Learning from history – again

Philosopher George Santayana famously said in 1905 that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill liked the lesson so well that 43 years later he intoned, “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Either wording, we get the idea.  Would that Donald Trump were as respectful of our history and its articulated values!  The 250th anniversary of the American Revolution is still more than six years off, but the Massachusetts Historical Society and a consortium of other organizations are already planning to commemorate  Massachusetts’ pivotal role and reaffirm our commitment to its lessons.

Revolution 250 will focus on developing programs linking the Revolution with contemporary civic education and engagement.  On Sept 17, 1774, Gen. Thomas Gage wrote to Thomas Hutchinson, Gage’s predecessor as Massachusetts governor,  floating the idea of the Crown hiring German mercenaries since “these provinces must be first totally subdued before they will obey.”  Well, they were not subdued, and we did not obey. Even today, we are more inclined to lead than submit.

Ever since the McGovern landslide loss in 1972 (when Richard Nixon won all but one state), some critics have mocked us as “Massachusetts the one and only.” History teaches us to take pride in standing for what we believe in and acting on common principles. Revolution 250’s account of our history will reflect the often-overlooked but important roles of women, people of color, and Native Americans in the fight for independence.

Events here from 1765 to 1776 informed our values, shaped the U.S. Constitution and had an impact beyond national borders.  In addition to traditional lectures, special events,  teacher and volunteer workshops, Revolution 250 will develop digital tools and apps so users can learn on site about historic buildings and locations.

According to historian and Suffolk University professor Bob Allison,  other states are cashing in on the nation’s revolutionary past.   Utah is spending $70 million to build a replica of Mount Vernon. The Philadelphia Museum of the American Revolution offers visitors the opportunity to throw tea into Boston Harbor and stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree (the huge old elm that once stood at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets, where colonists protested the Stamp Act and other British wrongs.) The city of Montevallo, (population 6600) Alabama is recreating the Old North Bridge in Concord.   Importantly, the Revolution 250 consortium seeks funds to endow the preservation of our original  historic sites to counter their being appropriated by other places for purposes of tourism and economic development.

Certainly there are many possible uses for our discretionary dollars, not the least of which is revitalizing our democracy in the 2020 elections.  Supporting the birthplace of that democracy by donating to Revolution 250 is another option. Their already-rich calendar of events offers ways to reeducate ourselves and enrich our appreciation of the centuries-old history and traditions that permeate our environment and add meaning and understanding to our lives.  Given the ignorance and twisted impulses of Donald Trump, such validation is more important than ever before.

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Impeachment inquiry: serious subject demands decorum

Since becoming president Donald Trump has given members of Congress ample reasons to deem him unfit for office. Time and again his behavior has clearly met the Constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of an impeachment trial. Only hard political calculations kept the House from taking action. Now, after revelations that President Trump may have jeopardized national security in conversations with other world leaders for his personal and political benefit, an impeachment inquiry has begun. Sides have been chosen. Even before more evidence is presented, there are probably enough members of Congress to vote articles of impeachment. And there are enough members of the Senate willing to acquit him, evidence be damned. As I’ve written before, doing this without a reasonable likelihood of Senate conviction and removal from office is a risky proposition.

A clear majority of voters now say Trump did something wrong during a July conversation with newly elected Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump urged Zelensky to probe former VP Joe Biden and suggested not to do so would be unfavorably regarded by the United States, its most important ally, and could hold up delivery of critical military aid previously authorized by Congress on a bipartisan basis. But there is not a strong majority that now believes his behavior warrants removal from office. A clear majority of Republicans and a sizable number of independents stand by him. Without a major shift in attitude of the millions who support him – the enraged Trump base that so scares GOP officeholders—McConnell and his minions will hold firm.

Focus must now be placed on gathering the facts and presenting clear and convincing evidence not just to members of Congress but to the American people. The inquiry must be seen as a sober and serious exercise, not a partisan jamboree. The whistle blower’s complaint offers a roadmap. The awareness of White House staff of the President’s wrongdoing led them allegedly to cover it up by moving the transcript of the phone call to a top-secret intelligence server, not because it was national security sensitive material, but because it would be embarrassing to the President. Disclosure could lead to the smoking gun of the Trump administration. But we’re not there yet.

I haven’t given up hope of small amounts of courage arising on the Republican side of the aisle, but to cultivate that sensibility, Democrats must proceed judiciously, soberly building their case for indictment while not undermining it by sloppiness, excessive passion or, as Adam Schiff did, with his mafia parody introduction, inadvertently giving Trump and his acolytes the opportunity to take words out of context and defend the indefensible. The Democrats are going to have to do a much better job in this impeachment inquiry if they want to increase public support beyond its current level.

