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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George H. W. Bush benefits from Trump comparison

When we mourn the passing of former President George H. W. Bush, we are mourning the passing of an era, a time when public service was an honor,  military service was an important component, when politicians would reverse their positions if they deemed it important for the country despite its impact on their own careers. We honor the 41st President’s civility, humility, self-deprecating humor and authenticity as a devoted family man. We bemoan the absence of such characteristics in the current resident of the White House.

But these admirable qualities are not all there is to say about George Herbert Walker Bush. His resume probably made him one of the best prepared men ever to serve as President.  Following distinguished military service during WW II, “41” ran an oil company, served in Congress, ran the Central Intelligence Agency, was ambassador to China and vice president under Ronald Reagan. He was at the center of a powerful network cutting across the banking, oil and intelligence worlds.

He presided with a steady hand over the transition to a post-Cold War World, helped shape the reunification of Germany and, in Desert Storm, showed how to build an international alliance to stop aggressor nations. He signed the Americans with Disability Act and created his Thousand Points of Light Foundation to encourage volunteerism. But whenever I think of the 41st President, I am also reminded that he named Clarence Thomas to the U. S. Supreme Court. And his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis succeeded with the blatantly racist and infamous Willie Horton ad. Even sinister Bush strategist Lee Atwater, as he neared death, apologized for that.  As far as I know, Bush never did.

My principal personal contact with him was on the Judy Jarvis television show in 1980, when Bush was running in the GOP presidential primary against Ronald Reagan. Bush had been pro-choice prior to his run and supported Planned Parenthood, but did a 180 to keep pace with Reagan.  I pressed him on his reversal; he danced around it, then got hot under the collar.  Eight years later, he was his party’s standard bearer and, I was told, was still angry with me. His abortion reversal was not unlike his later politically expedient willingness to support President Reagan’s tax cut, which he had earlier correctly decried as “voodoo economics.” By contrast, when he reversed the “Read my lips; no new taxes” pledge he ran on in 1988, he did it for the good of the country even though it hurt his reelection bid in 1992.  In that reversal , he was a statesman.

All these contradictions underline that George H.W. Bush was, like most of us, an imperfect nuanced human being, and today we remember and revere his better angels, those “kinder and gentler” characteristics so sorely missed on the national scene today. RIP George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States.

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Changing leadership with Pelosi at the helm

Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party is going to change. It’s not a question of whether but how and when.  Despite the best efforts of North Shore Congressman Seth Moulton, who is spearheading the movement to depose former and probably future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, she won overwhelming support of the Democratic caucus, with 203 voting for her, 32 voting no, and three blanking the race.  The final vote will be on the House floor in January, and much of the Democratic Party agenda depends on her ability to hold the party together and use her not inconsiderable leadership skills to restore the balance of power in Washington.

The 78-year-old Congresswoman has led the party since 2002. We can argue that objections to Pelosi are exacerbated because many people still object to “strong women.” There is a bias despite the fact that she has been an extraordinary leader, incomparable fund raiser, and the single most important person in getting the Affordable Care Act passed (It should be called PelosiCare more than ObamaCare.) She is also expected to play a key role in preserving it, especially protections to restricted coverage of pre-existing conditions.

But her top leadership team are also “of a certain age.”   (Some highly qualified legislators have left the House because they saw no path to upward mobility.)  She’ll need 218 votes of the House, if everyone votes. If Democrats in tight races who pledged to oppose her and voted against her in the caucus simply vote present in January, she’ll need fewer votes.

So far, Moulton has been unable to outplay Pelosi strategically. He couldn’t even find someone to run against her.  She shrewdly gave Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, whom Moulton had urged to mount the challenge,  chairmanship of a new subcommittee on voting reform.  It’s an important responsibility, at which Judge should do well.  There are other younger Reps whom Pelosi is moving up.

Moulton seems disinclined to run for Speaker himself, perhaps (when not courting Presidential buzz) preferring to position himself to run against Senator Ed Markey in 2020.  He supported a national network of veterans running for office, and clearly demonstrates he has an eye on a larger future. One hopes he hasn’t so ticked off Pelosi that it will reduce his effectiveness in Congress for the next two years. That would be bad for Massachusetts.  Moulton has been an outspoken proponent of the North-South rail link underneath Boston, connecting North Station with South Station, and linking Maine with destinations along the east coast.  Like the Big Dig, it can’t be built without significant federal support, something that would have been easier to achieve if Ayanna Pressley hadn’t defeated Michael Capuano, positioned to become chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the next Congress.  Now, Moulton might not even get Capuano’s seat on the committee.

