Books to consider, pt. 3 – more fiction

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The author of The Underground Railroad has done it again, this time with a story of a prison-like reform school in Florida.  Worse-than-Dickensian abuse occurred throughout this narrative, based on the real-life revelation five years ago about the Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna.  Archeologists examining human remains buried in a secret graveyard at the school determined that nearly 100 boys had been raped, tortured and killed. Whitehead reconstructs Dozier School as a fictional Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Florida.  His protagonist, Elwood  Curtis,  comes from a family whose history recapitulates the wrongs and misfortunes inflicted on blacks in America. Elwood is an honest, hard-working boy, aiming to go to college and better himself, who is arrested when he hitches a ride in a car that turns out to be stolen. Sentenced to the prison of Nickel Academy, he tries to follow the rules so his sentence is not prolonged. When he comes to the defense of someone who is being bullied, he is put in solitary and tortured.   The staffers were brutal and sadistic toward both black and white “students,” but, measure for measure, always worse for the blacks.  The school/prison was not closed until 2011. The story twists at the end. The Nickel Boys is an outstanding read.

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a beautiful and complicated narrative, a Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to trees and the natural world and a call to awareness regarding what humankind is doing to destroy the environment. The underlying theme is that people commoditize trees, destroying them for products to be made, ignoring the nuances of trees as living things, recklessly trammeling their essential role in the environment as generator of oxygen and habitat for living things. Destruction of trees, especially by clear cutting, jeopardizes the well-being of humanity and brings the end of the planet perilously close.  Powers’ imagery is riveting. The narrative can be difficult to follow if you let a few weeks lapse between chapters. The nine major characters emerge in what seems to be a series of short stories, unrelated – until they aren’t.  If you just read the book intermittently, it can be daunting to reconnect with the multiple characters, driven by their passions to be radical environmentalists.  The result is a magnum opus, deeply philosophical but grounded in the harshest realities of our environmental crisis, alluring but depressing, hard to shake off yet optimistic by its very popularity.

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake is a multi-generational family saga, starting with a young couple in Manhattan in the 1930’s.  The family is WASPy, wealthy (old money), smug, uptight, and, constrained by all the ought to’s of a certain class, very much hobbled by things left unsaid. Initially one might see this book as a parody of people for whom one feels contempt but whose lifestyle we might envy.  Yet disaster strikes, a child dies, and we’re hooked on a narrative of unhappiness and tragedies with each succeeding generation. Set on the family-owned island off the coast of Maine where they “summer,” the book explores sense of place as the defining element in the family’s history. Family lore turns out to be more mythology than fact, with secret truths quietly kept from children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren until the granddaughter, not insignificantly an historian, puts it all together.  Anti-Semitism, racism and evolving societal issues test the articulated ethos of what it means to be good.  It leaves us reflecting on the legacy messages we signal from one generation to another, including the values imparted in things we cherish (or at least can’t throw away) and the “ought to’s” we got from our mothers and fathers that we’ve passed on to our children. A really good yarn with lots to think about, including the security of continuity and the challenge of change.

Ulysses by James Joyce. No, I’m not kidding. Got through only part of it 30+ years ago. It’s a bear of a book, and it doesn’t get easier over the years. When we were planning a family trip to Ireland in June, we knew we would be in Dublin on June 16th, celebrated in that storied city as Bloomsday in honor of the book, which covers one day in 1904 in the life of Leopold Bloom, one of three protagonists of Ulysses.  I got through about three chapters and decided that life is too short. But then came Bloomsday, when Dubliners dress in Edwardian costume, and people visit the sites of famous scenes in the book.  Our guide was Dr Conor Linnie, Lecturer & Researcher, School of English at Trinity College. As we went from site to site, he’d read out loud from relevant portions of Joyce’s book, and he brought it to life.  So, when I saw that Brandeis Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI) was teaching a course on Ulysses this fall, I declared it was “now or never.”  I learned how to listen to a recording of the book while reading it and making notations in the margins.  Every once in a while, I’d hit the pause button to look up the meaning of some obscure reference in The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires.  Finally, I got through Joyce’s Ulysses, with a real sense of accomplishment.

