Walsh’s “State-of-the-City”: a clarion call

If you want to hear everything our national government now is not, listen to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s state-of-the-city address.  In a rousing half-hour speech at Symphony Hall, he credibly held out Boston as a model to be emulated nationally. It was a spirited reminder of how pathetically the federal government is failing to meet most of the challenges the nation is facing.  It was a welcome chronicling of ills that face our nation that Boston is doing something about.

Walsh cited Boston’s accomplishments in creating economic opportunity and jobs (a 2.4 percent unemployment rate in the city), developing affordable housing, reducing crime, addressing climate change, stemming opioid addiction, investing in education and expanding diversity.  And, if you think that recounting is merely aspirational, that there is much more to do, so, too, does the mayor, who doubled down on his commitments to social progress and middle class opportunity.

The point is: these values are precisely those that have gone dark in the Trump administration. Boston alone can’t  end global warming, but it is developing a  resilience plan to deal with rising sea levels. Racism abides here as elsewhere, but there’s now an Office of Diversity, new representation of minorities in the political hierarchy, a first-ever African-American police commissioner, and a commitment to tackle the lack of diversity in the city’s fire department. The NAACP is reportedly considering Boston for its 2020 convention.

While our crime rate has gone down, the murder rate has not, but perhaps some of Walsh’s social justice and economic initiatives will ultimately be reflected in an improvement there.  While major investments have been made in school structures, there’s still a performance gap for minority students.  Walsh is making his case at the State House for better education funding and better ways to expand housing. When in the last two years were any of these policies even discussed in Washington, much less achieved?

As they say on Jersey Street, “Mahty” hit it out of the park!  Unlike his stiff presentations upon taking office, he was really into this speech, his delivery polished, his cadence natural, his emphasis authentic. At the end, he told his pumped-up audience that he and Republican Governor Charlie Baker would be going together to Washington to ask for help in housing, transit, and the environment.  As he put it, “Instead of building a wall, let’s show them how to build bridges.”

The ending was a triumph: “If you want to learn how to bring people together, not push them apart, look to Boston. If you want to grow good jobs and rebuild the middle class, look to Boston. If you want to see how social justice strengthens all of us, look to Boston. If you want to cut crime, protect the environment, lift Americans up and leave no one behind, build a more perfect union? Then look to the city of hope and heart. Look to the city of courage and champions. At a time when cities must lead, look to Boston, the leader of cities.”  The electricity in Symphony Hall was palpable, even for those watching from home.  We know good things aren’t happening in Washington. But surely it’s not naive to be reassured that, in a different way, they are happening in Boston and other leading cities nationwide.

When Massachusetts residents traveling cross-country or abroad are asked where they are from, they typically answer Boston, not Wayland or Swansea or Fall River. And that makes sense. Many of Boston’s challenges are still works in progress, but this is a progression in which we can take legitimate pride, and that’s just as it should be.

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Getting beyond the wall

It’s motif  #1, the President bragging about having the biggest, being the smartest, (“I alone can fix it,”), master negotiator and  uber deal maker.  We can dispute his hyperbolic claims, but we all can agree that under his leadership Americans now  have the longest-lasting (partial) government shutdown in our  nation’s history.  800,000 government workers and countless others dependent on their services are collateral damage. But for what?

They’re hostages in an extortion plot for $5 billion to pander to his anti-immigration base, fulfilling a leading campaign promise. We know from blackmailers and protection racketeers that this would likely not be a one-time deal. Estimates to build the wall as high as Trump envisioned are in the $30 billion range. So, there could be another shutdown-shakedown next year.   He hasn’t even spent the funds Congress authorized for border security last year, and nor specified in detail what this $5.7  billion would be used for.

National emergency? It wasn’t for the past two years when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress. And current plans don’t call for full implementation of his emergency proposals for years.

Trump would rather sustain his manufactured crisis, keep his anti-immigrant scare tactics alive to whip up and distract his supporters than solve real problems.  He continues to lie about real border security issues.

For every cherry-picked example of illegal-immigrant violence, there are multiple horror stories where the perps are long-time citizens. The crime rate among non-legal immigrants is consistently lower than among the general population.

