Friday, June 16, 2017

No Lifetime Appointments While There Remains A Cancer On The Presidency

As we brace for the next revelation to contribute to Trump's "downward spiral," as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) put it, let's not lose sight of the unmitigated and long-lasting damage the malevolent orange shit-gibbon can still wreak -- particularly with regard to the federal judiciary.  Remember, the Republicans didn't only steal a Supreme Court seat when they refused to even hold hearings on Obama's nominee for the high court.  They also mucked up the process for Obama's nominees to the lower federal courts.  As a result, only twenty district court and appellate court judges were confirmed in the last two years of Obama's presidency (compared to three times that many for each of his three immediate predecessors).

This means that Trump has the opportunity to fill over 130 vacancies on the federal bench and, in doing so, drastically reshape the courts with radical right wing judges who will roll back rights, strike down regulations and protect corporate wealth.

While there has justifiably been great attention focused on how the balance of power on the Supreme Court could drastically shift if there are further vacancies during Trump's time in office, the reality is that the lower federal courts -- both the courts of appeal and the district courts -- have enormous influence on the application and scope of federal laws and constitutional rights.  After all, the Supreme Court grants review in less than 2% of the roughly 7,000 certiorari petitions that are filed every year, leaving in place the vast majority of lower federal court rulings for which review is denied.

As Charles Pierce reminds us, Trump "subcontracted the job of picking judges to the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and various other wingnut intellectual chop shops" and so the scary nature of the first sixteen Trump has nominated should not surprise us.  For example, there's John Bush (52-years old), nominated to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Bush blogs under a pseudonym at Elephants in the Bluegrass.  As Dahlia Lithwick describes:
His wide-ranging and unfiltered commentary has included, for instance, the claim that abortion and slavery are “[t]he two greatest tragedies in our country.” His blog posts have cited conspiracy theories and false information, including references to the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. In his Senate questionnaire, he described the vicious 1991 beating of Rodney King as a “police encounter.” As Eleanor Clift notes in the Daily Beast, he has also gone on record arguing that the Supreme Court made a bad ruling in the landmark freedom of the press case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
During his confirmation hearing, according to Lithwick, Bush "apologized for his use of anti-LGBTQ slurs and insisted that once he dons the black robes, he will be a new man."  Right. 

Then there's Damien Schiff (37 years old), nominated to the Federal Court of Claims.  Schiff  once called Justice Anthony Kennedy a "judicial prostitute" and strongly disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision that struck down statutes criminalizing sodomy.  He has criticized an anti-bullying program taught in a California school district, finding it problematic to teach "not only that bullying of homosexuals is wrong, but also that the homosexual lifestyle is … good, and that homosexual families are the moral equivalent of traditional heterosexual families.”  He added that he would have objected to an anti-racism curriculum if taught in Arkansas in the 1950s.

Finally, there's Kevin Newsom (44-years old), Trump's pick to sit on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Newsom wrote a law review article comparing the reasoning of Roe v. Wade with that of the Dred Scott decision.  As Alabama's solicitor general he defended the Alabama's policy of failing to provide lawyers for post-conviction review of death sentences in a state where woeful representation at the trial level is the norm. And he decried the Supreme Court's ruling that found it unconstitutional to execute juveniles.

That's a pretty dire representative sample.  Meanwhile, many of Trump's other nominations are Scalia acolytes (like Trump's new Supreme Court justice) who believe in an originalist interpretation of the Constitution -- a flawed, result-oriented judicial philosophy that is well outside the mainstream of legal thought.  The consequences for civil rights, voting rights and LGBT rights, for women's reproductive health and health care reform, for enforcement of environmental and Wall Street regulations, for consumers and unions, for gun control and campaign finance reform, and for criminal justice and social justice could not be more bleak.

But beyond judicial philosophy, the more basic issue is whether a president whose very legitimacy has been called into serious question -- whose administration is under investigation for its connections to a foreign power that interfered with the election, for abusing the power of the office and for obstructing justice -- should be able to make lifetime appointments that will influence our legal rights and remedies for generations. 

Even without the filibuster, which is no longer a permissible tool for blocking nominees, there are steps Democrats can take to slow -- if not, shut -- things down while these questions remain unresolved.  Indeed, the Judiciary Committee should have its hands full investigating Russia-gate and related obstruction of justice allegations.  In addition, states with Democratic Senators can still withhold the "blue slip," a tradition that allows home-state senators to block nominees -- and one that Republicans used to stymy 17 Obama nominees.  (Republicans, however, are -- what a surprise -- threatening to do away with the blue slip for appellate court nominees.)     

Democrats cannot let Congress return to business as usual.  That means using every technicality and procedural rule from objecting to unanimous consent requests to forcing roll call votes on every matter.  And it means using every opportunity to speak on the Senate floor to keep Trump's incompetence, instability and corruption at the forefront of our political discourse.  And it means using the Senate rules that encourage free and open debate to force Republicans to answer for their unwillingness to accept Trump's incompetence, instability and corruption. 

Trump has yet to fill an unprecedented amount of vacancies throughout his administration, many of which require Senate confirmation. The tenure of such appointees, however, is generally only as long as the president remains in power, and so the damage they could do, while very real, is at least somewhat circumscribed. (The FBI's 10-year term is a notable exception.)  If Trump is removed from office, those political appointees can be removed too.  Not so with federal judges, who are appointed for life.  As the drip, drip, drip of scandals continue -- while there remains a cancer on the presidency -- there should be no lifetime appointments.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Midnight Massacre: A Date Which Will Live In Infamy

"There is actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time ... Seaver pitched for eight losing teams, several of them really terrible, and four other teams which had losing records except when Seaver was on the mound."  —Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001
On June 15, 1977, the New York Mets traded Tom Seaver.  It has been 40 years, but remains a painful memory for Met fans of a certain generation who treasured each and every time "The Franchise" took the mound.  It was a wakeup call for those of us who, until then, refused to think of baseball as a cold-hearted business.