To limit partisan grandstanding on both sides of the aisle I recommend that staff counsel instead of members ask questions of witnesses. They should focus the inquiry and be more productive.  This was done during the Iran-Contra and Whitewater hearings.

Changing the hearts and minds of Trump true believers, which would give cover to Senate invertebrates, will be a more difficult task, akin to convincing children that there’s no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny in the same year. As Doris Kearns Goodwin opined on Meet the Press Sunday, the challenge for making an impeachment case is keeping the debate simple and fair. What we need is “a giant civics lesson” that explains clearly why it’s so important that impeachment must be done now instead of waiting for the 2020 election. We need to tell a story, she said, with a beginning, middle and end that you could use to convince a stranger at a bar.

In a land where civics education is not taught and most people don’t understand the fundamentals of the Constitution beyond some cliché phrases, where opinions trump facts, truth is optional and deep fake videos present new realities, it’s a daunting challenge. But we must engage – and engage the right way.

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Climate demonstrators need to vote

photo Jonathan Brady

Photos and videos of about four million people around the world rallying last week to urge action on climate change were inspiring.  Thankfully, global warming is no longer a marginal issue. From a quarter of a million demonstrating in New  York City to young girls leaving their school in Kabul, Afghanistan despite the danger,  to thousands clogging city streets around the world, young people held homemade signs expressing their concern, from “There is no Planet B,” to my teenage neighbor’s sign, “I want a hot date, not a hot planet.” The mobilization was stirring, but what’s the strategy for going beyond passion?

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden is the new face of the environmentalist movement. Her eloquent and  impassioned speech admonishing world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit was chillingly on target. Her words were moving, but what will be their impact?

Short term, not much. Yes there were a few good signs. Almost 70 countries say they will come up with stronger NDCs (National Determined Contributions) next year.   A group of pension funds and insurance companies managing more than $2 trillion promised to divest from fossil fuels by mid-century. The Gates Foundation, World Bank and some  governments pledged $790 million  to help small farmers adapt to climate change. Thirty countries, including Germany,  are now committed to eventually ending their reliance on coal. But the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases fell woefully short.

India talked about its embrace of renewables but was silent on its tremendous problem with coal. China dinged the US for pulling out of the Paris Accord and boasted about its being ahead of schedule on its NDC, but its schedule falls short of meeting the 2 degree Celsius target. And the United States, led by a climate change denier, skipped the summit.

Fortunately, the young people and some of their elders are not giving up. They were back out on the streets today. Greta was in Montreal  leading a demonstration against the airline industry. Many have embraced her message that “we’ll be watching you…We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

It will be dangerous, however,  to rely solely on national government action as the silver bullet to save our planet, demonizing corporations and dismissing the benefits of consciousness-raising small local and personal  initiatives.

We need an array of  multi-prong strategies.  Yes, countries must  do much more to up their games in the run-up to COP25 in Santiago, Chile in December  when nations are scheduled to reveal how they intend to meet their NDC pledges. NGO organizing and exhortations and  the donations of philanthropic foundations continue to be vital and deserve our support. But we should embrace free-market environmental initiatives using capitalist incentives that harness raw profit motives to effect change. Consumer spending, employee demands and freshly applied stakeholder  pressures can also motivate once-recalcitrant corporations to change their carbon footprints dramatically.

We also can’t let ourselves be distracted by jokes about bovine flatulence and attacks on changing light bulbs and banning plastic straws. As Greta Thunberg says, “No one is too small to make a difference.” But simply believing in  the science of man-made changes in global warming only takes us so far, if we don’t take specific steps, in our personal behavior in our daily lives.

That means not only what we eat and how we travel, but how we vote.  As I look at the pictures of the young people who may be the hope of the planet, I wonder how many are registered to vote and, of those registered, how many do vote. The increased youth turnout in the 2018 election was still paltry compared to older groups, 66 percent of whom voted. If demonstrators and their persuadable friends and neighbors don’t act to turn out of office all climate deniers from the White House, Congress, state and local offices, (as well as similar positions worldwide), all the international protest will be so much hot air. Young people today are “woke” on climate, and they can best prove it by translating that spirit into electoral action.

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Responsibility to impeach: how to make it count

Six months ago, I agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s disinclination to impeach President Trump. As she put it, “unless there’s something that’s so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.” Besides, she added, “He’s just not worth it.”  It was, I agreed, “shrewdly strategic to chill the left’s lust for impeachment at this time.”  But that was then, and this is now.

