James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer 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. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • The Trump-Centric Case for Jim Webb as Defense Secretary

    That was then: the four candidates who participated in the first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle, in Las Vegas in October, 2015. From left: Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

    Last night I mentioned the latest Trump-appointment rumor: that the successor at the Pentagon to James Mattis, Marine Corps combat veteran and retired four-star general, might be James Webb, Marine Corps combat veteran and, among other distinctions, a former secretary of the Navy in a Republican administration and U.S. senator as a Democrat.

    My argument was that it would be good for the country if Webb somehow ended up in this position, but (given the track record of people serving under Trump) probably a nightmare for Webb himself.

    What I didn’t ask is: Why would Donald Trump be interested in the first place? Given his recent experience with one independent-minded Marine Corps figure who had a strongly established pre-Trump identity and record, why would he be looking for another?

    Readers have volunteered insights on this point. First, from a reader who was a constituent when Webb was senator from Virginia, and who has long experience in foreign-affairs branches of the U.S. government. This reader writes:

    As substantial a case as your post makes for James Webb as Secretary of Defense, Donald Trump and his supporters may be less interested in the qualities you cite than in some other points about Mr. Webb:

    -- When Webb dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in October 2015, he asserted that the Democratic party had moved away from "'millions of dedicated, hard-working Americans,'" and he pointedly refused to say that he was still a Democrat.

    -- In November 2016, Webb denounced affirmative-action policies as an illegitimate expansion into "reverse discrimination" of the slavery-oriented intention of the Thirteenth Amendment.  He also suggested that white working-class voters believed that "Democrats don't like them."

  • The Man Who Made Air Travel Better Has Died

    The familiar colors of Southwest Airlines, at Las Vegas airport Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

    Almost everything that is “positive” about the modern air-travel experience, is positive thanks to Southwest Airlines. Upbeat staff and crew attitude, straightforward rather than hyper-opaque pricing, even the more-or-less egalitarian boarding process—these are all associated with Southwest.

    In the past few years, Southwest’s on-time performance has declined to just-average, and in 2018 it had its first-ever fatal accident aboard one of its (in which one person died; back in 2005, a Southwest plane skidded off the runway when landing in a snowstorm at Midway airport, and killed one person on the ground).  Still, when I have the choice—which is to say, when Southwest goes where I want to go—I have a bias toward Southwest.

    Two Texans, in 2007. Herb Kelleher at left. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

    In 1971, when he had just turned 40, Herb Kelleher co-founded Southwest. (And what have you done recently?) In the summer of 1975, when the airline was still getting going — and when I was working, based in Austin, for the then-fledgling Texas Monthly magazine — I did a cover story about Kelleher, his vision for air travel, and the “Great Texas Airline Wars” of that era, which Kelleher’s Southwest ultimately won.

    The story, again, is here. If there are things that seem out of date—hey, it was during the Gerald Ford administration, and when I reported and wrote it I was 25.

    I really enjoyed knowing Herb Kelleher. He died today, at age 87. RIP—and travel well, in his honor.

  • Will James Webb Be the Next Secretary of Defense?

    Then-Senator Jim Webb, ten years ago while visiting then-admired Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. Reuters

    One of the odd-but-positive political rumors at the start of this odd year is that Donald Trump is considering former Senator James Webb as a successor to James Mattis as secretary of defense.

    Among the reasons why this would be odd:

    • Webb last held office as a Democrat, and even ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2016 race.
    • Webb is a famously independent-minded character with no ability to suffer fools. (Knowing them both, I can say that Webb is much less willing to go with the organizational flow than Mattis has been.) In his early 40s, he was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, but he resigned from that position within less than a year (having worked elsewhere in the Pentagon for several years) because of disagreements with the defense secretary of that era, Frank Carlucci.
    • Webb is a gifted novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, who has returned repeatedly to the self-directed literary life after his periods of public service.

