Looking for the Best on July 4th

Politics isn’t everything. On a holiday like July 4th, celebrating our nation’s independence and its brilliant founding documents, it is tempting to recount the myriad ways that our President has trampled on the promises made therein. Unsparingly, he sucks the joy out of our lives, most recently yesterday at Mt. Rushmore standing before the greats of our heritage giving us fireworks and fascism rather than fireside chats and federalism. Today is a day to appreciate the recently mauled Founding promises of balance of powers, equal justice under the law, a constrained executive, an independent judiciary.  As philosopher and longshoreman Eric Hoffer wrote, “The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.”

So today we feel blessed for pleasures that are not the stuff of headlines. I invite you join me in celebrating everyday splendors. I was thinking about the patriotic colors of my garden, the red of the roses and dahlias, the white of the daisies and the blue of my glorious hydrangeas. Sadly, my palette went awry just hours ago when deer, in a single night, devoured my entire rose garden.  I must fix my gaze elsewhere. First World problem!

Wonderful things persist around us, things and people who contribute to our community. One local example: Waban Common.    Less than half a mile from our house, a group of residents of the Waban section of Newton decided to create a new green space out of two ugly traffic  islands that, in addition to being an eyesore, were hazardous to navigate. They succeeded, and the result is a new oasis for everyone in the community.

The new park was originally conceived by my husband to memorialize the late State Representative  David Mofenson, a local politician with a passion for the underdog who died too young nearly five years ago. But, while he touched many as lawmaker, attorney, election commissioner, amateur historian, baseball aficionado, stamp collector, loving husband and neighbor, by the time the small park was to be created, most who knew him had moved away. So local activists, who did the hard work bringing this charming green space to life, decided to name the new park “Waban Common,” and a bench will bear Mofenson’s name.

The beauty was in the landscaping but also in the coming together of neighbors, under the city’s Adopt-a-Space program,  to raise money from individuals and local businesses, envisioning a design, engaging everyone from local Boy Scouts group to to the Parks and Recreation Department to create a green haven now being enjoyed for its first season. During the pandemic, it has been a joy to watch people discovering the Common as an oasis for passive pleasure, with social distancing. It’s a destination for this Independence Day’s walk.

Another moment of joy was last night’s viewing of Hamilton, forced by COVID-19 theater closings to be available for home viewing.  The brilliance of the writing and talent, and its largely attentive adherence to Ron Chernow’s stellar Hamilton book, gave unspeakable pleasure, despite the many hours it took my husband to purchase a Roku and set it up so we could stream it on our television.  Every hour of struggle (again, First World problem) was worth it to be able to experience this gem.

Today, after days of grim wet weather, the sky is blue, the sun is out, and I will not turn on the news, cable or otherwise.  I won’t use the “on” button until eight p.m. this evening’s  Boston Pops July 4th concert, which cleverly edits its “best of” with the musicians, performers and fireworks that were the splashes of past celebrations.  Happy Birthday, America, and may the promises of the past, however unrealized, become our fulfilled realities starting January 20, 2021. Until then, let’s roll up our sleeves and make sure that renewal does not elude us on November 3.

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Another escape into books

When I found myself agreeing with President Trump that the media were making too much of his super-cautious walking down a ramp at West Point, I knew I needed a break from media coverage. Yes, he might well have been wearing shoes with smooth leather soles that didn’t grip the slope the way rubber soles do. And yes, he wasn’t necessarily revealing a neuro-muscular disorder when he supported his water glass from the bottom. Given his vanity, he may well have worried that a highly visible water stain on his expensive silk tie would be more embarrassing than his two-handed sippy cup maneuver. But the little boy who cries wolf gets cut no slack when he has lied so often. I’m still more interested in the details of his sudden trip to Walter Reed Hospital last November, which has never been explained. There’s enough real news to focus on without getting sucked down rabbit holes!  So here are some alternatives to our cable news obsessions, and, as always, I’d welcome your book suggestions as well.

NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me was written in 2015 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading – or rereading it – couldn’t be timelier.  It is an open letter to his 15-year-old son on what it means to grow up as an African-American male in this country.  It is a poignant exploration of how racial definitions and biases define life’s experiences for blacks, immediately spelling peril in urban streets and explicit hostility in the more affluent suburbs.  Race also defines whites, who, from their childhoods, are positioned to assume the entitlements of dominance without having to think about it. These are the people whom Coates calls “Dreamers,” not the dreamers who are undocumented immigrants brought here as innocent children. For Coates, “Dreamers” are white people whose automatic privilege enables them to live the American Dream, which eludes a majority of blacks, even those who have the trappings of the American dream but whose souls are haunted by decades of injustice and racism.

Coates sometimes seems to ignore the progress that has been made, and his widespread damnation can be very unsettling. But he is a beautiful writer. The book is a raw and impassioned look at the black experience. At this time in our nation’s history, it should be must reading for those of us who think we understand the depths of the nation’s racial division but who have never walked in the shoes of those who have borne the brunt of it.

