) was that Hamilton was a bastard out of the West Indies. Was Miranda saying that, coming out of the ethnic richness of the Caribbean, he was of mixed race, so it was fitting to have actors of color fill the stage?

Well, on Friday night, I saw “Hamilton’s America,” the fascinating documentary about the creation of this play, and suddenly I got it. I saw what people were so enchanted with. I understood why, when Manuel was reading Chernow’s book on vacation, he thought, “This is a rap!” And I was deeply impressed by how everyone involved in the production was thoroughly immersed in Hamilton and the other Founders and what they were all about, and why they are important today — and not just to pasty-faced people of English extraction.

I was really impressed by that part. Decades ago, when I did some community theater back in Tennessee, I met a lot of talented people. And I was shocked to find that people who were brilliant musicians — something I could never be — and really gifted amateur actors were nevertheless… how shall I put this… not well read. They might do a play based on history — say, “The Lion In Winter,” which I acted in — and they’d get their lines and the intonations perfectly, but they wouldn’t really know the history or the cultural context of what they were pretending to be.

In this documentary, not only Miranda was able to speak fluently and inspiringly about Hamilton and his world, but the other actors as well. They went on and on about it, and you could learn a lot by listening to them.

And as I listened, I — who was last attracted to musical theater when Andrew Lloyd Webber came out with “Evita” (another sort of history I sorta kinda concentrated on in college was Latin American) — started really, really getting into the music. And that’s really, really saying something, since the only rap numbers I’m familiar with and like are the ones from “Office Space.”

So here’s the irony: Hip-hop helped get those young actors into history. And now history is getting me into hip-hop. As I type this, I’m nodding my head to “I am not throwing away my… shot!

OK, OK, Lin-Manuel! You got me! I finally picked up the book yesterday, and started reading. Slow reader that I am (the book’s 800-plus pages of small type pushed me away as much as anything), I’m on the third chapter now, and wow! He was right: This is a rap. I’m still in young Alexander’s shockingly difficult childhood in the Indies, and there’s nobody who ever came from meaner streets than he did. What a story.

So I’m really into it now. Fritz was right. So was Lin, who gave me the swift kick I needed…

Again, Trump completely disqualifies himself

They set the precedent, and Trump could not care less...

They set the precedent, and Trump could not care less…

Sorry I haven’t had time to post today, ere now… Anyway, to business…

As bizarre and grotesquely inappropriate as some of the things Donald Trump said in the second debate were (“tremendous hate in her heart”), the most important and instructive was his threat to imprison his opponent if he wins the election.

Similarly, as agog as we may be from such outbursts as “Such a nasty woman!”,  the one thing we heard in the third and final (thank the Lord) debate last night that was easily the most important, and instructive, was that Trump will not agree to abide by the results of the election. Something that was not a slip of the tongue or a momentary lapse, as he doubled down on it today.

As I said via Twitter last night:

If there were referees in American politics, Trump would have been thrown out of the game for the offense in the second debate (actually, much sooner, but let’s stick with the debates). He completely and utterly disqualified himself.

And if the refs had been deaf and blind in that instance, they would have tossed him out for the offense last night. He showed in both instances that he has no idea at all what elections are about in this country.

The gift that America gave to the world was not merely the promise, but the fact, of the orderly and peaceful transfer of power from one person, party or faction to another. As I said above, the miracle of the election of 1800 — one that for sheer nastiness at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as this one — was that Jefferson took over from rival Adams, and everyone accepted it.

This miracle has been repeated every four years, with one exception: South Carolina, and a number of other Southern states, refused to accept the results of the election of 1860. Thanks to the preternatural wisdom, leadership and political skills of the man who won that election, and the blood of hundreds of thousands, the nation was saved. But that was the central crisis of our history, as Lincoln himself explained. It was the great test as to “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

So we got through that and made it all the way to 2016, and Donald Trump — a man who does not have a clue what this nation is all about, and does not care. Trump, the nominee of the party of Lincoln. God help us.

When he is asked whether he will accept the results of the election if he loses, he thinks it is a question about him, and what he wants, and how he feels. Because in his universe, everything is all about him.

The nation, and the things that make it exceptional and wonderful, matter not at all…

The interesting debate we could have had, under other circumstances

immense-power

Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.

Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:

RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…

Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.

Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.

As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.

The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).

People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.

Back to the debate

Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:

As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…

Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)

The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.

And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.

At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.

Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.

So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.

As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:

It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…

Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).

Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.

When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.

Hence what she said in that leaked speech.

I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.

So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.

It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?

Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?

Our proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism

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There’s a piece in The Washington Post today about the rise of denial in our society, as in denial of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, the Holocaust.

What grabbed me, though, was the subhed “Anti-intellecualism on the rise.” That drew me because my study of history all those years ago in college deeply impressed me with what a powerful theme that has been in our history (particularly coming into its own when the flat-Earther Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in 1828).

