Girl Trumps Boy

debate-9-26-16Call it the big Whew!  After weeks of shrinking polls numbers for Hillary Clinton and small but steady gains in momentum for Donald Trump, voters were finally able to see them one on one. What they saw was a clear case why Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States. More importantly, they were able to see why Hillary Clinton is.

Trump’s strongest points were twofold: First, that Hillary Clinton, after a 30+ year career in public service,  represents the past, whereas he represents change.  Historically, this is a change election. (And many Trump supporters and undecideds unsettlingly say the devil you don’t know is better than the devil you do know.)  Second, Trump showed how squirmy Clinton is on the Trans Pacific Partnership.  She didn’t do well wiggling away from her erstwhile position supporting TPP as the “gold standard” of trade pacts.  Other than that, Trump showed himself to be ignorant, unpleasant, rude (sneering, interrupting his opponent, talking over her), undisciplined, aggressively obnoxious (or is that obnoxiously aggressive?) – a braggart and self-referential.  A blatant liar. Totally unpresidential. (Check out the Washington Post debate fact checker for the most thorough analysis of truth versus fiction.)

Preparation matters, and Clinton was choreographed perfectly. She was steady at the helm, focused on policy, articulated a vision, drove the conversation, poked holes in Trump’s assertions while not missing an opportunity to point out his contradictions, lies, lack of substance, instability.  She was pleasant, occasionally warm and humorous, poised but not studied (especially in her reaction shots), energetic, informative, not defensive. When she answered him on her missing emails, she succinctly apologized and took responsibility but didn’t allow herself to get mired in the issue. Trump surprisingly gave her a pass. All the while, she baited him to distraction.

She effectively slammed him on taxes (his pro-wealth tax plan and his refusal to disclose his own tax returns), race relations, ISIS and domestic terrorism, his “trumped up trickle down” economics, his interpretation of street crime data and wish to return to “stop and frisk” policing that a federal court just deemed unconstitutional. All these issues aside, the most enduring takeaway short term may be Clinton’s use of Trump’s coarse treatment of Miss Universe Alicia Machado and her post-pageant weight gain.  It was a trifecta for Clinton, as Trump, in one move, offended women, especially those who struggle with their weight (as in, most of us) and Hispanics, and he failed to pay what he owed her, echoing his history of stiffing small business people.

There are many other subjects that were never discussed last night, including health care,  immigration, and the Supreme Court.  One may reasonably expect those issues to come up when the candidates meet again on October 9th. But which Donald Trump will show up on that night, and what form will his counter-punching take?

Last night’s eighty million viewers were  the most ever to watch a Presidential debate. But who will be in the likely smaller audience next time?  Diehard supporters, or persuadables?   I look forward to the next public opinion polls to see whether and to what extent Clinton moved the needle, reclaiming some of her post convention support.

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Debating the debate

gavelMonday night’s Clinton/Trump debate won’t be Lincoln/Douglas. No Demosthenes or Cicero here. Even if the candidates were inclined to that level of discourse, the American public would probably not be prepared to give it the time or its undivided attention. It won’t be a classical debate, scored by nonpartisan judges on technical aspects of the arguments made. It’s not even on a par with the often colorless but information-rich debates arranged by the League of Women Voters.

Debates today, controlled by candidates and the networks, are more akin to a live TV game  show. The contestants are more likely to be judged on their performance skills, zingers and body language than on the content of their answers. There will be penalty points for unforced errors. So what should we expect?

We know that Hillary Clinton can be a policy wonk and that she’s deft in presenting facts and maneuvering around specifics. Will she go on too long (too long, that is, for contemporary audiences)? Will she choose her words so carefully that she seems to be hiding something? Will she smile or find another way to “humanize” her personality?  If she laughs, will it sound forced? Can she eviscerate Trump while still being “likable enough”? I’m reminded of those who voted for Bush 43 instead of wonky Al Gore because W. was “a guy you’d want to go out for a beer with.” Great way to select a President!