    Reasons why it would be good news for the country, if it happened:

    • Webb is smart, tough, and principled.
    • He would instantly become the Cabinet member with most substantive knowledge of his department.
    • He would personify a response to the idea that the United States has become a “chickenhawk nation”—always at war, never willing to deal with the domestic or international consequences of war—and that the current administration itself represents the Chickenhawk Way.
  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Now It’s Up to Congress

    James Mattis did his best. But the onus of dealing with Trump rests with the body invested with it by the Constitution.

  • Two Questions About a Surreal Oval Office Exchange

    Canary (left), and cat. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Please read my colleagues Russell Berman, Elaina Plott, and Amanda Mull on the spectacle that took  place this afternoon in the Oval Office.

    Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:

    1. Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?

      I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience.  But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”

      That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.

      Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.

    2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Serving Trump Revealed Who John Kelly Always Was

    Some who enter this president’s service are changed for the worse. Others have been that way all along.

  • Agnosticism and the Gary Hart Case

    Former Senator Gary Hart (center), with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, in 2016. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Last month I had an article in the print magazine about a reported deathbed confession, by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, that he had intentionally set up the Monkey Business escapade that effectively ended the presidential campaign of Gary Hart.

    Last week Todd Purdum, of The Atlantic, had a very good piece on the new movie, The Front Runner, about Hart during this catastrophically decisive week of his life. I hope you read the piece, and I liked all but one paragraph of it. Here is the exception:

    (For the record, [Matt] Bai doesn’t accept the notion, recently reported by my Atlantic colleague James Fallows, that Hart might have been set up by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, who is said to have made a dying confession of just that to Hart’s former media adviser, Raymond Strother. “There’s no way you could have bounced all those balls in the right order,” Bai says).

    I read Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out when it was published, and talked with him several times while writing my article (in which he is quoted). I think that Todd Purdum’s summary of Bai’s views inadvertently conflates two separate issues.

    One question is whether the whole, intricate, Rube Goldberg-ish chain of circumstances that led from Hart’s getting on a boat in Miami, to his withdrawal from the race several weeks later, followed a specifically worked-out plan. Bai thinks it is far too elaborate to have been plotted out that way. That is what he told Todd Purdum recently, and that is also what he told me earlier this year.

    But was Gary Hart set up? That is a different question, which was the topic of my story.

    As I pointed out, since most of the principals are dead, the full truth about this misadventure may simply be unknowable. (Lee Atwater’s reported confession came just before his death in the early 1990s. Billy Broadhurst, the Louisiana lobbyist who brought Hart onto the Monkey Business, died in 2017. Donna Rice, who is now Donna Rice Hughes, may or may not know the full story. She has resisted interview requests on the episode, including mine, though recently she announced on Twitter that she was working on her own memoir.)

    But the main argument in my piece is that it was worth considering the possibility, newly revealed by someone with a career-long reputation for honesty (Raymond Strother), that the episode began as part of a deliberate plan.That is: What if Atwater had intentionally set temptation and peril in Hart’s path, not knowing exactly what would happen next, but confident that something would?

    On the first question--whether everything rolled out as Atwater foresaw—Matt Bai said he was skeptical, and so am I. But the second question--whether Lee Atwater might have plotted to get something going with Hart—is different. To me, this version of reality is unprovable, but conceivable. I understand Matt Bai to come out on that same side. As I quoted him in my article about this possibility: “It would be just like the perversity of history for someone to undertake an effort that might well have happened by itself.”

    I elaborate on this distinction because it’s not quite the same as “Bai doesn’t accept the notion … that Hart might have been set up.”

    Might Hart have been set up by Lee Atwater? I don’t know whether it did happen, but to me the evidence suggests that it could have. And we are left in the realm of what-if? and agnosticism. As I wrote at the end of my piece:

    In announcing the suspension of his campaign, Hart angrily said, “I believe I would have been a successful candidate. And I know I could have been a very good president, particularly for these times. But apparently now we’ll never know.”

    We won’t.