Life Is So Good and you’ll feel good after reading this memoir of George Dawson, as told to Richard Glaubman.  Dawson was a black man born in Marshall, Texas in 1898, to a farm family so poor he could not go to school.  Grandson of a slave, he started to work at the age of eight on his father’s farm, and didn’t stop until he was 90 years old. He worked at a saw mill, a dairy and, after he retired, as a gardener and handyman. In his 20’s he rode the rails, traveling to see the United States, Canada and Mexico, where he was astonished to learn that whites and people of color could go to the same restaurants and drink from the same fountains. He did not start learning to read until he was 98 years old and heard about an adult education course within walking distance of his home.  His 101st birthday was his happiest because it was the first time he could read birthday cards sent to him.  Glaubman read about Dawson’s accomplishments and took a leave from his teaching job, traveling to Texas to interview this remarkable man. Through multiple visits, Glaubman witnessed a century of our history through Dawson’s eyes, discovering his real-life wisdom, his God-fearing philosophy, his patience and respect for his fellow human beings.  Dawson had kept his head down, endured what to most of us would be dramatic privations, stuck to his principles, and grew to became an example of dignity and integrity. When he died, at the ago of 103, he had become the poster boy for literacy.  A middle school in Texas is named after him.  The book is told mostly in his voice, but included bits of conversations he had with Glaubman during the writer’s many visits to Dawson’s modest home.

Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is a huge book in many ways, a mammoth tome, the product of enormous amounts of research, prodigious writing skills, a riveting narrative, and a sweeping embrace of issues facing the Founding Fathers that still challenge us today. The book is informed by Hamilton’s voluminous writings as aide-de-camp to George Washington in the Revolutionary War. He was the major writer of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s first Treasury Secretary, a prolific pamphleteer, and deep thinker about what the country should be and the kind of Constitution upon which our national values and aspirations should rest. Hamilton was a complicated character, the illegitimate son of a woman in the West Indies who died leaving him an orphan. His intellect, incisive and persuasive writing skills and mercantile interests helped to propel him to positions of increasing responsibility. He was a devoted public servant who accrued great power. Often maligned as a closet monarchist, he was a believer in a strong central government, leader of what would become the Federalist Party, creator of the federal banking system, and proponent of manufacturing as an economic driver.  Despite the stature his hard work brought to him, his libido overwhelmed his common sense and an adulterous relationship made him vulnerable to blackmail.  His piercing essays and news columns intensified clashes with his political opponents, especially Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and the drama, at the end, led to his untimely demise. This is an amazing book, often hard to put down.

FICTION 

Eden Mine  by S. M. Hulse is a riveting story set in Montana, land of mines, ragged mountains, gun advocates, neo-Nazis and anti-government haters.  The reader is grabbed by the very first line: “My brother’s bomb explodes at 10:16 on a late April Sunday morning.”   Twenty-something Jo comes to grips with the idea that her older brother, Samuel, is the terrorist.  Their father had died in a coal mine collapse; their mother had been shot and killed by a drunken former boyfriend. In the incident, Jo, at ten years old, was paralyzed from the waist down while hiding in a closet from the abusive boyfriend. Samuel had beaten the perpetrator to death with a baseball bat. But Samuel, approaching 18 years, determined that he would raise his sister.  But now, the government, to build a highway, is seizing the 40-acre farm belonging in their family for generations.  Brother Samuel, who had a neo-Nazi tattoo on his arm and a swastika hanging over his bed, who raged against the government and the Jews, cared lovingly for Jo and found ways to sustain her life in a wheelchair. The bomb he set off in a rage ended up injuring several people, eventually costing the life of the ten-year-old child of a local pastor. Jo is a talented amateur artist who explores her own complicated emotions through the landscapes she paints. Through the month-long search for Samuel to bring him to justice are woven the themes of violence, poverty, faith, loss and forgiveness.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story that has played out in the headlines for years, the desperate lives of those in Mexico and Central America who risk everything to enter the United States in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families. Lydia Perez owns a small bookshop in Acapulco, Mexico.  Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist covering the drug trade. Central to the story is his exposé of Javier Crespo Fuentes, a drug lord who cultivates a personal relationship with Lydia in her bookstore, presenting as handsome, polished, cultured and well read. He even writes poetry. Because of Sebastian’s work, Javier has the entire family (16 people) slaughtered at a birthday party for Lydia’s niece. Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca, are the sole survivors. They flee the ghastly murder scene and join others trying to escape the danger and brutality endemic to Mexico (or Guatemala or Honduras). The reader experiences visceral terror at the risks of riding atop cargo trains (El Bestia), the gut-wrenching fear that Javier’s cartel members will recognize and betray Lydia and Luca, guaranteeing them a sure death, the threat of thieves who steal their worldly possessions, the sexual predators, the Border Patrol and often- corrupt local police, and the perilous terrain they must cross under cover of darkness or scorching desert sun.  While some critics and readers liken this book to Grapes of Wrath, others decry it as exploiting immigrants and relying on stereotypes. Others complain that Cummins got it wrong because she is white (her grandmother is Puerto Rican), as if you have to be someone or have experienced something yourself to write about it. If neither Lydia (as a middle class migrant) nor Javier (as a cultured goon) is typical, and even if the writing is not the quality of John Steinbeck’s, American Dirt is still a tense and compelling narrative about maternal love and the struggle to survive.

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Kennedy’s real reason for the Senate race?

What’s the real reason Congressman Joe Kennedy is challenging Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey this year?  It may well be that he fears if he waited for an open race for the Senate, after Markey or Senator Elizabeth Warren, he might have to run against Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. Pressley spoke Friday to a virtual meeting of The New England Council. She was powerful, articulate, brilliant, and passionate. Her energy and vision, not to mention her proven and charismatic voter appeal,  could prove insurmountable for Congressman Kennedy in some future head-to-head or crowded primary.