Only 32 years old at the time of the trade, Seaver was the greatest player the Mets ever had and one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.  His pitching form was a thing of beauty -- both powerful and graceful.  He was called "The Franchise" because of how central he was to the Mets' identity, leading them from a laughingstock to a world championship in 1969.

Even with the miraculous World Series win in 1969, the Mets continued to be a feeble-hitting team, and Seaver had to consistently pitch flawlessly to keep his team in games, often losing heartbreakers 2-1 or 1-0.  Typical was 1971, when he led the league in ERA (1.76) and strikeouts (289 in 286 innings), pitched 21 complete games and still lost 10 games, going 20-10. Had Seaver played with a decent team for the bulk of his career, his still-remarkable numbers would be off the charts.

Seaver continued to pitch brilliantly for a mostly awful team, and then he was gone.  To make a long story short, the penurious owners had no understanding of how the game was changing and refused to renegotiate Seaver's contract.  Instead they shipped him off to the Cincinnati Reds for a collection of mediocre players -- Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.

I attended Seaver's return to Shea Stadium.  It was disorienting seeing him in a Reds uniform and it was even more disorienting to find myself rooting against the Mets.  But, along with the rest of the crowd, I was wholeheartedly cheering for Seaver, who beat the Mets that day.   

After some excellent years with the Reds, Seaver was traded back to the Mets for the 1983 season.  It was indescribable to see him back in orange and blue, pitching a shutout on Opening Day.  After that he didn't have a great year -- and neither did the Mets -- but with Seaver wearing his familiar number 41, the Mets seemed like a team on the rise, with promising young pitchers, a Rookie of the Year in Darryl Strawberry, and the acquisition of Keith Hernandez.

But it was not to be. The Mets would have to rise without Seaver.  Incredibly, before the 1984 season began, the Mets left the 40-year old Seaver off the protected list, assuming no other team would want him.  The White Sox quickly scooped him up, leaving us distraught once again.  Seaver won 15 games for the White Sox in 1984 and 16 in 1985, including his 300th.  In 1986, he finished an injury-plagued season with the Red Sox.  (A bad knee prevented him from playing against the Mets in the World Series.)

The Mets tried to atone once more, hoping to bring Seaver back to the Big Apple to finish his storied career where it began.  But after pitching a few exhibition games in June 1987, Seaver realized he had nothing left and announced his retirement. 

3 Cy Young Awards, 311 wins, 61 shutouts, 3,640 strikeouts and a 2.86 E.R.A.  In 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  A career of remarkable moments and incredible milestones marred only by stupid, short-sighted management decisions.  That's your Franchise.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Contempt For Congress

When witnesses are called before a Congressional committee to testify under oath, they are required to answer the questions put to them unless they can assert a legal basis for refusing to do so.  Such valid bases include the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the attorney-client privilege.  Witnesses can also state that their testimony involves classified information or information that implicates national security, and request that such testimony be provided in a closed session. 

The president can invoke executive privilege to prevent members of his administration from testifying about matters involving national security.  Executive privilege has also been used to shield the  “deliberative process” which is meant to “encourage open, frank discussions on matters of policy between subordinates and superiors.”  But claims of executive privilege can be overcome by a compelling government interest in disclosure and, as the Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Nixon, it does not apply to information related to criminal activity.  Further, like all other testimonial privileges, it can be waived if the holder of the privilege, e.g., the tweeter in chief, opens the door. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and refused to answer questions about his communications with Trump, including those involving the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.  He referred to some vague DOJ policy that prevented him from discussing his communications with the president but was unable to cite to any specific written policy.  When Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Bad Ass) tried to pin him down on the existence of this policy, he claimed he was too nervous to answer the question and had to be bailed out by John McCain (R-Old White Man), who scolded Harris for being too tough on his friend.

Sessions also relied on an indefensible interpretation of executive privilege.  Without invoking the privilege directly, which only the president can do, he refused to answer questions by claiming it would not be appropriate to do so because the president might want to invoke executive privilege at some point in the future.  Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) made plain that Sessions was impeding a Congressional inquiry without a legal basis:
So my understanding of the legal standard is either you answer the question, that's the best outcome. You say 'This is classified, can't answer it here, I'll answer it in closed session,' that's bucket number two. Bucket number three is to say I'm invoking executive privilege. There is not appropriateness bucket. That is not a legal standard.
Previously, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers refused to answer questions about the extent of Trump's meddling with the investigation into the campaign's involvement with Russia. Rogers said he would not answer questions because "I feel it is inappropriate." Coats also said he did not feel it was "appropriate" to answer questions but conceded he had no legal basis for his refusal.  To paraphrase Senator Heinrich, there is no fucking appropriateness bucket.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been tasked with investigating Russia's interference with a presidential election and the Trump campaign's role in that interference.  These three witnesses are critical to that investigation but have undermined any meaningful inquiry not only by their stonewalling but by giving other potential witnesses a fairly easy roadmap for doing the same. 

The only way for Congress to stop this intransigence from Trump loyalists is to require them to answer questions or be held in contempt of Congress.  Penalties for contempt range from a fine of up to $1000 and imprisonment for not less then one month or more than a year. 

Generally how this works is that the Committee would draft a contempt resolution, and would vote to have that resolution go to the full Senate.  If the Senate then voted in favor of contempt, the matter would be referred to the U.S. Attorney for D.C., who would refer the matter to a grand jury. 

If you haven't already guessed, the problem is that a majority is required for both a resolution to get out of Committee and for a finding of contempt by the Senate.  And, of course, the Republicans are in the majority and have no interest in citing for contempt anyone protecting their leader.  They are more likely to give them the Congressional Medal of Honor.  (Of course, this raises the stakes for the Special Counsel's investigation and explains why Republicans are trashing Special Counsel Mueller's credibility and Trump is threatening to fire him.)