Here’s the deal. James Joyce, sometimes hailed as the greatest writer of the 20th century, certainly one of the leaders of the modernist movement, innovated in stream-of-consciousness writing.  While covering the movements of Leopold Bloom, his wife, Molly, and poet Stephen Dedalus as well as many other Dublin characters, the more significant travels are their inner journeys, their secret thoughts, disappointments and aspirations, every fleeting notion that went through their minds. There are major themes of Ireland versus England, the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, and anti-Semitism. All of this is dropped into the framework of Homer’s Odyssey.  The book was ruled obscene in the United States in 1921, and the ban was not lifted until 1934.   The book is written in a variety of styles, and people have been trying to parse it for years. Author Virginia Woolf, master of clear writing, was said to have called it “diffuse” and “pretentious.”   It’s all of that – and more. I’m glad I read it, and you might be too, if you make it your literary challenge for 2020. Kind of like going to the gym.

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Books to consider, pt. 2- fiction

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.  If you enjoyed Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge , you will love reading Olive, Again, the sequel. Oh, to be able to write like  Elizabeth Strout! Olive is sui generis……..except I find in myself an occasional alarming similarity to some of her traits.  There’s still her craggy, occasionally harsh humor, but in this sequel Olive has mellowed a little.  She remains quick to judge but reflects a developing capacity for empathy. Small town Crosby, Maine is about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but Strout softly digs down into their complexity, and all the characters have at least one thread connecting them to Olive Kitteridge. whose own story is woven throughout. Strout’s honest portrayal of the challenge of loneliness for old people and her unblinking description of physical deterioration and diminution of dignity pack an emotional wallop.  I hated to have the book end.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens tells the story of Kya Clark, abandoned by her mother at the age of six in a small town on the North Carolina coast. Left with her alcoholic and abusive father, with her older siblings also having fled, “Marsh Girl,” as she becomes known locally, learns to fend for herself. She grows into a teenager and young adult at one with the wildlife in the swamp, isolated but for occasional trips to town by boat for gasoline, grits and a few other basic supplies. As she comes of age, with nature as her only teacher, she has relationships with two boys, both of whom abandon her.  There is a murder and a trial, all happening against the backdrop of racial and social differences. But the strength of this gripping novel is the beauty of the lush writing, the breathless capturing of the plants, animals, sea surrounding Kya, tensions as people’s secrets are revealed, and the profound question of what strengths we might find within ourselves to survive loneliness, abuse, desperation.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is also a story about abandonment.  The child left behind is 11-year-old Deming Guo,  a boy born in New York to an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China who disappears one day, leaving him with her Chinese lover, his sister (Deming’s “aunt”) and his sister’s son, Michael, (Deming’s “cousin.”)  Ultimately, Aunt Vivian arranges for Deming to be raised by foster parents Kay and Peter, professors in a suburban community upstate, where Deming, now renamed Daniel, is the only Chinese child. The book’s focus is Deming’s effort to find his mother and, in the process, find himself, who he is in others’ eyes, who he wants to be, and the community in which he feels most at home.  It is a story about the harsh realities faced every day by undocumented immigrants and harsh ICE policies that fail to consider the humanity of those seeking better lives in America. The readers’ sympathies change as the perspectives shift back and forth between the abandoned son and the highly imperfect mother.  A very interesting and readable first novel.

Normal People by young Irish writer Sally Rooney gets better and better as it goes along, digging deeper into the on again-off again-on again relationship between two young people, their aching coming of age, their class differences (her family is wealthy, dysfunctional, abusive; his family lives on the edge). His mother, a single mom, cleans house for her mother and provides Connell with a loving and understanding home environment.  Connell and Marianne are highly intelligent students awkward with their peers and uncomfortable in their own skins. So they explore each other’s skins….and more.  Rooney probes their deep intuition and their painful miscommunication with each other, their lack of self- esteem, alienation, depression. They return to each other time and again, with hope at the end for a brighter future.  The book alternates between Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives, making the narrative all the more compelling.

More fiction ideas in tomorrow’s blog.

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Books to consider, pt. 1 – non-fiction

The hammering from daily political news has kept me away from devouring my normal quota of books on contemporary politics.  If you too are on overload, here are some non-fiction alternatives I’ve recently enjoyed.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey  by Candace Millard, published in 2006, was loaned to me by thoughtful neighbors during my recovery from surgery. It was a thoroughly enjoyable diversion, an account of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to unexplored Amazon River tributaries, after the failure of his 1912 Bull Moose Presidential bid.   I had, of course, known all about TR’s testosterone-driven trips hunting in Africa, mastering the Dakota Badlands, and charging San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders.  Even if his trip to the heart of uncharted Amazon territory started out in that spirit, this book reveals TR as an authentic environmentalist and caretaker of the natural world.  Millard has thoroughly researched the rain forest ecosystem, its animals, many of them dangerous,  the perils of disease, impenetrable jungle, unnavigable whitewater rapids that crushed their dugout canoes and consumed their provisions, hostile Cinta Larga tribesmen and impending starvation.  Roosevelt himself hovered for weeks on the brink of death due to a wound exacerbated by flesh-eating bacteria, and his son Kermit struggled with malaria during the entire trip.