Other than that, after months of campaigning and several debates, Kennedy’s reasons for running against Markey remain unclear. You can’t see any daylight between their positions on issues. Kennedy argues for removing Markey in bromides, insisting, as he did in a recent debate in Springfield, that “we can’t do what we need with people who have been there for fifty years.”

Kennedy insists that Markey doesn’t show up enough in the western part of the state. Markey swats the charge away, easily ticking off the local issues for which he has provided concrete solutions (legislation plus funds) and touts his endorsements by seven mayors of significant cities in the region.

Even though Joe Kennedy’s Uncle Ted, the “lion of the Senate,” was reelected at about the same age as Markey is now, the Congressman seems to be hoping his youth would be enough of a reason to oust the veteran Senator,  just as Pressley ousted longtime veteran Mike Capuano two years ago. Kennedy’s fundraising pitches speak to Markey’s long incumbency. But Kennedy hasn’t been able to weaken Markey’s argument that the Senator has been and remains a leader on cutting-edge issues, including Wall Street insider trading, gun safety, net neutrality and perhaps no issue as important as climate change.

A co-sponsor of the broadly outlined Green New Deal and sponsor for years of laws to reduce carbon emissions and support renewables, among others, Markey impresses by his depth of  scientific understanding, the authenticity of his passion, his capacity to legislate on all aspects of the issue and his ability to communicate the urgency of the need for action. As I have written before, if the Democrats can take back the Senate, hold the House  and capture the Presidency, Markey will have an opportunity to lead this country away from a dystopian environmental future and set us, our children and grandchildren on a more sustainable path. Kennedy insists he will be “a stronger presence” in the Senate than Markey. But, if the Republicans retain control of the Senate, Kennedy hasn’t established that he will be any better equipped than Markey in dealing with Mitch McConnell.

When Kennedy says he can “get more out of the seat” than Markey, it is reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s 1962 Senate campaign against MA Attorney General Eddie McCormack. In a debate, McCormack famously said, “If your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke.” Joe Kennedy’s candidacy is not a joke. It is much more substantive and merit-based than was Ted Kennedy’s first run at office, but the Congressman’s rationale is not much more compelling.

Kennedy is the more affable of the two, with a boyish amiability, even apparent humility. Markey, more intense, smiles less often. Both candidates can be annoying in their speech patterns, Markey for a staccato style of speaking, Kennedy for devolving into breathlessness at the end of sentences. But, hey, Abraham Lincoln had a sad countenance and a squeaky voice.

What’s most galling are the millions of dollars being misspent on this Senate race and the  battle to fill Kennedy’s fourth district seat in the House.

That money would be much better spent on winnable races that could tip control of the Senate to the Democrats. Better to contribute to help Sara Gideon defeat Susan Collins in Maine, Mark Kelly defeat Martha McSally in Arizona, John Hickenlooper against Cory Gardner in Colorado, Cal Cunningham over Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Steve Bullock over Steve Daines in Montana,  Theresa Greenfield against Joni Ernst in Iowa, and even longer shots Jon Ossoff  against David Perdue in Georgia, Amy McGrath  against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Jaime Harrison over Lindsay Graham in South Carolina.

Instead we are wasting time in Massachusetts, squandering talented campaign staff  and contributor dollars, where the winner’s future voting record is likely to be indistinguishable from that of the loser. And, if low information voters hold sway, we could lose important leadership on what may well be the most important public policy issue of our children’s lifetime.  But alas, here we are, in a hotly contested race on home turf and still without a persuasive answer to the question, “Why?”

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“Defunding” versus “reprioritizing” the police: language matters

The peaceful protests continue amidst emerging proposals for policy change, but will  they amount to anything? Longtime Boston leader and community activist Hubie Jones, in his unpublished book Black in Boston: A Lover’s Quarrel, came to understand the dynamics of race demonstrations in the confrontations and riots of 1967 and 1978. Usually, he says, they end “within a few weeks, four weeks tops, although the cruel consequences linger on.”  Pent up rage masks a kind of euphoria at having “the oppressors on the run.” There follows an awakening to the physical and emotional costs of the community. Then comes a “window of quasi-attention given by white elites, with the power to forge constructive economic and social changes.” But typically, despite “verbal pseudo commitments and some investments” that “make some people believe that the window is still open,” things go on as they were. Still, today, Jones takes heart from the fact that today’s outpourings are multi-racial. He is optimistic that we are at an inflection point.

So, too, is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me, an open letter to his then-14-year-0ld son about the perils of growing up a black man. The book is an anguished exploration of how racial discrimination defines life’s experiences for blacks.  They face physical peril in urban streets and open hostility from those in comfortable suburbs who often have been oblivious to how their own white privilege oppresses their black neighbors.  Yet today, Coates sees hope in how the George Floyd murder and other police violence are resonating in communities like Des Moines, Iowa and Salt Lake City and other white communities around the world. He finds reason for optimism in multi-ethnic solidarity and an apparent newfound understanding by whites of the war that has been waged on African-Americans since slavery.

So how does this heightened awareness translate into meaningful societal change? From municipalities to the halls of Congress, consensus grows for serious police reform as a first step. Senator Cory Booker has filed a bill to outlaw choke holds, make it easier for victims to file civil suits against police officers, curb abuses of no-knock forced entry in drug cases, require body cameras, give subpoena power to the Justice Department to investigate patterns of police abuses of power and limit the transfer of heavy duty military equipment to local police departments. The bill also proposes making lynching a federal hate crime, a provision blocked last week by Senator Rand Paul. These may seem like no-brainers, but, in a world where you can’t even get Senate support for an anti-lynching bill, the Booker et al bill’s prospects in a Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate are dim at best.