But this doesn't mean Democrats should just go along as if any of this is ok. Russia interfered with our election and the beneficiary of that interference has not only shown no concern about this body blow to our democracy, he is trying to prevent any inquiry into how it happened and how to stop it from happening again.

We need to demand that Democrats draft contempt resolutions for recalcitrant witnesses and force Republicans to vote on them.  And, more broadly, we need to demand that Democrats eschew Senatorial courtesy and throw sand in the gears of the Senate -- using every technicality and procedural rule from objecting to unanimous consent requests to forcing roll call votes on every matter. They must slow down all Senate business to a crawl until Republicans are forced to show some modicum of concern for our Country and act responsibly by forcing witnesses to answer questions.

What becomes clearer every day is that there is no daylight between Trump and the Republican Party that is enabling him.  They are both utterly contemptible.  Democrats ignore this at their -- and our -- peril.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Of Smoking Guns

James Comey’s seven-page written statement, released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this afternoon in connection with Comey’s impending testimony tomorrow . . . is the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any President since the release of the Watergate tapes. -- Benjamin Wittes
The smoking gun in the Watergate scandal was a taped conversation President Nixon had with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, six days after the break-in at the DNC's headquarters at the Watergate.  The tape revealed Nixon and Haldeman discussing how to get the CIA to stop the FBI's investigation -- to, as Haldeman put it, “stay the hell out of this . . . business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.”

Nixon was compelled to release the tape on August 5, 1974, following a unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that rejected his claim of executive privilege.  Nixon announced his resignation three days later when it became clear that even the staunch Republicans who until then had supported him would vote in favor of impeachment -- including an article of impeachment which charged Nixon with “interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees,” in part by “endeavouring to misuse the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Ahead of former FBI Director James Comey's testimony tomorrow, the Senate Intelligence Committee released Comey's prepared statement which, in addition to revealing that Trump called him up to deny that he had any involvement with Russia and hookers, confirms that Trump asked him, a day after Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor, to "see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”  In addition, Trump, doing his best Don Corleone impression, told Comey (in the context of Comey's continued employment as FBI Director): "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” 

According to the Washington Post, director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats reportedly was also asked by Trump "if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe."  Coats refused to answer questions regarding his conversations with Trump in his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Similarly, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, also refused to answer questions in response to reports that Trump had asked him to deny that there was any evidence of collusion between Trump’s associates and Russia.

If what Trump allegedly said to Comey, Coats and Rogers is true, then, at minimum, the president -- as Nixon did before him -- attempted to quash an FBI investigation.  That, my friends, qualifies as a high crime and misdemeanor.

It is hard not to become so inured to Trump's daily outrages that we fail to see this conduct -- demanding personal loyalty from high government officials and attempting to influence government investigations -- for what it is: a shocking abuse of power and utter disrespect for the rule of law.  Indeed, Benjamin Wittes at the invaluable Lawfare, does not overstate when he describes Comey's anticipated testimony tomorrow as being about "the abuse of the core functions of the presidency; about the fundamental question of whether we can trust the president "to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office."  I think we all know the answer to that one.  Now, about those hookers.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

RIP Jimmy Piersall (1929-2017)

“I want the world to know that people like me who have returned from the half-world of mental oblivion are not forever contaminated."  -- Jimmy Piersall
In 1952, at the age of 22 and after playing only 56 games for the Boston Red Sox, Jimmy Piersall had what was then called a nervous breakdown.  He was admitted to a mental hospital and treated with electric shock.  Piersall returned to the team the following season, and went on to enjoy a fine 17-year career, playing for five teams. He was a two-time All Star (1954 and 1956) with a very respectable career batting average of.272.  He was an excellent center fielder, winning two Gold Gloves

Piersall's recovery and successful return to the game was certainly impressive.  But what was truly remarkable was how he went public with his struggles with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder in Fear Strikes Out.  The book was published in 1955, when such things were not generally talked about in public, particularly by sports figures.  (I never read the book, but I do remember the movie starring Anthony Perkins who, not surprisingly, could do an emotional breakdown as well as anyone, but was too uncoordinated to convincingly portray a ballplayer.) 

Throughout his career, Piersall was known for being, shall we say, "colorful."  He fought with players and fans.  He shot water in an umpire's face with a water pistol, wore a Beatles wig to home plate, and threw baseballs and an orange at a scoreboard.  Casey Stengel, who managed him on the Mets, said, "he's great but you have to play him in a cage."

Perhaps the perfect metaphor for his unconventional career was how he commemorated his 100th career home run in 1963 (as a Met).  He made it home but did it his way -- running around the bases backwards.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Loneliness of Donald Trump: On The Corrosiveness Of The Most Mocked Man In The World

Guest Post by Rebecca Solnit

Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.

He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.

Thinking of him, I think of Pushkin’s telling of the old fairytale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish. After being caught in the old fisherman’s net, the golden fish speaks up and offers wishes in return for being thrown back in the sea. The fisherman asks him for nothing, though later he tells his wife of his chance encounter with the magical creature. The fisherman’s wife sends him back to ask for a new washtub for her, and then a  second time to ask for a cottage to replace their hovel, and the wishes are granted, and then as she grows prouder and greedier, she sends him to ask that she become a wealthy person in a mansion with servants she abuses, and then she sends her husband back. The old man comes and grovels before the fish, caught between the shame of the requests and the appetite of his wife, and she becomes tsarina and has her boyards and nobles drive the husband from her palace. You could call the husband consciousness—the awareness of others and of oneself in relation to others—and the wife craving.

Finally she wishes to be supreme over the seas and over the fish itself, endlessly uttering wishes, and the old man goes back to the sea to tell the fish—to complain to the fish—of this latest round of wishes. The fish this time doesn’t even speak, just flashes its tail, and the old man turns around to see on the shore his wife with her broken washtub at their old hovel. Overreach is perilous, says this Russian tale; enough is enough. And too much is nothing.

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.

I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful in their lives that there is no one to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.

