COVID-19 crisis: silver linings and rot at the top

There are so many good things that are happening as we adjust to the scary new normal of hunkering down, staying at home.  But every time I listen to the President at a White House COVID-19 task force press conference I am simultaneously repelled and outraged, and the good things happening on the ground slip from my grasp.

I’m grateful that so many news media people are still getting the story for us, providing information we need to know for survival, despite the inability or unwillingness of the President and his team to be transparent, factual and pro-active.  Many reporters are performing superbly, including George Stephanopoulos’ co-anchor Martha Raddatz, who did an epic job of pressing FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, who kept slithering away from specifics on N95 masks for healthcare providers.

I’m grateful to members of my extended neighborhood community who have gone online offering to buy groceries or do other errands for those in the older, high-risk cohort.  I’m doubly grateful to my son, daughter-in-law, grandson and  neighbors for doing our food shopping.  I deeply appreciate the online community of my Wellesley College classmates and Brandeis Lifelong Learning Institute fellow learners who have kept up a stream of humorous offerings, many of them compatible with my own dark humor.

Others in our city have done everything from dropping off bags for the local food pantry, to offering free meditation classes by conference call (haven’t yet availed myself of the service), to pointing out where to find a beaver dam on the Charles River, just steps from my home.  I won’t forget the members of the Rotterdam orchestra who played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from their individual homes to lift our spirits in a profoundly touching way.

The role of first responders and health care providers is nothing short of heroic. I’m also touched by the teachers and retired teachers who have offered online support for parents struggling to home school their young ones. Those moms have posted some hilarious videos, but the challenges they face are no laughing matter.

The examples of community spirit speak to the best of ourselves. Sadly, each day the President demonstrates the very worst of leadership in a crisis.  Need proof?  Just watch the stock market dip precipitously as he takes the microphone. What’s the purpose of the Federal Defense Production Act if not to use it now to avoid unconscionable price gouging  and to direct needed medical supplies and equipment to where they are most needed and not force desperate states into a Darwinian competition with each other over ?

We are ill served by this ignorant vindictive narcissist, his inept administration and his invertebrate enablers in the Senate.  Trump lies; people die; ignorance kills.

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An infectious disease expert speaks: worth a listen

My last blog warned about the need to separate reliable COVID-19 information from misinformation, whether intentional or unintentional,  and rumor. Last week an esteemed British scientist passed on a podcast to my brother-in-law, who shared it with me.  I vetted it as best I could and now share it with my readers.

Joe Rogan is a former comedian and actor who runs The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the nation’s most popular free podcasts. A gruff libertarian with a harsh misogynistic streak and over-the-top anti P.C. persona, he reminds me of Don Imus.  But, like Imus, Rogan does some very serious long-form interviews, which brings me to the purpose of this posting. Last week, he hosted a two-hour interview with infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm. 

Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota.  He has been working in the field since 1975, with particular focus on the  science of pandemics and the lack of international preparedness. The two-hour podcast is eye-opening on the implications of COVID-19 and the doubling of cases every four days. His presentation is level-headed and fact-based, soberly  separating myth from reality, misinformation from truth. It gets into the complexity of just what pre-existing adverse health conditions are concerning and extends the discussion to include other problems, like Lyme Disease.

Forget your antipathy to Joe Rogan, if you’ve even heard of him.  Check out Osterholm on the podcast. His book Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,        predicted this scenario three years ago. It is not culturally insensitive in worrying about infectious diseases being spawned in crowded Asian “wet markets,” where both wild and domestic, live and dead animals are sold for human consumption. There’s a lot that can be said about our failures in the last 3 1/2 years. Osterholm is clear-eyed about what we do and don’t know going forward. The book is sold out on Amazon, but it is available to download on Kindle.

I invite your suggestions on reliable sources. What do you find particularly informative?