Real reforms are also being proposed at the local level, where police unions have long ruled the day, too often allowing locally bargained contracts to limit municipalities’ ability to discipline out-of-control officers. There are many moves underway to reallocate funds from police budgets to human service and community agencies better trained to deal with mental health, drug addiction, homelessness and other human service problems. Diverting money from these challenges, all of which have been dumped on the police, could engage other specialized professionals using their competencies to stop crimes before they happen.

Reform advocates and the news media shouldn’t be sucked into using the inflammatory rhetoric of some calling for “defunding police” or “dismantling police,”  which inaccurately distorts the positions of those on the front lines actually dealing with these issues. They talk about public safety resource reallocation and reorganization. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, speaks of “rebalancing funding to address systemic disparities” and “working with the police” to make change happen.

Using nuanced verbiage does not mean selling out the goals of societal change. Using incendiary language will make effecting needed change that much more difficult. Recently, the news media shouted how the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to defund the police department. The headline read “dismantle the police force.”  This is not accurate. What the Council intends is to construct an alternative public safety system, which will entail reallocating some monies from the Minneapolis Police Department to services better provided by mental health, drug addiction and homelessness experts. The first steps were taken in a budget review well before the protests. The Council examined 911 calls to understand callers’ needs, and it shifted from some funds from armed police functions to mental health, EMT and fire services. Broader reform must also entail a comprehensive review and reshaping of the police use of deadly force.

The Mayor of Minneapolis was recently booed off a stage for refusing to support “disbanding” or “defunding” the police.  He and his audience fell into the language trap. Despite extreme headlines, Lisa Bender, head of the Minneapolis City Council speaks of a “new model of public safety that makes our community safe”  and dismantling the police system “as we know it.”  In recent interviews, she has made clear that it could take up to a year of community input to fashion an alternative approach to policing.

President Trump, meanwhile, wants to frame these issues to deepen our societal divide. Trying to distract and mislead, his tweets have started.  Lazy headlines about abolishing the police, defunding or dismantling the police, will play directly into his strategy of trying to frighten the suburban moms whose votes he will need to be reelected.

President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing was finished in 2015. It made recommendations for police training, oversight, crime reduction, building trust, police safety and well-being, and more. There are 18,000 police departments in the United States, and a year after the report’s release,  just nine states and cities had adopted its recommendations.  During the Trump administration, the effort has not been pushed. Given centuries of hardened attitudes and police opposition to change in Minnesota and elsewhere, the challenge is Herculean.  But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  Now is the time to seize the moment and make the changes necessary to restore public trust in law enforcement agencies and enhance community safety at the same time.

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Nation at a crossroads, not a replay of ’68

The lump in my throat won’t go away. It’s not the onset of the coronavirus. It is the result of another terrible disease afflicting this nation, the lethal virus of racism and racial injustice. I close my eyes and see the video that grips the country, African-American George Floyd pinned on the street, the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes 46 seconds, depriving him of oxygen while three fellow police officers -Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao -stand by and do nothing. We hear Floyd gasping, “I can’t breathe.”

Nearly six years ago, in Staten Island, the words were those of Eric Garner, killed in a choke hold by police concerned he was selling cigarettes without tax stamps. In that homicide, Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. He died in hospital an hour later.  This May, it was Breonna Taylor, a young emergency medical technician killed by Louisville police entering the apartment where she was asleep with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, who had a licensed gun, feeling endangered,  fired, hitting one of the police who had forced their way in in a no-knock entry. Officers shot Breonna eight times.  In 2014, Tamir Rice was just 12 years old, playing with a replica toy gun, when Cleveland police officers  arriving on the scene, shot and killed him. The same year, in Ferguson, Missouri, it was Michael Brown. It was Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015.  The list goes on and on. These are just among the better known tragedies, but they all reflect the sad truth that  African-Americans are treated differently from whites in confrontations with police.

The store owner where Floyd was stopped explained that often those passing counterfeit bills do so unintentionally. An SMU professor chillingly remembered his experience buying a pizza with a phony $20 bill from an ATM machine. He was white; the outcome was very different. Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, whose incumbency is seriously challenged by Democrat John Hickenlooper, echoed: “If I had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, I might have been arrested, but I’d be alive today.” That truth needs wider understanding. Black men and boys are at higher risk of being killed by police than whites, 96 per 100,000 compared to 39 per 100,000 for whites.

And that’s not the whole story. African-Americans are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as whites. And it’s not just because they suffer a higher rate of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. In New York, for example, they are 75 percent of front line workers, those people who have kept our communities running while we white collar folks work comfortably from the safety of our homes.

The racism and discrimination have gone on for years, decades and centuries.  From time to time, well-meaning politicians of both parties have spoken pretty words and pledged their help, but the ugliness and inequities continue. So whites, blacks and others of color  have turned out for the past week to protest. And, while you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the news media, most of those protests have been peaceful. In some cities, good cops dealt respectfully with the protesters, marched with them,  knelt with them and joined them in prayer. Sadly, in too many cities, at some point, peaceful protests have been hijacked by extremists on the right and on the left, using protestors as human shields, injuring the police, wantonly looting and damaging property, including destroying the livelihoods of small merchants already crushed by the economic impact of Covid-19. And there are scattered stories of police abusing their power, notably toward journalists.

