James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    The Test Trump Failed

    Each president faces defining moments in the wake of tragedy that test his character—and Trump left no illusion as to what his supporters are embracing.

  • More in the Chickenhawk Chronicles

    Following this item on Donald Trump’s (ill-advised) criticism of Richard Blumenthal’s military record, and this exchange of reader mail, several more responses. I’m not planning an open-ended forum of everyone’s Vietnam-era memories, but I think these offer a valuable range of perspectives. More ahead.

    From a recent veteran:

    It is fascinating for me—a Millennial veteran, whose service was like that of Al Gore’s—to see the feedback you received from boomers on the Vietnam-era decisions that were made.

    As a brief extra bit of background I can draw a straight line from 9/11 to my decision to serve. But I also made my decision as a response to the “Support Our Troops” marches in March 2003 regarding a theater I was morally ambiguous about (but did not oppose at the time). I can also draw a straight line from my service to my cynicism with the U.S. military and neo-con policy.

    Your readers’ inputs show how much has changed in the era of the all-volunteer military. The Vietnam War is something still hotly debated, whereas I don’t know how many folks will talk seriously about Iraq—it’s so esoteric to most Americans. On the flip side, having played sports at an overseas base myself, the experience of the baseball player blows my mind a bit. It’s nice to know the military has changed for the better in some ways.

    There were two other points from your first reader that I find interesting. The first is this:

    “By the mid- to late-sixties, it was clear that Vietnam was a crime, a mistake, and an accidental catastrophe. Was this position morally ambiguous?”

    Yes, I still think the Vietnam War was and is a morally ambiguous moment in American history. Better thinkers than I have written to defend America's involvement, so I won’t re-hash their arguments. However, I also have the utmost respect for those who opposed the war. MLK and Muhammad Ali displayed a courage that just did not need to exist in the era of Iraq with an all volunteer military.

    But that brings up the other fascinating thing to me—the quote of yours about being unable to affect national policy. The crazy thing is, y’all did affect national policy! The Vietnam War ended. That’s how democracy should work—an anti-war movement shook up a major political party and pulled us out of a fight we weren’t losing because our involvement was not in line with what they believed our country should stand for.

    Again—that hasn’t happened in today’s wars. They are endless, nobody has enough skin in the game to put on large-scale protests, and the DOD has largely insulated the average civilian from exposure to the wars rather than openly debate whether this is how American power should be used. They are talking of an Afghan viceroy in the White House!?

    You’ve written about how the Iraq War was far less defensible than Vietnam, but our run-up to war was an unstoppable year-long process. There was no Gulf of Tonkin incident, just a highly covered invasion and then 14 years of mission creep around the world because people are scared of terrorism.

    I don’t want to sound nostalgic for Vietnam-era civil-military relations, nor do I intend to frame Vietnam as a positive counterpoint to our current situation. More Americans died then, returning service members had a far less positive experience than I did, and your baseball contributor highlights the waste that came in a large army of draftees. But I do think there is much we can and should learn from Vietnam and the past 16 years as we wrestle with how best to apply American power in the current and future, and how best to check American power with American democracy.

    ***

  • Trump and the Chickenhawk Chronicles

    Demonstrators protest the Vietnam War during a speech by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Chicago on March 15, 1966. Larry Stoddard / AP

    Late last night I did an item arguing that Donald Trump represented a classic “chickenhawk” figure from the Vietnam era—someone who didn’t complain about the war, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him personally. With that background behind him, I claimed, it was all the more unseemly for Trump to criticize what anyone else had done in that era, from the long-time prisoner of war John McCain to the one-time Marine Corps reserve member Richard Blumenthal.

    Responses have come in on all sides of this debate. I’ll revive this thread, started after my “Chickenhawk Nation” article two years ago, because the arguments are in fact connected to those earlier discussions. (By the way, where did the contemporary term “chickenhawk” come from, to denote people who are all in favor of wars that someone else will fight? The first use I’m aware of was by my friend Michael Kinsley, then in his role as TRB columnist for The New Republic, in the mid-1980s.)

    Here are two dispatches from different perspectives. First, from someone who runs a tech company on the East coast, and who thinks I was too dismissive of the “Consistent Non-Warriors,” like Bill Clinton:

    You describe those who opposed the Vietnam War, and who refused to participate in it, dismissively: “At least they’re consistent.” Part of the Great Chickenhawk Consensus, which you have so ably documented, holds that we must all atone for the sin of being right, that we ought to pretend that the War in Vietnam was just or that its end was clearly ordained.

    [Quoting me:]The brutal fact that it was easier, for opponents of the war, to keep themselves from being involved than to change the whole nation’s policy left this group with its moral ambiguity.

    I admire the modesty that underlies your description of those with principled opposition to participating in the War in Vietnam here, but I think it’s questionable both on the historical politics and in its contemporary echoes.