The trickier question is: which charlatan persona of Donald Trump will show up? The teleprompter-reading (a support he won’t have), better modulated candidate who can pretend he is conversant with the issues? Or the fear-monger and venomous attacker of the vulnerable?  Will he tell shades of the truth? Or, even more important, how will Hillary (or the moderator) challenge him when he outright lies?  If Trump is blatant in his misstatements, will he be held accountable?  If he attacks Clinton, will she get flustered? Maybe her intense debate prep will pay off.

From the outset, expectations of the two candidates have long been wildly disparate. Both have tried lowering expectations. Trump is viewed as a novice debater, especially when substance is involved.  He defeated 16 primary opponents, although never having to go one on one.  If he doesn’t wet the rug, he’ll win rave reviews. But he already is the better TV performer.  Hillary is an experienced debater with a wealth of information.  If she makes one small mistake, she’ll be pilloried.  People expect more of her -no, they demand more – and that unfairly stacks the deck.

I’m thankful for the Red Sox and the Patriots, who have been a welcome diversion from what has been an anxiety-producing, rather disgusting campaign. But, for all of its limitations as a vehicle for serious discussion of important issues, our quadrennial showdown has arrived. Monday night is where the rubber hits the road, with only 42 days and two more debates to recover.

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Yes on 2, lifting the cap on charter schools

blackboardQuestion 2 on the November ballot is whether to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.  My sense is Yes, lift the current cap on charter schools.  System-wide improvement is an important goal, and we need to sustain support to all our public schools. But the 37,000 children on the waiting list shouldn’t have to wait for wide scale improvement to have the educational opportunity they need right now. The failure of local districts is what led to the creation of charter schools in Massachusetts in 1993.

Parents are desperate to find the best schools for their children.  Why arbitrarily limit their choices? The quality of charter schools in Massachusetts outpaces that of charter schools nationwide, some of which have been deplorable. But the decision on whether to expand should be based on this state’s performance, not on the basis of some for-profit charter school in Louisiana or Florida.

This is all about the under-served. There’s little cry for more charter schools in communities like Newton, Wellesley, Weston or Acton/Boxboro.  The charter proposal would help those communities whose public school systems are most challenged.  Initially, charter schools were faulted for bypassing the most challenged students. Since 2010, however, the charters have been rewarded for their success at recruiting English learners and retaining them through their high school careers.  An MIT study and others have found that charter schools have made greater gains among English learners and special ed students than traditional public schools. Eighty-three percent of the state’s 41,000 charter school students are black and Latino, mostly low-income. Supporters also say that charter schools have been making better strides at closing the achievement gap between whites and low-income black and Hispanic learners.

Charter schools have greater flexibility in setting the length of school day and in principals’ ability to hire and fire teachers, including tying pay to performance, and to shape the institution’s learning environment. The schools themselves are held accountable not only by their performance on such measures as standardized testing, but their charters exist for a five-year period subject to state review. If they fail in that review, they could be closed, which is more than you can say of poorly performing traditional district schools.

The most worrisome aspect of creating more charter schools is the loss of money their creation entails. The funding follows the student. Four percent of students go to charter schools.  Four percent of public money goes to charter schools. The state also provides 100 percent reimbursement to sending schools the first year, with a required portion for the following five years.  But reimbursements have lagged.   The question is what districts are doing to achieve efficiencies in the face of decreasing enrollments.

Take Boston, for example. Boston public schools are held harmless when students leave to go to charter schools. They get about 35 percent of the city’s budget, irrespective of charter school students. The system can accommodate 93,000 students but is only educating 57,000  students. They have not achieved the efficiencies that reduced enrollment suggests would be possible. Top-heavy bureaucracies have long hobbled the Boston schools and still deserve greater scrutiny.

Critics warn that “dark money” is supporting Yes on 2 and that corporate and financial services sectors are overrepresented on the boards of charter schools. That may be. But the business sector, while not necessarily living where the students are, know the kinds of knowledge and skills kids need to compete in the marketplace. Graduating students must be prepared for fuller participation in careers and the economy.