The drip, drip, drip demonstrating the Grifter-in-Chief’s  repeated “high crimes and misdemeanors,” his wanton abuse of power, was already  dangerous. His admitted effort to weaponize Ukraine in the 2020 election  -featuring the Orwellian twist of the Trump-Giuliani  gambit – put me over the edge.

Yes, we could leave it to the better angels in the 2020 electorate to turn Trump out of  office. But the need to impeach is as much about future generations as it is about today. We fault the Republicans for not criticizing the President’s misdeeds. We should also fault the Democrats for not fulfilling their Constitutional obligation to investigate the allegations of “high crimes and misdemeanors” against Donald Trump. In the second paragraph of Federalist Paper 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that impeachable offenses included “the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”  For Congress not to investigate and, presumably, file a bill to impeach Donald Trump is a dereliction of duty. The House Judiciary Committee is off to a limp start.

The Speaker remains cool to the idea of impeachment because she doesn’t have the votes. But remember, two bills to impeach Richard Nixon were filed in 1972 and were not acted upon.  By July 31, 1973 when our own Congressman Bob Drinan filed a bill to impeach Richard Nixon (based on the illegal bombing of Cambodia not the Watergate break-in) , the vote, had it been held, would still have been 400 members of the House against.  It took until July, 1974 for the House, after lengthy investigation to say yes to three articles of impeachment. Two weeks later, with the handwriting on the wall, Nixon resigned. So this is a process, but it has to start somewhere with House members courageous enough to put the “i” word in writing.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler just held the first session of what he is calling an “impeachment inquiry,” but Speaker Pelosi and her inside circle are still not calling it that. She’s apparently concerned about the political fallout for House members in purple to reddish districts.  And there are other pitfalls.

The despicable conduct of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at the Judiciary Committee’s first hearing into the President’s obstruction of justice in the Mueller investigation of 2016 Russian campaign meddling descended into pure chaos. Lewandowski’s admission that he sees no problem in lying to the media and the public and his stonewalling and claims of executive privilege all raised the specter of Richard Nixon’s  1973-4 strategy on steroids.  The Democrats have to maintain their dignity (often a tall order), stay focused on the facts, and use every legal strategy available to get access to people and documents.  They must also be able to walk and chew gum, at the same time pursuing programmatic goals and pushing bills – on health care, climate, gun safety, for example – over to the Senate.  Doing that could help queasy red state Democrats get reelected.

For Democrats to do any less is to shrug off the manifold wrong-doing of this administration, thereby validating that we have lowered to swamp-level  the threshold on acceptable norms of Presidential behavior.  Not to do so will give the green light to future Presidents to abuse power, usurp Congressional actions, violate the emoluments clause to enrich his (or her) private interests at public expense, cover up misdeeds by refusing to cooperate with legally required Congressional requests for information, put his personal and political interests above national security and more. (Note: this is above and beyond whatever policy disagreements I might have with him.)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is very scary stuff. We need an infusion of backbone on both sides of the aisle, but at the very least from the Democrats.  If, following a thorough  investigation, a bill of impeachment passes the House but it is clear that the Senate won’t convict, then the House should not refer impeachment to the Senate. To do so would only feed the President ‘s  unjustifiable claims of exoneration. Instead, the House should, at a minimum, vote to censure the President.  It happened to President Andrew Jackson in 1834 for withholding documents. Sound familiar? The House must do something meaningful about this incompetent, unfit miscreant who is a threat to our Constitution and the future of our democracy.

If the Senate, already a hollow shell of what our founders envisioned, cravenly decides to take a roll call or, worse still, a voice vote on its own resolution of “exoneration,” it will do so not in response to a lawful impeachment  referral. It can’t hold a proper Senate trial without a referral. It can’t acquit. He cannot be found “not guilty.”

Forty-five years ago, columnist Carl Rowan reflected on “The Real Watergate Lesson.” He said in the end it wasn’t about the illegal diversion of money. “We need to remember that if $3000 of taxpayer money is stolen, we may regain that somehow. But when the men  [and women] we elect to power steal our liberties,  our constitutional rights, we may never be able to regain them.” Amen.

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Dem debate 3: is there a winner in the bunch?

Most days I am seething and  grinding my teeth.  Sometimes Donald Trump makes me feel like Jean Giraudoux’ Madwoman of Chaillot, about a disillusioned idealist who wants to “rescue humanity from the scheming and corrupt developers.” Words fail me. Tearing my hair out will be useless. Work, study and other civic commitments are but a passing distraction, as with Netflix. I need to feel that the Democrats will nominate and rally behind someone who can defeat the incumbent President. Thursday’s Democratic debate, narrowed to ten, was somewhat reassuring.  It was also a good first audition for a potential  “team of rivals” cabinet.