  • Something’s Wrong With Fall in America

    An unseen safety hazard plagues America, and it’s time to take action.

  • A Sikorsky Veteran on Marine One in the Rain

    Donald Trump walking toward Marine One, on the South Lawn of the White House in October, 2018. Kevin Coombs / Reuters

    I imagine this will be the last installment in the “weather flying with Marine One” series. Two previous entries here and here. (On the other hand, who knows that the incoming email inbox will hold.)

    A person who has worked at the company that makes the current Marine One helicopter, aka VH-1, has this to say:

    On your recent piece addressing the ability of the Presidential VH-1 to fly in bad weather. I would like to add some observations that my experience of nearly 10 years at Sikorsky Aircraft (the maker of the helicopter in question) allows me to contribute.  

    I was [a high-level official involved in] many “systems” for Sikorsky aircraft.  I can’t say for certain (I lacked the necessary clearance for such information) which block upgrades the VH-1 received over the years, but what I can say is that aircraft from the VH-1 squadron were a constant presence at the Stratford factory for maintenance and system upgrades.

    Generally speaking modern Sikorsky aircraft (which no doubt would includes the VH-1) will integrate:

    • RIPS – Rotor Icing Protection System, which is a system of heating elements and conductive wire brushes which warms the rotating blades and prevents freezing;
    • TAWS – Terrain Avoidance Warning System, which as you might guess is an integrated radar system which warns of terrain variations;
    • RIG approach -  Rig approach landing systems, which are autonomous landing systems for dangerous landings primarily on oil rigs that obviously could be used in other types of dangerous landings; and
    • Windshield Wipers; in case anyone doubted it, yes helicopter pilots have wipers at their disposable for visibility.

    In short, when I read that the aircraft could not fly in the wet, fall weather in France, I was stunned.  

  • Trump, Marine One, and the Rain: Pilots and Other Readers Weigh In

    Barack Obama leaving Marine One, in 2013. Jason Reed / Reuters

    Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.

    (For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any  particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.

    (Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon departed while still president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)

    My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather, I was addressing two points:

    First, that an initial line in some news accounts --that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.

    Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.

    Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:

    I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].

    In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.

    The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army's endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.

  • Jacquelyn Martin / AP

    Can Marine One Fly in the Rain?

    The White House’s explanation of President Trump’s absence from a ceremony in France raises more questions than it answers.

  • After the Election, the Renewal Begins

    The sun sets, and a rainbow rises, over the U.S. Capitol on this past election day. The imagery may seem over-obvious, but it's a real photo, and appropriate. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.

    This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.

    Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.

    I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)

    And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.

    So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.

  • ‘The Other Coachella’ Launches Its Own Festival

    Maria Moreno, from the film Adios Amor, directed by Laurie Coyle George Ballis/Take Stock

    Each spring, the music world hears the name “Coachella” and thinks of a major two-weekend arts and music festival. So attached are the name and the event that the web address Coachella.Com takes you not to the city’s official site but one where you can buy tickets for the festival.

    The rest of the year, Coachella is a smallish farming community, in the sun-baked desert, where irrigation has supported a date-palm and grapefruit industry and where a mainly Latino farm work force has struggled over the decades for better pay and conditions.

    This past spring, as the music festival was about to kick off, I did an item on “The Other Coachella” — the one I had known while growing up in the area, and the one that’s still there after the festival visitors have left. The occasion for the post was a new “Story Map” from our friends at the mapping company Esri, which gave a multimedia version of the city and people who dominate the town through the non-festival weeks of the year. The map, called “In the Valley of Coachella,” was written by the novelist Susan Straight and illustrated with photos by Douglas McCulloh. It is well worth a return look.

    There’s one more aspect of “The Other Coachella,” and another kind of Coachella festival, that are also worth notice. Last month a group called Cinemas Culturas (plus other partners) put on the debut of “Festival in the Fields,” a film, arts, and education event meant to focus attention on the region’s working population. In a note earlier this year describing the project, Cony Martinez, director of Cinemas Culturas, the festival’s main organizer, said:

    My mother was a farmworker for over 25 years. Therefore, I decided to create a platform that focuses and honors people like my mother.