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Beware coronavirus misinformation, well-intentioned or not

psmag.com

Everyone has an opinion on how serious is the WHO-identified pandemic coronavirus.  Many share guidance on how to deal with it. Far fewer share evidence-based science. Disturbing though it may be, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how much our assessments divide on partisan lines. According to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll: unease is strongly divided along party lines: 83% of Democrats are concerned about getting the virus, 47% of whom are “very concerned,” compared to 56% of Republicans who claim to be concerned, with only 50% “very concerned.”

Given that 44% of Republicans claim to be “not concerned” at all about the pandemic (compared to only 17% of Democrats), it’s no wonder that the 700-person fundraiser scheduled for Mar-a- Largo this weekend will not be canceled or postponed. (Small surprise from the President who persists in shaking hands,  who refuses to be tested though he spent time last weekend with a Brazilian official who tested positive, and repeatedly contradicts his health advisers in downplaying the seriousness of the crisis.)

This morning,  a conservative friend, who gets much of his news from Fox (and a little CNN) decried the hysteria and said there was no need to worry yet because the numbers of community spread are so low. He saw the lack of negative information as something positive and is not inclined to modify his behavior until many more people have been tested as positive and bodies start to mount.

On the other hand, one of my usually reliable liberal sources passed along what she believed to be helpful advice regarding self-diagnosis and preventive action. It sounded so good that my husband passed the email on to a close circle of family and friends. Fortunately, one of them was stellar investigative reporter Joe Bergantino, who promptly responded that the information was fake. When my husband did his own research, he quickly discovered Bergantino was right and relearned an old lesson we all must take to heart, especially now.

Bad information runs the gamut. At one extreme is Reverend Jerry Falwell, Jr., who decries coronavirus as a Chinese and Korean conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump, and other Trump supporters, including Trump’s children, who blame Democrats for exaggerating the crisis to hurt their father.  Then there’s a group of snake oil hucksters, including televangelist Jim Bakker selling false coronavirus cures.

But fake news comes in many forms from many sources, even trusted, well-meaning ones. We need to be skeptical about everything. Do our homework. Double check whenever possible. Don’t fall for click-bait. Facebook and chain emails can be quite dangerous. If something sounds too good to be true, or unbelievable, it often is. Especially now we must be vigilant in consuming and, perhaps even more importantly, passing on important information. People’s health and safety depend on our not getting snookered.

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Sunshine Week: government transparency needed now more than ever

The Freedom of Information Act has never been celebrated by those in power. After Congress passed it in 1966, LBJ signed it quietly at his Texas ranch.  Even under President Obama, the federal government was loath to facilitate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They spent millions defending their reluctance in court. But Donald Trump has taken contempt for the public’s right to know to a whole new level.

The Trump Administration’s mishandling of coronavirus information, under pressure from the President,  has exacerbated the growing public health crisis and reminded us of the importance of access to fact-based information for Congress, the news media, and the  public. Just this week, Time Magazine reports, our National Director of Intelligence is withholding from the Intelligence Committee the worldwide threat assessment on our preparedness for a pandemic.  For nearly four years, Trump’s lies and misrepresentations have thwarted the right to know essential to a democratic society. What remains is a dangerous lack of trust in our national government and confusion over what should be done.

Fallout from the President’s behavior gets worse when good reporters don’t stand up for each other. When Trump banned CNN from the annual White House pre state-of-the-union lunch for network anchors, it was disappointing that their colleagues in other media outlets failed to protest or even boycott the event. The loss of coverage at such cozy insider, off-the-record journalism, while insulting, isn’t that damaging.  But it does reflect a wider problem.

Consider Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s barring NPR reporter Michele Keleman from traveling with the press covering his trip to the UK and Ukraine. (She was supposed to be the pool reporter for radio.) In that case, at least, the State Department Correspondents’ Association issued a letter of protest. But that was it. Trump praised Pompeo for “the good job” he (Pompeo) had “done on her.”

