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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Political wheeling and dealing flirts with criminal

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You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours has always been one of the rules of the political road in Boston.  Behaviors can be very subtle but still powerful, their meaning clear.  As alderman, state rep and state senator, Martin Lomasney used to say, “Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod; don’t nod when you can wink.”   The West End political boss knew the art of accumulating and wielding power. He knew how to play political hardball with a soft touch.  But you can be sure every quid had a quo.

Decades later, not every Boston official was as practiced in the subtleties of the art. When I was a little girl, my father and uncle owned a commercial building on Canal Street, next to what is now Government Center.  I remember one night when my father, as straight an arrow as ever existed, came home to tell of a visit from a city inspector who made it very clear that, unless my father paid him off, this hack would stand in the way of the building’s elevator getting a certificate of inspection.  My journalism gene hadn’t yet kicked in, and I never followed up to find out how my father, a model of probity, had dealt with the situation.

Sometimes the wheeling and dealing worked in one’s favor.  When Government Center was being designed,  our family’s building was threatened by eminent domain. Right across the street, however, was a small grassy triangle often used by the nearby Langone Funeral Home to park its hearses when they were not carrying dead bodies. The Langone family was huge in Boston politics for at least three generations.  When the plans for renewal of the area were being developed, Fred Langone happened to be City Councillor .  That grassy parking triangle was not going away, nor did my father’s building. Need I say more?

We all recognize when decisions, however positive, are made not on the merits but because someone knows someone on the inside or is wielding threats directly or implicitly. There seems to have been a lot of that in the case against City Hall employees Timothy Sullivan and Kenneth Brissette, found guilty this past week of extorting union jobs from Boston Calling music festival producers in 2014, that hiring in exchange for smoothing the permitting process.  The jury’s guilty verdict may have surprised some people because Sullivan and Brissette received nothing of value to them personally.  But couldn’t the more subtle payoff for them have been pleasing their boss, Mayor Marty Walsh, who had previously led the Building Trades Council and won office the first time with plenty of union support, including that International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees?

There are certainly gray areas in the deals cut to do business in this city. What about developers who get city approval for a large project in exchange for providing certain public amenities or affordable housing units?  Some might argue that hiring union labor is a comparable public good.  But at what point does strong-arming a person or company to do something become illegal?  It’s still possible that the verdict will be set aside by the judge, but the jury made a statement: the public is better served by clear rules of the road for conducting city business with transparent criteria for municipal decision-making and administration, and a  playbook that levels the field for all comers. No arm twisting; not even any winks or nods, with all due respect to the Lomasneys, Langones and James Michael Curleys who set the standards back in the day.

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Trump on gun violence: judge him by his actions

photo Getty

In a speech prepared for him to read from the Oval Office, President Trump has condemned the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, calling for unity in opposing hatred, white supremacists, violence, especially on the internet and social media, and promising additional resources for the FBI in addressing domestic terrorism.  It approached presidential in content and tone, its language in stark contrast to the last three years of his behavior.

But even his improved rhetoric fell far short of serious gun safety reform and scarcely veils the same old same old.  George Conway, spouse of Trump adviser Kellyanne, called Trump an evil racist political leader, a narcissist and sociopath, whose twitter rants will resume quickly and obliterate his speech.   Senator Cory Booker’s assessment was even more to the point: “Such a bullshit soup of ineffective words.”

It is clear that two mass shootings in 24 hours, one shooter having published a manifesto railing against immigrants and Mexicans, seal our global brand as a leader in domestic terrorism.  It is also patently clear that the President is either clueless or simply deceitful about his complicity in degrading norms of behavior and giving license to the verbal and behavioral expression of racism, hatred and intolerance toward “others,” especially those who are different because of the color of their skin, ethnic heritage, or immigrant status.  This intolerance predated President Trump, but he has, for his own political purposes, encouraged white nationalism into the open. He has fanned the flames of division, notwithstanding today’s attempt to use the language of bringing people together.

Could this be a turning point?  History challenges that wisp of hope.  After Newtown, there were meetings at the highest level about changing gun laws. Nothing happened. After Parkland, some modest agreement seemed within reach, but the NRA had Trump’s ear, and he walked away.  Hope for change was rekindled, but, other than the narrow step of banning bump stocks after a terrible Las Vegas shooting, nothing happened.  (Bump stocks are an accessory that allows rifles to fire as rapidly as automatic weapons.)

As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, if the President is serious about meaningful background checks, he’ll get Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring to the floor two slightly bipartisan, House-passed bills achieving that goal. Donald Trump is mercurial, and one reasonably presidential call for unity in opposing hatred can’t hide the fact that his top priority is playing to the basest instincts of his base.