    The project focuses on the migrant community and the Latino community in general of the Coachella Valley.

  • Associated Press

    The Worst of Our Country—And the Best

    The Pittsburgh gunman embodied the cruelty that has sometimes stained the United States—but the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which he reviled, has long represented America at its most compassionate.

  • A Voting-Rights Showdown in Dodge City

    The Dodge City logo, on the road into town James Fallows

    One of this cycle’s most closely contested, and highly important, elections is in Kansas. There the Republican Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, is in a surprisingly tight race for governor—against the Democratic nominee, Laura Kelly, and an independent, Greg Orman.

    Apart from the general stakes in all races this year, this one has two additional points of consequence. First, it is a de facto referendum on the radical cuts in both taxes and spending wrought by the previous governor, Sam Brownback, a Republican. The cuts were supposed to energize the economy; they’re now widely seen as having badly damaged the state, and are unpopular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

    Second, it’s both a referendum and a possible test case in the modern drama of voter suppression and voting rights. The Republican who hopes to become governor, Kobach, is at the moment the Kansas secretary of state. In that role he is responsible for supervising the very election he is running in. (Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor in Georgia while serving as secretary of state, is in the same structurally conflicted role.) Even more than Kemp, and second only to Donald Trump, Kobach has in the past few years trumpeted the supposed menace of “voter fraud,” and has very aggressively pushed new ID  requirements and other “protections” against the voter-fraud threat he talks about constantly. (Am I exaggerating? Judge for yourself.)

    With this background, news over the past few days about a voting-rules change in a small Kansas city drew national attention. As it happened, the community affected, Dodge City, is one that my wife, Deb, and I have written about extensively. This past week’s news portrayed the city in a very different light from the one we had seen. Had Dodge City changed? That is what we have tried to find out.

    Through the summer of 2016, Deb and I chronicled the experiences of individuals, families, companies, and public organizations in the famed Kansas town of Dodge City.

    In popular culture, Dodge City has long been known as the locus of the Western melodrama Gunsmoke. In its modern economic reality, it  is part of the beef-packing economy of western Kansas--along with Garden City, Liberal, and some smaller communities. Over the past 30 years, this economic shift has also driven an ethnic shift in the region, as many immigrant workers—mostly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, but significant numbers from Africa or Asia—have come to work in Kansas feedlots and slaughterhouses.

  • ‘Was Gary Hart Set Up?’: Readers Respond

    Former senators Gary Hart (left) and Warren Rudman, in 2002. A year earlier their Hart-Rudman Commission had warned incoming president George W. Bush that terrorists were planning a major attack on U.S. soil. Win McNamee / Reuters

    The new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) has an article by me on a tantalizing “what if?” question involving the course of modern history. The article is called “Was Gary Hart Set Up?”, and its point is to ask what different forks national and world history might have taken, if a long-ago but recently revealed deathbed confession, from the 1980s-era Republican operative Lee Atwater, actually were true.

    James Savage, a staffer of the Miami Herald who was involved in the events I describe, then wrote in to complain about the story. You can read his letter, and my reply, here.

    Now, some of the wide array of reader mail that has arrived. First, a reader in Florida parallels the argument in Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out, that the Hart stakeout was a turning point in American political and journalistic history:

    I have always regarded the Hart “scandal” to be the beginning of a terrible turn in political reporting. Until then, the press had respected at least some privacy on the part of political figures with regard to personal peccadilloes — e.g., Eisenhower, Kennedy, FDR. With Hart, the press (beginning with my hometown paper [the Herald]) realized that sex sells papers, and afterwards everyone was fair game.

    Front page of The Miami Herald on May 3, 1987, the it broke the Hart-Rice story. Screen shot from a reader in Florida.