Meanwhile,  the man who occupies the White House, while claiming he is “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” [remember Colin Kaepernick?] directed his lapdog Attorney General, William Barr, to let loose on those law-abiding protesters the force of pepper ball tear gas and rubber bullets, to clear them out so that same despicable Chief Executive could stroll over for a photo op in front of St. John’s Church, the so-called Church of the Presidents.  The Church was boarded up due to damage done by extremists the previous night. Daughter Ivanka pulled the prop de jour out of her $1540 MaxMara designer bag so dad could hold a Bible for the picture. That he held it apparently upside down and backwards would have been funny if it weren’t so offensive and terribly sad.  As commentator Tim Morris observed, “Every president does photo ops, but how many physically harm American citizens to do it?”

Not all is so desperately bleak. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop in D.C. responsible for the church, expressed outrage at the President’s clearing the area with tear gas so he could use St. John’s as a photo op, and a Catholic priest lamented the use of the Bible as a prop was “disingenuous and exploitative.” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today the charges against Derek Chauvin have been upgraded to second degree murder, and the other three officers  were charged with aiding and abetting murder. The city of Philadelphia removed a statue of its blatantly racist former police commissioner-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo (1967-1980), and the governor of Virginia is moving the iconic monument of Robert E. Lee from its place of honor.   Chief Justice Ralph Gants and other Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court called on all lawyers and judges to examine systemic racism in the legal community. Former Defense Secretary General James Mattis finally spoke out against the President’s being a threat to the Constitution. And presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden gave a speech demonstrating the tone and values that people across the political spectrum might desire from the leader of the free world.

Words and symbols aside, the needed medicine for this country’s racial illness is more than inspirational rhetoric and grand gestures.  Uplifting language doesn’t allay the fears of young African-American males warned by their parents about the perils of driving  or jogging while black. Noble thoughts alone won’t correct economic, housing and health disparities, differential treatment in the justice system, or achievement gaps due to inferior schools. Examples abound demonstrating that the road ahead is not smooth and meaningful reform will not be easy. Look only to today’s U.S. Senate’s blocking passage of a bill making lynching a federal hate crime and the videotaped middle school students in Pennsylvania gleefully  re-enacting the killing of  George Floyd.

We, as a nation, shouldn’t have to be spurred by coast–to-coast and international protests of George Floyd’s murder by official guardians of public safety to correct these wrongs.  But that’s where we are. And where we go from here will say a lot about whether we can move closer to fulfilling the ideals of our Constitution or continue giving the lie to the promise that all of us are created equal and deserve the benefits of equal access to the American Dream.

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Could this be Donald Trump’s “no sense of decency” moment?

photo CNN

Has Donald Trump finally reached his Joe McCarthy tipping point moment? Trump’s malevolently vicious attack on the memory of Lori Klausitis, which he wielded as a weapon to sully persistent critic Joe Scarborough, took me back to 1954.  It was in that year’s Army-McCarthy hearings that attorney Joseph N. Welch’s famously retorted to bullying behavior by the slimy, red-baiting Wisconsin senator: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?”

We know the answer were Welch’s question applied to today’s incumbent. Trump  has no sense of decency. There is no bottom to his barrel.  There is no end to his ignoring democratic norms, no limit to his mendacious behavior. Neither pussy-grabbing boasts to insults of POWs and Gold Star parents have troubled Trump supporters. His 18,000 documented lies and misstatements, his vindictiveness, his disregard for the nation’s role as a global model, even his despicable lack of leadership in the  face of the Covid-19 pandemic – none of that has significantly changed the loyalty of his steadfast base.  The only thing that could be different this time is the reaction of his erstwhile supporters.

Decades ago, Lori Klausitis, 28, an aide to then Florida Congressman Joe Scarborough, fainted in his district office due to a previously undiagnosed heart condition. She hit her head going down and died from the injury. Some fringe news stories circulated alleging that Scarborough was having an affair with Klausitis and that he killed her to cover up the indiscretion. It was a patent lie (Scarborough was in Washington at the time, verified by his recorded House votes and the medical examiner confirmed her underlying condition). The President, rediscovering the old conspiracy theorists’ garbage, has recently gone on Twitter to libel Scarborough as a murderer (something he had also done in 2017) and demanded the reopening of the investigation of the MSNBC host, an outspoken critic of the President.

Scarborough’s wife and co-host, Mika Brzezinski, has called on the president of Twitter to remove the President from Twitter because of his mendacity. Klausitis’ widower, Timothy, has written to Twitter president Jack Dorsey to take down the scurrilous tweets that continue to inflict pain on his late wife’s family. Twitter responded by saying it would start labeling lies as untrue; it then proceeded to do it not in the Scarborough situation but only, so far, on a tweet falsely asserting huge voter fraud with mail-in ballots. Trump, of course, doubled down by repeating his cruel lies, attacking Twitter for allegedly stifling his free speech and threatening to sign an executive order restricting social media activities that don’t favor him.

In the fifties, it wasn’t until Welch’s penetrating question reached the collective conscience of the American public that McCarthy sycophants, in and out of Congress, slithered away, public opinion turned against him and his power ebbed. Will this time be different for Trump? Will his deplorable behavior matter for his hard-core base?

There have been some eloquent critiques of what Trump has done, but they are largely from the usual suspects.  Unlike other times, however, there have been some voices from the respectable right, such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board decrying his behavior for debasing the presidency.