Steel barriers, the alternative to his concrete wall, were not, as he claims, a Democrat request, and NBC illustrated that one of his vaunted steel slat prototypes can be cut with Home Depot purchased tools. Trump appears to have ignored evidence of the sophisticated tunnels created by El Chapo and other Mexican drug lords to bring drugs into the US at depths far below the pilings of any wall or fence proposals. So, too, would the barriers not block drones and similar technologies designed to go over them. Contrary to Trump, most illegal drugs come into the country through legal points of entry, and some of the most dangerous opioids are flow in from China.  If the President is really serious about the impact of drugs coming in from Mexico, what is his policy to cut US demand for the product?

Children smuggled by so-called coyotes and forced to enter are fewer than the one percent of family apprehensions, and illegal immigration at the southern border is at a 14-year low. A far greater potential problem is the number of visitors why fly into the US lawfully and overstay their visas. Canadians lead the world in US visa overstays.

There are legitimate needs for fixed security barriers along the southern border, and some of the fencing already there needs repair. But most of the border between US and Mexico is the Rio Grande and hundreds of miles east of San Diego Tijuana are mountains. It’s unclear to what extent the administration has considered the myriad legal, cultural, agricultural and environmental issues in establishing a full border barrier. Texas property owners are still litigating eminent domain lawsuits against Obama-era border security moves. If Trump stumbles forward here, and makes things worse by reallocating post-Harvey flood remediation funds, he could turn Texas blue faster than Beto O’Rourke can.

So, what to do?  Trump is digging in, fearing that this is his “read my lips, no new taxes” moment, an existential threat to his re-election. For new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this is also a defining moment. Neither wants to back down. The ball is in the court of Senate Republicans. They can go big or go small. Going big means to make it a Nixon-goes-to- China moment and put forward a bipartisan immigration bill, including enhanced border security, a DACA deal and other provisions supported by most members.  Or they can go small, just keep the government open with continuing resolutions and continue to fight.

Either way, the President has more options than just signing something he abhors or vetoing the bill and challenging the Congress to override. He can do what other Presidents have done when faced with important legislation that included elements they couldn’t abide. Use Article 1 Section 7, and let it become law after ten days on his desk without his signature. But to get to this point Mitch McConnell will have to be more statesman than partisan hack.  Anyone taking bets?

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Elizabeth Warren: U.S. President or Massachusetts Senator?

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s first televised interview as a nearly announced presidential candidate was with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.  The interaction was about as challenging as a Donald Trump interview with Sean Hannity.  From there, she went on to Iowa, where the questions got a little bit tougher and are just a foretaste of what she will have to confront going forward.

There is no doubt that Warren’s populist message should resonate, even among some Obama voters-turned-Trump Republicans.  She is smart and accomplished: witness her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is courageous, a stand-up leader, and in tune with values that need more effective champions in the public arena. So what is that “something about Elizabeth” that turns some people off?

There’s still a lot of misogyny in the world.  #MeToo is a movement, not a majority. A female candidate must be strong, but not castrating. She must be bold, but not divisive.  She must be feminine, but not shrill. You get the idea.  Despite the encouraging success of female candidates in 2018, this tricky challenge still confronts virtually any woman who aspires to the nation’s highest offices.

Many who like Warren’s populist economic message nonetheless see her style of messaging as that of a liberal school marm. Others have called her a “scold,”  which sociologists have long taken as a proxy for gender bias. For some who won’t acknowledge gender bias, likability becomes the code for such expressions of gender prejudice. If Trump is the candidate, it will be especially challenging for any female to win in 2020.

The metrics of likability are nothing new and not gender-specific. Remember that George W. was more “likable” than John Kerry. W was the candidate people preferred to have a beer with.  And, though he looks a lot better now than Donald Trump, the beer buddy test didn’t produce a better president than Kerry would have been, likable or not.

Some who would support a female nominee believe that Warren smacks of blue-state, coastal elitism,  which, along with other more significant negative characteristics, damaged Hillary Clinton. Warren’s personal biography, her up-from-Oklahoma-poverty rise to national prominence, could help counter that.  It’s an authentic story.  Other personal characteristics stand up less well. It’s fine that Elizabeth likes beer. So, in spades, does Brett Kavanaugh. But did she have to interrupt a New Year’s Eve Instagram to go to the fridge and get a bottle, which she drank from?  Like Michael Dukakis in a helmet driving a tank, Warren was just trying too hard, suggesting a tin ear on the small things.  Not to mention how she handled the revelation of her DNA test, taken to get out ahead of the Pocahontas issue.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll not long ago found that 58 percent of Massachusetts residents thought Warren shouldn’t run for President.  Just 32 percent favored her running.  Many progressives with whom I have spoken support Senator Warren as an important voice nationally but fear she can’t win a race for President.  They desperately want her to play the role in the Senate that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank did for years in the House. Republicans, by contrast, are salivating for Warren to be the nominee, just as Democrats were lusting for Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2016.  That tells us something. Strange things do happen.