My husband and I  traveled through several parts of Brazil in  November 1986, and had  a memorable Thanksgiving dinner (with piranha appetizers)  in an isolated indigenous Maue village in  the Amazon jungle south of Manaus. Our trip there via rivulets under a canopy of  vine covered trees  in a rickety 4 person boat  was an exciting but far tamer adventure. Those memories made  reading Roosevelt’s adventures 70+ years before all the more fascinating.

Before Her Voice Was Still: A Friendship in the Shadow of ALS is a poignant memoir of author Judith Wurtman’s coming to grips with the diagnosis and demise of her dear friend Susan, a downward journey that took place between 2014 and 2018.  The book is a clear-eyed portrayal of the ravages of ALS. It is as intimate a look as one imagines possible when not suffering the disease oneself.  Wurtman explores the hopes and limitations of what Judaism offers to people faced with terminal illness; the contemplation of the meaning of having a soul and the possibility of an afterlife– or not; the vagaries of the pharmaceutical industry offering hope and then disappointment in clinical trials; the leavening contribution of humor, however dark, and honesty between dear friends.  Most of all, it shows that, even when confronted by a terrible fate that neither science nor human aspiration can reverse, sustained support by a committed friend, one’s chosen family, can ease the pain and loneliness of unspeakable affliction. The book could have used an extra round of copy editing, but it is an informative primer on ALS and a compelling insight into friendship and loss.

LIGHTER FARE

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl is a delicious memoir by the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine during its last, glorious decade. I received this book from a college classmate and friend after surgery when I couldn’t bear to read one more word about politics.   I love to eat, but I’m not a foodie.  I can cook, but I am not, as is my sister, particularly creative. Reichl went from being a restaurant critic for the New York Times to Gourmet and entered a highly charged world of glamour,  high fashion, lavish food, limos, exotic travel, five-star everything, sharing with the reader her aspirations as a journalist, her self-doubts as a rising executive, her insights into the egos of the publishing world, and her take on the rise of celebrity chefs who rose to prominence all the while exploring broader issues of feeding and pleasing with food. It’s not a book I would ever have selected for myself, but it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. It’s an intimate view of an aspect of journalism with which I had little familiarity.  Her personal reflections on her experience, from life in the fast lane to her  interior insecurities, are so thoughtful and well written, and her skills as a story teller are most impressive.

Lost and Found in Spain: Tales of an Ambassador’s Wife by Susan Lewis Solomont is a short memoir by the wife of President Obama’s ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont.  An accomplished businesswoman, philanthropist and community leader, Susan Solomont bristles against devolving into the 1950’s “wife of” role thrust upon her when her husband is named to the high diplomatic post. While not great literature, Solomont has a simple, accessible style that gives an intimate look at the private lives and public responsibilities of their 3 ½ year sojourn in Madrid. It was a life of luxury, celebrity, discovery, loneliness and personal growth.  Part travelogue,  part foodie’s adventure, offering a deep dive into religious identity and Judaism in Spain, the book reveals the sacrifice and opportunity involved in such choice diplomatic postings.  It challenges everyone who has to adapt to total life change over which there is little control.

In my next blog, I will share some thoughts on the fiction I’ve been reading.

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Deval Patrick: too little, too late or a ray of sunshine?

There is no better campaigner than Deval Patrick. He’s charismatic, warm, visionary and inspirational.  He appeals to our better sides, and has the kind of personality that really could help to heal the searing wounds of division. That he is African-American indicates his potential appeal to a constituency whose enthusiasm is essential to a Democratic win.

The two-term governor has plenty of credibility in the party’s debate over Medicare for all (a  ten-year, $30 trillion cost, eliminating all private coverage) versus adding a public option built on the Affordable Care Act.  Patrick oversaw the successful implementation of improved access to health coverage in Massachusetts, which became the model for Obamacare.  He also worked on initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Democrats are already sneering that Patrick, after leaving Bill Clinton’s Justice Department where he headed the Civil Rights Division,  had powerful positions in corporate America, from vice president and general counsel at Texaco (with which Patrick’s DOJ had reached a settlement previously) and Coca Cola, to his board position with sketchy subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, and now Bain, Mitt Romney’s private equity company, where Patrick’s role focuses on socially beneficial investing.)  His high-level company positions don’t necessarily lead corporate America to embrace him. Forbes magazine recently denounced Patrick’s history of raising taxes, his veto of a bill to increase fiscal transparency in retiree pension funds, his failure to address the state’s bonded indebtedness.