“They were careless people,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the rich couple at the heart of The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Some of us are surrounded by destructive people who tell us we’re worthless when we’re endlessly valuable, that we’re stupid when we’re smart, that we’re failing even when we succeed. But the opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up.  It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.

We keep each other honest, we keep each other good with our feedback, our intolerance of meanness and falsehood, our demands that the people we are with listen, respect, respond—if we are allowed to, if we are free and valued ourselves. There is a democracy of social discourse, in which we are reminded that as we are beset with desires and fears and feelings, so are others; there was an old woman in Occupy Wall Street I always go back to who said, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” That’s what a democracy of mind and heart, as well as economy and polity, would look like.

This year Hannah Arendt is alarmingly relevant, and her books are selling well, particularly On the Origins of Totalitarianism. She’s been the subject an extraordinary essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books and a conversation between scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge and Krista Tippet on the radio show “On Being.” Stonebridge notes that Arendt advocated for the importance of an inner dialogue with oneself, for a critical splitting in which you interrogate yourself—for a real conversation between the fisherman and his wife you could say: “People who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Some use their power to silence that and live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be. The tyrant of a family, the tyrant of a little business or a huge enterprise, the tyrant of a nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it. Or reduces it: narcissists, sociopaths, and egomaniacs are people for whom others don’t exist.

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us; and those who do not have to cope with that are brittle, weak, unable to endure contradiction, convinced of the necessity of always having one’s own way. The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leapt as though they wanted there to be gravity and to hit ground, even bottom, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space.

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.

This one imagined that the power would repose within him and make him great, a Midas touch that would turn all to gold. But the power of the presidency was what it had always been: a system of cooperative relationships, a power that rested on people’s willingness to carry out the orders the president gave, and a willingness that came from that president’s respect for rule of law, truth, and the people. A man who gives an order that is not followed has his powerlessness hung out like dirty laundry. One day earlier this year, one of this president’s minions announced that the president’s power would not be questioned. There are tyrants who might utter such a statement and strike fear into those beneath him, because they have installed enough fear.

A true tyrant does not depend on cooperative power but has a true power of command, enforced by thugs, goons, Stasi, the SS, or death squads. A true tyrant has subordinated the system of government and made it loyal to himself rather than to the system of laws or the ideals of the country. This would-be tyrant didn’t understand that he was in a system where many in government, perhaps most beyond the members of his party in the legislative branch, were loyal to law and principle and not to him. His minion announced the president would not be questioned, and we laughed. He called in, like courtiers, the heads of the FBI, of the NSA, and the director of national intelligence to tell them to suppress evidence, to stop investigations and found that their loyalty was not to him. He found out to his chagrin that we were still something of a democracy, and that the free press could not be so easily stopped, and the public itself refused to be cowed and mocks him earnestly at every turn.

A true tyrant sits beyond the sea in Pushkin’s country. He corrupts elections in his country, eliminates his enemies with bullets, poisons, with mysterious deaths made to look like accidents—he spread fear and bullied the truth successfully, strategically. Though he too had overreached with his intrusions into the American election, and what he had hoped would be invisible caused the whole world to scrutinize him and his actions and history and impact with concern and even fury. Russia may have ruined whatever standing and trust it has, may have exposed itself, with this intervention in the US and then European elections.

The American buffoon’s commands were disobeyed, his secrets leaked at such a rate his office resembled the fountains at Versailles or maybe just a sieve (this spring there was an extraordinary piece in the Washington Post with thirty anonymous sources), his agenda was undermined even by a minority party that was not supposed to have much in the way of power, the judiciary kept suspending his executive orders, and scandals erupted like boils  and sores. Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.

He is, as of this writing, the most mocked man in the world. After the women’s march on January 21st, people joked that he had been rejected by more women in one day than any man in history; he was mocked in newspapers, on television, in cartoons, was the butt of a million jokes, and his every tweet was instantly met with an onslaught of attacks and insults by ordinary citizens gleeful to be able to speak sharp truth to bloated power.

He is the old fisherman’s wife who wished for everything and sooner or later he will end up with nothing. The wife sitting in front of her hovel was poorer after her series of wishes, because she now owned not only her poverty but her mistakes and her destructive pride, because she might have been otherwise, but brought power and glory crashing down upon her, because she had made her bed badly and was lying in it.

The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence. He must know somewhere below the surface he skates on that he has destroyed his image, and like Dorian Gray before him, will be devoured by his own corrosion in due time too. One way or another this will kill him, though he may drag down millions with him. One way or another, he knows he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall. Another dungheap awaits his landing; the dung is all his; when he plunges into it he will be, at last, a self-made man.

San Francisco writer, historian, and activist, Rebecca Solnit is one of the essential voices of these fraught times.  She is the author of seventeen books about geography, community, art, politics, hope, and feminism and the recipient of many awards, including the Lannan Literary Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  This piece was originally posted at Literary Hub.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Country Over Party: Get Rid Of The Orange Nightmare First; Worry About Pence Later

Donald Trump is mentally, intellectually and morally unfit to be president.  His ignorant and erratic behavior is a threat to our national security, as most recently shown by his perhaps unwitting disclosure of highly classified information to the Russians.  He is doing long-lasting damage to our relationships with allies.  How he would handle a domestic or international crisis is too frightening to consider.  It would make Bush's criminally inept handing of Katrina look like the height of competence.  He has installed white nationalists in key positions of his government and emboldened fringe racists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes.  His lack of respect or understanding of fundamental constitutional rights -- particularly, freedom of speech and the press -- is chilling.  His most recent act of firing the FBI director who refused to pledge his fealty is the behavior of an autocrat not a democratically-elected president.  Meanwhile, he and his family are making a fortune off of it all. 