For the most part, conservative leaders in Washington have scurried for the underbrush, unwilling to face questions about Trump’s calumny. Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and Senator Mitt Romney were the sole GOP officials to tell Trump to knock it off. Even the Florida congressional delegation, some of whom served with Scarborough, have refused  to stand up for their former colleague.

Obviously, this is just another distraction gambit, to turn the public away from the heartbreaking 100,000 death toll and other examples of Trump’s wanton presidential mismanagement. Sadly, to date, he has largely been successful in ginning up divisive culture wars to inflame his base.

I would like to be proven wrong, but I fear this latest example of Trump’s malevolent cruelty  will not cool the ardor of his loyal followers, but,  like the coronavirus  will lurk in the body politic until we activate the needed treatment.  With luck and hard work, Nov 3 will bring a vaccine, effective January 20, 2021.

I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right of the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

 

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Remembering COVID-19’s victims on Memorial Day and beyond

Donna Morrissey was a ray of sunshine. She was an authentic humanitarian, beautiful, intelligent, warm, and committed to serving the community. After early work in television, she handled public relations for the Boston Archdiocese in the first year and a half of the priest sex abuse scandal. There were times her life was threatened, and the unfolding story tore her apart. She moved on to work for the American Red Cross and was often dispatched to scenes of horrifying disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Newtowne shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombings. She was just 51 years old when she died this week of COVID-19.

Donna is one of the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died since the outbreak of the virus, 6300 in Massachusetts. Each one had a story. Each leaves behind devastated family and friends. The death toll, ever climbing, didn’t have to yield so much tragedy.  If the Trump administration had acted just one week earlier on information in its possession, an estimated 36,000 who became infected in March need not have died, according to Columbia University modelers.   Two weeks earlier could have saved 54,000.

Just imagine if our failed leaders had acted in January at the same time as South Korea did.

Nothing will bring them back, nor any of the others who could have survived if the President hadn’t put his reelection interests ahead of the public good. If, faced with scientific evidence, he hadn’t delayed by a week or more all-important travel alerts. If, while imposing his porous Chinese curtain, he hadn’t ignored the millions of travelers coming to the East Coast from an already-infected Europe. If he had called for social distancing. If he had vigorously activated the Defense Production Act months earlier to drive manufacturers to produce more ventilators, masks, tests, swabs, reagents and other personal protective equipment. If he had listened to the early warnings of the intelligence community. If he had respected the data. If he had followed the advice of experts in the science. If. If. If.

On Memorial Day, we remember, as we have since 1868, those who have died while in military service. On this Monday, we must remember not just those who have died for their country but those who died because of their country, and its long list of failures during this epic crisis.  We should lower our flags to half staff from now until a vaccine is developed, tested clinically, with production scaled up to meet the needs of 320,000,000 Americans and the rest of the world’s 7.8 billion people. This symbolic act should not be a token 3-day tribute, but a lowering of flags on all buildings, private and public, until a time when we don’t have to worry about COVID-19 any more. As we get on with our lives, those lowered flags should be a constant reminder of the lives lost.

However Donald Trump denies the responsibilities of the United States to other peoples and nations, the COVID-19 pandemic drives home the message that Make America Great Again is not a slogan to live by. We are not islands unto ourselves, our world is global, and failure to heed the needs of our fellow human beings will come back to bite us in the end.

Donna Morrissey’s story is tragic, and she is but one of so many. In our rush to get to the beaches and beauty salons and outdoor restaurants, let’s not forget these thousands of individuals and the need to do everything we can to turn out of office in November those whose ineptitude, craven self-interest, greed, mendacity, ignorance and corruption have brought our country, whatever its garden variety and remediable flaws, to the low point where we find ourselves today.

I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right of the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

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Time to move on from Tara Reade’s charges

Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the popular vote in 2016. But Donald Trump was able to convince enough battleground state voters who disliked both nominees that she was worse. In 2020, he knows  he can’t win re-election running a positive campaign about himself; his only chance is to turn off enough battleground-state Republican and Democratic women leaning toward Joe Biden and  Independents who dislike them both.

Biden was the Democrat Trump least wanted to run against. The Trumpites’ best option is smearing Biden, tarnishing his empathetic nice guy/honorable statesman image, using lies, innuendos, rumors, dark money attacks, Russian and social media disinformation campaigns.

It’s hard to believe the timing of Tara Reade’s evolving claims, including her allegation that, 27 years ago, while she was in his employ, Biden digitally penetrated  her in a public corridor in the US Senate, is not somehow connected to this.

Responding to the # MeToo movement’s legitimate outcry against sexual abuse, most Democrats’ default position was automatically believing every woman making such claims. This justifiably helped the prosecutions of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and also colored the Bret Kavanaugh hearings.  It also resulted in drumming Al Franken out of the Senate without a modicum of due process.  As Bill Maher observed last week. “Believing everything doesn’t make you noble. It makes you gullible, especially when it leaves us with the world where Republicans don’t care about this stuff. So, it’s just a unilateral weapon that is used only against Democrats.”

A fairer principle is that every woman who makes a claim should be taken seriously, a far cry from when virtually every woman who came forward was disbelieved. But there’s a clear case for reasonable due process, fair-minded investigations and a transparent public vetting of charges. Biden and others set themselves up for eventual charges of hypocrisy by initially agreeing to set the bar untenably high.