    By the mid- to late-sixties, it was clear that Vietnam was a crime, a mistake, and an accidental catastrophe. Was this position morally ambiguous? I thought then, and to a considerable extent still believe, that the morally treacherous position was the one held by those who knew the war was wrong, but chose to aid it anyway. Those were the returning veterans we scorned, and (though most people today pretend otherwise) they deserved scorn: They went off to kill, they knew better, and in choosing to aid the war they made it harder for their compatriots to end it.

    The moral position of the “Warriors” is scarcely better. Some, of course, were ignorant. Some were misled. Thoughtful professionals knew, or should have known, that the war was a crime and a criminal waste; those who allowed themselves to be used to extend and prolong the war deserve scant commendation.

    After the Civil War, the US allowed itself to believe things it knew to be untrue for the sake of restoring the union. We always knew there was no Noble Cause, but we pretended otherwise. We knew that Lee and his fellows had committed treason, but it seemed a time to be magnanimous. A nation was patched together, though at great cost—a cost we continue to pay in remission of every last drop of blood drawn with the lash.

    We’ve tried the same trick with the memory of Vietnam, hoping to find unity by ceding a merely rhetorical victory to the losers. That unity was always elusive, and after Trump it may well be forever broken.

    For what it’s worth, my use of “at least they’re consistent” was meant to be wry shorthand, rather than dismissive. After all, this is the group in which I classified myself. As for the moral ambiguities, they centered on reluctance to face who was being drafted and sent off to fight, as the better-educated, better-connected young men were deferred, but at this point that is thoroughly plowed terrain.

    ***

    Next, from a reader who was playing professional baseball, in the minor leagues, as the war ramped up:

    I was playing ball in the ’60s and, through the team, got onto a “special” National Guard unit.  I did have to go to Basic Training, but did not have to attend meetings.  Until, of course, the whole matter became political and the Guard became sensitive …  

    My [baseball] career was going nowhere because of injuries, was moving every few months to different parts of the country, and I had zero interest in “participating” in the hopelessly juvenile antics of the guard. A knee surgery accorded me the opportunity to exit that organization gracefully.

  • Yuri Gripas / Reuters

    Chickenhawk in Chief

    The president believed someone should be over in Vietnam fighting—so long as it wasn't him.

  • Four Positive Developments—and a Negative One

    Carlos Barria / Reuters

    Two weeks ago I wrote about the things that had gone as expected in the Trump era—namely, the character and conduct of the man himself—plus a roundup of parts of the civic fiber that were responding more healthily than one might have expected, under unusual stress.

    Here are few other illustrations of what they call in the aeronautics world “positive dynamic stability”: That is, a system that pushes back against dangerous dislocations after being upset, and tries to return itself to normal.

    Boy Scouts

    The Boy Scout Jamboree is a huge event that happens only once every four years. Whoever is president is always invited to speak. After Donald Trump converted this year’s Jamboree into a backdrop for a wholly inappropriate partisan rally (as explained by Yoni Appelbaum), the head of Boy Scouts of America publicly apologized for what had happened and implicitly criticized Trump for what he had done:

    I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent.

    The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

    This past week a young Eagle Scout named Benjamin Pontz, now a sophomore at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, wrote an eloquent rebuttal in his hometown news site, Lancaster Online. For instance:

    I am disappointed in the president for exploiting a captive audience of young people to engage in flagrant self-promotion and to widen the chasm of division that pollutes our politics. I am disappointed in attendees who applauded the president as he demeaned his predecessor Barack Obama (who, incidentally, was involved in scouting), his former opponent Hillary Clinton, and the media.

    And I am disappointed in commenters on social media who posted horrifying side-by-side images and comparisons of the Jamboree and Hitler Youth rallies.

    Each group—presented with a unique opportunity to celebrate values that should guide our nation—displayed an appalling lack of self-control.

    Pontz went on to offer a quite good alternative speech—which by an overwhelming margin visitors to the site said they wish Trump had given instead.

    Police

    After Trump told an audience of uniformed police officers on Long Island that he wished they would physically rough up suspects in their custody, some members of the immediate audience cheered and laughed. By the next day police units and organizations across the country were formally rebuking the president for what he said. An early, terse, and direct example was a Twitter statement from Ben Tobias, of the Gainesville, Florida, police:

    Via Twitter

    Even the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, where Trump had spoken, quickly criticized what he had said.

    The Military

    After Trump decreed, via Twitter, that henceforth transgender people would not be able to serve in the military, the leaders responsible for actually running the military emphasized that normal rules, procedures, and standards would still apply. For instance, the next-day headline in Politico’s story was, “Pentagon takes no steps to enforce transgender ban.” The officers and civilian leaders who were quoted emphasized their adherence to established order for setting and changing policy, and the respect owed to their “brothers and sisters in uniform” who had chosen to serve.