    The problem is that anyone with a skeleton in the closet or “human imperfections” of the sort taken for granted in less Puritan societies will now never offer him/herself for public office. We are left with a talent pool which is greatly shrunk, and political machinations such as were displayed in the recent Kavanaugh hearings promise to shrink it further.

    If the press had been willing to respect Gary Hart’s privacy (and he in fact was my preferred choice at the time) the speculations you offer regarding “what might have been” would be tested by history.

    I offer no suggestion for changing things. Only regret.

  • Illustration by Paul Spella; Paul Liebhardt / Corbis; ...

    Was Gary Hart Set Up?

    What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987?

  • Midterm Time Capsule, 31 Days to Go: Kavanaugh Will Change the Court

    Susan Collins, Republican Senator of Maine, who cast what was seen as the swing vote in Brett Kavanaugh's favor. Mary Calvert / Reuters

    Brett Kavanaugh’s impending arrival on the Supreme Court is like Donald Trump’s attainment of the presidency, in this important way:

    By the rules of politics that prevailed until 2016, neither of them would have come close to consideration for their respective offices. For Trump, the reasons are obvious; for Kavanaugh, they’re brilliantly summarized by one of Kavanaugh’s long-term friends here, and discussed below.

    Thus the ascent of a man like Kavanaugh necessarily changes the public sense of what is within bounds, and not, for the most powerful jurists in the nation—just as the ascent of Trump has changed assessments of what is within bounds for a president, and how much protection long-standing norms can supply.

    More specifically, both Trump and Kavanaugh have shifted the implicit privilege-and-responsibility bargain that had previously applied to their offices:

    - Presidents, in exchange for their great power, were expected both to act, and to speak, for the interests of the entire nation — including the substantial segment that did not vote for them. (Surprising but true: Every single U.S. president except Lyndon Johnson has taken office knowing that at least 40 percent of the electorate voted for someone else. In 1964 Johnson got the highest-ever proportion of the popular vote, at 61.1 percent—but he knew that nearly 40 percent had voted the other way, for Barry Goldwater.)

    Trump, with his rhetoric and policies designed continually to fire up his base rather than appeal to his more numerous critics, has obviously viewed his role differently.

    - For judges in general, and Supreme Court justices in particular, a version of the same bargain has applied: In exchange for outsize, unaccountable, lifetime power, justices will at least act as if they are above personal grievances and partisan loyalties. Kavanaugh has rejected that part of the implicit bargain: with his bitter outbursts in response to testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, with his partisan appeals during the nomination process on Fox News and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, with his comment in his written testimony that in today’s politics “what goes around, comes around.” He has, crucially, never promised to recuse himself in cases involving the executive powers, the possible offenses, or the pending investigations of the man who has elevated him, Donald Trump.

    Certain roles invest the people who hold them with enormous  power over others. This happens with surgeons, airline pilots, police officers, combat commanders, judges. For that power to seem legitimate, the person occupying the role is supposed to comport him- or herself as if the role itself is uppermost in mind, not individual interests or whims. A combat commander who thinks, I’ve got to save my skin rather than How do I save my unit? will have no followers (and in the Vietnam era would have been fragged).

    Kavanaugh has broken the part of the bargain in which we expect justices at least to act as if they are impartial, despite the biases every single one of them naturally brings. A justice who says of partisan politics, “What goes around, comes around” will arouse suspicion for every close call he makes.

  • Midterm Time Capsule, 35 Days to Go: ‘Outright Fraud’

    Donald Trump, in Mississippi, a few hours after the New York Times story on his financial history came out. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    The huge New York Times report today by David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner, five weeks before the midterm elections of 2018, is a counterpart to the Access Hollywood tape that came out four weeks before the presidential election of  2016.

    Why? Each of them involved allegations that, in any previous election cycle, would have ended a campaign or triggered major investigations.

    In 2016: “You can grab ‘em by the pussy,” on tape.

    In 2018: a long record of “outright fraud” by a president who has refused to disclose his tax returns or any other financial information.