Massachusetts voters eventually forgot Patrick’s earliest missteps, the costly drapes in his Corner Office redecoration and his choice of a Cadillac as his official car, but people do remember the more serious managerial messes: fraud at the state drug lab, scandal at the Department of Families and Children (which still dogs supreme manager and nation’s most popular governor, Charlie Baker), incompetence in effecting changes in the online state health insurance system. Well before Patrick left office, there was a growing unease among the public that, despite his personal charisma, state government under his leadership was not living up to its promise.   Nor is he helped by the resurrection of stories about his intervention in the sex offender registry listing of his brother-in-law, convicted of (spousal) rape and Patrick’s retaliation against two women who had disagreed with the Governor’s actions. He fired the two, who worked at the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board. That will not play well in today’s Me-Too environment.

News media have widely noted that, at this stage of the primary season, the choicest campaign operatives have committed elsewhere, and dollars have also been pledged to other candidates.  Money isn’t an issue for this week’s other likely late entrant, Michael Bloomberg, but it would certainly seem to be so for Deval Patrick, who may have to rely on his corporate allies to put together a Super Pac on his behalf.  These metrics could change depending on the outcomes in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.  538’s Nate Silver notes that a year ago, in the earliest stage of the campaign, Patrick registered a 0-1 percent support in national presidential polls and just 4-6 percent in Massachusetts.  Patrick was given marginal speaking times at this weekend’s Democratic meetings in California and Nevada, where he was positioned alongside spiritual activist Marianne Williamson.

The Patrick campaign seems rooted in the premise that  front runner Joe Biden doesn’t have what it takes to go the distance against Donald Trump.  Biden has certainly had his stumbles, but he showed in the November 11 CNN Town Hall  that he can be forceful, somewhat clear-eyed, and empathetic.  While  he had his word-salad moments, he was particularly good in criticizing the costly Medicare-for-All approach and strong on foreign policy, offering the promise of restoring the United States’ reputation in the world of nations and rebuilding its alliances in a post-Trump era.  It’s unclear how strongly Biden will present in Wednesday’s upcoming debate, but Patrick won’t be there at all. Nor will Michael Bloomberg, the former New York billionaire whose announced candidacy seems imminent.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders don’t seem to be interested in those slightly left of center who want to keep choice in the health care system.  Barack Obama, without mentioning them by name, this weekend warned about the potential negative impact of the far left’s ideological rigidity and revolutionary intonations on the nation’s ability to rid itself of the grotesque White House incumbent. We’re left to wonder why one looking for a stronger, moderately liberal alternative to Biden would have to look beyond rising star Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar and Corey Booker.

In New Hampshire, Patrick could draw votes from Warren but would more likely hurt Biden.  Patrick could end up helping the candidacies of Sanders and Warren by splitting the moderate vote. He could even win in New Hampshire. Then, again, so too did late Senator Paul Tsongas, who came in ahead of Bill Clinton, and look how that turned out. (Is Patrick’s real long-term goal being nominated to the Supreme Court?)

Anyone who claims to know how this will all shake out is a pundit to take with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that Deval Patrick could end up bruised and wondering why he subjected his family to all this.  Or he could shake up the race and surprise us in ways that benefit civil discourse in the public square.

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It doesn’t have to be all about impeachment

Donald Trump would like the world to think that the Democrats are so committed to impeaching him that the important work of the country is not being touched.  But there are elected officials, including officials in high places, who are staying focused on work. At least on the House side.

Hundreds of bills have passed the House, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who gleefully (for him) calls himself “the grim reaper,” won’t even bring them to the floor.  All the Senate seems willing to vote on are judicial nominations, and, from a doctrinaire conservative perspective, they’re remaking the federal judiciary, potentially affecting people’s lives for generations.  Meanwhile, bills are languishing on election security, prescription drug pricing, higher education, defense, health care, climate  change, gun safety and renewal of the Violence Against Women law.  Even some Republican senators are aggravated by the McConnell’s death grip on substantive legislation.

All is not bleak though. Massachusetts Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield, the powerful and highly respected Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is one of those working on a bipartisan basis and even with some members of the Trump administration to reach consensus on some important parts of a legislative agenda.  His committee shapes policy in areas of taxes, trade, health care, pensions, Social Security and Medicare, and more.  And he tries to do it on a collaborative basis.

