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 +
  • The Early Decision Racket, Redux

    To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

    Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

    (By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

    A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

    Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

    I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

    My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

    Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

    I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

    Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

    Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

    Some of the contributing factors

    (1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

    (2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.

  • Andrew Kelly / Reuters

    Why Hillary Clinton's Book Is Actually Worth Reading

    It’s the rare interesting work by a politician—and it offers an important critique of the press.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Why the Republican Party Will Come to Regret Rolling Back DACA

    The United States has thrived as a nation capable of absorbing immigrants—and the GOP turns away from that advantage at its own peril.

  • Remembering Kukula Kapoor Glastris

    Kukula Glastris, who died this week at age 59. LifePost

    Many people who knew or worked with Kukula Glastris described her as “the kindest” or “the most generous” person they had known. It’s a big world, and titles like that can be contested. But I’ve never met anyone whose combination of personal goodness, plus intellectual and professional abilities, exceeded Kukula’s. The large number of people fortunate to have known her now offer support to her husband Paul, and their children Adam and Hope, at the heartbreaking news of her death. Early this summer she developed respiratory problems, which steadily worsened until she died last Tuesday night, at age 59.

    In the professional realm, Kukula became best-known for her work as books editor and very skilled story-magician at The Washington Monthly, the magazine of which her husband Paul became editor-in-chief and impresario, succeeding Charles Peters, more than 15 years ago. The psychology of editing requires a surface of encouragement/love/flattery — the ideal first words from any editor, to any writer, on first seeing any draft on any topic, are “Oh, this is going to be great! So wonderful! Now let’s just do this and this and...” — over a core of resolve. (“We’re not quite there yet, let’s look at this last section one more time...”) Kukula had both of these elements in abundance, along with the intellectual insight to know how a changed phrase, or a cut, or an addition, or an allusion could make the story stronger.

  • Xavier Becerra on the California ‘Resistance’

    California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra (right) on how, whether, and why his state will "resist" Trump-era national policies. Another Californian on the left. Aspen Ideas Festival

    Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.

    There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.

  • Trump’s Oval Office: ‘But What About the Chairs?’

    One desk, one big chair, four little chairs.
    Carolyn Kaster / Ap

    On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.

    A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.

    (Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)

    These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:

    Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.

    It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.

    Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.

    To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.

    Ronald Reagan’s office, via White House Historical Association. Other pre-Trump presidents had a similar arrangement of advisors’ chairs at the side of the president’s desk.

    From another reader, on the same theme:

    Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk.  Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.

    President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.

    The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.    

    And:

    The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.

    The maximum in the other pictures is three,  for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.

    Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.

    One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.

    And:

    The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.

    No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.

    And:

    When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.

    This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level  as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.

    And:

    The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him.  I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.

    And:

    While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.

    And just about finally for now:

    Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.

    Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.

    And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.

  • Brian Snyder / Reuters

    Why the Arpaio Pardon Matters

    The president chose to pardon a public official using state power for racist ends.  

  • Carolyn Kester / AP

    Donald Trump's Telling Change to the Oval Office

    The president is returning to a freshly renovated White House—and it includes an unusual display.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    The Republican Party Is Enabling an Increasingly Dangerous Demagogue

    With every passing day, the stain and responsibility for Trump’s actions stick more lastingly to the Republican establishment.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Trump's Depressingly Normal Speech About Afghanistan

    The president’s defiance of the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan had been one of his strengths—but on Monday, he embraced the same approach as his predecessors.

  • 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.