    Congress

    Through Trump’s first six months in office, there were no signs that Republicans in Congress would consider anything he said or did to be a step too far. Many senators and representatives would express “concern”; almost none would back up the concern with votes.

    The defeat of the health-repeal bill this past week is obviously a major step in the other direction, led by Republican Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain. On their returns home, Collins and Murkowski have apparently been greeted as heroes. (I haven’t seen these accounts regarding McCain, but he has been returning for medical treatment.) For instance, see this report by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald in Maine of Collins’s trip back to the state a few hours after the vote:

    Friday morning, as she wearily walked off her plane at Bangor International Airport, Collins stepped out into a terminal gate packed with passengers waiting to board their outbound flight.

    She recognized no one. But several of them recognized her and began to applaud.

    Within seconds, the whole terminal was clapping, many people rising to their feet as their sleep-deprived senator passed.

    Never before, throughout her two decades and 6,300 votes in the Senate, had Collins received such a spontaneous welcome home.

    A story in the Washington Post quoted several Republican senators as saying that if Trump fired their ex-colleague Jeff Sessions from his role as attorney general, or Robert Mueller as special counsel, the GOP might move beyond “concern” to actually doing something. If it comes to that, we’ll see what actions match this talk, but even the changed talk is something.

    Signs like these don’t solve the problem of our national government. But it is worth noting them, and encouraging more, as indicators that some parts of our formal and informal civic-society can still function.

    * * *

    On a less cheering note, four days ago the New York Times’ new columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece called “When the White House Lies About You,” about an unfounded and willfully distorted attack that White House officials had launched against him. Stephens is a conservative who was very tough on Trump before the election and has kept it up afterwards. His complaint was well justified, and it was a good column that addressed a real problem—although I could not help but recall an even nastier and more personal attack that Stephens himself, then a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, had made in early 2013. It was one of a series of criticisms he wrote of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who was then about to become Barack Obama's second-term secretary of defense, and this one claimed that Hagel was disqualified because he reeked of anti-Semitism. (Reeked? “The odor is especially ripe.”)

    This was a charge that a prominent rabbi in Omaha called “extremely stupid” and that the former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald argued against in a column titled, “Impressive Omaha Jewish Support for Chuck Hagel.” Hagel’s time in the spotlight has come and gone, and in moving from the WSJ’s editorial page to the NYT’s Stephens is in a new role. I have to think that he would imagine the effects of such a column differently these days.

    And as the object of baseless administration-driven criticism himself, he might even sympathize with someone he would usually oppose, the former Bill Clinton administration staffer and long-time Hillary Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal. As I’ve noted before, Sid Blumenthal and his wife Jackie have been personal friends of mine and of my wife for decades. His ongoing biography of Abraham Lincoln the politician, whose second volume has recently appeared (to mostly very favorable reviews), is grippingly and gracefully written, and tells me things I hadn’t known practically on every page.

    But Blumenthal’s name has become a shorthand for what people don’t like about “the Clintons” or “crooked Hillary,” and this past week a U.S. senator unfortunately stooped to that game. Charles Grassley, a veteran Republican from Iowa, put out a statement that was a classic of “what-about-ism”—the tactic of answering a criticism of your own side with “well what about [some transgression]?” from your opponents. In this case Grassley reacted to questions about the multiple, undisputed foreign entanglements of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager, by saying: What about Sidney Blumenthal? Why all the hubbub about Manafort’s failure to register as a foreign agent—when Sidney Blumenthal didn’t register either? (If you think I’m exaggerating you can read Grassley’s statement for yourself.) As chance would have it, Fox News picked up the theme, with a story titled “Clinton confidant Blumenthal back under microscope amid Trump scrutiny.”

    There are a lot of differences between the cases, but the simplest and most important one is this: Sidney Blumenthal was not a foreign agent. Love him or hate him, no one has produced any documents indicating that at any point he was ever in the pay of any foreign government, which is a clear contrast to Manafort. (Also: Donald Trump is in office and Hillary Clinton is not; Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager and Blumenthal had no official role; etc.)  

    I asked Sidney Blumenthal whether there was some aspect to this I wasn’t aware of—something that justified Sen. Grassley’s What about ..? pairing of his role with Manafort’s.  For the record, this is his reply:

    Senator Grassley’s statement is utterly baseless. I have never represented or taken money from any foreign government or foreign political party. To suggest otherwise is a flat-out lie. Senator Grassley has fabricated a completely false story to create a political distraction from the investigation into the intervention of an adversary foreign power in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. If he is relying on his memory it is faulty. If he is relying on his staff they are incompetent. If he is seeking to imitate Donald Trump he should instead think more of his responsibility in pursuing the truth.