Speaking to business leaders on Thursday at a New England Council breakfast, he reported great progress on the new trade pact involving the United States, Mexico and Canada, the successor pact to NAFTA, which he sees as an improvement.  A key sticking point has been enforcement of fair labor practices, and Neal has brought AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer together to work out differences. Negotiators, he said, are “90 percent there.”  Neal has also left D.C. to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador to move the pact forward.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Neal says, is determined to get to yes on this improved trade pact but also pledges mitigating global trade’s negative impacts on sectors like manufacturing.  One important step was House passage of the Butch Lewis Act, which Neal helped to write and which would protect pensions of workers whose companies are dislocated by global competition. Thirty Republicans supported this bill, which passed but now, like so many others, awaits Senate action.

Neal jokes that he doesn’t subscribe to the old adage, “Never let sound policy get in the way of a good vendetta.”  He remains furious that Trump’s tax bill was passed without any public hearings or committee input, but he has set aside his deeply held opposition to work in a bipartisan way with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on technical corrections. He has  worked to educate him on the importance of extending the earned income tax credit and creating a more robust child credit.  Grassley, from Iowa, looks to persuade Neal on a biodiesel bill.

Neal likens his approach to the horse trading of longtime Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and his working relationship with Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff Jim Baker.  And, when Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pressed Neal on the USMCA trade treaty, Neal let him know he was, in exchange, looking for agreement on an infrastructure bill. Though we don’t see enough examples of this kind of give-and-take, Congress has to be about bipartisanship, even in our highly polarized, gridlocked times. It’s why the elimination of earmarks makes legislating more difficult.

Neal applies the same give-and-take philosophy at home.  With Republican Governor Charlie Baker potentially looking for federal dollars to help in a major fix of the MBTA, Neal has made it clear that the “price” will be the Governor’s support for much needed, upgraded rail service going west from Worcester to Springfield.  This is what makes government work for everyone.

It’s also why I’m opposed to the use of quid pro quo as the driving language of the impeachment debate. Quid pro quo isn’t the issue. It’s what, for whom and why. The issue is Trump’s bribery, extortion and violation of the public trust, taking for himself a benefit from the public purse, that is at stake. Quid pro quo is a neutral term, part of what turns the wheels of the legislative process.

Despite today’s grotesque polarization, not started by Trump but certainly fueled by him in the most incendiary way, and despite how many in the media feed off the combustible dynamics,  there are some political figures still interested in governing.  Their efforts need better coverage from columnists, beat reporters and cable news bloviaters, to support the substantive outcomes that can derive from bipartisanship and, at the same time, to restore a small measure of sanity and optimism to those whom government is supposed to serve.

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Ed Markey’s climate change work needed in US Senate

Massachusetts voters who care about climate change will want to return Ed Markey to the U.S. Senate.  He has worked on the issue for decades, well before many  of the rest of us were taking seriously the impact of fossil fuel-generated CO2 on the earth’s atmosphere. If you understand the existential threat that confronts the planet, or if you’re just becoming “woke” to the issue, you will be well served to listen to the presentation Markey recently made at Tufts University   at the Tisch College of Civic Life.

You will be impressed by the depth of his scientific understanding, the authenticity of his passion, his capacity to legislate on all aspects of the issue and, despite his sometimes problematic staccato delivery, his ability to communicate the urgency of the need for action.

Challenger Joe Kennedy is definitely one of the really good guys, smart, articulate, personable and, as I have said before, even exhibits an attractive humility rare for a politician. Until now.  It’s as if a heretofore-suppressed Kennedy gene has risen to insist its possessor take advantage of the opportunity to run against the older man, regardless of the consequences.  Other than a nod  to youth, there is no reason to deny to America’s preeminent climate change legislator what may well be a last term and where his subject matter knowledge and legislative experience could be decisive.

If the Democrats can take back the Senate, hold the House  and capture the Presidency, Markey will have an opportunity to lead this country away from a dystopian environmental future and set us, our children and grandchildren on a more sustainable path.  It’s pathetic that the $20+ million about to be spent on this Massachusetts Senate race (and the money that will be spent to pick a 4th district successor to Kennedy) won’t be available to help target GOP candidates elsewhere who could tip the balance in the Congress’ upper chamber.

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Is Hillary Clinton playing into Trump’s and Putin’s hands?