He has drawn criticism for spearheading the opposition to Pelosi, but let’s give him credit for pressing the reform issue.  New rules are in the offing, giving more opportunities for bipartisanship, requiring hearings on bills, taking testimony, moving proposals through the process and actually holding votes.  He was independent and brave, but he seems to have gravely miscalculated Pelosi’s strength and the dangers of achieving a Pyrrhic victory.  Now he hints he’d back off if she publicly gives a date certain for stepping down.  Though she speaks of being a transitional Speaker, she has not given a firm date – and with good reason.

Once Paul Ryan announced he’d step down at the end of this term, he became a lame duck Speaker of the US House of Representatives, unable to advance a productive agenda.  Nancy Pelosi is working hard to avoid becoming irrelevant. One problem is the Democrats who tipped marginal districts blue and have pledged not to vote for Pelosi for Speaker.  They should be given breathing space to honor their pledge to constituents, lest they lose their districts in 2020. But, if Democrats coming from safe districts also insist on toppling the Speaker, digging in their heels and  sowing discord, it could be a blown opportunity to turn things around in Washington. The intra-party bloodbath could be dangerous now through 2020.

The insurgents should consider the move by MA Congressman Steve Lynch, one of the 16 signatories to a Moulton-inspired letter opposing Pelosi.  Notwithstanding his friendship with fellow signatory Tim Ryan of Ohio, Lynch has recently said he will not, in fact, oppose Pelosi. Doubtless he doesn’t want the kind of chaos created by the Freedom Party when it toppled Republican Speaker John Boehner. Watch Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter and similar Pelosi “no” votes  work behind the scenes in a not-readily transparent strategy to effect a quiet transition plan with consequences for failure to honor it.

Without a rigid exit plan,  Pelosi can remain effective while laying the groundwork for the younger generation, providing them opportunities to show what they’re capable of.  Too little attention has been paid to building a bench, in effect the bridge to the future.  More than anyone in the House at this time, Pelosi has a chance to break gridlock around immigration, health care, infrastructure and other policy changes while restoring the balance of power in Washington and holding the President accountable for his stewardship, or lack thereof.   It seems a deal worth making.

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Hillary 4.0? Spare us, please!

Her emails are coming more frequently, especially in the wake of the midterm election. She is doing more interviews and being coy about whether there is another Presidential bid in her life. And before 2018 ballot counts were complete, an op ed in the Wall Street Journal  by Mark Penn, for 13 years a Clinton pollster and adviser made it clear that yet another Hillary Clinton candidacy is a likelihood. She ba-ack!

I was a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, partly Wellesley College pride in the highly accomplished woman uniquely prepared for the nation’s highest office and partly because she is smart, experienced, worldly, visionary and strong. I’ve seen her charisma in person though it rarely comes through on television. She is funny and warm, though that isn’t always clear. But she was a terribly flawed candidate.  The finances of the Clinton Foundation, the sources of their donations, were uncomfortably squirrelly. She had a tin ear (need I say more than “basket of deplorables?”).  She was elitist and spoke in such a lawyer-like manner it seemed she had much to hide.

PBS analyst Mark Shields has put numbers on how disliked Hillary is.  After the 2008 race, Obama’s  favorability was 57 %; John McCain was viewed favorably by 54% by voters . ..meaning both party standard-bearers were viewed favorably by a majority of the American people.  After the 2016 election, Donald Trump was viewed favorably by 41 percent of the American people; 55 percent viewed him unfavorably.  Hillary’s favorability was also 41 percent, and 56 percent viewed her unfavorably.  In other words, said Shields at a recent meeting of the New England Council, Donald Trump running against himself would have lost. The only reason he won was that he was running against Hillary Clinton.

As a partial explanation of the 2016 outcome, Shields went on to quote entertainer and sex symbol Mae West:  “If forced to choose between two evils, I’d rather the one I haven’t tried yet.”

And then there was Bill, he of the ill-considered private meeting on the tarmac in Phoenix with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  Or the murky  ethics of the Clintons in raising money for their foundation.  And then there was his sexual relationship with young  intern Monica Lewinsky. Hillary is still defending her husband’s behavior as between two consenting adults and refuses to publicly acknowledge his wrongdoing.  Voter revulsion at returning Bill to the White House played a role in costing her the Presidency.

Would I prefer HRC to the incumbent in the White House?  You bet.  And yes, she did decisively win the popular vote in 2016, and she could have been a terrific President. But Hillary’s negatives remain as high as Donald Trump’s. The Clintons need to go away, or at least be quiet.  They have successfully monetized their years in politics.  Their minions still adore them and are willing to shell out more cash to attend the Clintons’ high-priced speaking tour across the country. Enough.  The Former Firsts should settle back, enjoy their grandchildren, and not drag their weighty baggage into the 2020 campaign to rid the country of the scourge that is Donald Trump.

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Dems win House: Divided We Stand

For two years, those turned off by Donald Trump and Republicans’ acquiescence to him have strategized to take back the House of Representatives and even, against great odds, the Senate. A great many worked to make that happen, sending checks out of state, working phone banks, talking up new candidates. Last night, that goal was realized for the House.  Finally, we have taken a step toward holding the President and his minions accountable.