NPR was banished from the trip in retaliation for All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly’s pressing Pompeo on his coverage of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovich. Trump and Pompeo routinely bully and disparage reporters intent on doing their jobs, even those who are respectful and professional. Any journalist who isn’t a fawning Fox sycophant is a likely target for such abuse.  Serious reporters need to be more supportive of each other and of the profession, and more people need to value the Fourth Estate’s role in protecting the public’s right to know.

Which brings me to Sunshine Week, which starts on March 15th. It’s the annual collaboration started in 2005 by AP, Associated Press Media Editors and the American Society of News Editors, to call attention to the centrality of the free flow of information in a democratic society.  March 16th is the anniversary of the birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution and of its First Amendment. Sunshine – that is, transparency – is often said to be the best disinfectant.

The Trump administration takes pride in thumbing its nose at the concept of government accountability through public records disclosure, and selectively not allowing Administration members to testify before Congress.  Remember also, Trump reneged on his promise to release his tax records, and obedient puppy Treasurer Steve Mnuchin refused a subpoena to provide them to Congress.

This isn’t just a federal problem. Examples abound of how governments at all levels routinely block people with legitimate requests for documents.  The stonewalling ranges from claiming requested documents aren’t available, to creating loosely worded exemptions to render FOIA meaningless,  to charging prohibitive amounts to copy pages, to redacting allegedly sensitive information so the pages are virtually all blacked out.

Police departments across the nation, forced by public pressure to use body cameras, were found by the Associated Press to deny routinely open records requests to examine those videos.  Nor are they forthcoming with dashboard cameras recordings of officer-involved shootings and use of force.

Supposedly enlightened Massachusetts  traditionally led the nation in resistance to transparency.  Finally, in 2017, the Bay State overhauled its 1973 public records law (the state’s version of FOIA) providing penalties for agencies that failed to respond in a timely way to request for information. The Secretary of State’s office has made significant improvements in responding to request for information. But a promising provision requiring agencies unlawfully denying requests pay attorney’s fees hasn’t worked out. And, except for executive branch agencies, key officials are not covered.  A commission mandated to look at bringing the legislature, judiciary and governor’s office under the law has produced nothing.

Any citizen may ask for records, but it is primarily journalists who depend on FOIA requests to ferret out information benefiting the public. With an out-of-control President aggregating more and more power in disregard of the rule of law and contemptuous of normative behavior, an informed and independent Fourth Estate is more important than ever.  During Sunshine Week and beyond, we must hold fiercely to the principle of the public’s right to know. We can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information.

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Super Tuesday: resolving the struggle between head and heart

It’s time to play my role in Super Tuesday. I’ve joked that in November I’d vote for a ham sandwich over Donald Trump. Any of  the  remaining candidates could do a better job than the incumbent. Nevertheless, I have twisted and turned.  I used to scoff at voters who were still undecided days before an election. No more.

I have concluded my vote must be strategic, following my head more than my heart.  For  long, Joe Biden has seemed a comfortable compromise between heart and head.   His long record of personal decency, governing experience, serious foreign policy chops, and international respect seemed to be the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. His much larger-than-expected success in South Carolina  means for now he’s not far behind Sanders in total delegates. But can he quickly get a needed bump, amp up his campaign organization and at least stay competitive with Sanders on Super Tuesday and beyond? Or will  he stumble again, not successfully reorganize his campaign and fail to go the distance.

Biden’s debate performances,  his often  discursive word salad answers combined with awkward speech patterns (yes, I know about and admire the challenges this lifelong stutterer has faced down), have been disappointing.   Biden’s  age, I fear, has clearly taken its toll. He has, however,  done better in town hall discussions, been somewhat more accessible to the press and thankfully walked back his inaccurate recollection of having being arrested in South Africa. Polls in battleground states show him the strongest of the challengers against Trump.  I don’t know if  his blowout performance in South Carolina means that the nomination  is now a two-person race or just another sign that, given party rules, we’re inexorably headed toward at least a second ballot convention, with Sanders clearly in the lead, super delegates in play and Trump tweeting his ecstatic delight at the ensuing blood bath.