Joe Biden came out of the gate strong, especially on Medicare for All, which the left has embraced, but, except for Bernie, is reluctant to explain clearly.  Biden’s more moderate strategy of building on the Affordable Care Act and adding a public option makes more sense than the Sanders/Warren approach to eliminating private insurers. Biden was also good on the cost projections. [No one asked Sanders why his plan would work for the country while his state’s model failed.]

Save for his vice presidential confrontation with Paul Ryan in 2012, Biden has never done well in the debate format. As the three-hour event went along, he became increasingly syntax-challenged but it was by far his best debate performance. Ordinary Joe’s  relatable style, best on display in his closing, surely pleased his apparent demographic base. And the response to ageist attacks onstage  by Julian Castro and later Corey Booker only seems to have enhanced his standing.

Elizabeth Warren is the brightest of the lot and has been running a sophisticated campaign. She has made good use of her personal odyssey, which may appeal to some Obama-turned-Trump voters. Her “I have a plan for that” is attractive to well-educated “issues” voters.  She’s also the best debater, a talent on display Thursday, in deftly not answering  direct questions about clear ambiguities in her health insurance proposal. [Who exactly is “middle class?”]  Perhaps she learned the lesson of Kamela Harris, who first proclaimed fealty to Sander’s  legislation and then badly stumbled while pirouetting away from its implications.  Warren performed well.    How she navigates this issue in the months ahead will tell us a lot about her “electability.”

Bernie Sanders was on message with the same passion and authenticity he exhibited in 2016. No one raised his older-than Biden age as a disqualification. But I wonder how many feel as I did that he comes across as  just a red-faced angry man, never once cracking a smile, consistent in his policy and unpleasantness, and increasingly irrelevant but for his supporters who may migrate to Warren.

Several lower tier candidates upped their games. Beto O’Rourke had moments of polish and passion, especially when it came to his boldly stated positions on gun control and his commitment to banning assault rifles and buying them back. But Amy Klobuchar, in her best campaign cameo to date, trumped him in articulating the importance of  balancing worthwhile goals with practical strategies for achieving them. She appropriately explained that a strong House-passed gun safety bill is now in the Senate being blocked by Mitch McConnell.

Kamala Harris  came off as somewhat tentative and less focused substantively than she has in the past. But she  was the only one to point out the clear and present dangers of what Trump is doing now to American heath care if upheld in the courts. Corey Booker, rhetorically  smooth as usual,  struck the right tone is saying that “we beat China by working with our allies in common cause with common purpose.” But, beyond Biden, where was the discussion of how an even flawed Transpacific Partnership would have done just that.

Credit is due to ABC, whose marathon format was the most disciplined to date and evoked the most substance we have seen. But there were still problems, not just the optics of having the black questioner ask about race and the Hispanic one lead off about immigration.

It was silly to waste airtime asking Booker about the possibility of his proselytizing  his vegan habits.  It was one cut away from Barbara Walters asking her interviewees what kind of tree they’d choose to be. Given the  debate location at one of the historically black colleges and universities, it could have been more provocative and enlightening to have asked the candidates their views on a proposal to have elite black athletes go to HBCUs instead of big-time Division I schools?

Where was the question dealing  with the multi-generational impact of  Trump’s  Supreme Court  and other appointments, the importance of voting and fighting voter suppression efforts?  Where were questions about the deficit,  tax policy and rolling back Trump’s tax cuts.   Going forward, we could use separate debates limited to, say, climate change, immigration, the economy or foreign policy.Or make other changes to  the debate format.  Still grinding my teeth.

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“Project Look Out:” changing driving behavior


photo SafeNebraska

Remember the old days when  the term “designated driver” evoked A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti? By the 1980’s, however, we learned that “designated driver” meant the guy (or gal) at the party who wouldn’t drink so someone would be around to drive home sober. The idea of designated driver was the result of a nationwide public service campaign driven by Jay Winsten and the Harvard’s Center for Health Communication to combat drunk driving fatalities. There were public service announcements, news stories and other traditional elements of a media campaign.  Winsten also went to the entertainment industry, including the soaps, so they wove the need for designated drivers into their story lines.

Winsten is at it again with a national campaign to prevent deaths and injuries from distracted driving, and it’s not a minute too soon. The Massachusetts legislature has largely sat on the issue for 15 years, banning only texting while driving and drivers under 18 from cell phone use.  A bill to ban all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel has finally passed both branches and is in conference committee, but there’s no guarantee of action when the legislature returns from summer recess. Jay Winsten’s campaign is one of national persuasion, with the goal of changing behavior as he did with drunk driving.