Anyway, to quote from the piece:

In the United States, anti-intellectualism dates back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored the wisdom of the common man over the expertise of the elites, embodied by Alexander Hamilton. Since then, the American population has tended to support a belief that ‘regular people’ know best and experts are suspect. This notion flares up when we think that our core values are under attack, as with McCarthyism, and today — with immigration, cyber security and other national concerns — it seems to be back with a vengeance….

Yeah, we’ve noticed. Although the chief evidence, it seems to me isn’t suspicion of vaccines, but the rise of Donald Trump, to whom facts are inconvenient, hostile things.

And let me hasten to say, had I lived in Jefferson’s day, I’d have been a Federalist…

Sure, Hillary ‘won’ the debate, but does it matter?

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To most people who know anything about debating, or about national and international issues, or about the presidency, Hillary Clinton pretty much cleaned Donald Trump’s clock last night.

She was serious, focused, informed, composed, presidential. He was thin-skinned, blustery, illogical, inarticulate, uninformed — the usual.

But does it matter? Does it make a difference? In 2016, that is the operative question.

I’ve had several conversations with folks this morning, and everyone has more or less agreed with this assessment. But I tend to speak to well-informed people.

I keep thinking about the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Debate experts said Nixon won. So did most people who heard it over the radio. But those who saw it on TV said Kennedy won. And that was the new factor that the professionals, the experts, didn’t take into consideration.

Today, the new factor is that a significant portion of the electorate has gone stark, raving mad.

A debate like what we saw last night would have been inconceivable in 1960. Regardless of whether you think Nixon or Kennedy won, both of them did an excellent job by any informed standard. It would have been completely impossible for someone like Donald Trump to be on that stage. (Some would say it would be impossible for someone like Hillary to be there, but such people are looking at the superficiality of gender. The fact is with regard to factors that matter, she fits comfortably into the Nixon-Kennedy set of candidates.)

No one like Trump would be the Republican nominee. No one like Trump would have made any kind of showing in the primaries. Anyone as blustery and undisciplined as Trump would have been lucky to have been allowed to sit in the audience and watch.

So the difference between him and Hillary Clinton last night is far, far starker than the minimal contrast between Nixon and Kennedy. It’s not a contest between two qualified candidates. It’s between a qualified candidate and a nightmare.

But our politics are so messed up today, the electorate’s Kardashian-numbed sensibilities so accepting of the unacceptable, that the fact that she beat him like a drum last night — in the eyes of the knowledgeable, the thoughtful — may be as irrelevant as Nixon beating Kennedy on points. More so.

Trump’s support is such an illogical phenomenon that one cannot logically predict the effect of the debate.

And that’s yet another very, very disturbing thing about this election…

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What’s different about Hillary Clinton this time

Where's Waldo -- I mean, Hillary? When I shot this way back in May 2015, she was surrounded by the usual suspects, from the SC Democratic Women's Council.

Where’s Waldo — I mean, Hillary? When I shot this way back in May 2015, she was surrounded by the usual suspects, from the SC Democratic Women’s Council.

Today, our good friend Doug (who for some reason is calling himself “Douglas” this week) Ross got me going when he said this about Hillary Clinton:

She is running to win the votes of her faithful followers…

Which made me say no, not this time…

I think that was true in 2008 — very much so. It’s one of the things that made Sen. Barack Obama look so good by contrast. At that time, her support base seemed made up of:

  • Diehard loyal Clintonistas who, for instance, still saw Bill’s impeachment as something that the “vast right-wing conspiracy” had done to THEM, rather than arising from Bill’s actions.
  • 1970s-style feminists who were just excited as all get-out because she was a woman, pure and simple.
  • The Democratic Party’s angriest partisan warriors who were hyper-anxious to “take the country back” after the Republicans holding the White House for 8 years.

By contrast, Barack Obama ran as not only the post-racial, but post-partisan candidate who wanted to lead us beyond the bitter sniping of the Clinton and Bush years.

This time, though, it’s different. Not necessarily because she, Hillary Clinton, is different, but because of the overall political environment in which this campaign is occurring. It’s pushed her into an entirely different role.

Now, she’s not the representative of an old ’60s-’70s “New Left” — she in fact spent most of the past year fighting to  survive a huge challenge from someone who represented that far more than she ever had.

But nothing recast her role as much as the way Trumpism took over the GOP.

Circumstances have conspired to make her the sole representative remaining from either party of the broad, moderate governing consensus of the post-1945 America. There’s a category into which you can fit every president (and most if not all major-party nominees, but especially the presidents) we’ve had since FDR, regardless of party. And she is the only person left — now that the likes of Jeb Bush and John Kasich are long departed from the scene — who fits into that category, or even lives in the same universe as that category.

So yeah, you’ve got the standard Clintonista hangers-on, sure. But you’ve also got independents like me, and you’ve got pretty much the entire Republican national security Establishment, all rooting for her to win this.

Because she’s all that’s left for any of us…

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