Trump is not alone in his cowardice.  CNN’s Jake Tapper has called out Republican officials in Texas who declined to speak out regarding the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, including Texas’ GOP governor, lieutenant governor, and two U.S. Senators as well as the Republican Governor of Ohio, all of whom dodged interviews.  Rare exceptions were Jeb Bush’s son Texas Lands Commissioner George P. Bush, who denounced white terrorism, and Republican state lawmaker John McCollister who called out his party for “enabling white supremacy.” “When the history books are written,” McCollister said, “I refuse to be someone who said nothing. The time is now for us Republicans to be honest with what is happening inside our party.”  He implored his GOP colleagues “to stand up and do the right thing.”

I doubt the once “grand old party” will respond to his appeal. I am not registered to either political party. I do believe, however, that, despite overwhelming public support, even among legal gun owners, for more meaningful background checks, the only chance for modest, let alone significant change will come when Donald Trump is kicked out of office and the Democrats regain control of the Senate. That’s where the focus for the next 15 months must remain, and where all of our energies must be directed.

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Summer reading and escape from Donald Trump

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer demand relief from the news, and summer reading could be just the antidote.  The following are some suggestions:


Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time, possibly ever. Against all odds, Westover grew up in a Mormon family in Idaho, her paranoid father a narrow-minded believer in the imminent end of the world, fearful enemy of government, especially the government that had perpetrated the Ruby Ridge massacre, and a rigid despiser of doctors and hospitals.  A survivalist, he denied his children both formal education and medical care, required them to work in the junkyard where he eked out a meager living, and abused them emotionally and physically. At the age of 16, Tara followed two of her six siblings in pursuing education, she to Brigham Young University, Cambridge University in England, a Harvard fellowship and back to Cambridge where she got a doctorate in history. Educated tells of her struggles to learn not just academics but who she was, rather than the distorted self her dysfunctional family would have her believe.  Educated is like Hillbilly Elegy on steroids and indescribably powerful.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity  by award-winning writer Katherine Boo is a searing portrayal of the daily struggles and degradations of people living on the edge in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai, India. The slum, near a toxic lake of sewage, belongs to the adjacent international airport, and Annawadi children earn a few rupees here and there by scavenging for trash containing recyclables. Not only must they endure grinding poverty but also violence, inter-ethnic animosities, injustice of the courts, predatory police, corrupt government officials, constant hunger, filth and disease.  Boo’s understanding of the residents’ hopes and dreams is so intimate it often reads like fiction, but the story and the characters are real, reflecting four years of research and hundreds of interviews.  Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens our eyes to the dramatic inequities in the global economy and underlines the need not to turn our backs on the countless other Annawadis around the world. A masterpiece!

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe starts with the abduction and disappearance of a young widow and mother of ten in Northern Ireland, a real-life mystery thriller that threads through Say Nothing while revealing decades of information about The Troubles. That euphemism applied to a decades-long war between Catholics and Protestants, republicans and loyalists, those seeking political solutions and those driven to violence. It is about murders, bombings, prison and hunger strikes, and, more broadly, family abuse, despair, alcoholism and dysfunction driven by grinding poverty. Keefe reveals the people behind the events – Gerry Adams, Brendan Adams, Bobby Sands, Dolours Price and many others whose lives were defined by the war. What was particularly revealing was the violence visited by the Provisional IRA, the so-called Provos, upon those Northern Irish willing to work within the political process, the contempt of the Provos for Gerry Adams, the IRA strategist whose Sinn Fein political organization the Provos saw as selling out. Informers, or touts, intensified the chaos on all sides by betraying their mates and allies.  Keefe worked from the Boston College Belfast Project, a collection of oral histories that went public before they were supposed to.  Nearly four thousand died between the so-called Troubles of the 1960’s and the 1998 Good Friday peace accords. Tensions are still not far from the surface, with more “troubles” feared because of the threat that Brexit implies for the relationship between North and South.

Becoming by Michele Obama is a rather enjoyable memoir, clearly written and often evocative. The first half focuses on her growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood destabilized by white flight.  Her extended family was hard-working and financially strapped. Her immediate family’s experiences were colored by her father’s ever-worsening health, due to MS. The strongest thread was her mother’s strength, emphasizing duty to one’s family, striving for educational accomplishment and belief in one’s ability to achieve, despite the odds. Obama goes beyond her dating years with Barack Obama, the occasional tensions between their different goals, aspirations and comfort levels, and the years of his community organizing.  We learn about her fertility treatments, her total focus on family and their two daughters, her search for work/life balance, her longstanding public commitments, her frustrations with politics and the media.  The most intriguing aspects of her memoir are the behind-the-scenes revelations underlying great public events of which we had contemporaneous knowledge.  At all times, her performance had to exceed that of the First Ladies who came before her.  It wasn’t easy, but Michele Obama succeeded, as does this book.


Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III tells the story of ex-con Daniel Ahearn, his daughter Susan and former mother-in-law, Lois.  Ahearn has been released from prison for a passion killing of his wife, Linda. Having set up a furniture caning business and gotten his life turned around, he decides to find his daughter, just three years old when he killed Linda with a kitchen knife. Lois, Linda’s mother, 82, raised Susan. The narrative is driven by his road trip from Massachusetts’ North Shore, where he lives in a trailer, to Florida, where Linda moved with Susan after Ahearn’s conviction. He is dying of prostate cancer and wants to make amends. Susan, an adjunct professor, is writing a memoir that details the many effects of her mother’s murder on her life and relationships.  Lois is outraged and incredulous that Susan would even consider meeting with the man who killed her daughter and vows to shoot him if he shows up. As Dubus peels the onions of their lives, the tension grows around the increasing inevitability of the father/daughter meeting.  All three characters constantly explore their pasts, and readers learn to empathize with all of them.  Well told, with Dubus’ painterly descriptions enriching the writing even while driving the narrative.  Not quite as special as Dubus’ 2011 book Townie, but still a good read.

Washington Black by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan presents as the memoir of an 11-year-old slave named George Washington Black (aka Wash) on the Faith plantation in Barbados. The names are intentional and ironic. The master of the plantation is Erasmus Wilde, recalling the Renaissance scholar and humanist but resembling him in no way. Erasmus is unparalleled in his cruelty to all his human property. Wash’s terror is alleviated slightly with the arrival of Erasmus’ brother Christopher (Titch), a scientist and a man capable of kindness, who takes Wash on as his assistant in developing an experimental balloon. The two escape the plantation in the balloon and a series of adventures ensue over more than a decade from the Arctic Circle to London, Amsterdam and Morocco. Wash becomes a brilliant illustrator with skills invaluable to the world of science in the 19th century.   Author Edugyan’s descriptive powers sometimes flirt with surrealism (or is that magical realism?) but not enough to deter my going forward.  In all, a spell-binding piece of writing about freedom, servitude, violence, guilt, humanity and community.

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An open letter to Democrats (and debate moderators)

Behold the flaming liberal, which devours its own if it strays too far from the nest!  Right now, the best thing Donald Trump has going for him is the divided Democratic Party.  The most left-leaning could hold sway in the primary but not reflect where the majority of the electorate is in November.  The most liberal, the minority pulling the party to port side, want wholesale restructuring of the health care system, including the elimination of private payers, which would frighten off many voters even among those advocating coverage for all.  The more pragmatic want to build on the Affordable Care Act and include a public option, sorely lacking in Obamacare.

Debate on issues between center-left Dems and far left  is all well and good if the debate is about nuanced policy contrasts and how best to achieve realizable goals, but we’re not well served by the show-of-hands, check-list mentality that colors these multi-candidate “debates.” Purity tests are a recipe for a second Trump term.

What’s particularly disturbing is when a candidate grabs for each shiny new thing and then backtracks the following day, as did Kamala Harris on the private insurer question or on the role of busing to integrate schools, an issue that she used to bludgeon a surprisingly ill prepared Joe Biden in the first debate. Note to future debate moderators: end the gimmick of one-word answers.

Note to candidates: when the slug fest becomes too personal, when the purpose is to destroy one’s primary opponent, it sets up the President for reelection.  There can be only one goal for Democrats and independents in 2020: the defeat of arguably the worst President this country has seen, a man whose behavior threatens the very foundation of our democracy and makes us a laughingstock around the world.  A man who exploits fears of “others,” whether they’re African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, Mexicans, and anyone who disagrees with the President. A man whose only goal is self-advancement and personal gain.

In  1968,  a sufficient number of Democrats and Independents  refused to support Hubert Humphrey, enabling Richard Nixon to win that razor thin election. In  1972, a coalition of reform-minded Democrats calling themselves the New Democratic Coalition (NDC) engineered the nomination of Senator George McGovern to be the party standard bearer. He was so far left of the electorate that he went on to lose 49 states. (“Don’t blame me; I’m from Massachusetts,” the one state he won, along with the District of Columbia.)  The NDC exulted in pushing aside the regulars, like Senators Henry Jackson and  Ed Muskie.  So venomous were the intra-party divisions that many supporters of Muskie and other more centrist figures sat out the election. With 20/20 hindsight, NDC came to be interpreted as “November doesn’t count.”  It did then, and it does today.

Let’s hope that the moderators on Tuesday and Wednesday nights ask each candidate this question. Do you pledge to support the nominee of your party, even if you disagree with him or her, and do you commit to throw the power of your primary campaign organization behind that nominee with full-throated enthusiasm?  If the respondents can’t buy into that strategy, we’re into four more years of this horror show, a nightmare we can only begin to imagine.

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