All along, I’ve liked Amy Klobuchar for her record of legislative accomplishment, her pragmatic approach to policy, her success in red districts, and her gumption.  But her campaign appears to be going nowhere.  While I might have supported her enthusiastically in the earliest contests, she has failed to gain traction. I fear a vote for her is wasted, though she could be a solid choice for vice president.

From the time he ran unsuccessfully for DNC chairman in 2017, I’ve thought Pete Buttigieg a wonderful addition to the scene. He promises a brilliant future.  He is bright, articulate, unifying, reasonable, enlightened, and, although quite young and lacking large organization executive experience, could, if elected, appoint experienced people of competence and character, something the incumbent has failed to do in nearly every instance.  He wouldn’t be a bad fallback choice if we had ranked voting, and I would love to see him go head to head with fellow Hoosier Mike Pence. His poor showing in South Carolina signals something more than just Black resistance to his performance as mayor;  it raises the specter of a Bradley effect at play here, this time dealing with sexual orientation.

In earlier blogs, I’ve made clear my reaction to self-styled democratic socialist  Bernie Sanders, notable more for his angry and impassioned speechifying and fringe political views than any legislative achievement.  His breathtakingly expensive proposals – including eliminating private health insurance, guaranteeing federal jobs, decriminalizing immigration violations  and providing tuition-free college education without means testing-  are all general election non-starters.  He claims his goal is to have the US become a social welfare state akin to the Scandinavian countries, but Nordic leaders insist that their systems  are not at all what Sanders describes. They complain Sander’s vision sounds like a naïve 1960s graduate school student’s bull session, embracing Cuba more than Denmark.

There’s too much of a down-side risk with Sanders against Trump.  There is a horseshoe theory of politics that holds that extreme left and extreme right are closer than thought and Sanders could get some support from alienated Trump voters. But to win, Sanders would also need millions of  traditionally non-voting young people at a rate far exceeding the Black voting increase for Obama.

I’m not reassured by some current polls showing he could defeat the President, who has yet to unleash attacks on Sanders. Instead, Trump has encouraged Republicans in cross-over states to vote for Sanders, whom he doubtless believes he can most easily trounce in the general election. Instead, Sanders could cost the Presidency and down-ballot offices as well.

Elizabeth Warren may be the brightest of the bunch, but her candidacy reminds me of the issues campaigns of other serious and thoughtful losers like Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt and Bill Bradley.  Despite her stellar performance in the pre-Nevada debate, eviscerating Mike Bloomberg, she’s woefully low on cash. Her candidacy has been sinking. I believe the fatal flaw was her squirrely approach to Medicare for All, which ended up alienating all different sides.   Yesterday’s WBUR poll, conducted by MassInc’s polling group,  shows her behind Bernie Sanders by eight points 17% to Sanders’ 25% here in Massachusetts, her home state. That’s well outside the 4.9% margin of error. Part of me wants to jump in and defend her from the embarrassment of losing her home state, especially to Sanders,  but, I don’t know what the strategic benefit is, other than keeping Sanders from running up more delegates here.

Yesterday’s South Carolina results appear to have upended  Michael  Bloomberg’s rationale that, with Biden irreparably weak, only he can stop Sanders and beat Trump. Bloomberg turned in an appalling performance in the first debate, improved modestly in the second debate, did a good Town Hall on CNN earlier this week, and has done some excellent interviews in Texas and elsewhere.  He has significant flaws, from a prickly and uncharismatic personality to having embraced a stop-and-frisk program that grossly violated civil liberties in New York, supported some despicable candidates and been soft on China for flagrant abuses.  He has a history of speaking to and about women in the workplace that might have been shrugged off a generation ago but won’t work today. But, even on these matters he’s still light years better than Trump.  Bloomberg has successfully run huge operations, from New York State – with accomplishments in education, job creation and housing – to his mega-company.  Through his philanthropic activities, including $9.5 billion in donations, he has been a national leader on gun safety, climate change and health.  Like Trump, he is a street fighter and could beat him at his own game. Unlike the President, he’s earned his wealth legitimately.