Biden’s history of encroaching on people’s personal space and touching in ways that made them uncomfortable is well known. He has acknowledged this publicly and apologized. Whether this is enough or, weighed against everything else, is a disqualifying defect is something for voters to decide. The same applies to Reade’s far more explosive sex crime charge for which Biden didn’t apologize because he unequivocally denied the accusation.

Assaultive behavior should never be condoned. Even if evidence emerged that Biden went further than he admits, he still compares favorably to Trump, who has been credibly accused of serious sexual improprieties and crimes by no fewer than 21 women and has, on the Access Hollywood tapes, boasted about grabbing women by their genitals. To try to create a false equivalency here is outrageous.

There’s an ick factor to this whole discussion, but let’s not forget the differences between the two candidate’s positions on issues of importance to women. Even if he were guilty of the worst, Biden could say compellingly, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

After considering all the public information in the Tara Reade matter, even after observing testosterone-driven Senators as a reporter in 1970’s D.C., I have strong doubts Biden ever sexually attacked her. Most rapists don’t commit their acts only once, but, like Trump, Weinstein, Cosby and others, are serial offenders. They repeat  because their offenses manifest a lust for power and dominance. Apparently, Reade is the only woman ever to accuse Biden of criminal sexual assault.

A former prosecutor has detailed in USA Today the many significant inconsistencies in Reade’s account of Biden’s alleged assault, including the fact that, when she did come forward, she (and other women) said only that Biden made her uncomfortable with physical closeness, nothing more serious.

Obama’s advisers who carefully vetted Biden in 2008 found no scintilla of evidence of sexual misbehavior. Contrary to Reade’s version, Biden’s three top staffers deny her assertion that she complained to them at the time. Marianne Baker, Biden’s longtime executive assistant, said, “I have absolutely no knowledge of memory of Ms. Reade’s accounting of events, which would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager.”

Reade says she filed a personnel complaint in the 1990’s but, surprisingly for such an important act, kept no copy of it. Biden agreed to waive his own privacy protections regarding personnel records and welcome a Senate directive to have the National Archives open files, where his personnel matters would be stored.  (Mitch McConnell) Senate staff rejected his request. Clearly, it doesn’t serve their partisan interests to say nothing was found there. Now Reade says the complaint didn’t include the assault charge, so finding or not finding it would neither corroborate nor disprove the most serious allegation.

In calling for the University of Delaware to go through Biden’s papers, which supposedly do not contain personnel records, legitimate news outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have allowed themselves to be suckered into a new variation of the Obama birth certificate authentication game. Who could ever conduct a good faith investigation accepted by all? The DNC? The RNC? A Biden-indebted University of Delaware? The Bill Barr-led FBI? The goalposts would be forever moving.

Anyone who has ever worked with or donated archival materials of this sort knows what a challenge it is to go through hundreds of boxes containing millions of records of sometimes hastily aggregated, uncatalogued and misfiled material. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with misplaced, suspiciously labeled or incomplete files. Unless it’s planted, I don’t believe anyone is ever going to find a conclusive document.

Frankly, I wonder why Reade waited until now go make her accusation public. Even after 27 years, her charges might have found more traction six months ago when other Democrats were running.

In 2017 Reade had praise for her former boss and his work on violence against women. Last year, she turned on him and supported Bernie Sanders. Could it be that Reade is not yet ready to concede  Sanders’s loss of the party nomination and is doing all she can to boost his comeback before the convention?

Faced with multiple reports of inconsistencies, Reade bowed out of a serious Chris Wallace interview scheduled for Fox last weekend.  She proceeded instead to do a softer, more flattering  interview with Megyn Kelly on YouTube. I expect this is the way this issue will play out.  Reade’s charges have been reasonably vetted. That should be the end of it unless, more darkly, Tara Reade is another of Vladimir Putin’s instruments of chaos as Jill Stein was in 2016?

Consider the rapturous article Reade wrote 2018 about Putin’s “alluring combination of strength and gentleness”  and his having “brought a chaotic and failed nation to become a vibrant, creative, economic force within a decade.”  She admired “his obvious reverence for women, children and animals, and his ability with sports is intoxicating to American women.”

Is this Tara moment just a preview of another GOP stolen valor gambit like the 2004 “Swift Boat” attacks perpetrated on Democratic nominee John Kerry? Donald Trump will grab anything to distract the public, slime Joe Biden, and make the campaign so sordid it turns off everyone but his base.

Most elections are a referendum on the incumbent, and, if current polls assessing Trump were dispositive, we’d have nothing to worry about. I can’t imagine that Biden’s real or imagined sexual improprieties will outweigh the President’s handling of COVID-19 or its economic fallout when people vote on or before November 3. But practically no one, including Trump himself, expected him to win in 2016, and the 2020 election is still nearly half a year away.

I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right of the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

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More COVID-19 response outrages

An April 29th letter from American Airlines to its Advantage Gold Card members announced, “Caring for Your is Our Priority.”  I’m so touched.  The Airline wrote that it would “begin to distribute sanitizing wipes or gel and face masks to passengers, as supplies allow. Our flight attendants will be required to wear face masks on all flights, beginning May 1.”  May 1? Folks, we’ve been in quarantine for 7 1/2  weeks. We’re supposed to be impressed by this “caring?”

Air quality of planes has long been suspect, despite airlines’ protestations to the contrary.  Clearly there are more steps that could be taken if the companies deigned to make the investment.