As his presidency appears to be unraveling, there are cautionary calls from the left to be careful what we ask for, claiming that Mike Pence would actually be worse.  He would be more disciplined and skilled at governing and thus better able to successfully pass the Republican Party's agenda.  His extreme religious beliefs and regressive views about women and their reproductive health and about the LGBT community would risk turning the government into a white Christian version of the Taliban. And, he would allow the Republicans, who at this point are tainted with the stench of the rancid orange shit-gibbon, to regain credibility and forestall a mid-term electoral collapse.

This, unfortunately, may all be true.  But for at least three reasons, Trump needs to be removed from office as soon as possible after a fulsome investigation of his abuse of power, and sent back to Trump Tower where he can spend the next several years enmeshed in criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits.

First, if we determine to keep Trump in power because it would make things worse for Republicans and better for Democrats in the long run -- no matter the destruction he could do to the nation in the meantime -- we would prove ourselves just as cynical as the Republicans who have put the interests of their party over that of the country in ignoring Trump's abuses, lies, corruption, incompetence and instability. 

Second, if we are to remain a nation of laws then when high government officials break the law or abuse their power, there must be a true reckoning.  President Ford pardoned Nixon, and the first President Bush pardoned the key participants in the Iran-Contra affair.  President Obama, giving in to his bipartisan fetish, insisted on looking forward, not backward, in failing to hold the second Bush Administration accountable for torture and other war crimes.  It is not surprising that the next Republican president -- particularly when his Party controls all three branches of government -- would feel unconstrained by the checks and balances to run roughshod over the norms of governance. 

And third, we don't know where the investigation of the Trump Administration will lead.  Remember Pence was in charge of Trump's transition team, which, the Times recently reported, was told by Michael Flynn during the campaign that Flynn  was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey.  Pence has claimed to essentially be "out of the loop" -- the phrase Bush I conveniently used to avoid becoming ensnared in Iran-Contra -- and not aware of Flynn's contacts with Russia or his work as a foreign agent but that seems increasingly implausible.  It is, thus, quite possible that Pence will be found complicit in some of Trump's malfeasance, and, under the rules of presidential succession, we will have to consider a President Paul Ryan -- or a President Nancy Pelosi, if Democrats take back the House in the mid-terms. 

At bottom, Trump has no business being the president of this country and it is our patriotic duty to see that he goes down regardless of whether it ends up helping the Republicans hold on to power or takes them down too. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Profiles In Cowardice: "It Is What It Is"

Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn): "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
"Nixon’s tactics backfired because the system of checks and balances clicked into place; the public demanded that the president be held accountable for his actions, and Republicans stopped defending him at every turn, putting country above party.  But will that happen again now?"  -- Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. representative from New York and member of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate
There is already a prima facie case for obstruction of justice.  The allegations include (1) Trump fired FBI Director Comey as he was  ramping up an investigation into what Trump himself referred to as "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia," and (2) he did so after Comey refused to pledge his loyalty to the president; (3) Trump asked Comey three times whether he was under investigation; and (4) Trump requested that Comey "let [the investigation regarding Michael Flynn] go" in the wake of Flynn's resignation as National Security Advisor after lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.  If these allegations alone are proven true -- and who knows what else will be revealed -- there is a compelling case Trump  “corruptly” or by “any threatening letter or communication” tries “to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

There is also already a prima facie case that Trump violated the oath he took when he was inaugurated to “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” to the best of his ability (putting aside the paltry limits of his 'ability').  These allegations include disclosing highly classified information to the Russian government regarding "sources and methods" that jeopardized intelligence operations, endangered U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources, undermined the trust of a critical ally, and potentially hampered cooperation from otherwise friendly governments who would be justifiably concerned about sharing their secrets with us.  Again, if only, these allegations are true, there is a compelling case that Trump's conduct falls under "high crimes and misdemeanors."

(And let's not forget the prima facie case that Trump has violated Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, i.e., the “Emoluments Clause,” based on allegations that he is profiting from the Trump Organizations business dealings with foreign government )

The tepid responses from Republican leadership is -- to use their language -- "troubling" (Susan Collins) and "disturbing" (John McCain).  Marco Rubio tweeted that Trump's handling of the issues "certainly it’s less than ideal, but it is what it is." And Paul Ryan is mostly concerned that “there are some people out there who want to harm the President.” 

Richard Burr, who is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and armed with subpoena power said in response to the New York Times report that Comey has memos of his discussions with Trump:  "I think the burden is on the New York Times—if they're reporting it and they've got somebody who's got the document—they need to get the document and get it released."

Perhaps the most honest and cynical response came from Mitch McConnell, who unwittingly admitted what Republican recalcitrance is all about:  "“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, [and] repealing and replacing Obamacare.”

So, do Republicans believe that these allegations aren't true or that even if true they don't matter?  If it is the former, then they have an obligation to agree to an independent bipartisan commission and call for a special prosecutor to determine whether they are true.  And, to be fair, it does seem that after stonewalling Democratic demands, there has been some movement from some Republicans towards at least seeking to obtain the Comey memos and learn more about what Trump spilled to the Russians.  Whether they will agree to an independent commission remains to be seen.

But what about those Republicans -- still the vast majority of them -- who don't really care about Trump's abuse of power and its implications for national security and the rule of law, but simply don't want any more "drama" to impede the success of their political agenda?  They have no business being in government.  They must be shamed, run out of office and removed from polite society.  At minimum, they need to get out of the way and allow Congress to do its job.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ending Our Long National Nightmare -- It's All About Subpoena Power

The modern Republican party controls all three branches of government, and it is demonstrating quite clearly that it is not up to even the most essential task of protecting the institutions it controls from the ravings of a wild man -- Charles Pierce
As the rancid orange shit-gibbon continues his destructive march through the various articles and clauses of the Constitution, it becomes clearer every day that he is intellectually, morally and mentally unfit for office.  This ignorant, corrupt, lying malignant narcissist has got to go before he takes us down -- or, at minimum, does lasting damage to our democracy.  As former director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just warned:  "I think in many ways our institutions are under assault both externally -- and that's the big news here is the Russian interference in our election system -- and I think as well our institutions are under assault internally," i.e., by the aforementioned shit-gibbon. 