Charters were approved in 1993 not only to offer students educational alternatives but to be creators of innovation, their ideas optimally to be transferred to traditional public schools.  We need more of that not less. Massachusetts charter schools have gotten excellent results, especially among students who have traditionally lagged behind. That’s a good thing. Yes on Question 2 would keep students moving the in the right direction.

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Less than two months to go and getting scarier

hillary-at-ciprianiTo quote Charlie Brown, “Argghhh!!”  That’s my reaction to Hillary Clinton’s unforced error at last Friday night’s fundraiser featuring Barbra Streisand.  Acknowledging she was being “grossly generalistic,” she said “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.'”  She went on to identify them as those who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”  Trump, she said, has given voice to their hatreds.

The other half of Trump supporters, she said, are those who feel that government has let them down and desperately want change. She called on attendees at the fundraiser to empathize with those, a call that seemed inartfully condescending. Where in her calculation of Trump supporters are loyal Republicans who just feel they must support their party nominee or others who just viscerally hate the Clintons?

Could this be a moment like Mitt Romney’s 2012 writing off of the “47 percent” of the electorate who would never vote Republican because they are dependent on government services? Or Barack Obama’s 2008 comment about those in rural towns whose jobs have gone away.  He took flack for saying, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Strategically it’s fair game to attack the opposing nominee for playing to certain sentiments, but it’s a guaranteed boomerang if a candidate attacks the voters themselves.  Hillary’s Friday night gaffe came across both as insufferably elitist and contradictory to the slogan painted on her plane and splashed across every podium at which she speaks: Stronger Together.

One of her strongest points against Trump is that he is the divisive one. Certainly his campaign has exacerbated divisions of race, gender, religion, place of origin. This moment for Clinton was a major misstep.  It doesn’t matter that she may even be correct on the statistics.  Polls show that a majority of GOP voters are birthers. Forty-three percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim. A June poll by Reuters found that 40 percent of Trump supporters believe that blacks are more lazy than whites and that 50 percent believe that blacks are more violent than whites.  Despite such polling data that back up Clinton, her remarks were totally unacceptable.  She apologized the next day, as she should have.

The only thing that kept the discussion from snowballing at this time was her collapse at New York’s 9/11 memorial on Sunday and the ensuing revelation that she had been diagnosed on Friday with pneumonia. Trump will doubtless use that information to fuel rumors that Clinton “lacks the stamina to be commander in chief.”  That’s arrant nonsense.  The 68-year-old candidate has been an Energizer bunny for months, putting the rest of us grandparents to shame. Pneumonia can knock the stuffing out of you, but rest and antibiotics can have you back on your feet in no time. Still, one wonders why the transparency-challenged Clinton campaign didn’t reveal the pneumonia two days ago.

Voters need greater transparency from both candidates about their health, and Trump about his taxes.  Here’s a suggestion.  How about Congress passing a law, effective this campaign, requiring independent physical exams for party nominees, not unlike the ones done at the Cleveland Clinic for corporate CEO’s?  No more testimonials like the superficial letter written by Donald Trump’s goofy physician Dr. Harold Bornstein, who proclaimed “unequivocally” that Trump, age 70, would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” At the same time, Congress could require parties’ nominees to disclose their tax returns. Or the Presidential Debate Commission, which sets criteria for participation based on polling, could add to the requirements the full disclosure of health records and tax returns.

The next 57 days will be trying. The tone will continue to be ugly. I continue to  believe Donald Trump is truly unfit to be the leader of the Free World. Let’s hope the debates reinforce Clinton’s strengths, her experience, her values and policies, flawed a candidate though she may be. Let’s hope as well that those frustrated with Washington and seeking change will not vote on the belief that the devil they don’t know is better than the devil they do know.