  • Follow-Up on the Health-Care Vote: On the Media, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Pentimenti

    Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    After these recent items about the Senate’s failure to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care law—installments #1 (drawing a parallel with 1960s-era Senator Clair Engle), #2 (when McCain voted yes on Tuesday night), and #3 (when he finally voted no)—several follow-ups:

    On the Media

    Two days ago I spoke with Bob Garfield of On the Media about the varied roles John McCain has played during his long career, leading up to this past week’s votes. As I said in the earlier pieces and on the air, McCain got to cast the “decisive” vote only because Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had been firm in their opposition to the bill, along with the 46 Democrats (some from states Trump had carried) and two independents who voted no. Still, McCain is the only former presidential nominee now in the Senate, with a long and colorful career, so his deliberation deserves its extra examination. I thought this segment was interesting, because of the way OTM produced it with lots of historical sound clips from McCain. See what you think.

    Abraham Lincoln Brigade

    In our interview Bob Garfield brings up some episodes of John McCain’s unconventional comments, including  one involving Allahu Akbar. (I’ll let you listen to the tape to see the context.) Robert Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote to say that we missed the big story:

    I listened with interest today as you discussed McCain’s somewhat unique persona. But his arguably most “interesting” comments are these—celebrating the Communist Delmer Berg who fought in Spain with the Lincoln Brigade. No possible political calculation of gain could have inspired this piece—unless he knew I would remember it. But then, I did not exist in his world, so I think we must chalk it up to sincerity. How strange.

    It turns out that what he is referring to is a NYT op-ed last year by McCain,  under the headline “Salute to a Communist.” McCain—as a Republican U.S. senator up at the time up for reelection—wrote of Berg and his comrades who had fought against Franco’s forces in the 1930s with the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade:

    You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest. And even though men like Mr. Berg would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated—and rendered human dignity subservient to the state—I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.

    I have felt that way since I was boy of 12, reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my father’s study. It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, became my favorite literary hero. In the novel, Jordan had begun to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who tried to suborn it.

    But in the final scene of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for. And Jordan’s cause wasn’t a clash of ideologies any longer, but a noble sacrifice for love.

    “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan thinks as he waits to die, “and I hate very much to leave it.” But he did leave it. Willingly.

    Pentimento

    I mentioned in a dispatch yesterday that if more Republicans had realized John McCain would ultimately vote no and thus, with Collins and Murkowski, doom the bill whatever the rest of them did, they might have saved themselves an awkward yes by joining him on that side too.

    That was imprecisely put. The real difference McCain might have made to his soon-up-for-election colleagues, for instance Dean Heller of Nevada or Jeff Flake of Arizona, would be if he had voted no on the “Motion to Proceed” on Tuesday. This would have spared anyone the need to vote up or down on the bill that Lindsey Graham called a “disaster”—just before he, and all the rest of his fellow Republicans except Collins, Murkowski, and McCain went ahead and voted for it anyway.

    A law professor in the midwest writes in to clarify the point:

    I think Flake and Heller knew how McCain would be voting on the skinny repeal at least an hour, probably several hours, before it took place, and had time to consider the politics of their own votes. My guess is that they felt their own political futures were better served by voting the party line. Since the repeal and replace failed by virtue of the three Republican votes against (and the united 48 Dems), they may have felt their aye votes would not count much against them in the 2018 generals. We will see.

  • Trump's Dangerous Incitement of Police Violence

    Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Today the president of the United States openly called on police officers to rough up suspects they were bringing into detention, half-an-hour into a speech in which he described as “animals” gangs of immigrants that were supposedly hunting down and sadistically cutting up “beautiful”  young Americans.

    And the uniformed police officers around him, on Long Island, laughed and cheered.

    This is not out of character for the “knock the crap out of him!” candidate of the campaign trail, or the “American carnage” man who exercises power.

    But it is bad; it is not normal; it should be noticed; and law-enforcement officers and elected officials should point out that this is wrong.

  • Collins, Murkowski—and McCain

    As the votes were about to begin last night, via Twitter.

    The rushed, secretive, reckless effort to get a “win,” any win, by undoing the Obama health care plan is at an end—for now.

    It is over because the 48 Democratic and independent senators led by Chuck Schumer refused to be peeled off or to support a measure that was opposed by most of the public and by all professional groups involved in health care.

    It is over because Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, refused to budge from her position that such a consequential bill needed to be considered in an appropriate, systematic way, and because Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, refused to be bullied into giving her support.

    And it is over because John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, in the end cast a vote matching the principles he had expressed in his dramatic speech two days earlier, on his return to the Senate after cancer surgery.

    Well done, 48 opponents. Well done, Senators Collins and Murkowski. Well done, Senator McCain, on making the “Clair Engle” choice at the end. (As did Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, who flew in from her own cancer treatment to speak passionately against the bill, and add her No vote.)