Trump's most recent round of stunning insensitivity to fundamental norms of governance includes, of course, the firing of the FBI Director just as he was ramping up an investigation of possible Russian collusion.  The comparison to Watergate and the removal of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who demanded Nixon's oval office tapes, is apt -- and, as James Fallows compellingly argues, based only on what we know so far, this scandal is worse:  "Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself."

I'm not sure I totally agree with Fallows, but one way the current "Gate" is dangerously worse is the absence of principled Republicans who are willing to ask what Trump knew and when he knew it -- and take the steps necessary to get the answers to those questions.  Sure, a few Republicans have paid lip service to being "troubled" by Trump's brazen obstruction of justice -- but that's as far as they'll go.  Republicans want their tax cut for the wealthy, their repeal of Obamacare, and their dominance over the Supreme Court and lower federal courts to further their regressive agenda.  And they will overlook all the craziness, corruption and abuse of power until they accomplish these goals.

But we can't let them.  We must demand that Democrats utilize every procedural tool they have as the minority party to shut down or slow down committee hearings and delay business as usual.  As Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid, explains, in the Senate, they must also "use the Senate’s rules encouraging free and open debate to take advantage of every opportunity to press Republicans directly and publicly on why they continue to cover for President Trump instead of holding him accountable. Senators can and should flood the floor with speeches and hold frequent news conferences on Trump’s ties to Russia.  But they can also engage Republicans directly on the Senate floor and force them to publicly defend their blind obedience to the most conflicted and compromised president in recent history."

At minimum, there should be no lifetime appointments for federal judges while there is a cancer on the presidency.  There should be no tax reform while Trump refuses to hand over his tax returns and disclose the extent and nature of his business entanglements.

There are essentially two options for removal of a president:  The 25th Amendment (See It's Medication Time) and impeachment.  (See, e.g., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Emoluments Clause But Were Afraid To Ask)  But until the Democrats can take back at least one house of Congress, neither option seems even remotely possible.

But if the Democrats win a majority in the House in the 2018 midterms -- an idea that is not as farfetched as it seemed a month or so ago -- they will be able to take control of the current meandering investigations from the Republicans and initiate others into Trump's corruption and abuse of power.  As Evan Osnos, who provides a great (pre-Comey firing) historical perspective on removing presidents, writes in The New Yorker, "if Democrats retake the House, the Judiciary Committee could establish subcommittee to investigate potential abuses and identify specific grounds for impeachment."

Most importantly, majority control would give Democrats subpoena power -- which will allow them to obtain Trump's tax returns, financial records of his business dealings, documents involving meetings or contacts between Trump and his associates and the Russians, and more.  And once they get access to Trump's papers -- or spark a Watergate-like confrontation over access to those papers -- all bets are off. 

Short of a mid-term victory for Democrats, the only other hope is that enough Republicans discover, if not their principles, at least their political savvy, as Trump's erratic conduct threatens to take down their Party and impede their ability to govern.  Only three Republicans in the Senate are needed to cross the aisle and vote with Democrats to establish an independent commission.  Three.

The Republican majority's refusal to use its considerable powers to the check the president and conduct meaningful investigations is shameful, cowardly and deeply unpatriotic.  Democrats need to keep the pressure on them by throwing sand in the gears and forcing them answer for their recalcitrance and hypocrisy.  And we need to pressure the Democrats to keep at them.  And we need to make them pay in 2018.

Monday, May 1, 2017

It's Medication Time (Again)

Every time Trump does a TV interview it's like an infomercial for the 25th Amendment. -- Andy Borowitz
He is a pathological liar.  The Washington Post has documented 488 lies in the first 100 days.  That's about five a day; the only days he didn't publicly lie was when he was golfing and not making public statements (although no one has checked his scorecards).  Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, stated that Trump "has lied as no president of the United States in my lifetime has, day in and day out."

He has no respect for or understanding of the Constitution.  Trump tweeted not for the first time: "the failing New York Times has gotten me wrong for two solid years.  Change libel laws?"  When it was pointed out to his chief of staff, who whined about how the press is not sufficiently respectful of his boss, that this would require a constitutional amendment, he responded:  "I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story."  Something they've looked at?  What does that mean?  Oh, and Trump also condemned Congress's rules for passing laws:  "There are archaic rules and maybe at some point, we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different."  So much for checks and balances.

He sees nothing wrong with maintaining chummy, conflict-ridden relationships with murderous dictators, including Philippine President Duterte, who Trump just invited to the White House for a play date without consulting either the State Department or the National Security Council.  (As the Times summarized, Trump's "name is stamped on a $150 million, 57-floor tower in Manila, a licensing deal that netted his company millions of dollars. Mr. Duterte appointed the chairman of the company developing the tower, Jose E. B. Antonio, as an envoy to Washington for trade, investment and economic affairs.")

He is delusional.  This weekend he took credit for stopping China from manipulating its currency when this stopped in 2014, before he was president.  And he continued to insist that President Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower despite all evidence to the contrary -- which ended in a bizarre interview-ending exchange on Face the Nation when questioned about it ("I have my own opinions. You can have your own opinions.”) 

Perhaps more frightening, is that Trump's tenuous grasp on reality seems only marginally better than his understanding of history:
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Um.  "Right. Well, I have to -- I have to go now, Duane, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth."

The 25th Amendment outlines a procedure to remove the president when he becomes disabled or incapacitated.  It states: "whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."