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Boston Police Union threatens Department’s reputation

police-body-camerasBy all accounts, the City of Boston should be proud of the relationship between its men and women in blue and the community.   Police Commissioner William Evans, a consummate professional, not only “gets it,” but he authentically cares about Boston residents and the department that serves them.  Polls reinforce this assessment with consistently high approval ratings of the BPD, even among minority residents. That’s why the decision of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA) to sue Evans over a pilot body camera program is so distressing.

Discussion of body cameras has been going on for more than a year in Boston.  The union agreed to a pilot program with officers volunteering to participate. But, when the pilot was announced, do you know how many police stepped forward? None. And the union recommended against officers volunteering.   So the Commissioner took the next logical step.  He tapped 100 officers and 25 alternates from five districts to participate for a six-month period. And the BPPA is in court to stop it. This is outrageous.

Body cameras are now in use across the country.  The idea is to increase police accountability and transparency and reduce tensions in cities experiencing especially violent confrontations and disproportionate use of force.  Some research indicates that body cameras can “cool down” confrontations for both police and suspects. A Rialto, California study showed use of force by police reduced by 59 percent and complaints about police cut by 87 percent. Communities using body cameras have also found that police charged with excessive use of force are sometimes exonerated based on the availability of the video.

Questions still must be resolved about when the cameras should be on and off, how long the video should be stored, whether the police should be able to see the video in writing their incident reports, what the impact may be on the willingness of witnesses to step forward. These are all legitimate issues, but isn’t that why they call it a pilot program?

Clearly, the police force in Boston is better than the union representing it.  The union should stand down.

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Refusing to stand for the National Anthem

American flagSome fans are burning jerseys to protest San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision  to sit and not  stand for the National Anthem to protest inequitable treatment of blacks in America.   He wants to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. He wants to add to the national debate. So here we are.

Maybe it makes you uncomfortable or angry. Certainly I find offensive his wearing socks with pigs in police uniforms. But the beauty of this nation is that virtually all expression is protected by the First Amendment, and Kaepernick doesn’t lose the right to express himself through protest just because he’s an NFL football player.

Muhammad Ali exercised his First Amendment religious rights to protest U.S. policy in the Vietnam War by refusing induction in the name of his Islamic faith. He was vilified by many in the public, exiled from boxing and sentenced to jail, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction. And, when he died, he was extolled for both his athletic prowess and his courage in standing up for principle. Let’s hope that when Kaepernick is canned for his shortcomings on the gridiron, he doesn’t attribute the team’s decision to race and his political protest rather than his failing to perform.

As for the National Anthem, let’s remember a few things. First, writer Francis Scott Key was a slave owner and opposed to the abolitionist movement. (Just read the words of the seldom sung third stanza.)  Second, Key borrowed the music from an 18th century pub song about drinking and sex called Anacreon in Heaven.

Woodrow Wilson introduced The Star Spangled Banner into sporting events in 1918,  and its use in baseball started at the 1918 Cubs/Red Sox World Series game during the seventh inning stretch. Still, playing it at sporting events was a rare occasion. It has only been our National Anthem since Herbert Hoover declared it so in 1931. The regular tradition of singing it before games didn’t start until the Second World War. The music hasn’t gotten any easier to sing in the intervening decades.

I’d far prefer America the Beautiful by Wellesley College professor Katherine Lee Bates, published around the turn of the last century.  But, even if people have a sentimental attachment to The Star Spangled Banner,  the decision of any athlete (or any fan, for that matter) not to sing it should hardly be seen as a test of that person’s patriotism. We live in a great country, but it’s a country that has many more important issues to worry about.

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Last days of summer reading, pt. 2

booksWith Labor Day around the corner, I’m indulging in reading rather than writing. In my last blog posting, I shared some of the fiction I’ve read this summer.  In today’s blog are some non-fiction suggestions, a mixed bag.