    * * *

    Would it have been “better,” or different, if John McCain had taken this step two days ago, when he could have stopped the final pell-mell drive toward the “vote-a-rama” and the slapped-together, last-minute “skinny” bill? On dramatic grounds, conceivably: His actions would have immediately matched his words. From the perspective of Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, two “moderates” up for re-election next year, almost certainly: If he’d voted No two days ago, they would not have needed to vote on the (indefensible) “skinny” bill at all, and if they’d known last night that his vote would doom the bill and make their own support moot, they could have afforded to oppose it too. (This is in keeping with the D.C. hypothesis that the bill would either pass by one vote—or lose by a lot, if reluctant senators realized that they didn’t need to line up behind an unpopular measure that was not going to make it anyway. In the end, it lost by one.)

    But this is fine-tuning. John McCain did the right thing, as did Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, and the 48 other Senators who stood with them. Congratulations, and respect. They will all be remembered for it.

  • The Perils of Prediction in the Age of Trump

    Yuri Gripas / Reuters

    More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time.

    Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.

    But a few days ago, I edged back into the danger zone, after my very first look of the just-named White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, on TV. Via the ever-perilous medium of Twitter, I observed that he seemed more at ease on camera than Sean Spicer ever had, and less committed to flat-Earth stonewalling denials than Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Maybe his smooth-schmoozy approach would be what the Trump team needed? Maybe the press should get ready to be handled by a pro?

    Ooops. That looks wrong, too. Scaramucci’s half-hour live call-in to Chris Cuomo on CNN’s New Day this morning was unlike anything ever witnessed from other political “communicators,” and not in a good way. Among its charms is one David Graham quickly noted: Scaramucci’s off-hand reference to his relationship with Reince Priebus as being “like brothers” — as in “Cain and Abel.” I’m not quite sure which role—Cain as killer, or Abel as victim—Scaramucci thought looked better for him.

    The whole thing, embedded below, is riveting, in a “Darwin Awards” or demolition-derby way. Congrats to Chris Cuomo for keeping his cool. I’d predict that your jaw will drop further, the longer you watch and listen—but that would violate my newly reinforced commitment to avoid any forecast whatsoever about Donald Trump and his team. Still, give it a look.

  • A Longtime Senate Staffer, on John McCain

    I’ve had my say about John McCain’s decision to support the rushed consideration of the Republican drive to repeal Obamacare. Installment one was here, and two was here. The theme of both was that McCain missed a historic opportunity to match the scolding-and-uplift of his much-praised words, about the need to avoid simple fights for partisan victories, with the weight of his actual votes, which in the crucial showdown this week supported just such partisan warfare.

    Now Mike Lofgren, who spent 28 years as a Congressional staffer mainly working for Republicans, and has since then become a noted author of The Party Is Over and The Deep State, writes in about the McCain he came to know from long observation on Capitol Hill. I’ve learned over the decades to take what Mike Lofgren says seriously, and in that spirit I invite close reading of what he has chosen to say:

    Let us respectfully acknowledge John McCain’s past sacrifice to the United States and his present health struggles. Still, the media’s fawning over both his return to the Senate and his sanctimonious jeremiad against partisanship is difficult to bear. He rightly excoriated a grotesquely unfair Senate process, but then became the deciding vote allowing that process to move forward. Compounding his duplicity, he claimed he could not support the underlying legislation, but a few hours later voted in its favor—although nine of his Republican colleagues found the courage not to, defeating the measure.

    Regardless of his vote on subsequent health care measures, should one of them pass and deprive millions of Americans of health insurance, McCain will have been the key enabling factor. The “Conscience of the Senate” would deny to those Americans the blessing which he takes for granted. But this chasm between his pretenses and his behavior has been a consistent feature of his Senate career.

    His rhetorical denunciation of torture during the Bush years was loud and long—yet he never followed up, despite the fact that his moral prestige as a former POW would have carried great legislative weight. A ban on torture came only with Obama’s executive order. Likewise, a persistent feature of his career has been to bitterly scold pork-barrel spending in defense bills.

    Yet, invariably, he fails to offer amendments to remove those offending provisions; nor does he vote against the underlying bill. As a staffer, I recall that almost all Senate Republicans, hardly a sensitive and swooning lot, really couldn’t stand his moral preening. But his tactics were a mechanism by which McCain got cheap credit from a lazy press looking for the One Righteous Republican they could lionize.

    None of us vain creatures can bear scrutiny of the gap between our words and our deeds—but few, I fear, would suffer from that scrutiny more than John McCain.