The 25th Amendment was invoked twice during the Bush Administration to temporarily transfer power to the Vice President when Bush underwent a colonoscopy.  It is time to use it permanently with regard to another asshole

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Key To Gooden

"Doc didn’t get the accolade that day in 1986, that parade, he didn’t get to stand here with teammates and Mayor Koch. We’re going to fix that right now, 30 years later. We’re going to celebrate the player and the man.”  -- Mayor Bill de Blasio

"The '86 World Series always left a void in my heart.  Today I can close that wound. I can fill that void with love, and peace and joy. That’s because of you guys believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.” -- Dwight Gooden
Dwight Gooden was one of the greatest and most exciting pitchers I ever saw.  He won 100 games by the age of 25, but then injuries and substance abuse tragically derailed his career.  He was only 19 years old in 1984, when, with incredible poise, an explosive fastball and a devastating curve he won 17 games and led the National League in strikeouts.  He was an All Star and Rookie of the Year.  In 1985, Gooden had one of the best seasons any pitcher ever had -- and he was only 20 years old.  With 24 wins, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 ERA (leading the league in all three categories), he became the youngest player to win the Cy Young Award.

But the numbers don't begin to tell the story.  I still remember the game I saw him pitch that year at Candlestick Park against the Giants.  He struck out 14, in a 2-1 victory, going the distance and striking out the side to end the game.  I've been lucky to witness some extraordinary performances by some of the greatest pitchers of all time.  That includes some of Tom Seaver's gems at Shea, most notably his historic 19-strikeout game in 1970.  But that day I saw Dwight Gooden was something special.  He was more electrifying than anyone I'd ever seen.  And he pitched that way every time he went to the mound that year.  What no one could have imagined then was that 1985 would be his greatest season.

In 1986, the Mets' championship season, Gooden was their ace, winning 17 games and striking out 200, but he faltered in the World Series and failed to show up for the ticker-tape parade.  While the Mets and their fans were ecstatically celebrating, Gooden was succumbing to what we later learned was a drug addiction. 

That winter, Gooden was arrested for fighting with police and during spring training, he tested positive for cocaine.  I recall hoping desperately that Dwight could overcome his personal problems and resume a career that looked to be a lock for the Hall of Fame -- for his own well-being, of course, but also, selfishly, because he was such a joy to watch.  Indeed, for awhile all seemed well.  He returned in 1987, after missing the first third of the season with a stint in rehab, winning 15 games, and in 1988, he won 18.  But he then suffered a series of injuries and drug relapses, and although he continued to have occasional flashes of brilliance (and a 19 win, 200+ strikeout season in 1990), he was never again the truly dominant  pitcher he had been.  He left the Mets after 10 years, in 1994, and pitched for the Yankees and three other teams, retiring after the 2000 season.  In subsequent years, he had periods of apparent recovery followed inevitably by substance abuse and legal problems.  

Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented Gooden with the key to the city to make up for the fact that he missed the ticker-tape parade in 1986.  It was arranged by sports radio host Amy Heart, who is producing a documentary.  Gooden always deeply regretted missing out that day and being able to celebrate with his team and be celebrated by the fans who loved him.  I still think about what could have been for Gooden as a pitcher.  But how great that Gooden the man is still with us and could, in some way, get that day back.

As he said:  “Unfortunately, my addiction had the best of me that night and as the mayor mentioned, I didn’t get to make it. That stayed with me for a very long time. It kept me sick for a very long time.  But today I’m not that person. And to get the opportunity to share that moment here again with my teammates and with you guys, I can’t thank you enough.” 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Asterisk Presidency*

In 1961, Yankee slugger Roger Maris was threatening to break Babe Ruth's then-hallowed record of 60 home runs in a season.  That year teams played more games than ever before as baseball expanded its regular season from 154 to 162 games.  Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who had been a dear friend of Ruth's, suggested that if Maris did not break the record within 154 games, his total should go in the record books with an asterisk.  As it happened, Maris hit his 60th home run in game 159 and his 61st on the last day of the season.  And while there was never an official asterisk -- and, in fact, no official "record book" -- the asterisk became associated with Maris' 61 homers and undermined the legitimacy of his achievement for decades. 

The stigma attached to Roger Maris because he happened to break the record of a much-beloved legend was unfair.  If anyone should have had an asterisk it should have been Ruth and all the other players who established records before 1947, while baseball was segregated, because they never had to play against the great African American players of their day.  But what Maris' situation tells us is that the metaphorical use of the asterisk -- fair or not -- can create a longstanding question of legitimacy. 

Which brings us to Trump -- who won the presidency after the FBI director and the Russian government undermined his opponent, the latter perhaps in coordination with the Trump campaign.  Even with this unprecedented interference, Trump still lost the popular vote by over 3 million.  And the stench of his illegitimacy has only worsened since he assumed office.  His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business interests, constructing what Jonathan Chait refers to as "a full-on nontransparent oligarchy" is mind-boggling.  The Republican Party's failure to confront such debilitating conflicts or undertake anything close to a good-faith investigation of Russian hacking, of course, makes them complicit in, paraphrasing Chait again, a "shocking degradation" of the presidency.  Finally, there's the fact that Trump has proven himself psychologically, intellectually and morally unfit for office -- dangerously so.  Thus, if any president deserves an asterisk it is this ludicrous, corrupt, ignorant bigot.   And the asterisk should remain unless and until he discloses his tax returns and the full extent of his international and domestic business entanglements, and is cleared by an impartial and rigorous investigation of any Russian meddling.

And then there's Neil Gorsuch, our newest Supreme Court Justice.  Gorsuch's confirmation was only made possible because of the Republicans outrageous refusal to hold hearings and vote on President Obama's mainstream-to-a-fault nomination of Merrick Garland despite the fact that there was almost a year left in Obama's presidency.  The brazen theft of this seat from the Democrats has badly damaged the Court's credibility, ensuring that what is supposed to be the least partisan branch of government is completely entrenched in electoral politics.  The bottom line is that Gorsuch should not be on the bench.  Every opinion Gorsuch writes and every decision in which his vote is the deciding one should have an asterisk.  (Gorsuch's first vote, a tie-breaking one, was to deny a stay of execution for a possibly innocent Arkansas man who was then put to death as part of the state's despicable rush to kill several condemned men before the expiration of one of the lethal injection drugs, giving us, as the New York Times editorialized  "an early, and troubling, look into the mind-set of the high court’s newest member.")  The Gorsuch asterisk, unfortunately, is one that will remain for a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ella At 100

I would so much rather talk about Ella Fitzgerald's 100 years (she was born on April 25, 1917) than Donald Trump's 100 days. The rap on Ella was that she couldn't sing the blues.  Maybe not, but she was probably the greatest interpreter of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook.