Neither Jill Stein or Tulsi Gabbard is a classic Manchurian candidate, destined to lead the US while controlled by  a foreign power, but they are both at least–  to use the term devised by Vladimir Lenin to describe unwitting allies of nefarious propaganda campaigns – “useful idiots.” They’ve been or are being used by Russian operatives and should be called out as such. But Hillary Clinton is the last person who should be delivering this message.

In her 2012 and 2016 races, Green Party presidential candidate Stein was a frequent guest on RT, the Russian government-controlled English language broadcast, and its online outlet, Sputnik. She sat at the Vladimir Putin’s head table at a well publicized 2016 dinner and afterwards echoed Russian talking points in some of her messaging.

The Mueller report in its indictments of Russian meddlers took note of their insidious support of Stein. A Senate intelligence committee investigation similarly documented how Russia used social media to help Trump and hurt Clinton by inflaming right-wing conspiracy theories and working to foster distrust among and suppress the vote of African- Americans and other left-leaning groups. An NBC investigation echoed those findings. Shortly before the 2016 election, trolls connected to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency used a fake Instagram account called “woke Blacks” to push the Stein candidacy, exhorting “grow a spine and vote for Stein.” Although the total votes changed may have been relatively small, the combination of voter suppression and Jill Stein advocacy helped contribute to Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory margin in the whisper-close election.

It’s not clear whether Jill Stein will run again this year, but Russian troll farms allied with Vladimir Putin are hard at work pushing the candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard. As I noted last week, over 40 percent of Drudge Report “poll” respondents picked Gabbard as the last Democratic debate’s winner, more than the combined totals of Biden, Sanders and Warren. Another NBC news analysis, last February, noted how Russian influence operations “celebrated Gabbard’s announcement” and praised her private meeting with Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. NBC claimed Kremlinologists tracking Moscow’s digital operations observed “what they believe may be the first stirrings of an upcoming Russian campaign of support for Gabbard.” White nationalists,  including former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, have also embraced her candidacy. Gabbard has distanced herself from some of her Alt Right claque, but I’m unaware that she has renounced unequivocally any  Russian support she may be benefiting from.

Her soft spot for notorious authoritarian leaders doesn’t stop with Assad. Her rhetoric concerning international human rights abuses would be more believable if it weren’t so selective. Look at what she’s said about Egypt strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Remember her courtship by Steve Bannon and her willingness to consider working in the Trump administration.   Check out her apparently uncritical embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a man with blood on his hands for his treatment of non-Hindus. She opposed House Resolution 417, including language designed to encourage Indian tolerance toward non-Hindus. As media critic Dan Kennedy pointed out, questioning sources of Gabbard’s support is neither unfair nor without foundation and CNN’s Van Jones is way off base in his melodramatic expression of outrage.

Gabbard’s race for President appears to be going nowhere. Were she to be transformed instead into a well-funded dark money/dark arts independent candidate, she could, like Jill Stein in 2016, play a disruptive role. But she doesn’t need to run as a third party candidate (which she said on August 29 she wouldn’t do)  to be a factor. All she needs is a platform to make claims like Assad and his ilk are not enemies, push Putin talking points about America and NATO as warmongers, and reinforce Trump’s fear-mongering presumption that all Moslems are terrorists. She could stay in the race until the convention and give a powerful and memorable speech delegitimizing our democracy and have Russian operatives from now to next November amplify her message with a social media-driven counterfeit grassroots campaign.

Enter Hillary Clinton, who just transformed an important issue of legitimate public concern into a distracting sideshow.  She’s understandably still angry with Stein for her 2016 spoiler role and with Gabbard for her steadfast support of Bernie Sanders. Russian meddling and the Americans whom Putin may manipulate are a serious matter, but Hillary’s baggage undercuts her value as an effective Cassandra.

As Justin Amash (I-Mich.) the first Republican Congressman to endorse impeachment, said, Hillary Clinton’s attack suggesting that 2020 Democratic hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was being groomed by Russia to run as a third-party candidate,  “only helps President Trump‘s reelection efforts” and “bolsters Trump’s ‘hoax’ nonsense.” Gabbard doesn’t have to be a traditional Russian asset. Simply being “a useful idiot” featured on sites and bots used by the Russians to poison public dialogue and distort our political process can position Gabbard as a disruptive factor in 2020.

For Hillary Clinton, an otherwise highly intelligent person, to insert herself wittingly as the messenger of this insidious intrigue effectively makes her a Donald Trump asset and a boon to Vladimir Putin. Somewhere Vladimir Lenin is laughing his head off.

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