    His present obeisance to the reptilian Mitch McConnell, his strange non-reaction to Trump’s sliming of his wartime service, and his curious passivity towards the Bush campaign’s scurrilous attack on his family (later supporting Bush’s reelection as he stood by while Karl Rove defamed fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry), are all inexplicable incidents if one believes the standard narrative about McCain. The man who inflicted Sarah Palin on our suffering country and started us on the inevitable slide to the nightmare of Donald Trump is a far more complex, interesting, and fraught human being than the heroic caricatures depicted in the establishment media.

    Offered as part of the ongoing record of our times. Let’s hope (as opposed to expect) that McCain will surprise us in the final stages of the Obamacare-repeal debate, and use the independence of this stage of his career to vote the way he himself has long recommended.

  • C-SPAN2 via AP

    John McCain Makes His Choice

    The vote he cast, more than the speech he gave, will help define his legacy.

  • Bill Allen / AP

    What John McCain Can Learn From Clair Engle

    Half a century ago, a senator battling a brain tumor took to the Senate floor, and secured his legacy.

  • Responding to Trump: What about the State AGs? What about the Democrats? And the Germans?

    The siege of Stalingrad, one of several developments explained by Donald Trump. Bundesarchiv, via Wikipedia

    In response to three recent pieces—one discussing the public and private parts of the U.S. system of self-governance that are still working, another arguing that Donald Trump’s monologue to the New York Times represented a new frontier in self-revelation, a third saying that a handful of Republican Senators have the nation’s fate at their disposal—several reactions from readers.

    What about the Democrats? A reader with long professional experience in government writes:

    I just read your post calling for three Republicans to demonstrate civic courage. As you put it,  “A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people.”

    But it doesn’t—it relies on those three plus 48 Democrats. It is striking how often it’s just assumed that Democrats in this kind of situation will do the right thing.  

    But why should they? If the 10 Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried were consulting their political self-interest in the way that seemingly all Republicans are doing, some at least might not be resisting Donald Trump as they are. Yet they remain steadfast—just as Democratic members remained steadfast in 2009-2010 in voting for the ACA and cap-and-trade, even when their political futures were in jeopardy.

    Perhaps it would be worthwhile sometime to do a post about how Democrats seem so much more able these days to maintain our standards of governance and to display civic virtue under pressure.  That might be an edifying meditation.

    ***

    What about the Attorney(s) General? In response to my noting that the Mueller investigation was (at the time) had not been derailed, a reader notes:

    It is extraordinary that an article on this subject did not even mention the extremely important role played by the attorneys general of the several states in restraining Captain Combover. The role of the states in our political system has never been as significant as it is now.

    Fair point. Last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival I did a very interesting (to me) Q-and-A with Xavier Becerra, long-time U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has recently become California’s attorney general, on exactly this point. When a transcript or recording is available, I’ll post a link.

    ***

  • Everything Now Hinges on Three Republicans in the Senate

    Eric Thayer / Reuters

    By midnight on July 20, 2017, it seemed increasingly likely that Donald Trump will fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

    Mueller embodies what is admirable in U.S. public service: a wounded and decorated Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, longtime prosecutor and U.S. Attorney under both Republican and Democratic presidents, 12-year director of the FBI under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, unconnected to scandal or partisan suspicions at any point.

    Donald Trump embodies the reverse.

    Yet for now Trump has the legal power, directly or indirectly, to dismiss Mueller, if the investigation gets too close to Trump’s obviously sensitive financial concerns. And Trump himself, unaware of history and oblivious to rules, norms, and constraints, has given every indication that this will be his next step.

    What happens then? Brian Beutler, of the New Republic, has just put up a bleak scenario, arguing that there really are no guardrails—or, as we observed in Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented stonewalling of a Supreme Court nomination, that the constitutional system’s real protections have been norms rather than formal rules. Someone unconcerned by those norms—McConnell last year, Trump now—can in fact blast right through them. “At the moment there are no reliable sources of accountability,” Beutler writes. “None.”

    * * *

    There are 52 Americans who have it within their power to prove that dark assessment wrong. Really, it would take a subset of just three of those 52. With the 52-48 current party lineup in the U.S. Senate, a switch of three votes of conscience is all it would take to have this branch of government fulfill its checks-and-balances function.

    With three votes, a Senate majority could issue subpoenas and compel sworn testimony from Administration officials. It could empower its own thorough investigation, even re-hiring Robert Mueller to lead it. It could compel Donald Trump to release the tax returns about which he is so evidently nervous. It could act as if America in fact possessed a system of rule-of-law, rather than whim-of-one-man.