Here's some proof:

This is what I wrote about Ella a while back when I was doing profiles of fifty jazz albums:
The Songbook series of recordings is essential listening; her live albums are remarkable, especially the classic Ella in Berlin, and the albums in which she is paired with Louis Armstrong are fun.  But when I feel like listening to Ella, my go-to album is Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.  In a small combo setting (piano, guitar, bass, drums), she swings, scats, and settles down for some lovely ballads too.  Highlights include, but are definitely not limited to, A Night in Tunisia, Stella By Starlight, Jersey Bounce and The Music Goes Round and Round.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Free Speech At Berkeley

"Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. If you cannot speak... I mean, that's what marks us off. That's what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels. I don't want to push this beyond where it should be pushed, but I feel it."  -- Mario Savio
I must admit that I love living in my protective, progressive bubble in Berkeley where the political spectrum runs from far left to left. Sure, we have our share of bullying, misogyny and bigotry. And we suffer from plenty of the other problems that plague the country, from vast income disparity to intractable homelessness.  But I would venture to say that compared to most communities in America, we are far more more welcoming of those who are marginalized by society due to gender identity, race, religion and ethnicity, and immigration status.  I am proud to be raising my children in such a community of tolerance and respect. 

But it has been much more challenging to teach -- or model -- tolerance of and respect for those who have opposing political views.  When the president is a dangerously unhinged, ignorant bigot, should we tolerate those who speak out in support of his presidency and respect those who endorse his more hateful positions?  Should we at least support their right to speak?  What if the speech is likely to incite intolerance or violence?  Where does political speech end and hate speech begin?

In fraught times like these, one would look to the University of California at Berkeley, a beacon of intellectual rigor, progressive thought, and free speech for answers.  Right?

A Republican group on campus invited Ann Coulter to speak next week.  Now, you could not pay me enough money to listen to Ann Coulter.  I'd rather guzzle antifreeze.  She spews provocative, hateful, ignorant right-wing nonsense designed to appeal to narrow-minded people who have far less education than UC Berkeley students.  But if some misguided young conservatives want to have her speak, then let her speak. 

The University first decided to shut her down.  Cal officials were apparently concerned with safety and security after the violence last Saturday in downtown Berkeley when residents were deprived of buying organic produce from the farmers' market, whose locale was overtaken by a pointless confrontation between alt-right dead-enders and anarchists with nothing better to do.

Officials also had in mind the violence that occurred in February when those same (non-student) anarchists disrupted the speech of Milo Yiannopolos, who had been invited by the same group of college Republicans that have invited Coulter. 

There is certainly a question whether provocative right wing figures are being invited on campus not to speak but to provoke the predictable outrage and overreaction from outside groups, so that "liberal Berkeley" can then be blamed for intolerance when either the speech is cancelled or violence breaks out.  Even if true, the answer isn't to shut down the speeches but to take measures to ensure a peaceful outcome. 

With plenty of advance notice, it is hard to imagine why the University couldn't impose the necessary restrictions and security to permit Coulter to speak -- like keeping out people dressed head to toe in black who are armed with Molotov cocktails.

And, indeed, Berkeley has reversed itself and decided to let Coulter speak after all on alternate date.  That's good news for the principle of free speech.  It is bad news for those who have to listen to her.  But, as Robert Reich, who is a Berkeley professor put it, "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"

Update:  Coulter apparently has found the University's conditions for her appearance unacceptable and is insisting on speaking as originally scheduled.  Her refusal to consider that the University may have legitimate concerns about the safety of its students suggests that she is more interested in creating a spectacle than making a speech.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Passover And The Plague Of Trump

Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.  -- The Big Lebowski
Passover is a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt three thousand years ago. We've been telling and re-telling the story ever since -- and it continues to resonate with us because, as Jews do, we ask questions, and then struggle to answer them as we try to connect the ancient story to our lives, our experiences and the society we live in today. Critically, our story is a universal story of liberation that not only reminds us that Jews were not always free but challenges us to recognize that others here and throughout the world have also suffered from and continue to struggle against oppression in its many forms.  This is their story too.

Some, like Schmuel Rosen, who wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times, believe that the Passover Seder shouldn't be politicized -- that bringing contemporary politics into the mix of ritual and tradition trivializes this sacred festival.  But I don't see how we can meaningfully celebrate our story of freedom and redemption without reflecting on today's impediments to social justice. 

As Jonathan Chait points out, "this would not be such a problem if the sitting president did not bear such an uncanny resemblance to a villain from a traditional Jewish narrative. Like the Pharaoh, Trump is a builder fond of exploitative labor practices and an arch-nationalist, with a nasty habit of making deals then welching on his side of the bargain."

Or if the Trump Administration didn't continue to use language familiar to Holocaust deniers and white nationalists.  Just today, on the second day of Passover, press secretary Sean Spicer, decided to compare Hitler favorably to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. First of all, it is never a good idea to compare Hitler favorably to anyone --  and especially on a sacred Jewish holiday.  Then there's the inconvenient fact that the lethal ingredient that killed millions of Jews in what Spicer later referred to as "Holocaust Centers" was a chemical -- Zyklon B, to be exact.  Oy.

Trump is a plague on this country and on the world.  He rose to political power by scapegoating and demonizing Mexicans and Muslims, he has surrounded himself with racists and anti-Semites, and he is pursuing policies that will cause fear and hardship to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.

If Passover isn't a time for speaking out against injustice and calling out today's tyrants and their enablers, then, to paraphrase that great Jewish scholar Alvy Singer, "what's the point?"