I have no doubt that Warren will improve as a candidate, and her presence early on will help shape the national dialogue.  Even if she ultimately loses, the race should make her a better Senator, perhaps even becoming more comfortable dealing with the press. She has the potential to be a benchmark against which other progressive candidates will be measured.  She may also drive home a message that, given where the country is, the Democratic Party will do better with a more centrist nominee with broader appeal on issues and greater ability to reach across the aisle.

All the talking heads from MSNBC to Fox should knock it off in proclaiming that Elizabeth Warren is dead on arrival.  We’ll all benefit if the media and other pundits learn how to be more measured and thoughtful in covering the race.  The news media covered the 2016 race dishonorably and this time should learn from their shameful behavior. There are miles to go before we vote.

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Return to checks and balances brings hope

I have to post quickly before events reactivate the despair and cynicism of the last two years.  I felt a smile emerge when watching the swearing-in of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Imagine the pleasure of hearing about Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, establishing the Congress as a coequal branch of government, especially now when the House can be a positive force.

I was a sucker for the themes Pelosi raised: protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; recognizing the existential threat of climate change; pledging a legislative process that is transparent, unifying and bipartisan.  “Transparency will be the order of the day,” she averred, and Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee can make it happen.  She spoke about lowering drug prices, protecting pre-existing conditions, making important infrastructure investments, and, in H.R. #1, restoring integrity to government.

Will these promises be fulfilled?  I’ve been around for a long time, and I know the realities of the political process.  We can’t forget the obduracy of the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the likelihood of a Trump veto.  They’re both still here, but the craven Paul Ryan is history. For two years, we’ve lived in a world in which those issues and values articulated by Speaker Pelosi were scarcely mentioned.  And, if they were articulated, they came out of the mouths of people who couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth.

For  however long it lasts, I will wrap myself in the ray of hope that things will be a little different between now and 2020.  The Democrats need to deliver something or, if blunted by the continued toxicity of Donald Trump and complicity of Mitch McConnell, at least make clear what life would look like with a Democrat in the White House. Otherwise, they’ll likely face defeat in the Presidential election. The time is now, Ladies and Gentlemen. The rest of us need to stay engaged and demand accountability of those who claim to represent our values and goals.

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If it’s good enough for Taegan Goddard, it’s good enough for me

Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire is one of our best portals to reliable news sources, with postings throughout the day.  One of today’s posts reflects my own Trump/news fatigue, and Goddard’s short-term solution to it.  In a note to his readers, Goddard wrote, “Folks, I’m exhausted. The crushing amount of political news over the last three years has just about worn me out.” Noting that the next two years promise to be “even crazier,” he advised that, for the next week, Political Wire will not be updated at the normal pace.

Nick Kristof, is a two-time Pulitzer prize winning New York Times columnist whose articles often focus on international news and human rights issues. In a column called “My Biggest Duds, he reviewed those 2018  columns that “sent readers away in droves.” At the bottom of his barrel  he found those dealing with “+Me Too Goes Global,” adding human rights to North Korean negotiations,  a call for greater investment in global education. Sadly, he concluded  that “international  columns don’t get much of an audience, particularly if they aren’t about issues in the news and don’t relate to President Trump.”

Looking back at my blogs, it  seems the ones that have elicited the least reader engagement  have similarly been those dealing with international  topics. I wonder why? Please tell me. The greatest level of response  I get are those dealing with Trump and Congress— even from my readers in Australia, Thailand, Greece and France.

Like Taegan Goddard, I’m suffering from Trump fatigue   and have a sense of the onslaught of news to come. So, dear readers, I will try to take a week or ten days to avoid writing. One escape route is my plan to take a class on the poetic muse in American classical music.  Could anything be further from him who shall not be named?   And, if I fall off the wagon, it will not be for Donald Trump and his stupefying craziness.  Who knows what Elysium fields I will discover?