    Ben Sasse could be one of those three, if he were willing to back up his lectures and essays about ethical public life. Lindsey Graham could, since he and John McCain have kept making the case about Trump’s recklessness. Chuck Grassley, who would be 89 years old the next time he’d have to face the voters. Dean Heller, who is in trouble anyway in a state Hillary Clinton carried, and whom Trump demeans and insults. Rob Portman, who has served in “normal” Republican administrations and could ally himself with his state’s governor, John Kasich, as forces for a principled future GOP. Jeff Flake, who in speeches has positioned himself with appeals to a more moderate politics, and who could take up the Maverick mantle of his colleague John McCain. Of course, McCain himself. Lisa Murkowski, who originally won without Republican Party support. Susan Collins, who drew a line at the rushed health-care bill. Richard Burr, who has made more-or-less common cause with his Democratic colleague Mark Warner on the Senate intelligence committee. Ron Johnson, who has just won re-election  and appears to be mad at Trump. Rand Paul, also just elected, if he believed his radical limited-government pitch. Ted Cruz, if he had the courage of his anti-Trump stand at last year’s GOP convention. Even—let’s imagine here—the likes of Tom Cotton, if he were willing to roll the dice and elevate himself as a national figure, for the post-Trump leadership contest against the likes of Sasse, Cruz, and the rest. There are half a dozen other conceivable candidates. I’d like even to imagine John Barrasso, a broadly educated and broad-minded man who has for now thrown his lot in with Mitch McConnell.

    It would take only three. Some—Grassley? Heller? McCain if he is able to vote?—might think: What do they have to lose? They might as well wind up with dignity. Others—Paul, Burr, Johnson, Murkowski—are so far away from re-election that a lot will happen in the meantime. And all of them are senators, part of a body self-consciously proud of its independence, its individual judgment, its role in defending the long-term principles of governance.

    A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people. But the United States may soon be in that situation. These names will go down in history, depending on the choices they make.  

  • Carlos Barria / Reuters

    Trump's Latest Interview Highlights Four of His Greatest Flaws

    The transcript of the president’s conversation with The New York Times throws his shortcomings into greater relief than ever before.

  • Zach Gibson / Reuters

    What’s Broken—and What’s Still Working—in American Politics

    One thing is unsurprising, one is heartening, and one is singularly depressing.

  • Kacper Pempel / Reuters

    How American Presidents Used to Speak Overseas

    The president’s speech in Warsaw was notable for its seeming indifference to the American idea.

  • And Back Where We Started

    The picture below is how it looked six months ago, when we were headed westward from Gaithersburg airport, outside Washington, to Redlands, California, where we’ve spent the intervening months. (This note follows up on two previous cross-country flying reports, here and here.)

    It was below freezing back then; the wind was howling; we had an electric heater (the yellow cord) plugged into the plane overnight to keep its engine block warm enough to have a chance of actually starting. The second before this picture was taken I was saying, “I cannot believe it is this cold!” And the stuff around our feet is more or less what we’ve lived off in the past few book-writing months.

    That was then: in the 30-knot, 20-degree F weather at Gaithersburg, Maryland, outside DC, in early January.

    This afternoon, we arrived back in Gaithersburg, on what will probably (sigh!)  be our final cross-country trip in this airplane. As we did with its predecessor when we moved to China 11 years ago, we must (sadly) sell this plane before heading to England late this summer. It has served us well. And we’ll hope to rent planes while overseas, and to buy back into the used-plane market on our return.

    This is now: afternoon of July 3, 2017.

    In closing the loop from the previous reports, here was FlightAware’s version of the route from Red Oak, Iowa, to the DC area today, with a stop for gas in Muncie, Indiana.

    The pre-Independence Day trek, via FlightAware.

    ***

    Long-term advice for your Fourth of July enjoyment: Nearly twenty years ago, when we were living in Berkeley, California, we happened to be flying in our earlier-model Cirrus airplane from southern California, where my parents lived, back to our home in Berkeley (really, the nearest airport, in Concord) on the evening of July 4. Going up through the Central Valley, in twilight, we saw from above the fireworks celebrations in Bakersfield, in Fresno, in Hanford, in Merced, in Modesto, in Stockton. Highly recommended if you ever have or make the chance.

    Happy Independence Day!

  • Greetings From Red Oak

    I mentioned last night that we’d devised a plan to pick our way through passes and valleys in the Rockies, to get from the western slope — at Rifle airport in Colorado, a little more than an hour’s drive west of Aspen — to the other side of the continental divide. Here, from yesterday’s installment, was the plan:

    The Rifle, Colorado airport is the orange dot at lower left. The blue path shows the planned route through valleys and passes to the other side of the Rockies, just beyond the Medicine Bow mountains in the vicinity of Laramie, Wyoming. The path we didn’t want to take was straight across the highest peaks, just west of Denver.

    Today things went more or less as forecast. We climbed out of Rifle and headed in the “wrong” direction, down the Colorado River valley toward the west, until we’d gained enough altitude to turn back eastward through the passes. (For the aviation crowd: we did the first part of this trip at 11,500 feet, and then 12,500 feet for the highest 45 minutes or so — and, yes, as is both required by rules and advisable for safety, I had a supplemental-oxygen can that I took hits from.)