Still, there remains something unseemly about a multi-billionare buying himself a Presidential election, even in a good cause. Were he to be the nominee, many of Bernie’s zealous supporters and others may stay home in November.  Despite Bloomberg’s lavish advertising, he is still behind his Democratic rivals in battleground states that may decide the election.  In 2016, fighting Hillary Clinton, Trump effectively weaponized George Soros into highly audible “dog whistle” anti- Semitic attacks. Imagine what Trump’s minions will do when the candidate himself is a short, Jewish billionaire! How much money will be needed to combat that? Wouldn’t Bloomberg’s wealth now be better spent supporting another candidate (Biden) and on holding the House, winning back the Senate and capturing  state houses, which will control the next Congressional redistricting.

So, where does this leave me and my gnashing teeth? Voting for Biden, while perhaps wishing Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown had not been  talked out of running. But that boat has sailed.   I invite you, dear readers, to share how you are making your decisions for Super Tuesday.

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Markey tops Kennedy in 4th district debate

Last week’s WGBH debate between Senator Ed Markey and challenger Congressman Joe Kennedy took me back to August, 1979.  Joe Kennedy’s uncle Ted was about to challenge fellow Democrat and incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Presidency.  Seasoned CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd went to Hyannisport to interview Kennedy. The network set aside a full hour for the program. Frustrated by the often incoherent answers the Senator was providing, Mudd looked at Kennedy and posed a softball question, which Mudd later recalled as “a real slow pitch.”

“Why do you want to be President?” he asked. Kennedy paused. “Well, um…..um….were I to make the, uh, the announcement to run….,”  and he rambled on about his belief in the greatness of the country, the complex issues it had faced in the past and still faced, and he finally said something about bringing “a sense of restoration” and how “it is imperative to move forward.”  The headlines came to refer to that interview as The Day the Presidency was Lost.

I thought of this when WGBH moderator Margery Eagan on Tuesday asked this younger generation Kennedy, “Why are you running to unseat a man who has championed so many of the policies that you support?” It was a simple variation on what has come to be known as “the Roger Mudd question.”  Congressman Kennedy’s answer went along the lines of, “This election, this time around, so much of what we care about, everything that we care about, is on the line. At this moment, we have to make sure that we have a U. S. Senator that gives everything he can to guide this state and this Commonwealth……At this moment, there is a special opportunity and obligation that comes with it.”  It made my toes curl.

Co-moderator Jim Braude followed up by asking Kennedy about Markey.  “Has he been a good Senator?” Kennedy’s answer, “Absolutely, he has been a good Senator…..He has made a good contribution.  The issue is that, at this moment [there’s that phrase again] given what is at stake,” and then Kennedy talked about the need to restore power to the Democratic Party across the country.

Their views on policy are virtually identical. Markey has a track record of getting legislation passed on those issues. Kennedy even acknowledges Markey has been a leader on the environment, the existential issue of our day. Markey has gotten gun safety legislation passed, most recently restoring funding for research in the area. He has advanced policies on nuclear energy, immigration, net neutrality and other cutting edge technology matters.

They differ slightly on the conditions for drawing down troops in Afghanistan.  They also differ on fundraising, with Kennedy embracing the so-called People’s Pledge barring all outside organizations from spending on behalf of a candidate.  Markey wants to shape the approach so that certain non-profits are not swept into the ban. Their positions on Medicare for All and dealing with economic inequality are virtually indistinguishable.