As always, I appreciate your reading my blog, becoming followers, and your comments on the blog itself as well as on email, Facebook, Twitter and the old social medium of face-to-face!

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.  May 2019 bring you both prosperity and deep personal satisfaction.

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Listening to Ann Coulter not Jim Mattis: a recipe for disaster

photo Fortune

The menacing lion-like creature shook his orange mane, growled and chased me down the hill leading to the road where our house is. I sat bolt upright in bed, realizing it was just a bad dream that had disturbed my sleep. Later, in light of day, I realized our living nightmare is much more dangerous than anything that goes clunk in the night.

Our President has summarily, and against the virtually uniform advice of the defense sector’s best minds and experience, announced victory over ISIS, mission accomplished, and declared his intent to withdraw American troops from Syria.  While senior officials in Washington were dismayed, Vladimir Putin was lavishing praise on our dangerous, capricious, ignorant and narcissistic President.  How can he declare ISIS no longer a threat when a small but lethal core remains and nothing has been done to alleviate the conditions allowing the rise of that most vicious of terrorist groups?  How can he do this without a serious plan to protect the Kurds, our loyal allies against ISIS whom the Turks have promised to slaughter after we leave?  Trump is also pulling GI’s out of Afghanistan, a slightly more defensible move, but his decision was made precipitously and against strategic  advice of the defense community. There’s a difference between campaign rhetoric and responsibility once in office, and Trump has yet to learn this basic lesson.

Sadly today, the last of the “grown-ups” in the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, tendered his resignation.  Believing in good conscience he could no longer serve, he restated the importance of international alliances (which Trump is systematically vitiating) and the need to stand up to authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, whose leaders Trump is cozying up to.  Also today, Putin warned of the rising threat of nuclear war and blamed the United States for turning its back on existing treaties. As if that weren’t enough, North Korea today announced it wouldn’t give up its nuclear arsenal until the United States does likewise.  It’s unclear how much of Trump’s impulsive foreign policy gambits are wag-the-dog diversions from his week of adverse Bob Mueller investigation headlines and the tanking of the stock market. Whatever Trump’s reason, he’s playing with fire.

At home, Trump seems headed for a partial government shut-down (including parts of the defense and homeland security departments) because he got criticized by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh for failing to build his wall.  Congress seems as unlikely to shell out $5 billion for it as Mexico is to ante up.  Trump doesn’t care that illegal immigration is at its lowest in years.  His racist rhetoric and policies on family separation for those seeking asylum continue, all part of pleasing his base. And the stories get worse. Twice as many children are being held without their families.  One little girl died last week, possibly due to dehydration. A Yemeni mother tried for a year to enter the United States to join her husband and son, who are U.S. citizens. Her tiny son is dying in a hospital in Oakland, but the Trump  administration wouldn’t permit entry to anyone from Yemen. It was only under public outcry that they relented and granted her a waiver to come and hold her child, dying from a rare brain disease. Republicans controlling Congress have been enablers for nearly two years.  Shame on them.

Meanwhile, Trump continues his attacks on my former colleagues in the news media, which, given the craven silence of the President’s own party, are now the only voices of reality with any clout.  He continues to undermine their standing, and, worse, many foreign leaders now emulate his despicable behavior with impunity. Fifty-three journalists have been killed this year, including four at the Capital Gazette in Maryland. Perhaps the most odious  was the Saudi-directed murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington, DC resident writing for The Washington Post. And Trump sides with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who denies culpability though our own intelligence and defense communities assert otherwise.

Under Trump, we are living in a world gone mad, and it’s a very scary thing. It’s staggering that Trump’s approval nationally is still around 42 percent, and support of so-called Republicans remains at 85 percent. What is wrong with these people?  Do they not realize where he is leading this country?  I’d like to go back to sleep and remain dormant at least until the Democrats take over the House the first week in January.  As last night’s dream suggests, however, sleep is no longer a haven.