    Here is how the “actual” route looked today, via Flight Aware — “actual” in quotes, because of the odd mis-readings the Flight Aware recaps occasionally give. The green line is our path, according to air-traffic control radar as rendered by Flight Aware. This version picks up our radar track about 20 minutes into the flight, somewhere around the Kremling waypoint (the RLG VOR, for the aviation crowd). The path we took resembled what we’d planned:

    The air-traffic control radar picked up our path as we were going through the passes on the western slop of the Rockies. IBM is the fueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, and RDK is our overnight stay in Red Oak, Iowa. (FlightAware)

    Also as foreseen, we made an early refueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, which is just past Cheyenne and the Wyoming-Nebraska border and is marked as IBM on the map. I hadn’t wanted the plane to be any heavier than necessary for the high-altitude Rockies portion of the journey, so once we got beyond the mountains, and into Nebraska, we took on more fuel. (There are people who enjoy mountain flying. I am not one of them.) Then onward across Nebraska, at a comfortable distance south of a static line of thunderstorms, to an overnight stay in the familiar town of Red Oak, Iowa, which is not far across the Missouri River from Omaha and is shown as RDK on the map.

    ***

    An early-ish end to the day’s travels, in a familiar locale (Red Oak, Iowa).

    We decided to stop and stay in Red Oak, rather than pushing on across Iowa or into Illinois, because it is in a way responsible for all of the travels and reports Deb and I have done over the past few years. Back in the summer of 2012, when we were headed westward from Washington to that year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, by chance we happened to stop for the night in Red Oak. We were amazed by the intensity of civic activity at the airport itself, as we’ll describe in our forthcoming book — and then spent an evening talking with a family from Jalisco, in Mexico, who had opened a very popular restaurant called Casa de Oro on the main drag in Red Oak. We spent the next few days saying to each other: if so much is going on, by such a variety of people, in a little place we had not paid attention to, what must be happening elsewhere?

    This afternoon we came back to Red Oak, in the dead-calm wind conditions that make an approach to landing feel like swimming through the sky. In the evening we returned to Case de Oro, which appeared to be thriving. Tomorrow, on to the east coast.

    This evening on Senate Street, in Red Oak. I recommend the carne asada.

  • Easing Back Online

    Nearly six months ago, I announced a hiatus from online life (except for Twitter), while my wife Deb and I decamped to my original hometown of Redlands, California and a house we rented on the campus of the University of Redlands, to finish a book on what we’d discovered in traveling around the country over the past four years.

    The book is now (nearly) done; we’ve been occupied wall-to-wall over the past week-plus at the 2017 installment of the Aspen Ideas Festival; and tomorrow we begin the small-plane journey back to the East Coast, where we’ll rejoin the Atlantic staff, actually finish off the book, and get ready for our upcoming relocation to England.

    This is a placeholder note with an aviation angle, on the way you deal with the Rocky Mountains if you’re flying a small, piston-powered, single-engine airplane.

    ***

    Usually we have had to approach Aspen from the east, coming from Washington. Twice I’ve flown our propeller plane into the Aspen airport, and — having survived  — I choose never to do that again. Instead we’ve landed at some flatland airport in the Denver area, either Centennial to the south of Denver or Boulder to the north, and then rented a car for the three-to-four hour drive into Aspen.

    This year we were coming from the west, from our early-2017 base at the San Bernardino airport in California, with its elegant facility called Luxivair. A week ago we flew from there to the airport in Rifle, Colorado, on the relative flatlands of the Colorado River valley on the western slope of the Rockies, and rented a car for the hour-plus drive into Aspen.

    Tomorrow, we start the route back east, in placid weather and with a comparatively benign course plotted to get past the Rockies and out onto the long descent eastward — across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and then over the Appalachians to the eastern seaboard. Here are the waypoint for the lowland route out of Rifle, through a series of valleys and passes, until we escape from the really challenging terrain around Laramie, Wyoming:

    The Rifle, Colorado airport, where our airplane has been for the past week, is the orange dot on the lower left; our current location in Aspen is the light blue dot at the bottom; and the path our plane will take through a series of valleys and passes, until the end of the Rockies near Laramie, Wyoming, is shown in darker blue. The metropolis of Denver is in the white box at lower right. (From the Foreflight flight-planning program.)

    Then we’ll spend tomorrow night somewhere in Iowa or Illinois — maybe Red Oak, maybe Ottumwa, maybe Peoria, all dots on the map below, and all depending on how we feel, and the weather — and then onward to the DC area in time for festivities on the Fourth of July.

    Various waypoints for gas and possible overnight stays.

    I’ve sort of missed, sort of not, having an online outlet. But ready to re-enter the fray. More to come — and if you’re in Nebraska or Iowa tomorrow, look up and wave.