    From the New York Times.

    To put this in perspective: the entire Kenneth Starr investigation of Bill Clinton, which by 1998 led to his impeachment, began with exposes and hearings about the Whitewater real-estate “scandal” in Arkansas, which at its most garish interpretation involved well under $1 million, a minuscule fraction of the sums discussed in the new story.

    The Access Hollywood tapes apparently made no difference in the election results two years ago. Will this latest financial data make any difference in support for Donald Trump?

    Who knows. Here is the tally of Republican senators who (to the best of my knowledge) have said anything about it:

    This was, of course, the same day on which Donald Trump, at a rally in Mississippi, mocked Christine Blasey Ford, for her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh.

    Thirty-five days to go.

  • Midterm Time Capsule, 37 Days to Go: What Trump and Kavanaugh Have in Common

    Ten weeks ago, in happier times. Jim Bourg / Reuters

    Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to serve as a Supreme Court justice differs from Donald Trump’s suitability to serve as a president in some obvious ways.

    Kavanaugh has long previous legal experience, versus none in public office for Trump. For the past 12 years, Kavanaugh has held a job generally regarded as the closest thing to being on the Supreme Court—namely, a seat on the D.C. Circuit—and he has been on conservatives’ list of prospective future justices for a long time. Most people doubted, even as of Election Day, that Trump would become president. Most people have assumed, even as of now, that Kavanaugh will be confirmed.

    But after this past week’s hearings, and before anyone knows what job Kavanaugh will hold next year at this time, it is fair to liken the two men in one important way: By the rules of previous, pre-Trump-era politics, neither of them could possibly have made this final career step—Trump to the presidency, Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Each has done things and revealed traits that would have been automatically disqualifying in the world as it existed before 2016. Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh; Trump’s example is also shaping him.

    By the pre-Trump rules of presidential campaigning, Trump’s prospects would have come to an end numerous times along the trail: when he mocked John McCain as “not a hero,” when he similarly criticized a Gold Star family, when he refused to release his tax information, when the “Grab ‘em!” tape came out, when he talked about the “Mexican judge,” when he revealed that he didn’t know what the “nuclear triad” was—the list goes on. After all, Edmund Muskie left the presidential race in 1972 to a large degree because he cried one time at an outdoor speech, in a snowstorm, and Howard Dean in 2004 to a large degree because he screamed too exuberantly one time at a post-primary-vote rally. Joe Biden was eliminated from the 1988 race to a large degree because he passed off someone else’s family-history anecdote as his own. Excesses like these became routine for Trump on the campaign trail, yet he went on.

    In Kavanaugh’s case, his afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed three traits that previous nominees who sat in that chair have carefully avoided, because they would have been considered so damaging. They were: temperamental instability; open partisan affiliations; and a casual willingness to tell obvious, easily disprovable lies. These are apart from the underlying truth of the multiple sexual allegations about Kavanaugh, which may not ever be provable.

    The details in these three categories fill the weekend’s news, and have been covered in many strong posts on our site: by Matt Thompson, by Megan Garber, by Judith Donath, by Joe Pinsker, by Adam Serwer, and many others. But to explain the grouping, and why it departs from the known past:

    (1) Temperament. Positions of public power that are in the public eye are uncomfortable. People disagree with you. They criticize and even hate you. Often they twist facts and reach unfair conclusions. All of this goes with the territory of being a president—or a governor, a general, a boss, any kind of leader, or anyone who has to make high-stakes decisions that involve other people, and that some people won’t like.

    What also goes with the territory, or should, is a thick skin, and a long view. Politicians can get away with the occasional public flash of anger about unfair accusations. That can be part of the personality they present to their constituents, though Trump is the first to make grievance itself such a long-running political act. But judges aren’t supposed to. There’s a reason the adjective judicious has the word-origin that it does. And by past conventions, Supreme Court candidates were supposed to present themselves as the most calmly judicious of all.