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Non-fiction books for season’s gifts – or just for you

You’re probably as sick of the daily news cycle as I am, despite the satisfaction of seeing the progress of the Mueller investigation.  Still, I highly recommend House of Trump, House of Putin,  by former Boston Magazine editor Craig Unger.  This well researched tome documents a Donald Trump who is a wholly owned asset of Vladimir Putin.  Starting in the early ‘90’s, the kleptocracy in the former Soviet Union, having raided formerly state-owned enterprises and skimmed resources,  needed places outside Russia to place their money.  At about the same time, with the demise of his empire (Trump shuttle, three Trump casinos, metastatic Trump real estate empire, including the Plaza Hotel), Trump was an estimated $2 billion in debt and down to his last $1.6 million. Real estate was the perfect place for the Russians to park their ill-gotten gains.  By paying cash and not borrowing from banks (with all their pesky disclosure requirements), the Russian mafia was a natural partner for the Donald. Vladimir Putin was  also involved with the Russian mob. The Trumps, pere and fils, already had a working relationship with organized crime in the construction business.  It was a natural fit.  Ah, if we only had seen Trump’s tax returns during his candidacy.  During trips to Russia to explore opportunities to build Trump Towers there, his “social” activities were duly monitored and recorded according to KGB (now FSB) custom, all of which helped Russians intrude in our electoral process and ultimately perhaps change the course of our history.

If you’re intent on avoiding Trump but still want a well-researched and informative piece of non-fiction, try  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, an exhaustive biography of the writer of the Little House on the Prairie series and her family. But, while the narrative focuses on the Ingalls then Wilder families and Laura’s relationship with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also a prodigious but controversial writer, Prairie Fires is the story of the hard-scrabble existence of the earliest settlers in rural America. The reader is dropped into the lives of pioneers settling in Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, and Kansas at the end of the 19th century, when government policy was to displace Native Americans to facilitate the opening of new territories. We come to understand the shortcomings of the Homestead Act, which gave opportunity seekers access to their own land, often acreage that couldn’t sustain farming, and the travails of drought, wind storms, fire, insects, blizzards, and grinding poverty that made their lives gritty and often impossible. Wilder supplemented their meager farm income by writing articles for farmer’s magazines and women’s journals until, after the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, she started writing children’s books. Adult readers came to love them as well. Her writing helped shape the mythology of American self-reliance and its emphasis on human dignity, determination, faith, and optimism. In that spirit, Wilder and Lane became fierce critics of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal for what they saw as undermining individualism and self-reliance. Well, yes, it does resonate with contemporary red state politics, but at least it’s Trumpless.  Thanks to Peg Scully for recommending it to me.

Two sports books that are pleasurable reads.

The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 by  George Howe Colt.  Perhaps you remember the newspaper headline “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”  This entertaining book tells in great detail the story of that legendary game, called by many afficionados the greatest college football team in history. Both teams were undefeated, but Yale had rolled its opponents all season, and Harvard had won by far narrower margins.  Harvard was undoubtedly the weaker team and significantly behind for the first three quarters of the game. Many of the Harvard fans, including loyal alums, had left Harvard Stadium and headed for home. Yale was still ahead by 16 points in the last 46 seconds of the game, when, with grit and determination, Harvard tied it up. Both teams were undefeated for the season. Yale viewed it as a humiliating loss; for Harvard, it was a triumph. But the book is about so much more.  It was, after all the Vietnam War era, and the campus was split by those who initially saw it as their patriotic duty to support the war, and those ardent opponents, many of whom ended up occupying University Hall, the administration building.  The book is a splendid history of the era, what the game meant to the participants and what happened to the players, coaches and college administrators as their lives went in different directions in the wake of the social, cultural and intellectual upheavals of 1968.

Finally, there’s Mark Leibovich’s newest book Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times  in which he skewers the culture of the National Football League as acutely as he rearranged the anatomy of politicians in his last best-seller This Town.  And guess what? The men of the NFL, especially the billionaire owners, are as petty, hypocritical, testosterone-driven and narcissistic as many of our national political leaders. Leibovich also explores the relationship between many of the owners and Donald Trump, each craving the adulation of the other. In fact, Leibovich posits, if Trump had been allowed to buy the Buffalo Bills when he wanted to, he might not have needed the toy of the Presidency. As always, Leibovich allows colorful characters like Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons magnate Arthur Blank to reveal themselves by their voices, dress and mannerisms. In the process, the author’s candor about his own lifelong love of the Patriots and TB12 exposes the fans’ craziness. A great behind-the-scenes look at the pro-football-dominant culture.  Ultimately, the book fails as an escape from politics, but it is great fun.

Next time, a better escape from politics into fiction.

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