Early this summer, I plowed through Spain in Our Hearts, by Adam Hochschild, a history of the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 as seen through the prism of a handful of  Americans who volunteered to fight there. The war foreshadowed what World War II was to become, and there is much still to be learned about confronting fascism and anarchy in their early stages rather than assuming they will self-destruct. Other than Ernest Hemingway, who captured his Spanish Civil War experiences in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the half dozen other Americans were not household names but became notable, perhaps even epic, figures in their own right. Spain in Our Hearts gets a little bogged down in the details of munitions, combat vehicles, and other military details, but it conveys the on-the-ground reality of a grim war often romanticized.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is the memoir of a highly accomplished 36-year-old neurosurgeon who diagnoses his own terminal metastatic lung cancer.  A beautiful writer, Kalanithi uses his final 22 months to write about his driving ambition, his disease, his interactions with his patients, his life’s choices,  and, of course, his imminent death.   The poignant epilogue is written by his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who bore him a child just before he died. The book is intimate, compelling, and a three-tissue read.

Boys on the Boat by Daniel James Brown  has been sitting on my kindle for months until, impelled by NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, I finally read it. In a way, Boys on the Boat is the typical Olympic anecdote of young people’s struggles against the odds (family dysfunction, poverty, trauma) to achieve the highest level of athletic distinction, but the anecdote is writ larger than the ubiquitous TV segment.  The simple story line follows a group of mostly poor  boys earning their way to the University of Washington, competing to make the rowing team, developing their skills enough to defeat the powerhouse team from U.C. Berkeley, then beating the elite Eastern teams, going to the 1936 Olympics and coming home champions.  Against their remarkable story, Brown captures Depression-era America and Hitler’s rise to power in Europe. A few too many details about the craft of making the shells and the strategy of each and every race, but by and large a good read.

All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir by Shulem Deen, introduces us to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, abused in the yeshiva as a child, forced into a loveless marriage as a teenager, pummeled by the strictures of the religious community in which he lives. Increasingly, he becomes curious about the secular world, sneaks off to the public library and, later, into Manhattan, and begins to question the beliefs in which he has been reared. Ultimately, he is thrust from the community as a heretic. His wife, with the backing of the elders and rabbis, sues to keep him from his children. This is a stunning opening to a cultish world, painfully recounted.  Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman is a similar memoir from the female perspective,  not as richly written. Both books reveal the huge personal costs to be paid by individuals in closed communities whose questioning minds and courage to dissent lead them to move out on their own.

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a totally different kind of memoir.  Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate, moved to the Deep South to take on cases of African-Americans wrongly convicted of rape or murder and has fought the inequities of the criminal justice system over decades. Just Mercy  chronicles some of the dramatic cases which he has taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  By focusing on the personal experiences of the wrongly convicted, the reader gets a real feel for the outrages of justice unfairly meted out. While Stevenson writes of the work of the non-profit he established to pursue those cases, this memoir is more about his crusade than about the details of his personal life, which may have gotten short shrift through a lifetime of battling to right wrongs.  This is an important book to read at a time when our gridlocked Congress is leaving criminal justice reform on the back burner.

Finally, two books on either side of the political divide.  My Life on the Road is Gloria Steinem’s memoir of her life as a feminist and organizer. While the term is over-used, she is an icon of the women’s movement, and this book is must reading for millennials who believe that of course women are equal, of course they have reproductive rights, or course they can do anything, and what’s the big deal. Steinem’s own efforts to heighten consciousness and change societal norms should never be taken for granted.  The memoir is an honest look at her unstable, itinerant family and what she learned from talking to women across America.

Finally, I confess to reading Gary Bryne’s Crisis of Character. Byrne is the retired member of the uniformed Secret Service detail protecting the President and First Lady during the Clinton administration.  Under the guise of being a memoir about himself, it is really a hit piece against the Clintons by someone who, critics say, did not have the intimate access he claims to have had.  Regardless, there is absolutely nothing new in the book.  Most people have heard stories of Hillary’s  secretive tight inner circle (which Byrne was obviously not a part of),  of her throwing things and screaming at repeat philanderer Bill (well, wouldn’t you?), and all the other recycled scandals.  The book is a rehash of rumors and innuendoes (think Vince Foster, Whitewater). Save your money, and read current campaign coverage instead.

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