In the days leading up to the midterm election, some of us in “the bubble” allowed ourselves to believe that the Democrats could pull out a win in the Senate. But that was not to be.  Give the President  full credit for bolstering his base in red states, by telling whatever lies and stoking whatever fears seemed necessary at the time. Nine of 11 candidates he rallied with in the week before the election won.  His strategy worked in Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee and North Dakota.  He still retained the strong loyalty of white males, especially those without college education, and rural voters, while driving away independents and college-educated suburban women who had helped elect him in 2016.  Can he win a second term in 2020 just playing to his base?  The structure of the electoral college means that millions of anti-Trump popular votes could be wasted. Democrats have their work cut out for them.

Marquee Democrats like Florida’s Andrew Gillum, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke looked to be pulling ahead just before the polls opened.  Some observers drank the kool-aid, only to be disappointed this morning. Those emerging stars lost by significantly less than the margin of error.  That they and others came close in red states could augur well for the future. But losing now is still losing and, in the case of governors, will hurt with 2021 redistricting.

There are plenty of disturbing notes.  Race baiting and well funded big lies still work.  The stench of Jim Crow voter suppression is alive in Georgia and elsewhere. Swamp draining and corruption don’t seem to matter despite GOP law-and-order slogans. Republicans easily reelected California’s Duncan Hunter and New York’s Chris Collins, both of whom are under indictment (misuse of campaign funds and felony insider trading, respectively). Trump, who at his press conference today, said he had no regrets regarding campaign tactics, including endorsing a xenophobic and racist political ad that even Fox rejected. He wholeheartedly supported the shamelessly racist and re-elected Iowa Cong. Steve King.

The good news is that a record number of diverse and highly qualified women were elected to the House, though they still hold fewer than a quarter of the seats. Hillary Clinton didn’t win white college-educated voters in 2016; she was rightly pilloried for describing some Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” For many reasons, large numbers of white suburban women opposed returning the Clintons to the White House. This time, significant numbers of those same women voted Democrat.  This group must be part of any realignment, but the nation remains toxically divided, and the Democrats failed to make inroads to other parts of the Trump coalition.

Despite regaining control of the House, Democrats are far from holding a decisive balance of power.  Doing better than expected in certain Senate races is not the same as winning. By losing seats in  the Senate,  Democrats leave approval of judiciary appointees in the hands of Senate Republicans and the President, who, following recommendations of the Federalist Society, are remaking the courts in their own hard-right image. It is they who may have the last word on presidential accountability, voting rights, reproductive rights, consumer issues, environmental and safety regulations and more. We will be dealing with that for generations to come.

The answer right now is for Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to fashion a bipartisan program of incremental improvements to the health care system, which was a driving force in many House races,  shape a real drain-the-swamp clean government program and deal with our crumbling infrastructure.  But they can’t stop there.  The challenge since 2016 has been reaching out and winning over some of the nearly 50 percent of voters who, sad to say, have no buyer’s remorse concerning Trump and still feel he speaks for them.

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Pre-midterm jitters

With no Red Sox diversion, tomorrow’s midterms have produced difficulty sleeping and stress eating.  Even the daily comics are filled with reminders of what hangs in the balance.  If the Republicans lose the House, Donald Trump will say the outcome wasn’t about him. But this midterm is the first national referendum on the President and on what we want the character of this country to be.

At every rally where he has taken his mendacious, racist, misogynist, divisive fear-mongering rants, he has said, “A vote for [name the Republican candidate] is a vote for me.”  And it surely is. It is also about access to health care, and about reasonable immigration policy and strength from diversity.  It is about the economy, the power of the corporations, and income inequality.  It’s about whether the United States should continue to be the leader of the free world, committed to building global alliances, to avoid problem solving by wars. It is no less about creating racial and religious equality, respect for women, access for the disabled.  It’s about whether our First Amendment implies a free press or whether the media are the enemy of the people.  Most of all, it’s about our capacity for civil discourse irrespective of our differences on a range of policy matters.

Right now, I’m guardedly optimistic about the House changing hands. The Senate remains a heavy lift, though recent polls are increasingly upbeat about some key Senate races. That said, we mustn’t forget the wrong-headed 2016 polls and what NBC’s Chuck Todd calls the errors of “the national smarty-pants people.”  Remember, Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss was “margin-of-error” predictable.

That leaves us back to worrying about whether the millennials and minorities will vote in substantially greater numbers than they have before, whether the bad weather forecast for huge swaths of the country will deter their participation, and whether last-minute dirty tricks by one candidate or another (especially secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas) will further suppress the vote and skew the outcome.

With so much at stake and so many races neck and neck, tomorrow promises to be a late night.  Optimally, it will be an outcome worth staying up late for.

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