The bottom line is that what separates them is age, some 35 years of it. As Braude noted, Markey first went to Washington before Kennedy was born. That’s the dividing line, wrapped in Kennedy’s language that it’s all about power and the imperative to “leverage the power that comes with the Massachusetts Senate seat.” He doesn’t say how exactly that would happen or how Markey is failing in that regard.

So why is he really running to unseat Markey?  Could it be that something in the Congressman’s DNA impels him to take steps toward restoring the Presidency to the family dynasty? Is it possible that he sees others in the Massachusetts delegation treated more favorably by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is frustrated by an apparent lack of upward mobility in the House?  Or is it simply that he wants to beat Boston Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and others to the punch if Elizabeth Warren’s seat opens up (in 2020 or 2024) or Markey decides on his own that he won’t run again in 2026.

As I have written before, Kennedy, “scion of Massachusetts political royalty, …is the most down-to-earth of the clan, charming, bright, articulate, hard-working and, yes, even humble.  A Peace Corps alum, fluent in Spanish, Kennedy graduated from Stanford and Harvard Law School, worked in non-profits serving the young and disadvantaged, and as an assistant district attorney. In the House, he has developed relationships across the country and across the aisle.”  I have credited him with seriousness of purpose. But, to quote him, “at this moment,”  I don’t see that. I see raw opportunism and self-advancement (yes, yes, all politicians have that to some degree), and ambition in the right circumstances can be a good thing.  But the stakes this year are too great for an unnecessary intra-party battle for a safe seat.

Kennedy speaks about the need to restore power to the Democratic Party across the country, but the human talent and  millions of dollars that will be deployed on this Senate campaign and on the race to fill Kennedy’s seat in Congress would have been far better spent in key Senate races, like Sara Gideon’s against Susan Collins in Maine, Mark Kelly’s against Martha McSally in Arizona and Amy McGrath’s against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. But there’s no going back now.

No one has a right to a seat in perpetuity. But frankly, in the Massachusetts Senate race, the young alpha has not yet made the case for casting out the old but effective lion. There will be more debates and further vetting to come that could change that, but, “at this moment,”  it’s hard to imagine.

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Bloomberg’s missed opportunity

For all of his hundreds of millions spent in promoting his candidacy in polished and effective ads, billionaire philanthropist and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg bombed in his first appearance on the Democratic presidential debate stage.  He would have been well served had he hired Boston-based consultant and political advisor Michael Goldman.

Goldman shared what he would have said in closing remarks that Bloomberg should have delivered.

“Perfect I’m not, nor is any candidate on this stage tonight.

There are things I’ve said and decisions I’ve made in my personal life and professional career that, thru the rear view mirror of time, look very different than they did when they were in front of me.

That said,  I can promise you this.

No candidate on this stage tonight – not a one – would ever have fired the courageous Col. Vindman for speaking the truth to power.

Not a one!

No candidate on this stage tonight would ever find themselves in a position where 2000 former professional prosecutors, Republicans and Democrats alike, would be calling on them to fire their hand picked Attorney General because he or she was an enemy of the concept of a non-political criminal justice system.

Not a one.

No candidate on this stage tonight would ever even consider hiring a Director of  National Security whose number one qualification was that they had no experience in dealing with our intelligence community.

And finally, no candidate on this stage tonight would ever, ever, ever tolerate putting children in cages to punish their parents for the crime of seeking a better and safer life for their children in America.

Not a one.

There are many differences in style, experience, and goals on this stage tonight, and it’s our job to make those differences clear to you.

But know this.

Each and every one on this stage is is one hundred times more prepared today to be president today than is the man who has held that job for the past 3 and 1/4 years — Donald J.Trump.

Whatever else you leave this debate believing tonight, never ever forget that overwhelming  truth.

My name is Michael Bloomberg, and my campaign for President has just begun.”

For three years, when Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City, Goldman hosted a highly regarded program on Bloomberg Radio.  Michael Bloomberg should have been paying closer attention.

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