Project Look Out would follow the same model.  With the earlier designated driver campaign, he raised over $100 million in in-kind contributions from Hollywood studios and TV networks.  He hopes to do that again, seeking widespread adoption of the concept of the “attentive driver,” one who, like an owl, scans the road for unexpected danger.  Project Look Out will also encourage passengers to speak up when their drivers are exhibiting behavior that distracts them from the road.  Particular attention will be paid to the New England region, where the four percent jump in traffic fatalities in 2018 was the highest of any region in the country.  Nationally, road deaths actually fell a little.

Safe use of new technologies will figure importantly, which is why passage of the hand-held cell phone ban is so important.  Drivers, many of whom take pride in their prowess at multi-tasking, will be encouraged instead to be proactive in the face of other distracted drivers, to watch out for cyclists and pedestrians, a vehicle drifting from its lane, a stopped school bus; backed-up traffic.  Wide use will be made of social media, broadcast and cable stations across the country, and local civic organizations.  As Winsten did with his drunk driving and domestic abuse campaigns, he’ll encourage local media to carry the message forward.

We can all do better to develop the skills of active scanning and situational awareness, much like the owl, with its turning head and piercing eyes,  that will be the logo of Project Look Out.  Meanwhile, until the campaign launches, it would be useful to pressure our senators and representatives to iron out their few differences and get the ban on hand-held cell phones passed and signed into law before more injuries and fatalities happen on the state’s already congested and dangerous roadways.

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Mass. Senate race: an embarrassment of riches?

No one has a right to hold onto an office in perpetuity, but having served a long time shouldn’t necessarily be a disqualifier. Senator Ed Markey has been in public office nearly half a century.  The one-term+ US Senator has been in  Washington for 43 years,  both as a member of the House and of the Senate. He has been a national leader on telecommunications, energy and climate change, a staunch supporter of gun safety and universal health care access.  The possibility that three-term Congressman Joe Kennedy, 38, may be considering running against him poses the question of whether, given their general agreement on issues, one should mount a challenge just because a younger generation may be tired of Ed Markey, age 73.  Or perhaps voters don’t really know him or his record.

I have covered Ed Markey for 43 years, since he topped a field of 12 candidates running for the House seat being vacated by Torbert McDonald, a Kennedy insider remembered mostly for falling asleep at his desk in the House chamber.  Markey, son of a milkman, visited Washington for the first time as congressman-elect.  Since his days as a freshman, he has grown in substance and effectiveness. He has poured his life into serving the public on cutting-edge issues, frequently becoming the leading expert and building support for change.  While his often-staccato way of speaking can be annoying,  his actions have been on target and consistent.  His electoral vulnerability speaks to a generational shift and, as evidenced by Ayanna Pressley’s surprise 2018 upset of longtime congressman Michael Capuano, a desire for something and someone new.

But 4th district Congressman Joe Kennedy III isn’t just the newest shiny object.  He is the real deal.  Scion of Massachusetts political royalty, he 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. His demeanor and seriousness of purpose led to his being tapped to give the Democratic response to President Trump’s 2018 State-of-the-Union speech.  His future would seem limitless.

But is this the right time?  He could, I suppose, be persuaded by Markey’s decision to drop out of the 1984 race for Paul Tsongas’ open Senate seat in 1984, remembering that it was 30 years before another opportune moment arose (when John Kerry left the Senate to become Secretary of State). A group of activists has formed a movement to draft JK3, and a privately funded poll reportedly found him somewhat favored to defeat Markey. (We don’t know what the actual numbers are.)   But because he might, does that mean he should?

Markey has received high-profile endorsements, from NARAL Pro-Choice America to party heavies and a majority of his Massachusetts House colleagues. (Seth Moulton and Ayanna Presley have not endorsed him. Cong. Katherine Clark will defer taking sides until a later time.) Today, Markey released a video of Elizabeth Warren enthusiastically restating her support of him.

Markey seems unlikely to retire, stepping aside for Kennedy.  He already has two other Democratic primary challengers, neither of whom would pose an existential threat. Kennedy, if he decided to run, would be the toughest opponent Markey has ever faced. Two good guys would be at each other’s throats, the old lion and the young alpha male. I really like both of them, who they are and what they stand for. The primary could cost well more than ten million dollars, money that could be better spent trying to win Senate seats in battleground states.

At this time, it appears the only things that separate them are age and style. And we’ll all have to decide if those factors are enough to throw the old warrior out of office. With both Warren and Markey in their ’70’s, it’s unlikely that Kennedy will have to wait  as long as Markey did to take his Senate shot.

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