In the weeks ahead, American Airlines said, they’d expand their cleaning by  “wiping down customer high-touch surfaces (seat belts, armrests, window shades and seat-back screens) before every flight.” Heck, we did that ourselves when we flew back from Florida nearly two months ago. What rock have they been hiding under?

Speaking of hiding under rocks, our reptilian Vice President, Mike Pence, showed himself for the sycophant he is when he visited the Mayo Clinic Tuesday without wearing  a protective mask, in clear violation of the hospital’s policy. As a sign of fealty, I suppose, to the President, Pence sent a horrible message to millions who are heeding public health experts and wearing masks.  The Vice President’s office had even told reporters they’d have to wear masks during the visit.   Pence defended his action by claiming he didn’t wear one because he wanted to visit the front-line health workers, ”look them in the eye and say thank you.” Does he really think a mask is supposed to cover his eyes?

New definition of chutzpah: Mitch McConnell’s support for the idea of giving states the right to go bankrupt.  (Forty-nine states are required to balance their budget, most by their Constitutions and four by state statute.)  McConnell sees help for cities and towns as a “blue state bailout” and asserts that those with the greatest COVID-19 burdens are unworthy of federal help in the next stimulus. The hell with ’em, he’s saying in effect. He doesn’t bother to say that every year his home state of Kentucky takes tens of billions more from Washington than it pays into the federal government. And where does Kentucky’s federal bailout money come from?  Every year it’s from the same blue states that are now desperate for federal assistance to defray coronavirus-related expenses, especially costs related to health care providers. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said of McConnell’s remarks, “That’s one of the really dumb ideas of all time.”

It’s also worth noting that, as Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman said this morning on MSNBC, the high-income states like New York and California will not lose their economic footing as precipitously as red states like Texas and Florida, which depend on sales tax revenues instead of the income taxes that under-gird wealthier blue state budgets.

I’d put McConnell’s remark right up there next to Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s comment in March that he’d rather die than see the state’s economy crushed by keeping businesses closed any longer. “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country.” He called on those 70 years old or older to be willing to die in order to get the country back to work   !!*!**##

Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth told radio station WIBC-FM of Indianapolis he’d also be willing to  pay the cost of more deaths in a second wave to get business started again. I wonder what’s in the water in Indiana.  They’re the ones who want to protect all life from conception up to the point of birth but not afterward, and certainly not lives of the elderly.

Narrow-mindedness isn’t limited to government officials.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose company still managed to show a profit of $16 million in the first quarter, decried stay-at-home mandates as “fascist.”  He has been tweeting “Free America Now.

Selfish, stupid, dangerous and deadly responses abound, perhaps few as bad as Trump’s deceptions and inappropriate action regarding testing. But the responses of large corporations trying to game SBA loans to the detriment of legitimately small businesses in great need warrant condemnation and sanctions.

I’d list more of these outrages, but everyone knows stress raises cortisol levels, which raises blood pressure and compromises the immune response.  You’re welcome to share your most disturbing COVID-19 response outrages.

I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right of the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

 

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COVID-19 – lessons to be learned?

Worrying about those, including close friends and relatives, suffering from the pandemic virus itself,  fretting about its economic fallout and spending up to eight hours a day in assorted Zoom meetings, I have lacked the focus to write  a single-theme blog but wanted to share some concerns and invite your reactions.

I am struck by the symbolism of tomorrow, April 30, the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It took 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, for the United States to lose 58,220 men and women — 47,434 in combat — in the Vietnam war. In less than four months, more Americans have died from the Covid-19 pandemic, 59,256  according to  today’s probably underestimated total body count.  What should be today’s equivalent chant to “ Hey, Hey LBJ…?”

As Fox Butterfield wrote yesterday in the NY Times, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon chose to ignore expert advice and bend facts to fit their world views. Today, each COVID-19 death report represents a sorrowful story that will ripple forward in time,  first with immediate friends and family of the deceased, later in the resolve of others to deconstruct what we have been through. To lay bare what could and should have been done earlier, what still can be done now and in days to come to save lives.   One need look no further than the rise in case numbers of Singapore and Germany to understand why we can’t open up our economy too fast. I worry that we will not learn from this cataclysmic plague and fail to take transformational action across society to ameliorate suffering and make this a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Now is the time to put in place the framework for an independent  non-partisan “after action” investigation and report, akin to the 9/11 Commission. Let’s also re-envision and transform health care, education, worker and workplace safety protections, social safety nets, domestic production capabilities, supply chains and globalization and more. Which of  the assorted areas, large and small,  is a priority for you?

States and cities desperately need flexible federal support to respond to unprecedented expenses. Trump consigliere, Treasury Secretary  Steve Mnuchin, wants to severely restrict where federal dollars can be used. Trump insists on restricting federal dollars to Sanctuary Cities. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has walked back from his justly- pilloried advice to states to go into bankruptcy, now proposes aid be tied to liability protections for companies that put their workers and customers at great risk and even cause serious harm. These narrow-minded ideas could be merely opening negotiating gambits or, more seriously,  poison pills designed to delay, dilute and block needed federal  action.

To what extent have any of you or those close to you  eligible  for the stimulus payments still not received the promised checks? Who has not even gotten written confirmation that their small business loan applications under the Paycheck Protection Program have been approved? Think Trump will criticize any of his administration officials with the venom he spewed after implementation problems bollixed the Affordable Care roll out? How much better will transparency and oversight of spending be this time than in 2008?

I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

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